Washington/Oregon Game and Fish Magazine
Trout in Tough Conditions
by Dave McCoy
We have all been there. Our day or two to fish during the summer has landed you right in the middle of the worst heat wave in history and you are stuck fishing crystal clear water nearing 70 degrees with bright blue skies. It is only 11am but you are already looking ahead to your next day on the water, sometime in the fall.
Challenging conditions require anglers to slow down and think more like the fish they are pursuing. For trout, this means taking note of all the surroundings and making decisions based on how the trout’s life must be right now.
Low and Clear Water on Bright Days
This has to be one of the most frustrating for all anglers, when the water is gin clear and looks so inviting but the fish are simply not around, or so it seems. When stream flows hit their mid summer lows, what would you do if you were a fish?
Instinctively fish understand when water is low and clear they are more vulnerable to predators and therefore migrate to water where they feel more secure. The most common type of water is going to be deeper pools where birds, anglers and other streams side animals are unable to reach. However, this isn’t always an option and even when it is, crowded streams won’t allow for EVERY fish to be in the same spot.
Middle of the day light is tough, period. As the sun begins to choose a horizon, be thoughtful of the angle it takes and the direction the trout will be facing as it rises or drops. Squinting to see the fly or indicator coming back downstream because of the sun, imagine how the fish feel? Sometimes moving to a portion of the stream where the sun is at the back of the trout will make all the difference.
Fish holding over sandy or light colored bottoms also alerts predators to the trout’s location by their shadows or contrasting coloration. While approaching each new run or pocket, identify variances in bottom coloration. Even slight color changes can be the perfect camouflage for trout in low clear water.
These same bottoms challenge anglers to present flies as line resting on the surface film of the water leaves dimples. The miniscule markings on the surface cause shadows on the bottom and fish in spring creeks will spook well before the fly even arrives. Fly first presentation or drifting a fly downstream on the dead drift might be one of the most challenging skills in the sport and long distances with multiple current speeds compound the problem.
Dylan Rose recommends “…fishing for single fish for hours just to give yourself a target to practice with. It is one thing to just give it a shot or two when casually fishing but when you have a live audience to test these skills, the learning curve steepens greatly.”
Besides deep water, moving water also presents great cover as the surface will fracture light as it enters this water resulting in tough visibility from above, even in perfectly clear water. While this water might be moving quickly over rocks and logs, that same structure provides easy holding positions for trout who can move to grab “food” when it presents itself. In short, fish the faster water. During these mid summer doldrums there is another reason fish will migrate to the faster water, oxygen!
Water loses oxygen as it warms so fish will migrate to holding areas where they find higher concentrations. Cooler water is always a good bet as is the faster water. Often forgotten is water sitting semi idly in large swaths of shade. This can either be long distances along single shorelines or against cliff walls or high banks in the early AM or late PM light.
Warm Water Temperatures
In warm water conditions, the most critical element in a trout life is going to be oxygen. As river levels drop and water warms it loses oxygen, the only natural way for it to regain this is to tumble over rocks and debris, infusing the water with fresh oxygen from the air. This occurs most easily when water moves quickly over structure that doesn’t necessarily protrude the water but creates pockets and holes in shallow (1 foot deep, sometimes less) riffles. Look for mini runs within these riffles where water slows just enough for a split second as that is all it takes. Most anglers head right to the bottom of such runs to fish the deeper pools but often times the fish will be found in the middles these riffles too.
Elevation can also be a player in this game of finding cooler, more oxygenated water. “When possible, we strive to fish upper elevation stretches of the river or stream we’re guiding because the water is closer to its origination and therefore be more likely to have a lower temp. In the same spirit, if not possible, we fish the smaller tributaries which can be great holding places for wise trout moving out of the main-stem of larger streams and rivers.” says McDermott. “This may also introduce you to trout that aren’t fished much at all, ever, as well as potentially some new water.”
Many of the best trout streams in the west are also well known, maybe even better known for their wind. Windy days shuffle the dynamic of any day in a number of ways. Often times blowing away potential hatches to creating giant whitewater on otherwise placid stretches of river. In either case, rather than heading for home, look for cover in tighter vegetation areas as well as the surrounding topography of the land to find some refuge from the wind.
Places where vegetation is tight to the banks can shelter emerging insects enough to allow for the trout to take note while on other sections of the river 50 yards away there would be no hope.
