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Secrets to Catching Tight-Quarters Trout

When trees and vegetation make fly casting for trout all but impossible, roll with spinning gear.

Secrets to Catching Tight-Quarters Trout

When approaching trout on small streams, keep a low profile. Wear polarized glasses to pick out areas of underwater cover and any trout around them. (Shutterstock image)

For many anglers, nothing is more satisfying than flinging flies for trout on wide-open rivers. However, there are many more miles of small trout streams and creeks in the Midwest than there are larger, fly-fishable rivers. These streams—where fly-casting is difficult if not impossible due to trees, brush and other features—can still be fished with light spinning tackle. In fact, anglers plying these areas often use small lures to attract browns, ’bows and brookies that can grow to similar sizes as those found in the larger rivers. On these small, tree- or vegetation-lined streams, you just need to find productive stretches of water with the right features, choose a suitable lure and make the proper approach, cast and presentation.

angler with trout
Pair a light-action spinning rod with a reliable reel and quality 8-pound mono like Trilene XL for trout in small, tight streams. Ensure the reel has a good drag for larger fish. (Photo by Jim Bedford)

SMALL-STREAM STRATEGIES

The same overhanging vegetation that makes fly fishing difficult on creeks and narrow streams is critically important to trout. In small streams, trout almost always prefer good overhead protection to water depth. In most cases, this is because the runs and holes in clear creeks aren’t deep enough to hide fish in the first place. A riffled surface may help hide trout in a deep run, but they generally prefer being under a log or log jam, an undercut bank or overhanging vegetation. Predatory birds like herons and kingfishers are the trout’s main enemies, so fish try not to be visible from above.

If you intend to catch these skinny-water fish, you need to try and be invisible yourself on your approach. Accomplish this by quietly wading in an upstream direction. Trout almost always face into the flow, and they can see in all directions except directly behind them. If you wade downstream, trout will quickly see you. Plus, any sound you make while wading is transmitted with the current, too. In most creeks, some sand and silt will join the wake preceding you in a downstream direction.

Your best bet is to keep a low profile downstream of fish and make the longest casts possible to reach them. Quality polarized sunglasses can be crucial here, as they help you see trout-holding cover and detect if a brown comes out to inspect your offering. Casting over logs and other cover can pay dividends, too, even if you are likely to hang up on the retrieve. Trout will often intercept your lure before you reach the potential snag, and if you wait until you wade up to the log, the trout may detect your presence and not take the lure.

An underhand, pendulum cast can be incredibly advantageous when fishing with lures on small streams. Let your lure hang at least 4 feet below the rod tip and swing it backward. With a snap of your wrist, drive it forward to your target. You can follow the lure’s flight path with your eyes and alter it if necessary.

Although most lures will draw trout out of cover, accurate casting remains critical when fishing creeks. In small, tight streams and creeks, trout often range throughout an entire pool. In these cases, and where there is ample room, you want your first cast to land in the stream closer to you before gradually working your way to the cover with subsequent casts. You don’t want to spoil the location by getting too close to the overhanging bush or undercut bank on the first cast and snagging your lure. Nor do you want to cast over any fish before reaching your target piece of cover.

brown trout
Spinners can be cast accurately in tight spaces and worked at slow speeds. Alter blade colors according to light conditions and water clarity. (Photo by Jim Bedford)

PRACTICAL PRESENTATIONS

With a decent grasp on the types of areas trout prefer on small streams and how to approach them, we can examine specific lure categories well suited for this type of fishing. In general, you’re looking for lures that produce a lot of action in the current and visually appeal to hungry trout.

  • Spinners

Weighted spinners might be the ultimate moving-water lure. They have action (they spin) at very slow retrieve rates and can be fished at any angle to the current. The spinner attracts attention from all predatory fish, both visually and sonically, even though they don’t look like any specific natural prey. Trout absolutely love them.

Spinners are relatively compact, which makes them easier to cast accurately into the nooks and crannies of stream cover where trout hang out. Casting upstream and retrieving with the current helps you get deep. It may seem like you’re retrieving quite fast to keep the blade spinning, but trout are in the same current and can easily catch up.




