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.

New Seminar “Finding Small Stream Nirvana” debuts this Saturday at the Edison Fly Fishing Show

Small stream aficionados, rejoice! Have I got a seminar for you. Finding Small Stream Nirvana — Paradise on a Thin Blue Line doubles as a primer and an exploration into the nuances of small stream fly fishing. It’s loaded with real cool video, much of which I’m excited to share for the first time.

“Finding Small Stream Nirvana” makes its debut at the Edison Fly Fishing Show this Saturday, January 29, 9:45am in the Strike Room. We’ll save a seat for you.

Here are some more details: Fly fishing a small stream is possibly the closest an angler can get to touching fly fishing’s soul. Small streams are everywhere, from remote woodlands to hiding in plain sight in urban areas. In addition to gear, flies, tactics and strategies, I’ll also discuss how to discover your own small stream paradise. Finding Small Stream Nirvana will be eastern brook trout-centric, but will also cover non-natives like wild browns.

Here’s a little taste of the action. Don’t forget my Friday 1/28 seminar at 4:30pm Modern Wet Fly Strategies (also new!), my Featured Fly Tier demo (Spiders, Winged and Wingless Wets) Saturday at 12:30pm, and my class on Saturday at 2:00pm: Tying and Fishing Wet Flies with Steve Culton: Learn to tie and fish classic North Country spiders and other wet flies that trout can’t resist. The course also covers basics like leader construction, fly selection, where to fish wet flies, and how to fish them. Intermediate. The demo and Seminars are included in the price of your admission, but you need to register for the class. Click HERE for details and to register.

The 2021 Last Blast: Going out small

I don’t remember when I started doing it, but at some point I got into the habit of fishing a small stream on New Year’s Eve day. There’s a lot I like about it, not the least of which is tradition. But to end the fishing year on a small stream seems romantic, poetic, and just generally good for the soul. It’s arguably fly fishing at its most innocent. Not every year has worked out — youth hockey tournaments have been a primary culprit — but I’ve managed to do it quite a bit.

This year I took a fishing buddy, Toby Lapinski. We hauled out into the deep, dark woods on a day that had no right to be the last few hours of December. We did a brisk brookie business (say that three times fast!) once we figured out where they were willing to eat. Add a celebratory pre-New Year’s cigar, and we sent 2021 off in fine form. Don’t forget to get your 2022 license!

Why is Toby bottom bouncing in one of my favorite dry fly pools? Because we devised a brilliant plan to find out what the fish wanted. Toby started with a tungsten bead-head micro Squirmy Worm thingy, while I fished a bushy dry/glass bead dropper. The char voted overwhelmingly for the bottom. Toby was nearing double-digit hookups before I even got a sniff on the dry. Even my tiny midge nymph dropper went largely unscathed. I do love making them come up, but with the water on the upper side of perfect and running very cold, I switched to running deep mode. And that simple move was the difference between fishing and catching.
Me being stubborn with the dry. Alas, ’twas not to be, although I did get one to latch on in this lovely little bit of water. I made what passes for a cast, then dangled and waked the fly while making a rough figure-8 with my rod tip. There’s an awful lot of green for the day before January 1! Tightest of lines to all of you in 2022. Photo by Toby Lapinski.

Small Stream Report 12/9/21: Speaking of wild trout…

I really felt that I should go to the Farmington River and throw streamers. There was snow on the ground, courtesy of the previous night’s cold front dusting, and it was just around freezing. The trout would be holding deep, but they might not mind moving for the right protein payoff. What’s more, in my mind I could feel the dull thud of streamer hook point meeting kype, and the thought was gaining traction.

But, no. I’d also been picturing this lovely snow-covered woodland with a thin almost-black line snaking its way through. Here the char would also likely be deep, but I might find a player who wanted to come up for a dry. Cigar smoke drifting though the bare tree limbs, not another person in sight, gentle murmur of water flowing over rock…yes. This was where I was meant to be.

Hiking through the snowy woods will generate some body heat, but my extremities were cold for much of the outing. The scene was even prettier than I’d imagined, and although the action was slow, I knew I’d made the right decision. I was also hoping to shoot some footage for a small stream presentation I’m currently building — and I was pleased to come away with a few good shots. As I suspected, the fish have moved off the spawning beds and into their winter lies. Which brings us to this logjam hole. Now, doesn’t this mark scream ambush point? You’ve got a pooling of water, cover, current, and structure. The logjam is recent — maybe two or three years old — and although I hit it every time I’m here I’ve never caught anything. Not even a courtesy swipe. I’m trying hard not be bitter, but come on. Really?
Make ’em come up! I started out dedicated to the dry fly cause, but as the minutes ticked by, I began to suspect that deep was the way to go. I tried jigging some tungsten bead-head soft hackles in the deeper plunges and runs, but no joy. Then I decided to go with a dry/dropper setup. The dropper was a G-R Blue Bead Midge. I was drifting the rig down a slow seam when the dry simply disappeared from the surface. The take was so subtle, I was a little late on the set. I needn’t have worried — the char was a good one and the barbless hook was impaled in its upper jaw. This was my only fish of the day; I had a smaller fish twice bump the dry a few hundred yards downstream but there was no tug forthcoming.

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.