The Secret Life of Trout
I remember the beginning of a trout season, a while back, that followed an especially long, cold winter. A group of us spent parts of the chilliest days meeting at each other’s homes tying the flies we would need for the coming year and discussing our trout season strategies. Back then, most trout fishing was done from the usual opener some time in April until Labor Day; therefore, a lot of trout angling knowledge centered on that time frame, with the off season almost a void regarding flies and trout habits. Well, since it was so cold, most of the conversation that particular night centered around the idea that nothing was going to happen on the creeks the first week or two of the season, fly-wise, because of the frigid temperatures.
“I’m not going fly fishing,” one of the group announced. “It is too cold for anything to be happening. I may use bait.” It’s not that using bait is a bad thing, or that people who use bait are less capable anglers somehow, but for fly tiers and fly fishermen who spent all winter tying imitations, to abandon their creations because of a cold season opener was considered an admission of doubt regarding the likelihood of success using those creations. Isn’t it amazing what narrow definitions we put on ourselves and the avocations we enjoy? One plus I will give the group was that most admitted they learned to nymph fish using a red worm with a natural drift on smaller creeks. They progressed until they were using only imitations and a few only wanted to use a certain fly, and let where that particular fly might be determine where they were going to fish.
Since Al Troth and I taught together in the Montgomery School District, we usually found at least a little bit of time during the week to talk fishing. We decided to fish Slate Run the first day together. No up-early for Al to get to our spot for the first cast, however.
“Let’s meet at Slate Run’s Hotel Manor for lunch, then head up Slate,” Al said. He knew what he was doing.
“Sounds great,” I said. “But do you think that is early enough?”
“We’ll take our time,” he continued. “We don’t want to be on our stretch until the sun climbs over the ridge top and hits the water. Most of the other people will be off the Run by then.”
After burgers and fries, we put our boots on and headed up the streamside trail. We passed many anglers on their way back; it seemed most acted sorry for us because we had gotten such a late start. We didn’t fish until we were well into the woods past the lower stretch that attracts so many fisherpeople. We got to a beautiful gliding pool that the sun illuminated against the stark rock cliff and deep green pines. We stood back and watched as small gray-blue flies began poking through the surface.
“The Paraleptophlebia are just starting,” Al whispered, with a look on his face as if he had just seen his best friend. “Most people use a Blue Quill to imitate them.” He suggested a size 18 but I have found in the years since then that a sparsely tied size 16 usually works as well and has better hooking quality.
As the trout started to feed on the wing-drying, surface-floating Paraleps, Al smiled and said, “Go ahead, you go first.” He and I had fished several times that winter on a limestone spring creek so I had a good idea of how he would present the Blue Quill. The water was fairly low and very clear for the first day, so I went with a nine-foot leader tapered to 6X and tied on three extra feet of 7X tippet. Now, I most likely would fish with a 6X tippet and go longer in length, but at the time I didn’t want the trout to be aware of a too-thick tippet. The old Fenwick Fiberglass FF79 went back and forth a few times and the fake Paralep coasted to the surface in the quiet air. It glided a few feet in the stronger current, then slowed in the quieter water. The surface parted ever so slightly and a Slate Run brown trout sipped the fly as if it were a spoonfull of hot soup. I raised the Fenwick tip to set the hook and the first trout ran in protest. This was just the beginning. The trout fed as long as the sun was on the water, and they fed as if it were May, cooperating all afternoon. It was a day of April surface feeding we would not soon forget.
Remember, it had been a long cold winter. We picked a stream that was a tributary and considered colder and farther behind in the development of fly activity. The water that day warmed a little more than three degrees in that stretch but was enough to stimulate the early season Paraleps as well as the metabolism of the trout. This was the beginning of my understanding that the temperature of the water at any given moment is not as important as what it was a few hours before, relative to the present temperature. I have seen the temperature at sixty-five degrees drop to fifty-four, which is still a good bug hatching and trout feeding range, and watched the trout stopped feeding because of the shock to their metabolism. At the same time I have experienced day after day of excellent fishing when the morning water temperature was thirty-four and rose to thirty-seven—the trout fed and actively moved to feed even though thirty-seven is never thought to be an active feeding temperature. Feeding and activity temperature is definitely relative. Gone are the days when we thought that water below the mid-forties put the trout into a semi-dormant state. You may have heard that in the cold of early spring you have to put the bait, lure, or imitation in front of the trout’s nose to get it to hit. Not so if the water temperature has risen just a few degrees.
