July 19, 2023
I became a trout junky as a kid. As soon as spring arrived, time not spent in school or doing chores was usually spent dunking worms in several brooks within walking distance of home. The trout fishing was generally excellent until school got out in early June and for a few weeks after, but the action tapered off considerably during the summer break. I still caught fish, just not as many or as easily.
In the beginning I didn’t know anything about seasonal environmental changes or the role they play in trout survival. I was perhaps 13 years old when I started putting two-and-two together. It would be years before I fully understood how water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels and other factors dictate trout behavior and activity and where they go during the dog days of summer.
While it’s true some trout species will tolerate warmer water temperatures than others, all trout prefer habitats where oxygen levels are consistently high, water temperatures are consistently cool or, better yet, where there is a happy combination of the two. In general, trout prefer water temperatures between 52 and 56 degrees. Along with that, the ability of water to carry and supply oxygen is dependent on water temperature. The warmer the water, the less oxygen it can supply. In late spring and summer, as water temperatures rise beyond tolerable limits and stream flows and oxygen levels drop, trout seek cooler living conditions. Trout become stressed as water temps approach 70 degrees. Avoid fishing in these warm areas.
Where do trout go once things heat up? The locations and water depths they inhabit typically vary between high mountain streams and sections at lower elevations, even at different times of day or during certain weather conditions. But the need for suitable living conditions seldomly changes.
The head and tail ends of the deepest pools are good places to start. This is especially true around visible boulders and submerged rock structure. Trout concentrate in these areas for protection and because the rocks deflect the flow and provide accommodating holding stations.
Pocket water behind boulders, downed trees and other natural barriers in rapids and riffles are other potential hotspots. They are often deep, cool, shaded, well-oxygenated and the first recipients of food flushed downstream.
Don’t overlook deep cuts and channels along shaded and overhanging banks for the same reasons. This is also true of any visible vegetation along the banks or areas midstream where the bottom drops to deeper water. Through the process of photosynthesis, green grasses and other water plants produce needed oxygen during the daylight hours. Additionally, they often harbor various food sources while offering cover and protection.
I like to concentrate on the mouths of smaller feeder streams and spring seepages. These are a source of cool, if not cold, oxygenated water and offer a supply of food as it’s flushed downstream, making them magnets for trout.
It pays to keep in mind during late spring and summer, when trout seek these cooler bastions, that low water levels tend to make trout rather skittish. Whether casting flies, lures or bait, “read” a stretch of water before diving in. Polarized glasses will help cut through the glare and highlight those darker hotspots.
Approach each with a thoughtful plan, keeping your human profile and shadows low or away from the target areas. On the approach, especially when wading, take care not to disturb the stream bed by dirtying the water with bottom debris.
TIMING CAN BE KEY
There’s an old saying that goes, “anytime is the best time to go fishing.” Generally, I would agree, but certain times are better than others during the summer. Trout subsist on a variety of terrestrial and waterborne foods, but in waters with wild populations of fish and those specifically managed for trout, aquatic insects like mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies are at top of the menu. Most of these insects become active and emerge when water temperatures are roughly between 50 and 60 degrees. Various baitfish and land-based insects are also most active at that time.
Coincidentally, or perhaps due to Mother Nature’s grand plan, trout go heavy on the feed within the same temperature range, give or take a few degrees. When water temps get into the high 60s, insect and other forage activity, trout feeding activity and productive fishing generally taper off.
In early spring, when water temperatures are cold or cool, peak feeding occurs during the latter hours of the day once waters have had a chance to warm. From June through July, however, water temperatures are generally best for peak feeding activity from early morning to mid-morning before waters warm, and again from late afternoon to dusk as they cool.
This does not mean to suggest that trout can’t be caught at other times when water temperatures are cooler or warmer. They can and are. But during these hot days, planning fishing trips during hours of peak activity can be key to success.
Additionally, trout can be highly active in reduced light conditions such as overcast days or when it’s drizzling or raining, even during midday. Water temperatures remain relatively cool during these conditions, or at least closer to optimum temperatures.
SPIN, FLY AND BAIT
Just as they are at any time of year, trout are willing takers of a variety of baits, lures and artificial flies during the summer months. Where legal, garden worms and night crawlers are always a good way to go. If necessary, attach a split-shot to keep the bait down where the trout are. Allow it to drift with the current, then move the rod tip up and down on occasion when retrieving upstream. Trout also respond well to garden baits when they’re mated with a flashy silver spinner.
In-line spinners—Panther Martin, Mepps, Blue Fox, etc.—in various sizes are great, too. Bright colors and gold work best on overcast days and in cloudy or stained waters; muted colors are best in clear waters. Spinners can be cast up or across stream or fished deep in ponds. Vary the retrieve by stopping and going or twitching the rod tip on occasion.
Trout are receptive to a wide array of artificial flies that represent insects at various stages of life, small baitfish, crustaceans and land-based insects. A key to success is knowing which naturals are active and “matching the hatch,” so to speak. The challenge is the emergence and activity times vary from state to state within the region. Mayflies, caddisflies and terrestrial insects are active in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland much earlier than they are in New England. Local fly and tackle shops can provide helpful advice on hatches and insect activity.
Unless trout are feeding on something specific or are well-educated due to fishing pressure, offering a close facsimile to the active forage will get the job done. Most fly-fisherman carry a large selection of dry, wet and nymph flies in various size and color combinations. Many also have a selection of bait-imitating and attractor-type streamers.
Whether using bait, lures or flies, fishing for summer trout can be productive. We have to look for them in different places, but if you consider what trout require to survive at this time of year, catching them isn’t that difficult.