Casting your spinner across the current and allowing it to sweep across the flow, meanwhile, is also very effective. It gives the trout a long look at a potential meal. This is especially attractive to a hungry trout lying in wait under a log or bush laying on the surface of the creek.

A spinner can even be effective when cast downstream. Usually, during the retrieve, it will rise near the water’s surface. To keep the lure deeper in the water, slowly back it downstream at a slightly slower rate than the current so that the blade keeps turning but isn’t rising in the water column.

While using spinners, ensure you choose the right size and blade finish. A spinner that’s too big and bright, for example, often spooks small-stream trout. The amount of shade on a creek, the color/stain/turbidity of the water and the brightness of the day all play a role. Many anglers don’t realize how greatly a blade’s finish affects how brightly it will flash. Real silver reflects the most light, while nickel reflects the least. Brass and copper are middle-of-the-road options, and a blade painted black obviously reflects virtually no light.

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Rather than using a black blade on a bright, sunny day when fishing a small, ultra-clear creek, I usually opt for a tarnished brass- or copper-bladed spinner. This way I can still follow the spinner with my eyes as I retrieve it—an important consideration given that browns often chase a spinner and inhale it rather than just grab it with a hard strike. If you don’t see it happen, you don’t hook the trout.

Because spinners don’t specifically resemble any prey of stream trout, some anglers aren’t fully confident in fishing them. However, these baits work astonishingly well. I’ve caught many trout using them, including several 20-plus-inch brown trout, a couple of which broke me off before eating yet another spinner a few casts later.

  • Crankbaits

About 15 years ago, I added minnow-style plugs to my arsenal for creek trout. These days, I often lead with one of these big-trout catchers, switching between lure types as situations dictate. To facilitate these rapid changes, I typically use a small, black duo-lock snap to attach my lure to my line. As it turns out, these crankbaits produce the best action when loosely attached to line, so—in addition to allowing quick lure changes—the snap helps achieve maximum wobble.

Minnow plugs work best in moderately slow runs where trout get a long look at your offering and spinners might get turned down because they don’t look like natural prey. Floating minnow plugs often have the best action, but they don’t dive very deep. On the other hand, sinking minnow plugs often lack a solid wobbling action. Suspending models are a good compromise. Just remember that, unless the current is quite slow, these crankbaits don’t work very well when retrieved with the current.

If you can get alongside or a bit above the likely lair of a nice trout and cast quartering downstream, you’ll be in prime position. Many anglers twitch their plugs on the retrieve, and this tactic is especially productive when you are upstream of the lure. Just like with spinners, watch your lure carefully and see how trout react.

  • Jigs

Stream trout love eating crayfish, and jigs imitate these very well. If you’re a fly angler and tier frustrated that you can’t cast in small, brushy streams, you can partially satisfy yourself by tying a crayfish imitation on a jig. A friend of mine ties a great crayfish pattern with a clipped deer-hair collar and two feathers for the claws, which he calls his Muddler Craw. I used his creation to fool my largest brown trout to date in a creek I regularly fish.

For jig fishing, you’ll want to methodically bounce jigs along the bottom of a stream with fairly clean sand or small gravel. A lot of the strikes will come the instant you pull the jig off the bottom, so be ready.

SMALL-STREAM SETUP

  • Rig up right to tackle small creeks with little casting room.

A light-action, 6- to 7-foot spinning rod coupled with a quality, small spinning reel with a gear ratio of at least 5:1 makes an ideal small-stream trout outfit. A fast taper from a near ultra-light tip to a butt section with some power allows you to cast light lures accurately but still steer big trout away from roots and logs.

My experience with modern rods and reels is mostly nonexistent—Zebco Cardinal reels made in Sweden by Abu in the 1970s spoiled me, and I also build all of my rods. (New-in-the-box and lightly used Cardinal reels are still available online, though.) Spooling up with a fine-diameter castable line like Trilene XL will allow you to use 8-pound test and have a chance to keep big trout out of the wood.

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