Small Stream Report: First foot instead of last blast

As a creature of habit, I lovingly cling to my routines. So I was as surprised as anyone when I decided to not go small stream fishing on New Year’s Eve. Logic trumped tradition; by delaying a few days, the water would be a little warmer and hopefully any residual ice would be long gone. On the drive up, we did see some sheltered woodland streams where mini-glaciers abounded. But when we (myself and surfcaster extraordinaire Toby Lapinski) arrived at the stream we were relieved to see that frozen water was almost non-existent.

The water was barely into the high side of medium, which is just about right for winter fishing, and the brook was running clear and cold. Overcast skies didn’t hurt, nor did temperatures in the low 40s. Toby started out bottom bouncing and jigging, while I went the dry/dropper route. The action far exceeded our expectations. As you can imagine, going deep won the day, but I had enough action on both the dry and dropper that I kept them on for hours. (If reading this is getting you fired up for small streams, I have a presentation tonight in Danbury, The Eastern Brook Trout; later this month, you can see me present Finding Small Stream Nirvana at the Marlborough Fly Fishing Show, and a week later in Edison.)

The first fish of any year is noteworthy, even more so when it’s a stunning display of nature’s paint box. Taken on a size 14 Improved Sofa Pillow.
When I was a kid, I ruefully wondered why tropical fish had all the cool colors. Cut to 55 years later when I now know better. Since fish like this aren’t ever getting replaced by the stocking truck, it bears repeating: barbless hooks only; keep photos to a minimum (I landed dozens and took shots of only three); make sure your hands are wet; keep fish in the water in your net until ready to shoot; never expose fish to air for more than a few seconds; and never lay a fish down on rocks/gravel/leaves/grass. Thank you. (Photo by Toby Lapinski)
Small stream fly fishing for native trout may be fly fishing in its purest form. (Photo by Toby Lapinski)
Halo, I love you (again). Besides pulchritude, this fish is noteworthy because its thinness indicates a spawned out fish — and therefore a redd may be nearby. It’s a good idea to limit walking within the stream bed from mid fall to mid spring; the last thing anyone wants to do is tread on a redd and make all those future brookies dead. (Yes, I know it.) (Photo by Toby Lapinski)

Small stream anglers, take care: the spawn has begun

The spawn is taking place on some northeastern wild brook trout streams. I recently fished a brook on consecutive Thursdays, and the changes over the course of a week were dramatic. Seven days ago, there were only a few leaves in the water and no visible signs of spawning activity. A week later, the brook was congested with foliage and several redds were apparent. I spotted a large hen on one, and a few active fish on another.

In case you don’t know, a redd is a spawning bed. The fish select an area with enough water and current and the right size gravel, then clear the area of debris and other sediment before depositing eggs and spreading milt. (This is why spawning and post-spawn fish often present with scraped bellies and frayed fins.) Redds are fairly easy to spot; they look like light colored patches contrasting against much darker substrate. On a small stream, redds may be anywhere from a couple of square feet in area to significantly larger. A distinct light colored patch with fish darting about on the bottom nearby is a sure sign that you’ve discovered a redd.

Every small stream angler should know how to identify a redd, or spawning bed. Here’s a classic, can’t-miss-it redd: A dramatically lighter patch of gravelly stream bottom surrounded by darker substrate. There were a few fish milling about, but they scattered when I stood up to take this photo.

Maintaining the integrity of redds and protecting spawning fish is vital to the future of any wild trout stream. The stocking truck is not coming to replenish what humans destroy! Here’s what to do if you see a redd: First, leave it and the fish that are near it alone. Don’t try to catch spawning fish. Let nature take its course. Next, make a mental note of the location. Chances are that the fish have been using the general area to spawn for dozens or hundreds or thousands of generations. Finally, stay out of the water near the redd for the remainder of the fall, winter, and early spring. If you crush the eggs or the developing fry, that would be bad.

Besides, it’s pretty cool to simply sit on a rock and watch the beginnings of the next generation of Salvelinus fontinalis.