Another concern my fishing friends, and probably most other anglers, had over the years was water level. When you have a late spring with snow still on the ground higher in the mountains, there is a good chance the water may be up. When you couple the remaining snow with frozen ground and April showers, you have the makings for early season high water. Later, when the trees are starting to leaf out, the roots pull a lot of moisture from the soil and most areas can take a bit more precipitation without making the creeks run bank full. Typically anglers do not want their favorite spot to be “blown-out” by high water since they have waited so long to get back on the stream.
Another spring Al and I again drove to Slate Run to fish Pine Creek. Pine is fairly big water to begin with early in the season, but when we got there I said, “Now what are we going to do? It’s almost flood water!” I never thought we’d fish.
“We’ll fish,” Al said. “The trout will still be there, in a different position in the stream and we’ll have to be very careful.” He was right. We put our boots on, rigged our rods with nymphs, and stood at the top of the bank with the current rushing and swirling just below. I had my rod ready but just stood there wanting to see what Al was going to do. He had a few split shot between the nymphs, took some line off the reel, cast behind himself once, then moved the rod forward to place the flies not more than six feet off shore and straight up current. He lifted the rod tip, then let the current take the flies, and lifted the tip again. Al was lifting the tip of the rod to hook what could have been a trout since the line had paused and jerked under the surface further. There was debris in the water and the flies and line were being bounced by the branches and everything else floating by. It was amazing to me that he kept going. He lifted the tip again and the rod bowed; the fish dove deep and used the current to put up a great fight, running, twisting, bulldogging the bottom, and shaking its head. Al was patient, carefully netted the big brown, then released the fish to fight again. I stood there a bit dazed and disbelieving. Al caught at least a dozen trout that day without moving more than ten feet up or down stream. He knew the fish would be in the slower edge water, and with all the natural feed presented in the current, the trout would be having a smorgasbord. I learned so much from this man in my younger years, and most of it was in contrast to conventional fishing wisdom.
If the creek you are going to fish is very high like Pine was that day, don’t even think of wading; the water is extremely dangerous (a flotation device may well be in order—wear it). Al and I wore waders because we had spikes on the bottoms, which was wonderful since the stream bank can be very slippery. I have seen anglers approach Pine at Tomb Flats and slide all the way in from the edge of the bank. Please be careful. Fish near the water but don’t wade, present your offering a few feet out where the trout will be holding. Watch for a slight pause of the line and there is a good chance it will be a trout. High water is a great time to fish nymphs, red worms, wax worms, larvae, minnows, spinners, and plugs. Use a tight line between yourself and the offering and you will probably hook the trout in the mouth. If you are on Special Regulation Water, the mouth- hooked fish will be so much easier to safely release. If the hook is deep or near the gills, cut the leader, the water will rust the hook out, and the trout will live.
Fishing Facts to Put in Your Creel
- Trout are always looking for a meal. Being aware of their environment, through habit and instinct they know the best places to position themselves to intersect insects, minnows, crayfish, and terrestrials like inchworms, crickets, and grasshoppers. They do this and survive in all water levels and temperatures; it is for the angler to think about water conditions and to have a thoughtful idea of where the trout might be positioned. Don’t overlook their need for survival.
- For very high to medium water, fish the edges; trout can survive there without expending too much energy and food will drift through their streamside locations.
- As the water level lowers, trout will be looking for places to eat as well as protection from predators. Not far from shore look for a little deeper water that has a more swift flow next to it. Trout love to lie in this water, then dash into the current, grab an insect, and in a flash be back home. Look for creases in the water made by the two differing surface speeds. Fish these areas and you may never go fishless!
- Check the water temperature where you want to fish. If it is on the rise, fish a shallow emerger or dry fly. You may also do well with a grub or worm under a strike indicator; this will allow you to present the bait shallower in the water column where the fish are more aware of the drifting food.
