I’ve been focusing on small streams this month, partly to scratch an itch and partly to shoot video content for the new small stream presentation I’m building. Small streams are cool because they’re like any bigger river or ocean: weather changes, water levels (or tides) rise and fall, water clarity and temperatures fluctuate — you never know what you’re going to get until you get there. Here are few photos along with some things I’ve noticed that might help you on your next small stream adventure.
Three hours in the woods is good for the soul, especially if it involves a thin blue line and fishing with one of your sons. In early spring the woods hold so much promise. The buds look ready to burst, the skunk cabbage pips are poking through the swampy sections of forest floor, and if you’re lucky you can be fishing in shirt sleeves. I prefer these tiny woodland wonders when there’s canopy, but I’m always curious about what the day will bring regardless of conditions. We both fished bushy dries, save for a few exploratory plunges with an ICU Sculpin. We didn’t find many players, but those we did attacked the fly with fervor. (All photos by Cam Culton save for the one of him fishing.)
Last week I made the decision to fish a small stream. My logic was sound. First, I had no interest in dealing with what would surely be a crowded Farmington River. Second, due to some arcane fishing regulations, I wouldn’t be able to fish this brook until early April. Finally, and perhaps most of all, I wanted to see what was going on. Here’s what I found out.
Up solitude! Not another angler for miles. My introvert shone through.
What a workout — no need to do a treadmill cardio session later. I had not planned (foolish on my part) for shin deep virgin snow. I was perspiring gallons after a hundred yards of snow/bushwhacking.
On days like this one (upper 30s, bright sun) you never know what you’re going to get. With all the snowpack, there was certainly going to be a significant melting event. Would that influx of cold water kill the bite? It’s happened before. On this day, sunshine held the trump card. I saw midges and small stoneflies everywhere, and even witnessed char taking emergers in the film.
In 90 minutes, I pricked six fish. A few of them were repeat offenders who could not get their mouth around the hook. After a couple of attempts, I let them be. For me, it’s all about fooling the fish.
Since my goal was searching (rather than catching), I stayed with a bushy dry the entire time. I was very surprised at the number of customers. The fish have started to wander from their winter lies, and I did my best business in shallower glides and riffles. Of course, that makes sense given the method — you wouldn’t expect to draw dry fly strikes from fish hanging on the bottom of deeper pools. But 60 days ago those fish were not even present in the shallower water.
There was a time when I’d visit a small stream every New Year’s Eve. That fell apart when Gordo started going to hockey tournaments within the same time frame. But there’s no hockey right now, and no better time to re-start the tradition. So on December 31st, off I went to ye olde char emporium. I wasn’t sure what I’d find, what with this year’s severe drought (another thing to thank you for, 2020!). This stream has also fallen on hard times in the last ten years — improved public access and corresponding overfishing have robbed it of its off-the-beaten-path charm, if not its previous viability. Still, nature finds a way. On the hike in, I spooked two brookies that were holding in current at the head of a smooth glide. One was certainly of breeding size, and even though the spawn is over, I decided to leave them alone.
Today I was more interested in census taking than hooking up. I used an oversized bushy dry in the hopes that anything smaller wouldn’t be able to get its mouth around it. Besides the two I observed earlier, I hooked another two at various points along the brook. No pictures were taken, as I wanted to make their ordeal as seamless as possible. Picture parr-marked jewels with impressionistic Van Gogh dots and the vibrant contrast of the fontinalis fin, and you have the proper image. I’m sure there were other residents holding deep in some of the classic winter lies I encountered, but I didn’t bother trying to jig them up.
I’ll see you in the spring, old friend.
This run wasn’t always a labyrinth. The trees came down during one of the big storms a few years back, creating a tantalizing series of pools and hidey-holes that surely house multiple brook trout. The puzzle is, how do you get the fly to them without spooking the entire run? Traditional casting is of course out of the question. (Landing them will also be a challenge. We’ll deal with that when it happens.) I’ve been working on the answers for a couple years now. No one home today, but I’ll be ready April.
Alone in the woods, contemplating my next move between cigar puffs. An E.P. Carrillio La Historia E-III was the final cigar of 2020. Not a bad way to go.
I spent a good part of yesterday afternoon knocking on the doors of two favorite brooks. Conditions were similar on both thin blue lines: low water, clear water (thankfully still cold) and bright mid-day sunshine that kept the bite off. Still, a dozen-plus were pricked and a handful landed. All the bite activity came in the deeper plunges, runs, and cutbanks. Given the low water, I decided a downstream approach was best. (For more on small stream approaches, please read my article “Upstream, Downstream, Small Stream.”)
Bugs were bountiful. One of these streams sees a good number of yellow sallies this time of year, so I fished a size 16 Partridge and Yellow dropped off my bushy dry. It definitely got the attention of the char. Also seen: caddis, midges all sizes, sulphurs, and a few large spinners (March Browns?).
I love how nature makes something out of nothing. No soil? No problem. We’ll just make a fertile bed on this boulder out of leaf compost and moss and lichens and let the ferns do their thing.