Small Stream Report 10/6/22: Nature finds a way (and then some!)

I hit a hidden gem last week that takes about 2 1/2 hours to get to. That may seem like a lot of effort — you’ll get no argument from me — but it’s usually worth it. And on this day, it was.

Over the years, this brook has seen its ups and downs. I’ve been moderately disappointed by it my last few outings, especially by the size and number of the fish. But you get what you get, and the fact that it still has native char, like it has for thousands of years, is a true blessing. So: I won the weather lottery. A warm, sunny, gorgeous, Indian summer day. After the rains, the water level was spot-on perfect, running cold and clear. In terms of numbers, the fishing was off the charts. I landed dozens (despite my best attempts not to, in order to reduce stress) and pricked dozens more. No beasties in the mix — you like to get a couple in the 9″+ class — but I did dredge up a few 7-8-inchers in the deeper pools. The brookies were everywhere. I started with a dry/dropper, which was moderately successful, but when I switched to subsurface (a tungsten bead head nymph/worm thingy) I couldn’t keep the char off the fly. What a wonderful day to be out in the woods.

This was typical of the size of fish I was landing. I also had dozens of smaller char attack the fly, the vast majority of which did not result in a hookup. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll repeat: please try to limit the number of fish you photograph. The less time they spend out of the water, the better their chances for survival. It goes without saying that you’re wetting your hands and using barbless hooks, right? What precious gems, our beloved Fontinalis.
Life is mighty good when you’re taking a shot like this one. Another word of caution: we’re getting close to the spawn, so be on the lookout for redds. They’re fairly easy to spot, usually a lighter patch of gravel beside darker surroundings. If you notice a redd, make it your policy to stay out of the water, period. And of course, be a good sport and leave any fish on or near a redd alone to do their thing. Remember, the stocking truck isn’t coming back to replace what gets wiped out. Thank you for your consideration. 🙂

Small Stream Report: Nature finds a way, Part MMXXII

This is a very late report from last week. After a hot, dry, droughty summer like the one we experienced in 2022, I like to head to a few small streams to get a handle on how the natives fared. This trip was last Friday, well before this week’s much-needed soaking. As I suspected, the water level on this brook was on the low side of low. Much of it was unfishable. But there was plenty of good news.

The water temperature was bracing and cold, certainly colder than it ever was this summer, but this brook has many places for the char to go to escape the summer heat, even in low water. I saw dozens and dozens of fish, many of which looked to be young of year. I also found a few pods of bigger brook trout — nothing really huge, but in the 7-8″+ class. On an outing like this, I do get to do some fishing, but a lot of it is more inspection-oriented, with the intent of spooking fish. Often, with the water so low, the natives want nothing to do with the sight of you or your rod waving around. I got no interest of the dry fly, and pricked two with a weighted jig-type fly.

Then, yesterday after the rains, I visited a different stream. What a bounty! But you’ll have to wait a couple days for that report…

At a normal level, the flow should be covering the rocks you see center photo. This pool is usually good for a couple of hungry swipes; on this day it was a barren brookie wastleland. A reminder as we get near spawning time: be on the lookout for redds. Consider not wading into brooks at all. Redds are pretty easy to spot; usually a lighter area a foot or two in diameter against a darker gravel bed.

A few days ago, on a small stream…

As we bid farewell to March and say hello to April, I’d like to personally thank the CT DEEP for eliminating the closed season trout fishing rule. The old reg made it illegal to fish for wild trout in non-WTMA streams from March 1 though Opening Day. Enough with that nonsense! And let’s go fishing.

Since I had no previous experience fishing the day’s mark this time of year, I was curious about might be happening. As I mentioned in my last post, this not winter/not spring netherworld can be a tricky period. My random conditions drawing got me a low-side-of-medium, crystal clear flow; a mix of sun and clouds; and temperatures that struggle to get into the low 40s. I did see a few stray midges, but nothing that could be considered a proper hatch.

Spring must be close. Always a comforting sight, the skunk cabbage are popping everywhere, a clue that warmer days will soon be upon us.

