The question that should be asked is, do trout live in trickles year-round? The answer, most likely, is no. In my experience, wild brown trout work their way into these diminutive streams during two occasions—when spawning in the fall (when water levels are up) and when seeking thermal refuge in the middle of summer. (Note: Although the air temperature approached 90 degrees Fahrenheit the day of the stream survey, the water temperature rarely exceeded 50 degrees F.) Wild brown trout in these heavily canopied coldwater sanctuaries are often overlooked by most anglers who think it takes big water to produce big fish. Therefore, it makes the most sense to target these trickles during those two times.
During summer, some trickles get so small that trout simply cannot work very far into them due to natural barricades, such as waterfalls and long stretches of shallow water—and by shallow, I mean less than a couple inches deep. Usually, if you find large fish above natural barricades, it’s because they arrived in the fall and were confined when water levels dropped.
But, as long as they’re trapped in a pool with enough overhead cover or structure and potential food sources, they’ll continue to thrive and grow. Also, just because the bigger fish are unable to navigate the stream doesn’t mean that young-of-the-year fry don’t still move around a bit. And when they end up in the same pool as a larger fish, you know the deal— they get slammed.
Knowing they’re there is one thing. Catching them presents a whole other challenge.
First of all, if you have to enter the water at any point, chances are you’re already beat. I never realized how many trout I was potentially spooking until I watched the stream survey. The reason they survey streams multiple times is because a percentage of fish evade their probes. Numerous times I witnessed trout bolting upstream, sometimes 10 yards or more ahead of the crew, that were long gone by the time the bios got there.
The smaller the water, the more sensitive trout are to the vibrations on land, and especially to those on the streambed. It’s helpful if you can spot fish before making your first cast, but that’s usually impossible. In larger rivers, where water depth itself is a form of structure, trout feel safe in the open. Trickle trout don’t have that luxury. Typically, anglers first see them as they bolt from under a rock, log, or some other structure, either
to take your presentation or vacate the premises.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend considerable time just watching the water. Sometimes you can pick up the slightest movement or a change in the shadows next to structure that indicates a fish. It’s not uncommon to have trout move into and out of a pool as you’re fishing, seemingly without rhyme or reason.
That said, I still don’t spend a lot of time at any given pool. Trickle trout are opportunists, and if I’ve covered the water effectively with just a few casts, I move on. Sometimes you have to cover a lot of water to locate big fish that are accessible. In truth, many wild browns living in these diminutive dwellings are simply uncatchable because of the lairs they’ve chosen.
I don’t fret over fly choice when fishing skinny water. However, I do use mostly weighted flies because I want them to get down quickly in those tiny pools and pockets. Mastering the art of the short cast is almost a prerequisite to success on these waters. I have no preference when it comes to working up or down a stream. I prefer to walk well back away from the water and observe the pools from a distance, then approach and fish from the middle. My logic is this: If I start at the tail or head of a pool and spook trout, those fish inevitably spook other fish. If I start in the middle of a pool and spook trout in the tail, then I’ve effectively cut them off and still have a shot at the ones at the head of the pool and vice versa.
No other situation or conditions—or quarry, for that matter—test your skills at such a precise level. When you catch a nice wild brown, even if it’s not a monster compared to those found in much bigger rivers, you know you’ve done everything right. For me, chasing wild browns in trickles is an addiction. And it’s one vice I’ll happily encourage everyone else to try.
Read more about Ralph’s fly-fishing adventures on his blog,