Small stream report and observations

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.

Micro Wigglies work — here’s proof. But I’ve been very disappointed by the generally poor reception the brookies have given them. Micro Wigglies are almost useless in high water, and even in low water need to be stripped to induce a strike. If you’re committed to the dry fly cause, it’s hard to go wrong with a big, bushy dry. What’s “big?” If I’m not necessarily interested in hooking sub-4″ fish, 14 is as small as I’ll go. Of course, you de-barb your hooks, limit photos, and only handle wild fish with wet hands. It goes without saying (but I’ll do it anyway) that you should never lay a fish down on rocks or dry leaves or sand for a photo. This may be self-evident, but the better dry fly days are the ones when the water is lower rather than higher.
Using roll and bow-and-arrow casts helps you avoid annoyances like this. My rule of thumb for awkwardly-placed-by-nature streamside vegetation is: If it’s living, I never remove it. If it’s dead, it must not be visibly supporting life (spider webs, for example) or creating good natural structure/cover for the subsurface residents. So, if it’s a spindly twig that got knocked into the river last wind storm, and it keeps eating your streamer, feel free to toss that sucker.
Dry flies are a hoot on a small stream — make ’em come up! — but the bigger fish are usually taken subsurface. I marvel at how curious these char are about any intruder in their underwater world. You can feel them bumping the fly moments after it hits the water. What is it? Food? Not food? Threat? Don’t mess with those teeth! I

Small stream report 10/5/21: workin’ hard, playin’ hard

A bit of a busman’s holiday for me yesterday as I had a busy day shooting video on a small stream. This is one of those places where there’s no easy way to get there (both driving and walking). Plus it sucks to spend so much time setting up shots that end up being unusable. But whoa! Listen to me kvetch. What a lucky man I am to have such an office. There’s a certain beauty on display in the deep woods after a rain, hills shrouded in fog, water droplets collecting on leaves, rivulets rushing down hillsides. The water was up a tad from the rain, but running clear and cold and the char were open for business. I did well with bushy dries and mini tungsten head buggers. (I’m still a little bitter that they were indifferent to my micro Wigglies.) The better fish came on streamers — no surprises there. I guess I’ll have to go back next week to get all those shots I missed…

I like the metallic look of the gill plate. I like the blue halos. I like the specificity of the lateral line. Ah, screw it. I LOVE this fish.

Not a bad day at the office

I’m currently building a new small stream presentation. That requires photos and video, and there’s only one way to get those. So off I went to Ye Olde Brook Trout emporium. The stream was running medium-low, crystal clear, and there were some leaves, but not enough to keep the char from slashing and crashing a bushy dry. I was happy with the footage I shot, but — darn — I need some more. God, I really love my job.

Not a bad day at the office.

Small Stream 9/16/21: low, steamy, lots of small fish

Just a quick report on a lovely small stream. I fished from noon to 2:30pm, not the best time of day, but since there was canopy and cloud cover I didn’t sweat it. That is, until I began hiking thought the woods. It wasn’t a particularly hot day, but I was drenched by the time I reached my starting point, and it wasn’t from rain. The brook was lower than I’d anticipated, but that just meant that most of the players were going to be found in the plunges and darker, moving-water sections. I committed to the dry fly cause, and I had more action than I did the last time I fished this stream back in the spring. The final tally was 10 pricked, 1 landed, and most of the fish were in the sub-4″ class. (I will purposely fish a larger dry so the little fish don’t get hooked or stressed. I’m all about the joy of fooling them.)

A sea of green in the deep, dark, damp woods.

Read “Everything You Need To Know About Fly Fishing in Small Streams” at Field & Stream Online

My newest article, “Everything You Need To Know About Fly Fishing in Small Streams” is now live in the Fishing section of the Field & Stream website. This primer will help you get geared up, review basic flies, tell you how to find viable water (no spot burning!) and cover fundamental small stream tactics. I’ll ask you all to do me (and the resource) a favor: Please go barbless, keep photos to a minimum, and keep those precious wild fish wet. Thank you, and thanks for reading.

