The White Mini-Bugger

This time of year I redouble my efforts to visit small streams. The canopy is in full, providing cover and shade for bashful trout. Water temperatures remain moderate (especially after a cool, rainy spring like this year’s). Food sources are plentiful.

I don’t always manage to get out as much as I’d like, but small stream dreaming has me thinking about one of my favorite flies for wild trout, the White Mini-Bugger. Oh, it’s a Woolly Bugger alright. But I’ve made several strategic changes to the classic template. For starters, it’s just smaller, the easier to be eaten by trout measured in inches. The tail is shorter and sparser, which cuts down on nips away from the hook point. The hackle and collar is soft hen, which flows and breathes. With a tungsten head and wire underbody, this fly sinks like a stone, causing it to rise and fall like a jig when you strip it. If the light is right, you can clearly see this fly even in a deep plunge pool. Try not to laugh when you watch the shadowy marauders surround and pummel the fly as you work it through the depths.

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White Mini-Bugger
Hook: TMC 5262 10-12
Thread: White 6/0
Bead: Copper tungsten, seated with weighted wire
Tail: Short marabou wisps over pearl Krystal flash
Body: Small fluorescent white chenille, ribbed with pearl flash, palmered with soft white hen
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Tying notes: Of course, you can tie the Mini Bugger in any color your heart desires. I tend to be boring, so I mostly stick to white and black/grizzly. Same deal with beads: I have a thang for copper. (Thinking of tying some of these up in black with a copper bead for Salmon River steelhead? You should. It works. And with a chartreuse bead. And orange. And…) The shorter, sparser tail has absolutely increased my hookup percentage. To form the tail, I use a single piece of Krystal Flash, and double it/cut it multiple times to get a 16-strand tail. The body hackle is Whiting hen neck, the same I use for standard-issue wet flies. Tie the feather in by the tip, and if you have enough hackle after winding the body, try to form a collar.
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The White Mini-Bugger Rogues’ Gallery:
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Tying Demo: “Small Stream Flies for Wild Trout,” March 1, 2014 at The Compleat Angler

I’m pleased to announce my first event for 2014: I will be returning to the Compleat Angler in Darien, CT for another tying demo. This year’s subject will be flies for small streams. Fishing small streams presents a unique set of challenges to the fly angler – and sometimes, fly selection (and size) is the difference maker. “Small Stream Flies for Wild Trout” will cover dries, wets, nymphs, and streamers that will help you build a basic kit for all kinds of waters, from shallow riffles on woodland brooks to deep plunge pools on high-gradient mountain streams. I’ll also discuss tactics and presentation. My demos are highly interactive, whether we’re doing Q&A or just talking fishing. Hope to see you there!

Where: The Compleat Angler, 541 Post Road, Darien, CT, 203-501-1713, compleat-angleronline.com

When: Saturday, March 1, 2014, 10am-2pm

This breathtaking beauty liked the look of a tan caddis skittering across the surface of a remote mountain stream. One of the things we’ll talk about is fly selection — dry or subsurface — and whether to fish up or downstream.

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Small Stream 101: Fishing the outgoing tide.

The brook was dozens of miles from the sea. Yet there I was, fishing the outgoing tide. At least that’s what I started calling it several years ago. Let me explain.

What I mean is, I’m fishing a small stream in the day or days after a heavy rain. As with an ebbing tide, the water level is dropping. It’s a great time to fish. Here’s why. The waters have gone from raging and murky to some semblance of normal. They may still have a light tea stain to them, which makes it a little harder for the fish to see you, but not your fly. Most of all, the trout have transitioned from hunker-down survival mode to dinner bell-ready. That was certainly the case today.

I would crawl on my hands and knees through a skunk cabbage-filled boggy mess to catch a wild brookie like this. Oh, wait. I did.