The method was bushy dry/tiny bead head nymph dropper and the jigged micro streamer/nymph. If it was a deeper plunge, I did the latter. Everything else got the dry/dropper. I was pleased to find a wild char in a mark that has disappointed me no end. It’s really fishy, with plenty of cover and a big boulder that borders a deeper slot. The fish hit the dropper, but there was no hook set. Much farther upstream , I also had some repeated swipes at the dry, but again no hook set. Tug-tug-tug!!! Someone in a roiling plunge really wanted the jiggy thingy, and — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — there was, again, a failure to seal the deal.

I wish I could tell you that it turned on at some point, but those three touches were all I could manage. I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed. I suspect further research will need to be conducted this month.

But that’s not where the story ends.

I decided to drive to another mark, the place where I caught Alan last month. (Yes, I’m weird enough that I name fish. Sometimes I name them after real people, like Alan. Other times they’re just fictional , like Gus in this story.) I wasn’t sure if I was hoping for a Hail Mary or just didn’t want to end the session. I drifted the dry dropper through some deeper plunges and runs, then walked upstream.

And there it was. The place where I’d caught Alan. I spent a few minutes observing its wonderfulness. It’s at the head of a longer run. There’s a good, small cut bank with an overhanging tree that will one day fall into the brook. A deep cut runs parallel to the cut bank, and it’s evident why this a prime mark for an alpha fish: cover, current, and the head of the cafeteria line.

This time it took only one cast. The dry vanished from the surface, and when I raised the rod tip I could see that the nymph had been the target. It was a good brookie, and I immediately assumed it was Alan. Into the net, camera readied, shot taken, release completed.

It wasn’t until I got home and saw the photos that I realized that this wasn’t Alan. Wonderful thing, unique spotting! I’ve dubbed this guy “Alan’s Brother.” It all makes sense now. When I was taking this shot, I was thinking that I’d over-estimated Alan’s size. This was certainly an exceptional char for this size brook, but I remembered Alan being bigger. So, it’s good news all around: there’s more than one big old brookie in this town. I hope they made lots of whoopee last fall.

Exploring a new small stream

Last week, I went exploring on X Brook. It wasn’t a great day for fishing small streams; windy, cold front, brilliant sunshine and no canopy. Until recently, X Brook was completely off my radar. Access isn’t easy; you’ve got to do a bit of walking, and it’s surrounded by fairly dense woods and bushes. I thought you’d like to hear how I went about reconning some new water.

First, I hiked through the woods, heading upstream, taking care not to walk with heavy footfalls, and never getting close enough to the water to spook any fish. I made mental notes of potentially fishy areas, like long, glassy pools, and plunges. I wanted to be prepared for them for when I worked the brook downstream.

I kept the fly selection simple. We’re into the netherworld of not spring, not winter, so fish could be hanging out in cold water lies (think maximum depth in any given brook) as well as snottier runs and plunges. A bushy dry with a beadhead nymph dropper would cover two sections of water on any given drift. I also had a tungsten beadhead attractor nymphy/streamery thing to jig in the plunges. I felt like that had me covered for whatever water I encountered. I switched rigs up a few times, but the answer was always the same — no one home, or no one interested.

I was bitterly disappointed that no tug was forthcoming along this shadow line. I mean, c’mon! Really?

One of the things I like to do when I get no hits in a pool or run is see if I missed anything. What I mean is, if there’s a particularly sexy bit of water, and I blank, I like to find out if there were any fish. I start by standing up and making myself large in full view of anything that may be hiding. Sometimes I’ll wave a stick through the water to try to and spook fish. It’s a good idea to take great care when wading in a small stream, especially from fall through mid-spring — you don’t want to disturb any redds or crush unhatched eggs. I was a little surprised (not to mention bummed) that I didn’t see a single darting shadow in any of the runs I disturbed.

Finally, there was a decision to be made: is this stream worthy of another visit? In this case, I think it is. There is enough structure, flow and potential canopy. What’s more, I only explored a small section. It may very well be that where I was is more of a late spring/summer/fall environment, and that the best winter water is elsewhere.

