Much is often written about matching the hatch with just the right fly and picking the right style of lure or fly for a situation, and those things are obviously important. However, they don’t tell the whole story. It does little good to pick the ideal offering if you spook the trout before they ever get a glimpse of your perfect bait. Likewise, if you present a lure in an unnatural fashion, you’ll often put every trout in a pool in lockjaw mode.
Approaching holes from the best angles, moving with stealth and making good presentations take on greater importance than ever when conditions get tough, which often is the case during November. During late fall, streams commonly run low and clear, which is sort of a double whammy for trout fishermen. The fish get extra wary with less current and depth to conceal them, and the same conditions allow them to readily spot anglers and sense vibrations.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, occasional early winter storms transform normally gentle streams into torrents. Trout sometimes feed actively and become less cautious in swelled waters, but the best approaches and presentations change drastically. It’s important to understand how to tackle a stream whether it’s bone dry or ripping.
UP THE RIVER
Whenever wading access allows, most veteran trout fishermen agree that the best way to tackle a section of stream is to begin at the downstream end and work upstream. Trout typically face upstream both because they can hold position most easily when facing that way and because that allows them to spot more food drifting downstream. By facing upstream yourself, you stay behind the fish, where you are more apt to be out of their field of vision. As importantly, facing and casting upstream allows you to work baits generally downstream, allowing the current to aid the presentation and bringing the bait past the fish in a natural, drag-free fashion.
How quickly you travel upstream as you fish varies in large part according to the size of the stream. If you’re wading a large river, you might spend a few hours working a single shoal, fishing your way gradually across the river and hitting every little cut and eddy and then back across, just slightly upstream. In a very small stream on the other hand, you essentially have to move straight up the stream once you’ve worked the waters that are within a cast’s length.
That said, be careful not to work too quickly, even in a small stream. Don’t move forward until the trout have proven that they are not home. As long as you stay well downstream of a promising run or enough to the side that you won’t be seen, you often can make a surprising number of presentations through a single hole and still be able to catch fish from the same spot. Veteran nymph fishermen seem to understand this best, and the best nymph drifters have the patience to try several flies in the same run, often making the same drift over and over again before finally finding the fly that those fish want to eat.
Whether you point most casts straight upstream, angle upstream and to the side or throw cross-current depends on the size of the stream, the strength of the current and the type of lure you are using. Generally speaking, though, orient your casts at least somewhat upstream. More specifically, aim upstream of likely fish-holding spots and use the current to your advantage so that your offering will approach the prime area from a natural direction. For dead-drift presentations, that means casting directly upstream of the best areas, ideally landing an offering far enough upstream that the trout doesn’t detect the initial landing. For more active retrieves, you have to cast upstream of and past the target and plan the presentation so that as you work the bait and the current carries it, the lure ends up passing through the key area.
One real key to catching more trout at any time is the ability to remain undetected by the fish for as long as possible. At the most basic level, that means leaving the bright-colored clothes at home, avoiding extra splashes and abrupt movements and working from downstream of a promising run or even from the bank, when possible.
When streams are extra low and clear, as is often the case in November, you have to carry the same ideas an extra step. That means dressing in natural tones like khaki or even going with camo. It also might mean creeping along and fishing from a crouched or kneeling position at times. It’s also vital to use rocks, vegetation, steep banks and swift-water areas to your advantage for concealment from the trout.
For spin-fishing, stealth also involves using longer rods and lighter line. Both allow for longer casts, and small diameter clear line is less likely to spook the fish than bigger line. If you intend to wave a fly rod, invest time practicing your casting at home and carefully select your targets on the water so you can minimize the false casts needed to lay the fly where it needs to go. You also might need to lengthen your leader and downsize you tippet to avoid spooking the trout if the water is extra low and clear.
There’s never a second chance to make a good first impression, so consider spots carefully as you work your way up a stream. Examine each upstream run before you make any casts and make a strategic decision about where to place your first cast. Is there a rock that looks like the most likely spot in the run to hold a few fish? How about a key spot behind that rock, such as where the current sweeps beside the eddy or the edge of the shadow cast by the rock? If so, consider where natural forage would most likely come from in that spot, and plan your cast to bring the bait through the spot from the same direction.
If the fish gains its first awareness of your offering about the time the bait comes past the rock, there’s a good chance that trout will jump on the bait. Cast the same bait right into the eddy at the base of the rock, and there’s a good chance that you spook every trout behind the rock before they ever get a chance to consider your offering.
Depending on the size of a particular hole, you actually might look at it in the same way a 9-ball player would look at a table, planning a series of “shots.” Begin with the best spot that’s close to you; aim for a spot across the stream on the next cast; cast upstream of a mid-river run… By thinking ahead and planning at least a few casts, you lessen you chances of spoiling a spot before you get a chance to cast to it.
