May 13, 2020
By Matt Straw
A ribbon of water courses through its little valley. It rises in a swamp and whispers past trees and brush sprouting bright green leaves, drinking inflow from freshets and springs. The water is clear enough for trout to see a small bait six feet away or more. The stream works its way toward a larger river flowing through hill country.
In some places, patches of snow persist in the shadow of cedars and north-facing slopes. At the lip of the slope, the glimmer of water appears through the pine boughs. We descend, treading lightly to avoid sending pebbles or rocks rolling into the stream. We wear camouflage or gray and green clothes and hats, to blend in with the environment.
Many states have trout seasons that open in the spring. Some have streams open all year. Areas like the famous Driftless Region, which extends into Iowa from southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, have streams open to catch-and-release fishing all winter. But an opening season means trout in that water haven’t been bothered for almost half a year.
The banks might be covered with snow on the opener. Other years, leaves are popping out, painting the forest emerald green. Or the scene could—and usually does— exist between those extremes. At any rate, that first day can be awesome. Unpressured trout are less cautious, racing out to intercept anything that might be food in the warming waters of spring. A lot of anglers take advantage of that with spinners, flies or bait. But we arrived with a different program.
And all we needed was a small pocketful of tackle. In fact, we fished the same rigs all day, losing nothing, changing nothing, traveling light and catching trout one after another.
Down south, trout might not migrate at all, finding suitable habitat for all seasons in a relatively small area. But up north, browns and rainbows often travel downstream to slower, deeper sections in late fall, sometimes leaving a small stream to winter in a larger river, lake or reservoir where current is reduced. If spring comes late and snow clings to the banks, browns—which spawn in fall—stay downstream until water temperatures rise into the high 40s. Rainbows, anxious to reach spawning habitat in spring, will already be up near gravel riffles, even in water registering in the high 30s. Brook trout, able to withstand the cold better than other species, often remain upstream all winter.
Locating trout in the spring depends on the size of the stream and the severity of the winter just passed. As such, a temperature gauge is a great tool to have in your trout kit. If the water is 40 degrees or less, we typically start in the bigger river or in the slow, deep pools of the lower stream.
Stream trout are vulnerable to raccoons, bears, birds and us. They get wary or get eaten. Walking along a small stream spooks trout. It’s hard to avoid being seen when fly casting or tossing lures, but even before trout see you, vibration from footfalls and wakes become air-raid sirens. However, a small float rig can be presented far downstream, well beyond the influence of your physical presence.
The ultimate stealth rig employs just a few small split shot applied to the line right below the float—just enough to sink it to the color line. Under that, a tiny SPRO Power Swivel connects 5- or 6-pound clear or green monofilament main line to a tough, quality 4- or 5-pound fluorocarbon leader, like Raven Invisible. Braid floats, but opaque lines can spook trout when passing overhead. Fluorocarbon sinks. Mono is translucent and stays on top most of the day.
On really small streams, a two- to three-foot leader is sufficient. It seldom needs to be longer than four feet. The rig terminates with a No. 10 or 12 Owner Mosquito Hook, sometimes baited with a single wax worm, tiny red worm or soft plastic bug. A wet fly, mayfly nymph or caddis larvae imitation can be most effective. So can a 6mm or 8mm Lazy Larry in pink or orange or a Great Lakes Steelhead Co. plastic bead pegged 1.5 to 2 inches above the hook, which is left bare or tipped with a single wax worm.
On tiny streams, a long panfish rod can work. On medium-to-larger streams, a 10- to 12-foot ultralight or medium-light float rod is better for controlling line and rigs. Our favorites include the 8-foot-long PFS80LMF2 from the St. Croix Panfish series and 11-foot G. Loomis STFR 1321 S blanks tied up by Thorne Brothers. You can’t get those blanks, but St. Croix has a light 11-footer in the Avid Series (AVS110LM2). The shorter rod is for tiny brooks and small creeks where the float is simply dropped in under the rod tip. The 11-footer is for short casts on mid-sized streams and small rivers.
