June 14, 2022
By Jeff Knapp
Fourth of July rains had raised the local streams and rivers to the point they were high, muddy and unfishable. And though the air temperature was predicted to hit the low 80s by noon, the conditions were perfect for a morning adventure on a backwoods brook trout stream.
I parked the truck in a turnout within a state-owned public hunting area. My companion Art and I hiked a half-mile up a walk-in-only access trail before dropping down to the run. The flow was strong and just slightly off-color. My stream thermometer registered a chilly 58 degrees.
During the next three hours we leap-frogged our way up the slightly swollen stream, taking at least one feisty brookie from every good-looking lie, as well as some that didn’t appear all that great. The biggest might have stretched out to eight inches. But what the fish lacked in size they more than made up for in beauty, not to mention the spectacular setting from which they were caught and carefully released. Despite it being a holiday weekend, we never saw another soul.
Long after trout fishing has become a seasonal memory to those who limit their fishing to springtime stockers, cool headwaters streams course through wooded valleys that most anglers overlook. Eastern brook trout represent one of the better trout fishing options in early to mid-summer.
Backwoods streams aren’t exclusively the domain of native brook trout, though. Some also host wild brown trout and occasionally rainbows, both of which have the potential to reach impressive size.
IDENTIFYING GOOD WATER
The first step in any backwoods trout adventure is identifying potential streams, a process that has gotten much easier over the years given the availability of online resources.
Generally, backwoods streams have a few common traits. They flow through heavily wooded areas such as hemlock bottoms; are either the headwaters sections of larger, stocked trout streams or feeder waters to such; and are found within large tracts of public land or private land held by timber or mining interests. Showing up as mere blue lines on topographic maps, most runs will average 10 feet in width and drain the upper reaches of hilly or mountainous valleys.
State fisheries agencies often document streams supporting wild trout populations on their websites. Google Earth (a free online geo-browser that shows satellite imagery) allows you to examine streams to determine the terrain and forest cover they flow through, as well as ways to access them. Google Earth can also provide you with coordinates of pertinent locations that can be loaded into a handheld GPS unit for use during a trip.
State and national park maps are also great resources for locating and planning a trip. Many will show hiking trails that lead to a stream.
Native brook trout are extremely wary. If feasible, it’s wise to fish your way upstream. When planning a trip to a stretch of stream or run, I look for a way into the lower end and out at the upper end since it’s rarely productive to re-fish water on a return trip. Bushwhacking through the woods in fishing boots with rod in hand is to be avoided if possible. In addition to trails and gated road access, power and natural gas lines can provide such a corridor. Also keep in mind that the farther a stream is away from a public road, the better the fishing often is. Plus, it’s cool to fish water that is rarely bothered.
Few fishing outings require less in the way of tackle than one geared toward backwoods natives. The streams and runs that support native brook trout tend to be of limited fertility; that is, there isn’t a lot to eat.
While the fish are shy—instinctively hiding from avian and mammalian predators alike—they also are aggressive feeders. If you don’t spook them, odds are you will catch them, as they can’t afford to allow potential food to drift by.
Both fly and spinning gear are appropriate for backwoods trout, with short rods being preferred. I’ve found fly rods of 7- or 7 1/2 feet to be ideal, and use one of each length. The first is fiberglass and the other is a value-priced graphite model. There’s no need for a longer rod, nor one of higher quality. Rarely will one make a classic presentation involving a backcast. Rather, casts are typically mere flips akin to flipping or pitching to bass in shallow, heavy cover.
Other times, a bow-and-arrow cast that shoots the fly nice and low under the overhead cover is appropriate—whatever it takes to put a fly in front of a potential trout. Also, keep in mind that sorties of this nature are subject to misadventure. Rods hit overhead branches during hooksets, get stabbed into the bank while climbing up it and are driven into the ground when you slip on a moss-covered rock. It’s better to snap a cheap rod than an expensive one.
Since many of the casts will be flips, it’s a good idea to go a size up from the rod rating. Both of my rods are 3-weights, but I fish 4-weight lines for the added heft to assist in such casts. It’s also smart to keep leaders a tad shorter than the rod length. This way the leader-to-line connection stays outside the tip top when you secure the fly to the keeper, which you will do a lot when moving from spot to spot along the bank.
Ultralight spinning rods in the 5- to 6-foot range work well when coupled with either a size 500 or 1000 spinning reel loaded with 4-pound-test monofilament.
Fly/lure selection is also simple. Native brookies succumb to brightly colored flies. I’ve found bright, downsized Woolly Buggers to be effective, as well as Green Weenies. Both patterns can be tied in pink or salmon colors that brook trout respond to especially well. I’ve found wild browns and wild rainbows like them, too, when they are present.
A tandem dry fly/dropper rig is another way to go, with the dry being a buoyant, bushy pattern like a Humpy with a wet fly or nymph on the dropper. While the dry primarily serves as a strike indicator, trout will often hit it.
Small spinners and spoons on ultralight spinning gear catch trout, but I’ve found that streamers and Green Weenies fish well on this gear with the addition of a small split shot for weight. The treble hooks found on hardware can be tough on the delicate mouths of a native brookie. Consider pinching down the barbs on all hooks, even if not required by law.
Rounding out gear needs are lightweight hip boots or waist-high waders since sometimes you’ll need to kneel near the stream (or in it) to make a proper cast. Choose wading shoes more for comfort and support for the walk in and out than for in-stream performance, as little wading is necessary. Include a daypack or sling pack to carry basic fishing essentials as well as snacks and water, and you’re set for the day.
Brookies will use whatever cover is available to hide from predators, jutting out in a flash to intercept food (or your offering). This includes deeper pools scoured at stream bends; plunge holes below falls, riffles and bank-to-bank logs; undercut banks; tree branches imbedded in the bottom; and rocks and boulders.
As mentioned earlier, fishing in an upstream direction is highly preferable. If you’re with a friend, it’s smart to leapfrog spots so you’re each fishing fresh water. If possible, keep each other in view so you know what’s been worked.
Fly/lure presentation is a matter of getting your offering upstream of the target area without disturbing the surroundings and alerting the fish. Stay back from the bank as much as possible and maintain a low profile. Keep your shadow off the water. Wear muted colors. Keep footfalls soft as you approach a spot. I’ve taken brookies from undercut banks I was standing on by doing so.
On longer holes be sure to start at the tail end. It’s sometimes possible to pull a fish from there first and get another un-spooked one from the head of the pool. Other than during high-water conditions, rarely will you get more than a couple fish from a spot.
You will need to be creative in your casting, though the casts need not be pretty. Natives will hide in some less-than-obvious places, and you’ll find yourself casting over submerged branches and the like, adopting a “catch them first, then worry about getting them out of there” attitude.
It’s often said that there’s a lot more to fishing than catching fish. This is certainly true with backwoods natives. In a world where things seem to have become increasingly artificial and fabricated, it’s refreshing to catch native species that have been here for eons.