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The lovely woodland stream I visited today is one I haven’t fished in many months. I usually make a pilgrimage in April, but the time-space fishing continuum conspired against me. The woods are only starting to display a vague suggestion of green in April, but on May 31st they were  lush. It was already too hot and humid to be bushwhacking in waders at 8am, and non-biting midges swarmed me. Such was the price of admission for the wild troutstavaganza.

There were fish everywhere, with plenty of young-of-year brookies in the mix. This is always a good sign, as 2012’s new recruits will be 2015’s lunkers. It’s especially gratifying to see nature finding a way after last year’s terrible late summer drought and heat wave.

This blindingly beautiful wild brown hit the dry like a ton of bricks. Excuse me for a minute. I’ve got to wipe away the drool I got while gazing longingly at those parr marks.

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The fish were particularly active today. I witnessed three good-sized (for this stream — it’s small enought to jump across in more than one spot) trout feeding on the surface. Two were noisily slashing at emergers; the third was clearing the surface as he chased caddis. All of them were camera shy. Every time I tried to shoot some video, they suddenly stopped feeding. Little bastards.

Fished a new dry today, the (Improved) Sofa Pillow in a size 16, along with a bead head Grey Hackle Peacock. The dry got the lion’s share of the action, fished mostly upstream. Pricked a good couple dozen trout, and lost many of them when the hookee ran into the omnipresent underwater stick pile. These twig and branch masses were everywhere. One of the pitfalls of fishing right after a big storm.

Today’s implements of destruction: A bead head version of the classic wet, the Grey Hackle Peacock, and the (Improved) Sofa Pillow.

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I held out on the cigar for as long as possible, but eventually the midges tipped the scales. Nonetheless, I declared victory as they scattered. Thank you, Romeo & Julieta Havoc Magnum. Besides, I managed to ignore work for the entire morning while catching wild trout. Clearly, that makes me the winner.

How does a stream stay cool in piss-stinking hot weather like today’s? Canopy. This photo was taken at high noon, yet virtually the entire stream is covered in shade. Nature finds a way.

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A Classic Bergman Wet: The Fontinalis Fin

This is a fly with a great backstory.

The Fontinalis Fin Wet Fly

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Hook: 6-16 (this is a 1x short, 2x strong Orvis 1641 size 10)
Thread: Black
Tail: White hackle fibers
Body: Orange wool with fine gold tinsel rib
Throat: Furnace hackle fibers
Wing: Orange mallard married to a thin strip of black or natural grey mallard, then a slightly thicker strip of white mallard

The old-timers up in Maine (or down East, if you’re going for authenticity) who were fishing for brookies thought their quarry was highly territorial. So after they creeled a fish, they’d clip off one of the fins and use it for bait. And what an attractive bait it was: shiny, deep orange, contrasted against dramatic black and white bands.

An enterprising fly tyer named Phil Armstrong realized he could replicate this bait in the form of a married-quill wing wet fly. And thus was born the Fontinalis Fin. “Fontinalis” from the second half of the brook trout’s taxonomic name, Salvelinus fontinalis. “Fin” for rather obvious reasons. What a brilliant concept.

The real McCoy

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While it’s tempting to look at the flies featured in the color plates of Berman’s Trout (this fly appears on plate 10) as more of an exercise in tying legerdemain than practical fish catchers, I can tell you from experience that this fly does work. It’s pretty simple as far as married quill wings go, and the rest of the pattern is something anyone with basic tying skills can do.

Tying notes: If you’ve never tied a quill wing, don’t start. Your first quill wing can be the fly-tying equivalent of the Bataan Death March. While I was kidding (mostly) about not starting, I think it took me over a half hour to tie my first quill wing — and that was accompanied by a generous use of rather colorful language. Once you get it, though, the process becomes easier. I’m often asked at classes and demos, ‘How do you glue the different quill sections together?” You don’t. The edges of quill fibers are like velcro — they stick together quite nicely. There’s a specific technique to matching quills (the wings should be a mirror reflection of one another) and marrying the sections. Perhaps someday I’ll post them. In the meantime, you can probably find a good how-to by doing a web search. Also, the quill wings should sit a little higher on the shank so as to not hide the body; I was in a rush to finish this fly, so I plead sloth.

