Trout Fishing Techniques for Rivers and Streams
The trout fishing techniques I will cover today are aimed at those fishermen plying their art in small rivers and streams: people who enjoy simply being in nature and will enjoy their day along a clear cold mountain stream whether or not they actually catch fish. Sure, it's a lot of fun to catch a good-sized wild rainbow trout—that's what this article is about—but it needn't ruin your day if you get skunked and go home with nothing.
If you're one of the people who feel they must catch a monstrous fish every time they go fishing, or want to sit in a boat and guzzle beer more than they want to fish, you probably won't be very interested. If you enjoy nature, camping or fishing then read on; I will introduce you to some trout fishing techniques you probably haven't considered before.
Where to Go to Fish for Trout
I spent some 22 years living in Virginia and fished extensively for bass, bluegill, perch and other warm-water fish. I have made more than a few trips deep-sea fishing for bluefish, flounder, salmon and sea trout and have even caught a shark. I've pulled a five-foot sturgeon from the Snake River in Idaho, and I've enjoyed it all immensely; but nothing can compare to wading a small mountain stream trying to hook a wild rainbow trout.
I look for a stream shallow enough and narrow enough to wade across. Water temperature needs to be cool to cold; trout thrive with high-quality water in the mid-50-degree range. If my feet don't get rather numb, it's too warm. I want a stream where chest waders are a waste of money, and even hip waders are not a great deal of value; I can usually find a wide, shallow area to cross. There must be rapids in the stream to oxygenate it well, but there must also be small, quiet holes with rocks and logs for the trout to congregate in - they want hiding places as well as open water. There must be good access to the river, with frequent open areas in the underbrush where I can actually enter the water. Because I usually take my family camping with me, I want a place to park my RV.
Rivers and streams of the size I have described do not produce two-foot trout, but fortunately I am quite content fishing for trout in the 12" to 18" range. Wild trout of this size will give quite a fight and are a lot of fun to catch, but as much as anything I simply enjoy the peace and beauty of such a setting. A large, dirty river cannot provide this, and even a mountain lake does not provide the peaceful feeling and sounds of water rushing downstream. No matter the season, a rushing stream always seems to remind me of springtime.
Equipment for Trout Fishing
Number one on the list is, of course, a valid fishing license. Not even taking a header into the river can ruin a fisherman's day like not having a license when the game warden shows up.
Next on the list would be a rod and reel, and here I depart from all the other fishermen I have seen. I use a ten-foot fly rod with a normal fly reel. This need not be of the highest quality (or cost), as I do not fly-fish, but it does need to be a decent setup. My father, until his death in 1994, used the same bamboo rod he taught me with some 50 years ago, coupled with an "automatic" (spring loaded line retrieval) fly reel of the same vintage, and seemed happy with them both. My own current setup cost about $100 for the rod and somewhat less for the reel.
Although I practice catch-and-release, I do carry a small canvas creel as a convenient way to carry extra hooks, leader, weights, pliers, and other gear. These creels are small and cheap, which is a good thing because they live in my RV and eventually rot out. A few dollars will provide another one.
I use floating fly line on the reel, along with about a six-foot leader of usually 6# to 8# weight. A lighter leader might be nice and increase the "feel," but there are inevitably a lot of snags on the bottom of a moving stream that you can easily pull off of with a little heavier leader. Standard for me is usually a #4 hook on the end. A good supply of the small crimp-on weights in various sizes is necessary as well.
Polarized sunglasses are a must, and make sure they are polarized. The polarization is necessary as it eliminates most of the glare from the water and makes it much easier to see down into the stream. Without polarized lenses, you are merely making uninformed guesses as to what lies under the surface.
And last, but not least, is a dozen nightcrawlers. I have tried lures, salmon eggs and flies, but have had the most success with worms. Some of my bug-tying friends make fun of my worms and me, but they seldom catch more than I do and they seem to spend half their time playing with a new fly to put on. I prefer a worm.
Trout fishing techniques for rivers and streams are mostly a matter of common sense and learning to think like the fish. You must understand what the fish wants, where he is likely to be found, and how not to spook him so that he refuses to feed. Your intent is to present food at a reasonable distance and in such a manner that it looks natural to the trout.
The first problem is finding the trout. While fish can and will be found nearly anywhere there is water, trout tend to congregate in quiet pools with some depth and a hiding place. This does not mean standing water; trout are an active fish and want moving water to linger in (much different than lake fish, and I believe it makes them stronger and better able to fight). If you throw your line in and it travels downstream 20 feet in 10 to 20 seconds, that water speed is about right. Likewise a pool does not mean 20 feet of water. I find most trout in six feet or less, and often in only two feet if there is good cover. Trout will usually be found in places you cannot see, either due to covering rocks or brush or possibly moving water. Consider that if you can see him, then he can see you as well and probably won't bite. You must decide where a hidey hole is likely to be, without actually peering into that hole. Alongside large rocks, or downstream from rocks and logs, are good places; the water is usually quieter and the area not easy to see.