- If you like smaller streams and the water is not low and slow, try a nymph or worm in the current. Follow the insect with the rod tip as it makes its way downstream and it will be much easier to detect a strike and set the hook. Minnow fishermen and those who use streamers love this type of water earlier in the season; cast downstream and work the offering as if it is struggling to get out of the current into calmer water. Hang on to your rod!
- In the lowest water, watch for pockets made by rocks. They provide a break in the current, give protection, and food is filtered around them to the waiting fish.
- If you feel like there is too much water on a big creek to know where to fish, in your mind divide the stream into sections of different types of flow. If you can see surface differences with surface speed creases, you can concentrate on one of these areas as if it is separate from the whole body of water. I do this when bass fishing on the Susquehanna. One width of the river may break down to five or six different-appearing streams; this makes the angling approach purposeful instead of just casting into a huge body of water without a reason for the method.
- If flies are hatching, trout are coming up and feeding off the surface, and you are a spinner fisherperson, try flies with your spinning outfit. If you are using six pound or lighter monofilament, all you have to do is tie a dry fly on the end and put a bobber about five or six feet above. Flies are almost weightless, so the bobber will give the necessary weight to cast the fly. After it lands above the feeding trout, slowly reel the bobber away from the fly so it doesn’t scare the rising fish. When the trout takes the imitation, pick the rod tip up to set the hook. Don’t worry about all the various flies to start, just get a couple Adams. Be careful, you may find you are the one who gets hooked (you can buy some fly outfits that don’t require a mortgage). Don’t forget to use dry fly floatant—it will definitely help the fly float much longer.
Later, I realized what I watched Al do that day (just before the year designation changed from the 60s to the 70s) was the basic key to catching trout. What if the water is a little lower? Always think about the trout. The fish are living because instinct has them move out of the current when the energy it takes to stay in the fast water is greater than the nutrition they’ll get from food intake. Trout naturally act with conservation of energy. The colder the water, the easier it is for the fish to recover from expended energy since colder water typically contains more oxygen. So, as the water level decreases, the trout move back away from the bank and take up more normal positions near current lanes which filter the food to them.
I have watched the water levels drop day after day to the point where anglers felt comfortable wading once again. It amazes me to see them move right out into a beautiful channel to cast to the water on the other side. I am sure they were standing right where the trout wanted to hold and watch for insects. One day there was a very good March Brown hatch on a particularly wide pool. The water was colder that day—the near side was in full sun and the other side was in shadow. I’m sure there was little thought of why they were doing it, but three fishermen waded, to near the tops of their waders, to spots a little over half way across Pine. I was there to get some March Brown pictures but couldn’t help watching to see if the trout would rise to their flies in the dark shadow area they were trying to reach. They shed for maybe fifteen minutes and cast well, but the only trout feeding were the ones behind them in the sunlight—the fish were now rising to March Browns that these guys had just walked through to get to where the grass was greener.
“Try behind yourselves, they are feeding there!” I suggested. One angler turned around a little indignant and told me he didn’t fish for chubs. Oh well, they were beautiful “chubs,” with big dark spots and already had red adipose fins.
The same kind of thing happened at Clark Farm-Utceter Station Access below Black Walnut Bottom Access on Pine. It was early in the season and there were quite a few anglers there. They all headed for the top of the pool where the riffle enters—there is good current against the rock outcroppings on the far bank and there are always fishermen there. Of course, I headed to the left instead of the right and went downstream into the long glassy pool. It is here where the sun warms the water a little more, fly activity picks up, and the trout cruise the surface looking for emerging insects. You spot insects hatching, watch the line of a trout moving as it feeds, cast six or eight feet ahead, and more times than not the trout will find your fly. It is a lot of fun, it is quiet, and no one else is down there with you. When I’ve gone back to the car I’ve heard, “There’s that guy that was catching all those chubs down at the bottom of the pool.” If you hear that, just smile and let them believe it; it will keep your spot to yourself, and those huge chub-brownies down there, cruising for a meal, will be your secret.
There are endless variations to what trout will be doing on any given day. With some consideration of water condition, anglers can have a very good idea of where the trout will be and how best to present the offering. No one is ever sure what will work, but a well thought-out approach will certainly increase chances for a hook-up. If all else fails, turn left instead of right, let the rest of the anglers have the “good” water, and remember: don’t tell anyone when you discover your own secret angling El Dorado!