In clear water, the bait, bead or fly can be anywhere in the water column. Trout see it even if it lingers near the surface, or only halfway down to bottom. If they can see it, trout will rise to a properly presented bait. That’s why no weight is needed anywhere near the hook, where it can cause it to snag on bottom—invariably just a couple feet before it was about to engage the biggest trout in the stream, if your luck is like mine.
As you can see, the technique is highly manipulative. The float can’t just drift free in the current. As it hits the water, the float should be “checked” hard. Hold it in place until the leader and bait fully extend down current. Then, let it drift a couple feet and check, or stop, it again,and so on. The idea is to keep the bait away from bottom—up where the trout can easily see it and where it won’t snag—up so the leader won’t drift against the body of an uninterested trout, spooking it and starting a chain reaction that clears the pool. Longer rods control the float better without pulling it offline to scribe an unnatural arc across the surface.
Trout always bite down on a bait or fly with jaws first, and a sensitive float dives. Set the hook immediately and it will always be in the mouth—not the gullet or stomach. You can safely release every trout, all day long. We might keep a few for dinner, but often not.
Floats keep the hook in a trout’s mouth by resisting submersion, keeping the line tight. Floats keep the bait off bottom, avoiding snags, leaves and detritus that foul the hook. And the hooks are so small and light that currents slipping around rocks and logs typically sweep the rig around, over and away from all potential problems. The main thing about avoiding snags has nothing to do with concern over lost tackle. The things we do after snagging—standing, pulling, twanging a float around above the surface and snapping line—spook trout. The bigger a trout is, the easier it spooks.
Most important of all, tiny floats allow you to drift a bait way downstream, well beyond the “spook zone” surrounding you. Trout in small streams are never far from the surface. They can easily see your approach. Slip quietly down to the water, staying low. Kneel or sit on the bank. Make several short drifts to cover a pool, then swing the rod tip over to the bank so the retrieve passes over shallow water—not trout. Each cast should be incrementally longer than the last. Cover the close water first to avoid dragging hooked fish past trout you missed. Eventually let the floats drift way down—40 to 50 feet or farther—before walking past that water. Starting upstream and working down is the way to approach little creeks with floats.
Hooking a good one way downstream becomes a demanding test of skill, balance and agility as you negotiate the terrain to close the distance between you and the fish. It can be both exciting and nerve-racking, so exercise and stay on that heart-healthy diet.
Opening day trout can be fooled so many ways. Spinners work. Fly-fishing with streamers, nymphs and egg imitations can be wonderful. Little Original Floating Rapalas are effective. But how many methods allow you to fish all day without damaging jaws or hooking trout deep? How many avoid snags all day while sometimes bringing 50 or more trout to hand? How many present baits way beyond the “spook zone” you create? Stealth float rigs not only present baits perfectly through pools, riffles, runs, pockets—anything a small stream has to offer—but lead you through the awakening forest without the frustration of lost gear and downtime.
The smallest Drennan Loafers and Redwing Tackle 2.0 or 3.0 Blackbird Phantoms are clear floats that often won’t spook trout even when passing directly overhead in glassy, shallow water. The brightly colored tops can easily be seen 40, 50 even 60 feet downstream. These floats are slim, well-balanced “fixed” floats designed for use in current.
Silicone sleeves slip onto the main line then onto the top and bottom stems, fixing the float in place yet allowing you to slide it up or down to adjust for depth. Add enough small soft shot just below the float to pull it down to the water line, which is where clear plastic meets the brightly colored top.
Rigged correctly, the slightest tug from a hungry springtime trout pulls it under.
Sure Shot, through Anglers International —which also markets Raven Invisible Fluorocarbon—can slide on the line without damaging it to keep the weight just below the float, a key component of snag-free stealth rigging in clear water.