Stalking Wild Trout on Connecticut’s Small Streams

by Steve Culton © 2006

Wow. Has it been seven years already since I wrote this? “Stalking Wild Trout” was one of my first web articles. Its initial home was flyaddict.com, and now it’s here on currentseams. I’ve tidied up a few rough patches and thrown in a few photos. And here it is:

It was a perilous approach to the bend. I crept down the steep bank, grabbing the trunk of a sapling for support, all the while trying to dodge the broken glass and poison ivy. Wading gingerly over the slime-coated rocks, I moved through the shallow riffles, past a submerged old-fashioned home radiator. When I got to the opposite bank, I tiptoed over discarded bricks, fired long ago in some nearby kiln, and loose streamside boulders that threatened to pitch me into the deep pool if I wasn’t careful. There, 30 feet away, wild brown trout were sipping insects off the delicate line of foam that curled into a gentle slack water eddy. Like Quint hooking himself to his fighting chair in “Jaws,” I removed the size 16 Tan Caddis from the hook holder and quietly stripped line off the reel. One, two false casts, then line, leader and tippet settled gracefully onto the water. The Caddis never had a chance. It had barely drifted a foot before the trout sucked it under. I set the hook. And, like Quint, I was into a ferocious fighter of a fish.

Ooh. Aah. Oh.

Ooh. Aah. Oh.

Fishing for wild trout has become a passion for me. It has taken me to many of the State’s Class 1 WTMAs (Wild Trout Management Areas) as well as nameless brooks most fishermen wouldn’t give a second look. Sure, I love the Farmington, and you’ll find me there an awful lot. But there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction one gets from bagging a wild fish, one that grew up with no knowledge of food pellets, feeding schedules, holding tanks, or stocking trucks. These are primal, wary, wanton creatures that, when hooked, fight like fish twice their size — and if you’re going to catch one, you’d better bring your “A” game.

The Water

Connecticut currently has eleven Class 1 WTMAs, defined by the DEP as “Abundant wild trout, not stocked.” Fishing here is with a single, barbless hook fly or an artificial. Catch and release only. No bait ever. Sidebar: I’m not going to list the names of the streams, or tell you how to get to them, not because I’m a secretive jerk, but because I consider them a precious resource. The last thing our Class 1 WTMAs need are hordes of fisherpeople — or worse, poachers — descending upon them. I figure that if you really want to fish them, you can do your homework and look them up in the DEP guide, find them on a map, and figure out how to get there. That’s what I did. Fishing Class 1 waters is not casual casting, it’s a commitment.

What’s more, fishing these streams will not appeal to everyone. They can be technically difficult to fish, and in many cases require special equipment and tactics. Some of them are less than pristine, and can give off a gamey odor in warmer weather. Poison Ivy and mosquitoes abound. You may have to hike hundreds of yards through steep ravines and dense, trailless woods. If you’re out of shape, you may want to hit the Stairmaster a few times before heading out. Sound like fun? Read on.

You need to take the DEP’s use of the word “abundant” with a grain of salt. Many could be the outing you get skunked, especially if you go during mid-day  or when the water is low or off-color. Rest assured, they’re in there. Getting them to come out to play is the challenge.

The waters are as varied as the state’s weather. Some of them are lilting meadow brooks, others are more a series of waterfalls than an actual stream. Some are so martini-clear and cold you’d swear you were in northern Maine, while others are in urban settings with stained flows and enough river bottom debris to start your own salvage yard. But they all hold wild trout, mostly brookies and/or browns, with an occasional surprise tiger trout for good measure. And because most of these streams haven’t been stocked in years, it’s the only way to know for sure that you’ve caught a wild fish — or in the case of brook trout, a native wild fish.

If there is a fish native to the eastern US that's prettier than the brook trout, I've yet to see it.

If there is a fish native to the eastern US that’s prettier than the brook trout, I’ve yet to see it.

