June 10, 2020
By Al Raychard
Where I grew up, a small brook that originated at an upstream beaver pond ran not far from my home. In places, I could jump from bank to bank and not get my feet wet. It ran through stands of pines and various hardwoods that shaded long stretches of knee-deep riffles and a network of tea-colored pools. Overhanging and bankside cover kept the brook cool and the trout active, even during the dog days of summer.
Before I discovered organized baseball and girls in high school, I spent many a day along its banks learning the dos and don'ts of fishing small, intimate trout habitats. It's where I became a fan of these trout-fishing havens and developed my lifelong addiction to the fish. More than a few decades later, and having traveled far and wide in search of trout in larger streams and rivers, small streams still hold a special place in my heart.
SIZE DOESN’T MATTER
When provided with certain habitat conditions, trout can thrive quite nicely in riffles just a few inches deep and pools smaller than a kitchen table. Food and clean, cool, well-oxygenated water are key to a trout’s survival. Provided these, stream survey comparisons by numerous state and federal wildlife agencies have shown small habitats can hold just as many fish as their much larger counterparts.
Fortunately, for the trout enthusiast, diminutive trout runs are everywhere. It might be a brook passing through a culvert you drive over every day on the way to work, or a stream meandering through a field or pasture. Some are hidden amongst alder thickets or a hedgerow, or a favorite woodlot where you hunt deer or turkeys. When it comes to productive native or stocked trout runs, size and location make little difference, as long as the key habitat requirements are available and remain so throughout the season.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Depending upon the source, amount of rainfall and location, most small brooks and streams suffer from dropping water levels and warming conditions as the season winds on. This can make the window of opportunity for catching fish in these streams limited.
In general, April into June is the premier time to hit these smaller runs. Not only are water flows and oxygen levels maximized or reaching ideal levels during this period, but water temperatures are still cool. The stream temperatures have yet to reach that critical 66-degree mark when trout become stressed and lethargic.
Trout are also recovering from the sluggish metabolic conditions experienced during the winter months when movement and feeding activity are minimized. As water temperatures warm, trout metabolism rates start to rise and will optimize during this spring time frame. As that change occurs, trout become increasingly active, at times fiercely competing for available food supplies. When this happens, some of the most productive and rewarding angling opportunities are at hand.
Because of the diminutive size of these smaller waters, many trout enthusiasts either overlook them or dismiss them out of hand. During spring visits to several of my favorite runs, I seldom see another angler. That's perfectly fine because I have them all to myself. Abandoned streams allow me to enjoy not only the resident trout, but the solitude these intimate runs offer in spades.
But there is also another major drawing card. While perhaps not a universal truth, the trout in the brooks and tiny runs I regularly fish and have fished over the years are relatively easy to catch.
This is no doubt due in part to the lack of pressure these fish encounter in their lifetimes. But smaller trout habitats typically offer fewer food options, and what is provided is generally available only in limited or sporadic quantities. This is particularly true early in the season when water conditions and the weather have yet to optimize. Here, the various air- and land-based foods have yet to become active.
When it comes to food, trout are as greedy and aggressive as any other fish, and this limited food supply only increases those characteristics. When approached and fished properly, a few hours of effort can provide some of the most consistent action to be found anywhere at this time of year.
WHERE—AND HOW—TO LOOK
While getting small-stream trout to bite is relatively easy, the act of fishing these bodies of water requires a fair amount of technique. Angler-generated bankside sounds and disturbances are intensified in these tight quarters, making trout more aware and sensitive to them. Even the slightest disturbance or human shadow on the water can send them darting away.
With that in mind, tread softly and maintain a low profile while moving. This is especially important when approaching a candidate pool or riffle that you feel holds fish. Every situation is different, and has to be assessed—but over the years I've found it more productive to take a position several feet back from a pool or riffle. I'll often fish from a bent-over or kneeling position, working the bait primarily with only the rod tip near or over the target area. Remember, you're fishing a small stream where the trout are easily spooked. Stealth is the key here.
I also prefer to hit these areas on overcast days when the sun is less of a factor. On sun-filled days, try to use bankside foliage as camouflage, or whatever is available to keep your shadow and reflection off the water.
You might also opt to fish early and late in the day when the sun is at lower angles and less intense. During these low-light periods, small runs are generally still shrouded in dark shadows, and trout are more active and apt to leave their hideouts, increasing your chances of success.
Whether it's big water or small, and regardless of the time of day, the various trout species are always oriented to cover. This is especially true in small runs where shallow or clear water conditions often dominate and the threat from land-based and airborne predators is greater. Undercut banks in the vicinity of brush piles and log jams are often great spots. Shaded areas beneath bridges and the edges of eddy areas where fast water meets slow are also prime.
Pocket areas (regardless of size) downstream of large rocks and boulders where the current splits forming a riffle to each side and a deep, quiet eddy or pocket behind are also worth a cast or two.
Gentle moving water along banks protected by overhead foliage can be especially productive. Keep in mind that trout are somewhat lazy and seldom hold in the fastest and strongest currents, but rather off to the side. Basically, any location where the water is moving and the surface is protected or disturbed restricting visibility from above is a good spot.
Other key locations are pool areas below rapids, riffle areas and cascading falls. Regardless of size, they will hold trout, but keep in mind that trout are competitive as well as greedy, and the largest fish are typically found near the head of a pool.
CHOOSING YOUR TACKLE
One of the benefits of fishing small trout runs is no heavy or expensive tackle is required. My favorite outfit is still the inexpensive Zebco kit consisting of a spincast reel and five-foot-long fiberglass rod my dad bought me when I was a kid. I've changed the line several times over the years and made minor repairs, but the combination is ideal for small trout runs.
When considering gear, think light weight and short. Rods in the 4- to 5-foot range are easy to carry, easy to maneuver even when working heavy bankside cover, yet long enough to effectively fish from positions back from the water's edge. Long casts are rarely needed here. The type of reel you choose is a matter of personal preference.
As for line, 4- to 6-pound-test monofilament is more than sufficient. The lighter the line, the better. The take from trout in these small runs is more of a “tap-tap-tap” than an aggressive strike, and light rods equipped with light lines are best at detecting the delicate take.
Trout in these small waters are generally willing to take a selection of baits and lures, but I have yet to find anything better than natural baits, especially garden worms. Trout simply can't resist them. I typically use small, light wire hooks, size 8 or size 10, attached directly to the line with just a piece of worm skewered or threaded on the hook and a piece dangling off the end.
I learned at an early age that using a whole worm often results in short strikes or the trout somehow miraculously robbing the hook of the bait. Bits of nightcrawler and waxworms also work well, as do artificial egg imitations such as Berkley PowerBait and Pautzke Balls 'O Fire.
CAMO UP TO HIDE FROM TROUT
Most outdoorsmen think camo clothing is just for deer and turkey hunting. However, when fishing small streams up close and personal, a good pair of camo pants and a camo shirt can help you meld into the background. Depending on the stage of the surrounding foliage, choose a pattern that best matches the background. Mossy Oak offers many different patterns designed to shield you from the prying eyes of small stream trout.