The next step is to present the bait in a natural manner. I almost always fish downstream from where I stand, because I can control the line better, but not directly downstream. I am not a biologist, but it seems reasonable that trout can smell (you are standing in their atmosphere, after all) and might detect your odor. Instead, pull out a few feet of line (a fly reel is not a casting reel), and, using an underhand flipping motion with that long pole, put the bait a little upstream and out from where you stand. With a 10 foot pole it is quite easy to reach out 20 feet or more and by wading in the stream you can reach almost anywhere. Overhand casting is also possible when needed. Allow the bait to float past the fish you hope to find at home, without guiding it any more than necessary. If you do need to provide some guidance, do it well before the bait is where you think the fish might be. Repeat until you are convinced that no one is home there.
A word on weights. I carry a variety of small crimp-on weights, and change weights frequently according to the speed of the water I am fishing in. The objective is to have enough weight, perhaps 18" or 2 feet from the hook, to be able to control the location of the hook. If water is swirling around in the spots you want to fish in, that water will carry the hook in all different directions without you being to control it at all, unless you have some weight on the line. Worms on the end of a floating line tend to float too high, and a little weight will carry the bait deeper into the water. At the same time you don't want too much weight, because if the hook doesn't move at least somewhat with the currents, it will not look natural and will probably not be taken.
Setting the hook in stream fishing is a little different than in lake fishing. The fish are usually a little smaller, and the long, limber fly pole has a different feel to it. When the fish bites—and only experience will tell you what is a bite, as opposed to a bump as the when the hook or its weight passes over a rock on the bottom—give a sharp tug upwards on the pole to set the hook. The pole will mostly just bend as the line tries to move quickly through the water, so it may take more or less effort than you are used to. That doesn't mean to whip the pole back over your shoulder in an effort to disembowel Mr. Trout, just a sharp tug. Unlike in lake fishing, once the fish is hooked you can usually tell what shelter or obstruction the fish is trying to reach, and keep him away from that direction. Don't let a hooked fish get too far downstream if possible; it can be a long and difficult fight to get him back upstream to where you are and it is not always possible for you to go to him.
Stream fishing in moving water is much different than lake fishing or deep-river fishing. You don't want the hook right on the bottom (would you live touching the bottom with escape cut off in that direction?), but inevitably hooks and weights will touch the bottom, as well as larger rocks higher up. Hooks and weights will snag on the rocks as the current carries them past, but usually not very hard. The trick is to pull the line in the opposite direction from where it was going when the hook snagged. This direction is not always obvious, because moving, swirling water can carry the hook in unexpected directions, but you will usually be able to get the line off without much trouble. Nevertheless snags are a way of life in the river; I often let the current carry my bait into and under log jams and such. So carry extra hooks, leader, and weights.
Enjoying Your Fishing Day
Time of day can play a large part in whether you catch a trout or not. Usually, but not always, the best time of day is just before the sun hits the water and just after it leaves in the evening. I have occasionally found the best fishing in the middle of the day; it doesn't make much difference to me, as I am up and moving around the campsite before daylight and, if the fishing is poor, I'll return for breakfast and wait a while before going out later.
Spooking the trout is a very real concern; trout can be both extremely wily and incredibly stupid at the same time. Never allow your shadow to come anywhere near your suspected hidey hole. Move quietly both on shore and in the water, and do not allow the hook and weight to hit the water anywhere near the fish: if you plop that weight and worm over his head, he's gone for the day. As noted, fish can smell—don't contaminate the water with odors of any kind. Never jerk the line around the water (except to set the hook), as it will look very unnatural. At the same time, I have caught many nice trout by slowly raising the bait to the surface; I suspect that they think it's "getting away" and it's taken before it can escape. Likewise, I've hooked a few by pulling the hook upstream in slower moving water, for perhaps the same reason. If you catch a trout in a hole, try it again! I've had incredibly violent fights in a small hole only to return immediately and catch 3, 4 or 5 more out of the same hole. Sometimes they're stupid.
Lastly, have fun and enjoy yourself. I have a friend that fly fishes in the winter. He will take his float tube out into water filled with ice chunks, and sit in that freezing water all day while it snows on him and his hands become too numb to work the reel. That isn't fun—it's masochistic and not to be done by normal people. Yes, he earns bragging rights for stupidity, and may even catch fish, but it isn't fun in my book. If it's too cold to go out early in the morning, wait for a while! If it's raining cats and dogs, sit it out for an hour! The purpose of fishing is enjoyment, or should be, not merely catching fish. If catching fish is all you want, go to the grocery store, jam a hook into one and drag it to the cashier. Lie about where you got it and no one will be the wiser.
If you ever get out Idaho way, check out Ponderosa State Park; there is some excellent trout fishing in the Payette River along the road there. In the meantime enjoy your new trout-fishing techniques in a small mountain river or stream and may you limit out each time you go!
© 2010 Dan Harmon