Beyond the Class1s, there are hundreds of unnamed – or at least unstocked – small streams crisscrossing the state. The colder, canopy-covered ones can be wild brook trout bonanzas. Sadly, many are on private property, but the enterprising, courteous angler can always ask for permission from the landowner. My personal favorite tactic is to take my three-year-old with me. After all, who can turn down a polite tow-headed youngster who wants to fish with daddy?

Tackle and Equipment

Think light and small. Your 9-foot 5-weight rod serves you well on the Farmington, but in tight small stream quarters it’s only going to make you miserable. I have a Fenwick 6-foot 5-weight fiberglass rod that makes me weep with joy every time I use it in a densely wooded area. A 6-foot leader is all you need, and surprisingly, you don’t need micro tippet to fool the fish. I use 4x or 5x. When you hook trees and branches on every third cast, you’ll appreciate a tippet that gives you the luxury of getting medieval with a snagged branch.

Waders are a must, even on small streams. You’ll be in and out of deeper holes, climbing up riverside banks, and marching through forests of poison ivy. There are frequently no parking lots or trails, so be prepared to hike and bushwhack. Bug repellent: yes. Water if it’s a hot day, and snacks to keep you fueled. Cell phone in case you have an emergency, but don’t count on a signal. And because you could be in a remote spot, a small medical kit with some basic first aid supplies. I keep mine in an old mint tin tucked in the back of my vest.

Polarized glasses are a big help for spotting fish. I usually take my net, but keep it strapped up to my vest because I rarely use it. And though it may not be your thing, I find there’s nothing like a fine cigar (or two) to celebrate the landing of a wild trout. Plus, the smoke does a fine job of keeping the bugs away.

 Flies

You don’t need a lot of different flies in your box to fool wild fish. If it’s a brookie stream, all you really need is a size 16 Yellow Stimulator and size 16 Tan Caddis. Basically, any bushy attractor pattern will do, and if you want to go up or down a size you’ll be covered. The fish you’ll be catching are mostly going to be in the four to nine inch range, but I’ve caught them as small as two inches, and heard of 20+ inch fish being taken by DEP sampling crews. The point is, a smaller fish may need a smaller hook, so if you must catch that pesky little fink who keeps whacking your size 16, you might consider tying on a size 20. Brookies are the kamikaze of wild fish, and they will, with suicidal abandon, hit the same fly over and over. I’ve cast to a fish and gotten a dozen hits on a Stimulator before finally hooking him.

In the summer months, ants, crickets, hoppers, and beetles can be lethal. You can hedge your bets with a nymph dropper off a cricket or hopper. Nymphing works well when the fish aren’t rising. Think basic patterns like Copper Johns, Tung Head Caddis, Bead Head Pheasant Tails, Hares Ears, etc. Go small: 16-20. And don’t forget streamers. I had great success this spring stripping in Wooly Buggers and Zonkers. Streamers are particularly effective in high water conditions — if you can find the room and a pool deep enough to fish them.

And of course, if you see a hatch coming off, by all means match it.

You could fish a wild trout stream with nothing but bushy dries and expect to do well. This is a size 14 Improved Sofa Pillow.

You could fish a wild trout stream with nothing but bushy dries and expect to do well. This is a size 14 Improved Sofa Pillow.

Tactics

On Class 1 WTMAs, your approach is everything. Think s-t-e-a-l-t-h. You need to be very light-footed as you walk to the stream, particularly the ones with soft clay banks. I remember earlier this year thinking I had done a good job sneaking up on a pool, only to stumble on my last step. The trout tore through the water in a Chinese fire drill before bolting for parts unknown. Needless to say, that pool was done for a while. Now, on the waterfall-type streams surrounded with rocks, you can get away with a more cavalier style of walking and wading. Just remember, these fish don’t see a lot of people, and any streamside movement they detect will trigger their flight reflex. Whenever possible, approach pools from the rear. Keep a low profile. Yes, you may have to crawl a little — even through shallow water — to get where you need to be to catch fish.

