Trout Education: Learning How to Read Water

The biggest obstacle I had to overcome when I first started fly fishing was being able to successfully “read the water” – i.e. being able to predict the areas where trout hold in streams.  Years of bait fishing for catfish and largemouth, and tossing Texas-rigged watermelon Yamasenko worms into deep creek holes for smallmouth had created a pattern of mind-numbing repetition that left me clueless when it came to trout fishing.  My previous experience told me that fish held in deep pools (which is only partly true).  So for a long time, I would hop from one deep pool to the next, skipping all the water in between.  Needless to say, I passed up on a lot of fish in those early days.  It wasn’t until I ran into another fly fisherman nymphing a riffle, that I started to learn more about trout holding areas.

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Riffles are shallow, rocky sections of streams with fast/broken water.  This riffle on Tohickon Creek holds good numbers of trout during spring and early summer.  

As most trout bums know, trout behavior and survival is largely dependent on water temperature.  In water temps below 45 degrees, the trout become lethargic and don’t feed very often and usually hold in slow, deep pools.  As water temps rise in the spring, the metabolism of the trout increase.  In water temperature between 68 and 70 degrees, the fish will still actively feed, but they will generally hold in broken/fast water because of the higher oxygen content.  If the water stays between 50 and 65 degrees, and there is adequate food, trout can be found in all types of stream environments – pools, riffles, runs, and pocket water.  Water above 70 degrees is dangerous for trout, and trout struggling in these water temps should probably be left alone.  If the trout have any hope of surviving the high temps, they need all of their energy reserves and the added stress of being caught by a fisherman will likely be fatal.

In faster water, objects like large rocks or trees obstruct the current and slow it down via friction.  Where the current meets the object, an area of slow, slack water will form on all sides of the object, allowing a place for aquatic insects to gather without being knocked downstream by the current.  It also provides a place for a trout to rest out of the current, and close to a food source.  Pocket water, which is fast water with a lot of obstructions creating heavily broken surface water, can be extremely difficult to fish, but it can also hold a boat load of trout.

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Many small mountain streams, contain lots of pocket water.  They can be tricky to fish, but they are also usually full of brook trout.  

On the flip side, areas that appear to lack adequate cover, such as long, flat pools, can be very productive during a heavy hatch because it is easier for the fish to spot and intercept insects on the surface in slower water.

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Slow flats like this one, can be very productive during heavy hatches.  But sections like this will usually require long leaders, thin tippet, a stealthy approach and good presentation.  In flats like the one above, it is easier for trout to spot food on the surface, but it is also easier for them to spot an imperfection in your fly or presentation.

Don’t make the same mistake I did when I first transitioned to fly fishing for trout – don’t be a one dimensional fly fisherman.  Use your knowledge of trout survival (water temps), trout food sources (hatches/aquatic insects), and stream characteristics to make educated guesses on where you should target.  I think you will find an increase in the number of trout brought to net (coming from a guy who spent years throwing casts to the wrong areas!).  And remember, there is no substitute for time spent on the water.  Get out on your favorite stream and experiment!

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Deep runs like this can be fished effectively by tight-lining with a tandem nymph rig.  

fall-bow-1Robert Fravel grew up in Pennsylvania, where he started fishing local streams and lakes at a very young age. During his college years, Robert spent the summers working as a whitewater rafting guide in the Pocono Mountains of northeast Pennsylvania. As an avid fly fisherman and fly tier, he enjoys exploring backcountry streams in search of untouched wild trout waters. He currently works as a lawyer in Dublin, Pennsylvania.

 

 

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New Water: Little Schuylkill River

Lately I’ve fallen into a predictable routine of fishing the same few limestone creeks that are the closest to me.  These streams only have a limited amount of public water, so I end up fishing the same runs and pools time and time again.  Sure my methods might change from time to time depending on hatches (or lack thereof), water clarity, water level, etc.  But overall, my fishing had become stagnant.  I wasn’t advancing as a fly fisherman.  I wasn’t reading new water, identifying unfamiliar aquatic insects, placing myself in new/uncomfortable casting positions or simply enjoying some new scenery.  Hence the birth of my “New Water” series.  The New Water series is designed to push me to explore unfamiliar streams in unfamiliar parts of the state, outside of my home stream comfort zones.

Over the holiday, I was able to get out and wet a line in some new water: the Little Schuylkill River.  schuylkill countyThe Little Schuylkill is a picturesque stream located in Schuylkill County, that averages about 30-40 feet in width (at least in the DHALO Section).  It begins in the lower Pocono mountains around the town of Tamaqua and flows for about 25 miles before joining the Schuylkill River below Port Clinton.  This region of the state was once an epicenter for coal mining.  And like many streams in the area, the Little Schuylkill suffered tremendously from the ill effects of the mining industry.  Silt, and acid runoff polluted its waters and decimated the stream.  In the 1960’s, a stream survey showed that the Little Schuylkill was completely devoid of aquatic life.  Thanks to the dedicated efforts of outdoor enthusiasts, conservationists and concerned citizens, sixty years later the Little Schuylkill is once again full of life.  The stream boast a healthy population of both wild and stocked trout, a steady supply of caddis flies, otters, minks, blue herons and supposedly harbors some bald eagles as well.