Even when wind deals a blow to what should have been the caddis hatch of the year fish still need their protein so time to go deep. Streamers and baitfish lures are excellent options during high wind as their weight can carry through wind more effectively than lighter flies and spinners.
Dylan Rose of Skate the Fly also mentions “Take some time to improve upon or learn new casting techniques both with fly rods and ultra-light gear before heading out on your next trip. Some simple but not necessarily intuitive casts over opposite shoulders or more level with the water to stay below the wind can make all the difference.” He also adds that “Skip casts are great to become proficient on as they work with both fly and spinning tackle and go hand in hand with side arm casts to tight cover positions where trout feel comfortable.” Contact local fly and tackle shops as they will be more than willing to give some pointers and likely even offer classes for these and other skills.
Heavy pressure on a stream is a tough one to conquer. One of my favorite things to do when possible is watch those who have come before me.
“What are they using, where are they fishing, how is their approach and do they know what they are doing?” are all questions I use to determine how and where I will begin to fish such water says Ted McDermott of Emerald Water Anglers in Seattle, WA. “Sometimes when there are just a ton of anglers around, I just park myself where I want to fish and slow down. Work on figuring out exactly what the fish are looking for and make other anglers move around me, then I have control over the recent activity in my little area. Otherwise, I go hiking and get away because everyone knows most anglers won’t hike far from their point of origin.”
“Often times, many anglers fish what is on the “hot” list right now and doctorate level trout will begin to recognize the same streamer, dry fly or spinner coming past their nose and even though there will inevitably be a primary hatch happening, fish something “off menu” but still coming out of the kitchen so to speak.”, says McDermott. In other words, pay attention to the finer details of what is happening in and on the surrounding water, specifics other anglers will over-look in their hurry to fish what is obvious.
How an angler should approach water is not always intuitive. This is however quite important when considering the other conditions abound during the mid summer months. Shadows, sound in the water, structure and direction of sun light all play significant rolls in whether success is achieved or not.
Most common fixes are longer leaders and lighter tippets but few consider the angle at which they are presenting to the fish and fewer take into account the direction of their approach and direction fish are facing in other relevant water near the target they are focused on. For those who have numbers at the end of the day on their mind, these considerations are but a few that can make the difference between a no fish a few by sundown.
Sound in the water easily flows down stream which is one of many reasons trout anglers typically fish their way upstream. When low and clear water present a challenge, before stepping up into the next run, look for large protruding debris or structure to step behind as the noise caused by rocks moving or water splashing underfoot is often muffled by these obstructions. Not to mention that when sight casting to selective fish, these can also be a bit of a visual distraction to the fish and help to not give away your presence.
Dress appropriately for your surroundings. This sounds rather vain but in reality, trout residing in most tail-water and spring creeks across the west are typically well aware of their surroundings, it is a product of conditioning. Controlled flows allow fish to become familiar with their environment and bright red or green shirts and hats against bright blue skies are just not the norm, if so, refer back to the pressure section of the article!
Know the Water
“There is never a better recipe for being successful than old fashioned knowledge,” says Rose a life-long steelhead fly angler. “Expect the habits of trout to be same as before in similar conditions so do your homework. Get to know the water you are fishing intimately and success will come more regularly, hence the term ‘home-water’”, chuckles Rose.
After fishing through a run, either successfully or not, when possible go back and walk through it and see what is really there. Where did or didn’t you catch fish and why is the question and answers to this will help make well informed decisions next time around.
Conclusions and Final Thoughts
One of the most alluring aspects of fly fishing and fishing in general is while most of the tactics employed are or can be fairly scientifically based, to date, all interviews with fish have been unsuccessfully translated.
Some obvious areas to touch on are also fish when the water has less pressure. When possible fish mid week, not during vacation times and squeeze as much daylight as possible out of the day. This means be on the water at dark to claim your spot or fish when most others are heading back to their domestic duties.
My personal recommendation is to make efforts to get out and fish before or after work occasionally even if for only a couple hours. These little stints, sometimes only planned days in advance can provide as much or more enjoyment than days planned months ahead of time. They also provide more frequent intervals with rod in hand which makes anyone a happier and typically more successful angler.
Lastly, keep in mind every day spent fishing is one day longer you live and that is priceless even when fishing is tough.