September 24, 2010
This time of year trout are often focused on the buffet of terrestrial food sources available to them. Here's how to fool 'em into a strike.
As the author demonstrates, a Road Runner Marabou drifted high in the water column looks a lot like a drowned terrestrial insect to a hungry brown trout. Photo by T. J. Stallings.
"Small-craft warning for tomorrow!" a brown trout announces to a buddy, almost giddy about the forecast. The two trout exchange high fins, having both learned that heavy winds along a stream often translate into misguided grasshoppers, which of course become scrumptious meals in fairly short order.
Grasshoppers don't necessarily need a crosswind to wind up in the drink, though. They fairly commonly get startled by something on land or simply take off hastily, only to find themselves swimming for life. Enough find the waters of many trout streams, in fact, that the trout stay on the lookout for them -- and grasshoppers aren't the only terrestrial insects that end up in the water more often than they would prefer. Ants, spiders and various beetles commonly slip from logs or slick banks, providing food for awaiting trout. In addition to insects, earthworms and other annelids are commonly part of the terrestrial mix.
Terrestrial imitations will produce some trout though much of the year, but they become especially effective during late summer and on into the fall for a couple of important reasons. First, the insect populations along banks themselves get extra active, with assorted insects increasing the odds of some bugs finding their way into the water. At the same time, aquatic inset hatches tend to lessen. The combined effect is that trout really begin keying grasshoppers, beetles, worms and the like.
A fair number of fly-fishermen understand the value of imitating terrestrials, especially during late summer/early fall. Most spin-fishermen either don't get it or they don't realize that there are high quality terrestrial imitations on the market that lend themselves to being presented with a spinning rod.
Various down-sized poppers and ultra-shallow crankbaits can be worked in ways that cause them to effectively imitate grasshoppers, crickets or beetles. Among the best, in large part because of their realistic profiles, are Rebel's assorted "critter baits." The Crickhopper, Big Ant and Bumble Bug all have wide wobbles and buoyant bodies and can be fished on the surface or just below it. Other small poppers, prop baits and buoyant shallow-running crankbaits can likewise be used to imitate surface-swimming terrestrial insects.
Often the best way to fish a hard bait that imitates an insect is simply to cast to the upper end of a likely feeding lane and let the bait drift unencumbered. Real 'hoppers and beetles are stunned when they land in the water, and they definitely are out of their element. A common reaction it to simply freeze up and ride the current, so that's a highly natural presentation. If you favor a fly rod, numerous patterns tied specifically to imitate grasshoppers, crickets or beetles work extremely well for exactly the same presentations.
Whether delivered with a fly rod or a spinning rod, larger terrestrial insect imitations sometimes need a little added life to prompt strikes. Tugging the fly line will make flies dance or pop on the surface. Various spin-fishing lures, meanwhile, can be brought to life with rod tip twitches. Another highly effective way to work a small shallow-running crankbait is to reel slowly and steadily with the rod kept high. This causes the plug to wobble right at the surface and kick out a wake -- much like a misdirected land bug swimming slowly and steadily along with blind hope that it is pointed toward dry ground.
Surface-riding terrestrial imitations typically draw the most attention in the places where trout are likely to find the real insects. Carefully work current runs beside grassy banks (prime 'hopper habitat) and areas around deadfalls, which always host plenty of ants and spiders. Angle casts upstream and let the current do much of the work. Terrestrial insects weren't made for water, so they don't tend to be the most adept swimmers.
Keep in mind also that a 'hopper is a pretty big bite and will prove especially attractive to brown trout. Watch for undercut banks, boulders beneath drops and other likely brown trout lurking areas, and be sure to drift a plug or a large terrestrial fly through each neighborhood.
On days when hard baits and hopper patterns seem too large, ant-imitating flies offer an excellent alternative. For fly-rodders, that's an obvious and easy switch; however, you don't necessarily have to be a fly-fisherman to fish with a tiny ant-imitating fly. Clip a casting bubble, which is basically just a clear bobber that adds casting weight, a few feet up the line, and with a spinning outfit you can put an Size 16 floating ant fly anywhere you could cast a spinner or a plug. When you buy your flies, pick up a little bottle of floatant. Dabbing a bit on an ant from time to time will help it float higher.
Like floating ant patterns and other dry flies, though, real terrestrial insects sometimes get waterlogged or overpowered by turbulent waters and end up struggling beneath the surface. Don't disregard the value of offerings that suggest semi-drowned crickets or hoppers. Good choices are Lindy Marabou Jigs, Road Runner Marabous and Woolly Bugger flies. Buggers, like ants, can be fished on fly gear or spinning gear. For the spinning approach, add a split shot or two about a foot up the line. Any of these offerings should be presented just beneath the surface, with the current doing most of the work and the rod tip being used only to keep the bait high in the water column and to add a bit of action.
Finally, don't overlook annelids. Fly-fishermen sometimes bicker over whether San Juan Worms and other worm-imitating patterns should be categorized as terrestrials, arguing both that the term refers to terrestrial insects and that these patterns best imitate worm-like aquatic insect larvae. Be that as it may, more than a few genuinely terrestrial worms, grubs and caterpillars of various sorts find their way into a typical stream, and they generally don't drift far before the trout cause them to disappear.
Various fly patterns imitate worms nicely, and the most common presentation is a simple dead drift, with tiny shot added as needed to keep the offering close to the bottom. Spin fishermen have a variety of small "trout worms" to pick from. Some are ultra natural. Others are bright colored. Some are made of plain soft plastic. Others are scented or even made from natural products. They can be fished on tiny jigheads or rigged wacky style (through the middle
) with small hooks. Adding a split shot or two makes it easier to present worms near the bottom, where they usually will draw more strikes, and, of course, the extra weight makes for easier casting.
Stream stealth is a key to September success in a trout stream. The water tends to run lower than normal this time of year in most creeks and rivers, and with low flows come extra clear water. Whether you're wielding a fly rod, throwing plugs with a spinning outfit or mixing your approaches, it's critical to stay low, work back from the edges of pools whenever possible and use natural stream cover for concealment. Dressing in natural tones also helps.
The only time that most streams aren't low and clear during a normal September is after a big late-season thunderstorm, and there's no finer time to dead drift a terrestrial insect or earthworm imitation than right after a big rain. Not only does the water tend to get stained and run higher -- causing the trout to be more active and to feed by reaction -- but the rainwater often washes the very types of foodstuff that you are trying to imitate into the stream.