Early in the morning on July 4th, I loaded up my waders, fly rods, and chest pack, grabbed a cup of coffee and headed up to Schuylkill County.  I originally planned on fishing just above Port Clinton, as I had driven by the parking lot for this area dozens of times before.  However, when I got there, the parking lot was full.  So, I decided to continue to drive upstream until I found an access that was less crowded.  Eventually I reached the Delayed Harvest section of the water around 8:45 a.m.  To my surprise there was not another soul in the parking lot, despite it being a holiday.

Apparently, that area had gotten a fair of amount of recent rain because the ruts and holes in the gravel parking lot were full of off colored rain water.  Before putting on my waders and rigging up, I took a walk down the water’s edge just to take a look.  The water level was slightly above normal, with just a hint of murkiness.  Clear enough to see the bottom in three feet of water, but skewed enough to make the finer details invisible.  There was a small island to the right of where I was standing, blocking my view of the upstream landscape.  After putting on my waders and rigging my 9 ft. 5 wt. St. Croix Rio Santo, I made my way around the island via the near bank.  When I rounded the tip of the island, I found a long, deep, fast moving run that extended upstream for about 40 yards where it met a set of shallow rapids.  On the far side of the rapids, was another long, deep, fast moving, picture perfect run that had my mind racing about the number of trout contained therein.  IMAG0094Initially, I had a size 16 tan deer hair caddis tied on, but upon seeing the deep runs, I decided to tight line my way upstream and switched to a tandem nymph set-up with a size 14 hare’s ear on top and a size 16 caddis larva dropped off the bend.

The fast moving, broken water combined with the tinged water clarity allowed me to stand fairly close to the runs without spooking the fish.  On the second cast, I brought a 12 inch rainbow to net.  As I slowly worked my way through the first run, the fishing got better.  By the time I got to the end of the first run I had already netted 10 trout, about half of which were wild browns, and I probably lost just as many.  The second run provide to be almost as fruitful as I netted more browns, all between 10 and 15 inches.

By 11:45 a.m. I was getting ready to call it a day.  While I would have loved to stay and fish till dark, I unfortunately did not have that luxury.  As I was walking back downstream, I decided to make a few more casts into the tail end of the first run.  At that point the Little Schuylkill offered up her finest treasure of the day, a stunning wild brown with some spectacular coloration. IMAG0137

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With this royal farewell, I made my way back to the truck, whistling Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and wondering what new piece of water I’ll explore next.

Happy Birthday America.

 

The Truth Behind Catch and Release Fishing

In my eyes, I consider the majority of outdoorsmen and women as conservationists by default.  Regardless of whether you are an avid hunter, angler, hiker or camper, you have a genuine interest in making sure that the resources necessary to pursue your passion (whether that be fish, game or large tracts of forest or water) are protected and preserved so that you and others may enjoy them for years to come.  Pretty simple logic.

Accordingly, many anglers, including myself, frequently practice catch and release.  However, there is a proper way to catch and release a fish (trout in particular).  When not practiced properly, the mortality rate of caught trout increases dramatically.  A day of poorly practiced catch and release can do more harm to a stream’s fish population than a day of catch and keep fishing.  Hopefully this article will provide some useful information on C & R fishing.

Use barbless hooks.  Using barbless hooks or pinching your barb decreases the harm done to the fish and makes the hook easier to remove, thus causing less stress to the fish.

Know how to properly play a fish.  If you play a fish for too long, you will subject that fish to a dangerous level of stress.  Land the fish as quickly as possible.  If you can control the fish’s head, you are in control of the fight.

IMAG0141 (1)When landing the fish, don’t drag the fish up onto the bank.  Use a landing net.  Fish (especially trout) have very fragile skeletal structures and can severely damage themselves when flopping on rocks or a hard bank. Using a landing net prevents this.

Wet your hands before touching the fish.  Fish have a protective film (slime) that covers their body.  While it may seem strange, this slime aids their immune system.  By not wetting your hands before handling the fish, you are removing large amounts of this slime and making the fish more susceptible to harmful disease and infection.

Don’t keep the fish out of the water for very long.  We all like to take pictures of the fish we catch.  But make sure you don’t keep the fish out of the water for more than 10 to 15 seconds when taking the photos.  If you don’t get the right shot in those 10 to 15 seconds, simply place the fish back in your landing net and let the fish relax in the water for a while before the next photo shoot.  And when taking the photos, make sure you hold the fish over the water, so in the event that the fish wriggles out of your hands, it will fall into the water rather than onto the bank.

