It can be easy to mistake a productive trout stream as a barren wasteland. Don't be hastily deceived: What you see (or don't see) at surface level often paints only a small part of a big picture. Below the surface, trout are an apex predator, but everything from weasels to eagles are more than happy to snack on them given the chance. Unsurprisingly, the fish that can hide the best are the ones with the greatest survival rates.
Even on water where you might frequently see fish, sight-fishing isn't always the best tactic. If you can see them, they can see you, and that’s not good. Usually these are the more recent year classes hanging out in the open. Instead of targeting what you can see, pay special attention to what you can’t. Primarily, this involves depth. Any dramatic change in depth is worth a close investigation. In really small water, 3 feet can be functionally bottomless. There's much more cover on bigger streams, so pay attention to bigger pieces of structure. Just remember, fish could be holding nearly anywhere.
Regardless of season, assess wintering holes. It doesn’t matter how fertile the stream is in the summer—if it can’t support those fish through the winter, it’s not going to have as many opportunities for a quality catch.
Going back to the hide-and-seek aspects of finding fish, year-round you’re most likely to find good fish on good cover. If it’s gnarly, it’s safe. Laydowns are a fish’s best friend; they provide protection and will often funnel food right to their residents.
Thick cover isn’t easy to pick apart at a distance. The farther back you are from the target, the easier it is to get sloppy. It’s better to get a fly through as many times as you need to from a short distance than it is to take a risky shot and snag first cast. When possible, it’s easier to sneak up close on the bank, but wading slowly can yield opportunities you might accidentally walk past.
Without a doubt, the best time to fish is when you have the opportunity to go. Maybe you should stick closer to home when conditions are questionable, but it’s almost impossible to spend a day on the water and not learn something. When possible, cloudy days with a light rain are some of the easiest to fish, but sunny days will spit out unusual fish, too ... though typically less frequently. More important than the sun, though, is the presence of shadows. There’s a lot of literature about lining trout—when you throw your fly too far and the day-glow mainline spooks the fish instead of the much less visible leader falling in its line of sight—but stealth is similarly important. Nothing turns off a fish like having a huge, flickering shadow pass over it. As mentioned before, just about everything deadly comes from above. Those that don’t notice get eaten.
Don’t be afraid to use a short line—a really short line. Or even no line at all. Tenkara works for a reason, and that same logic applies to any other rod. Most of my fly rods are 8.5-9 feet. If I have a rod’s length of line and leader, I now have at least a 17-foot reach. Most streams I fish are 10 feet wide on average, or narrower. By working with a short line, the amount of control gained is incredible. It’s always a pain to get a hook stuck in the opposite bank, but the shorter you go, the less frequently it happens.
For brook trout on the narrowest little gashes, a foot of line off the tip can almost be too much line when sneaking into brushy corners.Of course, casting is a lot of fun and it’s great watching the slack jump out of a line at a distance, but don’t let that dictate presentation. Every piece of structure is its own puzzle with its own key. Sure, you can become adept at picking locks, but it’s way easier to work with the situation instead of against it.
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