Small stream pro tip: when I’m fishing a long, languid run with a dry fly, I like to take position well upstream. By feeding line into the drift, I can cover likely holding areas, and not have to worry about spooking fish with a line slap or the movement of the fly rod. While it wasn’t possible in this run, I also like to stay out of the water as much as I can. Photo credit to Cam Culton!

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.

Small stream report: hiding in plain sight

I had the pleasure of fishing with Toby Lapinski earlier this week and even though it’s that time of year, our quarry was not striped bass, but rather small wild trout and char. This brook was new to me, so I was stoked to be on undiscovered waters. The stream is overgrown with briars and saplings, to say nothing of the broken limbs and downed trees that seemed to be everywhere. It had riffles, glides, plunges — a nifty combination for a brook that is in some places small enough to jump across. (That’s, of course, if I could get a running start. And not be wearing waders. And be 20 years younger.) Funny thing! I’ve driven past this brook hundreds of times and never knew it was there.

I was hoping these schools of fry in the sunlit shallows were YOY browns or brookies. But no. They’re black nosed dace YOY, maybe a couple centimeters long. Did you know that some scientists think that the eastern BND spread after the last ice age from a single colony in present-day Connecticut?
Not a bad bit of camo. You get the sense of the wildness of the place. I’d estimate the water to have been medium-high — remember, this was my first time here — which is a good spring flow, but we had bright sunshine and no canopy working against us. We saw midges, and there was also a decent hatch of small (16-18) tan caddis. Some of the sexiest runs and holes were surprising blanks, like this one. There’s always next time. Photo by Toby Lapinski.
Toby captured the largest fish of the outing, this vibrant char. We both fished a dry/dropper, and while Toby had some takes on the dry, all of my action came on the dropper, which was 2x short size 18 BHPT. I also tried some micro streamers, but had no takers. I highly recommend a dry/dropper setup on a new stream. It’s the fastest way to find out what the fish want. Photo by Toby Lapinski.
Small stream wild browns like this are fearsome fighters. It’s almost like playing a minute smallmouth bass. I pricked several more little browns on the tiny dropper nymph.

Me and Cam and a couple of brookies

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.)

We paid a lot of attention to the white water and its borders around the plunge pools, but what was lurking beneath didn’t feel like coming up. Areas like this one are usually money once the warmer weather arrives.
Contemplating my best approach to this logjam of a pool over an Olive Serie V Melanio.
We saw a fish rising in the tailout of pool. Turns out the brookie was holding a few feet upstream near a submerged tree limb and opportunistically falling back to feed. She took my fly on the first drift. To be able to cradle such a treasure and then release her…this just never gets old. Our outing was a mid-to-late afternoon jaunt, and while there was no significant bug activity we did witness sz 14 caddis, midges and what I can only guess were some tiny olives. We pricked about a half dozen fish; this was the only one brought to hand.
Young man at work. We found a player in a small run who slashed at the fly maybe a dozen times over the course of 15 minutes. (Part of that time was spend sitting stream side, resting the pool. Not a bad way to spend five minutes.) We switched out the big bushy dry for a smaller Yellow Humpy, but even thought the char was a decent size for this brook, we couldn’t get the hook to stick. We tried a Snipe and Purple, and finally the ICU Sculpin, then tipped our hat to the fish and began the long hike out of the woods.

Late February notes from a small stream

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.

Lesson re-learned: be careful where you walk. Shelf ice, of course, is never to be trusted. But also be wary of snow pack that hides dangers like this. A step on solid footing, then one through the snow and into the void. Thankfully, no damage, but (if you’ll pardon the expression) you get my drift.

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.

Currentseams Tuesday Night Zoom, Feb. 9, 8pm: Small Stream Fly Fishing

Small streams and wild trout are a passion, so tomorrow night I’ll be talking about thin blue lines and the exquisite gems that live in them. If you haven’t been getting the Zoom links — I send them out Tuesday late afternoon — please check your spam box. See you Tuesday night!