IMG_20160624_185446Revive the fish before releasing it.  Don’t just dump the fish back into the water.  Gently grab the fish by the tail and point it upstream so that water is running over and through its gills.  This may take anywhere from 20 seconds to a few minutes.  My method is to give the tail a gentle squeeze.  If the fish is sufficiently revived, it will swim off when it feels the squeeze.  If not, I know the fish needs to be further revived.

Nobody practices perfect catch and release 100% of the time.  I certainly include myself in this.  However, as anglers who enjoy the sport of catching fish, we can all benefit by making a conscious effort to implement these procedures into our release routine so that we can increase the survival rate of released fish and return to catch them time and time again.

The Fly Fisherman’s Winter Trout Survival Guide

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The Fly Fisherman’s Winter Trout Survival Guide

By Robert Fravel

Here in the northeast, winters can be downright brutal.  With blizzards and sub-freezing temperatures lasting well into April.  Once the calendar changes from November to December, a lot of fly fisherman begin what they call “tying season” and don’t hit the water again until spring.  But for those of us willing (or crazy enough) to brave the cold, the rewards of winter fishing can be immensely satisfying.  Fly fishing in the winter presents a unique set of challenges, but following this advice will help you overcome those challenges.

Narrow your fly selection.

In winter, there really are no prolific hatches, so it is unnecessary to bring fly boxes containing 50-75 different patterns.  Keep it simple.  Do your homework on the waters you plan to fish. Find out what trout feed on during the colder months and limit your fly selection to those food sources.  Here in eastern Pennsylvania, I will typically use some combination of five different patterns during the winter.

Nymphs:

  • Zebra midge, size 18-22
  • BH pheasant tail, size 14-18
  • Scuds, size 12-18

Dries:

  • Griffith’s gnat, size 16-22
  • Parachute adams, size 14-20

Use fine tippet and keep a low profile.

During the winter, my initial setup on my home waters is typically a tandem nymph rig fished under an indicator.  Since water levels are generally low and the water clear, I will use 6x or 7x tippet on my setup.  I absolutely hate big bulky, football-looking indicators.  Sure you can adjust the depth of your flies with ease, but they also spook 90% of the trout in the stream.  I prefer to take a foam, pinch-on indicator, cut it in half with my pocket knife and then take that half and fold it around my tippet.  I find that this method spooks far less fish and is still buoyant enough to support my flies.

Be persistent and thorough.

Trout are sluggish during the colder months.  They are less likely to chase flies this time of year.  As a result, you literally have to put your fly on top of their nose.  In order to increase your chances of this, you need to thoroughly cover every area that looks like it holds fish.  This could mean making 15 to 20 drifts through an area.  Make the effort and you will be rewarded.

Apply cooking spray.

imag0167-1 Yes, you read that correctly.  If you are fishing in below freezing temps, ice will start to clog up the eyes on your fly rod.  In order to combat this, spray your rod eyes with cooking spray before rigging up.  This will prevent the ice from forming for at least an hour or two.  If you do not have any cooking spray handy, you can also try using WD-40.

Bring a thermos full of hot liquid and something to start a fire with.

Obviously, any time you are wading into a body of water there is some degree of risk involved.  That degree of risk is exacerbated when you are in a remote location and/or in low temperatures.  In my opinion, fishing in the winter time is more dangerous than any other time of year due to the risk of hypothermia.  If you slip and fall into the water, you are in serious trouble.  During the winter months here in Pennsylvania, temperatures can frequently fall into the teens and occasionally even single digits.  If I took a spill and managed to get the clothing underneath my waders wet, I could become hypothermic within minutes.  Carrying a thermos full of hot coffee or tea is a great way to help raise your core temp and having a lighter, matches or another way to start a fire could potentially save your life.

Lower your expectations.

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As I mentioned earlier, trout are sluggish during the winter months and there are no dazzling hatches like the spring and summer.  Don’t expect to see dozens of trout rising to pick bugs off the surface.  Set your expectations accordingly.  In the colder months, I approach a day of fly fishing with the expectation of catching one fish.  That way, if I manage to net three or four trout, I feel like a fly fishing guru.

Enjoy the serenity.

In my opinion, the best part about winter fly fishing is the lack of other people.  Fishing a mountain stream surrounded by a valley blanketed in freshly fallen snow, without another soul in sight is something that cannot be replicated through pictures or words.  Go out and experience what the great outdoors has to offer.  And while you are out there, take some time to absorb your surroundings and cherish the moment.  You just might find yourself searching for that wild sense of unbridled adventure, rather than fish.