I’ll keep you posted.

Currently on the vise: Squirmy Wormy Jiggy Thingy

It’s a Squirmy Worm. It’s a jig nymph. It’s a shameful fly. It’s all of the above, and I love it.

This fly comes from Toby Lapinski — who first showed it to me on a small stream outing in December. The brookies went nuts for it. Toby tells me he riffed off similar patterns, added a collar for added contrast, et voila! You have this horrible wonderfulness. I’m going to try jigging this with a soft hackle dropper above it on some small streams this spring. I would also think this pattern will drive steelhead out of their tiny minds.

This is a simple tie. You need a jig hook (12-14), chartreuse tungsten bead (1/8″), pink worm material (Toby uses Hareline Caster’s Squirmito) and some black peacock Ice Dub.

Small Stream Report 2/22/22: Fishing with BRK TRT

I hadn’t yet gone fishing this year, and Tuesday was going to be the day. I’d already made the decision to make it a small stream. But as I was checking emails and other social media that morning, I was shocked to learn that Alan Petrucci had passed away.

You may have known Alan from his license plate, BRK TRT. Or perhaps you’ve enjoyed his blog, Small Stream Reflections, or have seen him elsewhere online (he was a currentseams follower and made frequent comments on my small stream posts). Perhaps you were lucky enough to have fished with him. For me, there was a certain sort of symmetry in fishing a small stream; it would be the perfect way to honor Alan and work through the sorrow. Especially since I’d planned to fish a stream that we’d discussed dozens of times over the years. Yes. Today, I would go fishing with BRK TRT.

It was always easy to determine if Alan was fishing nearby. I took this photo along the Farmington River one fall many years ago.

I should make it clear that Alan and I weren’t fishing buddies. We didn’t hang out. Our common ground was a passion for small streams and wild brook trout. I first met him — albeit digitally — when he was a member of the now defunct Flyaddict Forums. We quickly established a rapport, and corresponded via email and the phone over the years to discuss all things thin blue lines. We even traded flies at one point. I still have some of his in my small stream box.

The trip started poorly. I forgot my yellow polaroid glasses, and on my walk back to my Jeep to get my spare pair, I tripped in the woods and bashed my knee against a rock. (When stuff like this happens, I’m always tempted to ask, “What else can go wrong?” But I usually don’t, mostly because I don’t want to know the answer.) There was still snow on the ground in this neck of the woods, not to mention a decent amount of ice clinging to rocks and other obstructions. The sky was overcast, about 44 degrees, and I was happy I brought my fingerless gloves.

Despite the lengthening daylight and warmer temps, winter still has a firm grasp on the brook.

I’d already decided that the outing wouldn’t be about catching fish, and not just because February is a tough month on a small stream. I figured I’d selectively use the dry/dropper (in this case the dropper was a size 18 Frenchie variant), then try jigging and bottom bouncing a small ICU Sculpin in the deeper runs and plunges. I wasn’t happy about the depth I was getting, so I added a BB shot to the leader about 10 inches from the fly. That seemed to work; as soon as I made the adjustment, I felt a sharp tug as I was drifting through a boiling plunge. Given the demonstrative hit, I was surprised there was no hook set.

I also spent some time paying attention to the the little changes the stream had gone through over the winter. Brooks like this one are constantly evolving; channels shift, trees fall in, obstructions washed into the system create natural dams, and so on. I also took the time to remove deadfall that served no purpose other than to mess up my drifts. My general rule of thumb is: If it’s alive, it doesn’t get touched. If it’s dead and is small and provides no cover/creates no significant current break/is not being used by a living creature, it can go.

And of course, I was there to fish with Alan. I’m not embarrassed to tell you I had more than one discussion with him, aloud. It felt good to be out in the woods and fishing and talking to him.

I blanked the entire length of the stream until the last pool. I’d gone back to the dry/dropper, and while it was chugging through a spirited run, the dry disappeared. The char wasn’t big, nor was it noteworthy for its colors, but I felt like this was a gift from Alan. I accepted it fully and eagerly, a proper ending to this solemn day.