Finally, consider where you want to be standing (or kneeling), when you make your that first cast and where you want to mov
e from there. If there’s a spot to cast from that’s outside the stream banks, tight to some concealing cover or well downstream of the hole, start there. Even if you can’t make all your casts from that spot, try to catch a fish or two before stepping into the hole.
In order to plan approaches effectively, you have to be able to look at a section of stream and figure out where the trout are likely to be holding and how they are apt to be oriented. Current lines, cover, any drops in the stream and the shape of the bank will tell you much of what you need to know.
Streams or sections of streams that tumble quite a bit tend to be easy to read. Riffles, rapids and hard bends create distinctive holes, well-defined current lines and obvious eddies. In woodland streams, downed trees, root wads and other woody cover commonly combine with intermittent gravel bars to form trout habitat. Again, the deep runs, the eddies and the edges tend to be fairly apparent to the observant angler.
In either case, the key is to consider the spots that are not only comfortable for the fish, but provide good ambush points for feeding on insects, crawfish or minnows. Patterning is also important. One day the most active fish will be in the heads of the deeper runs, where the current feeds the deeper water. On another day, most fish will be in the tail-outs of the same runs. Pay close attention to details every time you catch a fish or even when you see trout following your lure. The same habitat cues that cause one fish to want to hold in a certain kind of water on a certain day are probably causing other fish to do the same thing.
Stream conditions, of course, impact trout lies. When the water is low, trout will gravitate toward current, which typically carries more food than still water and adds a hint of concealment. Under flood conditions, they’ll hold tight to the bottom and tuck into every available eddy. It’s likewise important to know what kinds of trout inhabit the water you are fishing, as different kinds of trout favor significantly different habitat.
Rainbows, for example, like a nice line of current, and they’ll often group up in tongues of current, especially if there’s a gravel bottom to serve up food, bigger rocks to offer concealment or possibly a little added depth. They like to hold along edges, usually facing into the current.
Brown trout, on the other hand, like deep, dark lairs, ideally with boulders or branches to hide among and a well-defined eddy. Big brown trout, especially, like thick treetops, severely undercut banks and very hard eddies among boulders or under rapids. Generally speaking, the tougher it would be to present a bait in a spot and to get a trout out, the better the brown trout habitat. Brown trout don’t like to stay in significant current, but they do like to have current quite nearby that they can look out into for ambushing prey.
Where stream reading becomes the most complicated is in spring creeks or meadow streams. Low in gradient and generally gentle in their bends, these typically small streams lack the obvious fish-holding holes that are common in other types of trout streams. Adding even more challenge, these streams tend to be quite fertile and full of insects, so the fish stay well fed and fussy. Spring creeks also lack significant concealing cover, making well-aimed casts and good presentations more important than ever.
Although subtlety defines every feature in these streams, the types of areas that hold the most fish really remain unchanged. Trout still hold along edges, at the tops and bottoms of deeper runs, near food sources, and in any spot where there’s a hint of shade or overhead cover. The features are simply less distinctive, making every little bend or split in the stream, grass bed or creek tributary confluence extra significant.
Fishing these creeks demands a slow and extra deliberate approach. Study upstream waters and look for standing ripples that might suggest grass, eddies along any bend in the current or dark spots that reveal deeper water or a bottom change. Also, stay on the lookout for trout rising. These streams tend to support high densities of trout, so they’ll often give themselves away. And even when you spook at trout by stepping where you should have cast, take careful note of the type of spot the trout was using.
Polarized sunglasses, light line and an extra measure of stealth are absolutely critical. Stay along the edges of the stream as much as casting needs allow, chose you casts carefully, and make every effort to present your offerings very naturally.
Finally, when early-season storms do push through, dumping rain or snow and swelling trout streams, it’s time to adjust strategies. Number one on a list is looking at a stream and determining whether it can even be waded safely and whether the water color lends itself to the trout seeing your offerings and feeding. Assuming you can fish, carry a wading staff. You won’t regret doing so.
The good news about high water is that it concentrates the fish in obvious places and often causes them to feed opportunistically on anything that passes within range. The bad news is the swift current and often-stained water combine to make many lures and flies difficult for the trout to spot, and the swift currents that front most fish-holding eddies can make it very difficult to make natural presentations within those spots.
Unlike normal fishing, when the best strategy is usually to cast into a current line, upstream of a likely hotspot, and let the current carry the offering past the spot, your best bet when the river is really rocking is to cast right at the boulder or whatever is creating an eddy and hope the bait stay in place long enough for a fish to spot it and nab it.
Generally speaking, you can work fairly quickly when the water is high because the places that might produce fish tend to be obvious and either you can get a bait into them or you cannot. Within a few casts you’ll have caught any trout that are home and interested, so you might as well move along to the next hole.