Logjam Pool

Some wild trout streams are so small, you can easily leap across them. I like to look for structure like these logjams, and fish the seams around the whitewater in plunge pools. I pulled several brookies out of this small hole, and they were still biting when I left it.

Ever fished Greenwoods on the Farmington? You could false cast out to your backing in that pool. On many WTMAs, false casting is neither advisable nor even doable, thanks to canopy and streamside vegetation. (Please resist the temptation to break off that branch you just hooked. It provides much-need shade in the summer.) If you’re going to fish small streams, you’ll need to become adept at the bow-and-arrow cast, the roll cast, and what I call the drift cast. If you’re unfamiliar with the first two, there are plenty of on-line references and tutorials. The drift cast isn’t something I invented, but I have practiced and perfected it to the point where I can reach spots, unseen by the fish, that were previously out of my fishing range.

Use the drift cast to reach a pool you can’t sneak up on from behind. On one of the Class1s I go to, there’s a terrific little bend pool with a massive log fall over it; it’s virtually impossible to fish it from the tail of the pool. Not to worry. I sneak to a spot about 40 feet above the downed tree, strip off some line, and feed the line, leader, and fly into the current. I start stripping off line to continue drifting the fly to just under the log. The fly line, and therefore the fly, move at the speed of the current, creating a natural drift. No takes? Load the rod tip, and shoot the fly half way back upstream, and repeat.

Since many of these streams don’t allow you to fish streamers at a 90-degree angle to the current (due to stream size and the fact that you’d spook the fish) use the drift cast to drift your streamer down through a pool. You can then strip the fly in, and repeat.

Sometimes the drift cast works too well. I had discovered a gorgeous little brookie stream in March with a pool that cornered at a 120-degree angle. It looked extremely fishy. Problem one was that it was so covered with collapsed saplings and brush there was no way to present the fly other than to drift cast. Problem two was that there was a three-inch brookie that would nip at, miss, and sink the fly before it could get to the target area I believed held his big brother. The solution? The drift cast with a twist. I placed my dry fly on a concave dead leaf, and float the leaf down through the current, over the pesky little fish. Just short of the target area, I gently tugged the line and pulled the fly off the leaf (this took some practice). BANG! There was the eight-inch brookie I knew was hiding in there.

One nice thing about small brookie streams is that you can sometimes get away with wet fly swings using a dry, or even skating the dry through the current. Try dangling a Stimulator in the current and see what explosive strikes you can trigger.

Handle fish as little as possible, and then always with wet hands. Once the trout is close it will frequently shake itself off if you just grab your leader or tippet. In hot weather the fish are under stress, so don’t overplay them, and keep them in the water if you can. Exposing a fish to 90o air is a huge shock to their system. Remember, if you kill a wild fish, the DEP isn’t coming back in a month to replace it. Likewise, don’t hit the same stream every other day for a week. Give the trout a break. They’re not going anywhere, and conditions permitting, they’ll be even bigger and stronger next year.

I'm usually a lot happier on a small stream than I look in this picture. Either someone's got his game face on, or is mortally depressed that the weatherman kicked the forecast.

Such a grim countenance. Either someone’s got his game face on, or is mortally depressed that the weatherman kicked the forecast. Again.

 A Fish Story

His name is Gus, and he lives in __________ Brook. Gus is a 9” brook trout, and smart — or at least careful — for a fish. He lives in a bathtub-sized pool behind a rock, just above a one-foot waterfall, and I’ve semi-hooked him a couple dozen times. I always know it’s Gus because of his size (this is a brook in every sense of the word, and he has very distinctive coloring). Gus likes to whack whatever I drift over him, but he just refuses to truly eat the fly. It’s our little game, and we love playing it. But I’m competitive, and I’m betting I can out-stubborn Gus. And when that day comes, I’m going to shake his fin. Offer him a cigar. Then happily send him back to his comfortable little home on this gorgeous woodland stream.