But it’s funny, sometimes, how these things turn out. Because I suddenly decided to fish a stretch of the brook that I hadn’t fished in at least a decade. It was less than a five minute drive, so I kept my waders on. Since I was running out of time, I made another decision to double-time it to a section with easier access. I’m really unfamiliar with this stretch, but I thought I’d give the dry/dropper a sail through some of the deeper runs. I chose a pool with a very sexy cut bank beneath a leaning tree. It’s the kind of mark that just screams “fish here,” and yet how many times do you find no one home? The first drift was a blank. Ditto the second. On the third, the dry disappeared.

Right away I could tell it was a good fish. If it were the Farmington River I’d consider it a smaller trout, but on this stream it was a giant. I desperately wanted to land it, because I felt like this was the fish I was supposed to get, and somehow Alan was involved, and I didn’t want to let him down. Just as I’m lifting the fish toward the net, my rod tip and line got tangled in some branches. Really? The fishing gods can be so cruel. But in the end, the char was netted. Funny thing! It was the biggest brookie, by far, that I’ve ever caught on this stream.

Thank you, Alan. And so long, old friend. Tight lines on thin blue lines forever.

I didn’t measure it, but this was easily double-digit inches, a monster for a brook you can leap across. I was struck — as I often am — by the blue halos and the vibrant contrast of the spotting. What do you think, BRK TRT?

CT DEEP’s new Wild Trout Management Plan

Last month, the Fisheries Division of the CT DEEP announced a new draft action plan for wild trout conservation. They recently held two online presentations with the opportunity for public comment, but you can still review the draft plan and tell them what you think. (For the record, I said that while I was all in favor of wild trout conservation and management, DEEP must be cautious about over-publicizing wild fish and revealing specific locations, especially those that aren’t currently “on the books.” It only takes one motivated poacher — or excess angling pressure — to irreparably damage or wipe out a stream.)

It’s no secret that wild, native char populations are under stress not only in Connecticut, but throughout the northeast. Climate change, pollution, angling pressure — the usual suspects are omnipresent. Wild trout and char need all the help they can get. Here’s to hoping that the CT DEEP does everything right.

As The Traveling Wilburys so eloquently sang, “handle me with care.”

Small stream report: brookies and mayflies and…bears

So I’m standing in the brook, working out a few kinks in the leader, when I see this large, black blur moving through the forest. My first thought was, “Someone brought their freaking huge dog and now I’m going to have to contend with all kinds of rambunctious behavior.” Then I noticed it was a black bear cub. Great. Where there’s a black bear cub, there’s a mama bear, and the last thing I need right now is a mama bear that thinks I’m a threat to her kids. I calmly lit a cigar — let them smell where I am, and hopefully they hate Nicaraguan tobacco — and began my one-sided calls of “Hey, bear!”

I figured from the way the cub was moving — really fast, past my position, heading up a trail — that he was in more trouble than I was. Everything about his actions said, “Crap, I’m gonna get it, I’m way behind mom!” Just to be sure, I stayed in position for a few minutes to make sure I didn’t see any more Ursas. But I kept that cigar blazing, I kept up my call-and-hopefully-no-response, and I was looking over my shoulder the entire time I was fishing. Of course, I understand that all things being normal, bears generally want less to do with you than you do with them. But it’s always unnerving to see an animal that large in the wild.

To the fishing. This brook was higher than normal, albeit flowing clear, but at this level most of the pools and runs were blown out. I saw caddis and midges and some un-IDed huge mayfly spinner. I fished a dry/dropper, and to my surprise the char only wanted the dry. Even more surprisingly, they ignored almost all of my weighted micro-streamers. I pricked many fish, and most of them were in the 2″-4″ class. I’m content to use a bigger dry for these fish; they never get hooked, so there are are no complications from catch-and-release. I did land a few, and I decided to take a picture of one of them. And here it is.

Please take care when photographing wild fish: always keep your hands wet, keep the fish submerged until you’re ready to shoot, then only expose the fish to air for a few seconds at most.