It was no surprise that the best char of the day came from one of the deeper pools, and took a subsurface fly, in this case a black micro-bugger. Given the size of the brook, this buck could be considered a giant.
Thursday was small stream fishing day. March isn’t exactly the wheelhouse for a small stream — there’s no canopy, the water is typically up and cold, and the wild brookies haven’t moved out of their winter lies — but Cam and I went for no other reason than to enjoy the woods and pretend we were many miles from civilization.
As I suspected, the action was painfully slow. We rose and landed one char all day. Yet, what better way to feel alive than to be out on a thin blue line and be so warm you’ve got to start removing layers?
Given the conditions, we decided stealth was in order. Here’s Cam doing a little commando fishing. We started off with bushy size 14 dries; after those went unmolested, I added a tiny nymph dropper to my rig. Still no love, so tied on an ICU Sculpin for Cam to jig in some deeper plunges. That’s what he’s doing here.
We saw a decent number of bugs: omnipresent midges, and a few small (size 18) tan caddis. But the brookies remained hunkered down. Finally, as we were bushwhacking out, I invoked the “One More Cast” Rule. The slashing strike came out of nowhere. After a few more rises on a waking presentation, I decided a size 14 Stimulator was too big. On went a size 16 Humpy, and the next cast produced this fine buck.
Thanks to the Gov for opening the season early!
Our time together was all too brief. Really, I’ve got to do a better job of planning. Because a mountain brook loaded with native char is not a place to rush one’s self.
The day was overcast and cool — like so many others this spring. Bug activity was minimal. But the brookies were open for business. They ate my bushy dry, North Country spider, and micro streamers with equal fervor. The cigar was a Rocky Patel The Edge corona gorda, and it was a good as the fishing. I made the promise of “three more casts” three times. Depressingly, I followed through on the final declaration.
Sometimes being responsible sucks.
Even brook trout like the fontinalis fin. The old timers used to cut the fins off and use them for bait. This one remained on the fish, and he’s swimming around in the same pool I caught him in as you read this.
I found a long run that held a few occasionally rising fish. I couldn’t see what was coming off, but I tied on a size 14 Winter Brown North Country spider and swung it along the length of the pool. I took several brookies, then prospected some deep plunges with weighted mini buggers and ICU Sculpins. This was my last char of the day. A perfect fish.
I wrote about my first springtime small stream outing last week. It was at a brook that has been on a bit of a slide in terms of numbers, and this disappointing trend continued. Small Stream B, however, continues to go great guns. I fished it for 75 minutes, first time this spring, and I pricked dozens. Fished a bushy dry on top and a size 14 Stewart’s Black Spider dropper for most of the trip, and the char went nuts for the dry despite the elevated water levels. Did a little micro streamer action, too, which is always fun. Bravo, Mother Nature!
Most of the action came topside, but this lovely gem fell victim to Stewart’s Black Spider.
If you’re looking for a new way to have some fun on a small stream, try a micro Zoo Cougar. I usually tie these on size 2-6 streamer hooks, but I believe this is a 14. Chuck it or drift it (the deer hair head keeps it on the surface) down the pool, then make some drunken, frantic strips back. The fly will wake and dive and drive the brookies absolutely out of their minds. Color is probably insignificant.
Now to the stripers. You’ve heard me say that every year is different, and with 2018 and 2019 goes the proof. Whereas last year was off-the-charts good for big bass, this year is not-so-much. I spent some time late last night greased line swinging a proven run that was dead as Julius Caesar. (Sigh.) Well, persistence will hopefully pay off.
Though it may be far from the ocean, the life cycle of a woodland brook is filled with waves and troughs. Sadly, the stream I fished yesterday is in a bit of a trough.
Everything should have been in the favor of multiple dozens of pricked fish: ample water since last summer, a moderate winter, canopy coming in, and a cloudy day. I think I stuck a piddly half dozen. Fished a dry/dropper system and some micro streamers, so I had the water column pretty well covered. Many of the runs and pockets where I could always count on a player or two (or more) were curiously devoid of fish. I did my “Anyone Home?” stomp (where I tramp carelessly through the water in hopes of spooking fish so I can determine their presence) in several runs and rousted…nothing.
OK, so it was cold and there was very little hatch activity. Nonetheless, it was a disappointing outing, and this former gem has been trending downward for over a decade now. Glutton for punishment that I am, I’ll revisit it later this month.
Sea of green. I’ve decided that the smell of skunk around your house is annoying. But in the woods, it is welcome and proper and lets you know that everything is as it should be.
I’m a count-your-blessings kind of guy, and to be able to fish for wild native char on a secluded woodland stream is certainly at the top of the tally sheet. There’s something both poetic and romantic about catching a fish whose direct ancestors lived in the same waters for tens of thousands of years.
Even in winter. A dark horse from February.
200 years ago this was a farmer’s property line.
Biggest small stream brookie of the year, taken on a micro bugger in deep plunge pool. An old fish who made it through flood, drought, and bitter cold, I didn’t even take him out of the net for a beauty shot.