What’s the best tactical approach on a high-gradient mountain stream? Let the brookies be your guide.
[by Steve Culton]
Innumerable streams from Maine to Georgia are home to wild brook trout. In fact, Salvelinus fontinalis is the only trout that is native to much of the eastern United States (though technically, the brook trout is a char). They love cold, clean water, and their presence is a benchmark for measuring healthy habitat. Despite the drastic overall reduction in the species’ historic range, with sufficient food, canopy, and the proper pH, local populations still thrive.
The high-gradient mountain streams that Eastern brook trout prefer are unique, and because of their varied structure and size, they offer fly fishermen a rich diversity of water types and angling challenges. In some spots, the brook might be narrow enough to leap across. In others, there can be plunge pools that are too deep to wade. And some streams are less a stream than a series of connected waterfalls.
Common to all these habitats, however, are the highly opportunistic brook trout. Put yourself in their place. You live your entire life in this microcosm. If it’s deep and isolated, you might never leave the pool you were born in. You have a diet of midges, caddis, stoneflies, and mayflies. When ants and beetles go for a swim, you eagerly pick them off. If you’re really lucky, salamanders and slimy sculpins share the water with you. But the current is zipping along, and you usually have just one shot to eat what’s coming at you. That’s why wild brookies are the kamikaze of salmonids: They’ll leap at your fly with reckless abandon, and most of the time are not very picky about what you throw at them or how it is presented.
Keep It Simple Flies (part 1)
A basic kit of drys and subsurface patterns is all you need for mountain brookies. Here are four patterns—a dry, a wet, a nymph, and a streamer—that are consistent producers for me.
Ginger Elk-Hair Caddis
Bushy. Buggy. Simple. Sometimes that’s all you need to catch wild brookies.
HOOK: 1X fine, sizes 14 through 20.
THREAD: Tan 8/0.
BODY: Golden Brown Hare-Tron, palmered with brown dry fly hackle.
RIB: Fine gold wire.
WING: Small clump of ginger elk hair.
Gray Hackle Peacock
I give this classic wet a tungsten bead head and some wire under the body to get it down quickly in the deep, fast water. Fish it in the dangle,the swing, or stripped.
HOOK: TMC 5263, size 14.
THREAD: Black 6/0.
BEAD: Copper, tungsten.
TAIL: Crimson hackle fibers.
BODY: Peacock herl over lead-free wire.
HACKLE: Grizzly hen.
So, what do you do when your favorite fly and presentation are not working? For years, I’ve experimented with different approaches and presentations on small, high-gradient Eastern streams. What I’ve learned has transformed the way I fish them. If one method isn’t working, it doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t brookies—or they’re not in the mood to eat. It just means you might need to switch things up a little.
Upstream Dry Fly
The theory behind an upstream dry fly presentation is simple: Fish from where the trout can’t see you. On a typical mountain stream, the head of a pool is a popular congregation point for brookies. They enjoy the cover of the white-water spillage from the pool above, and they get first dibs on anything that washes down. I’m amazed at the visual acuity of brook trout; their ability to pick a dry fly out of the maelstrom is astonishing. If I lose sight of my fly in the white water, I assume that it sank. Many times, though, a fish has pulled it under. The brookies you’ll catch this way are the ones I call the eager beavers. They often rise to the first presentation. Sometimes they’re not looking up, and it takes a few drifts to get their attention.
By positioning yourself at the tailout of a pool, you maintain a high level of stealth. On a terraced stream layout, you can stand in the run below the pool you’re casting to. If there are large boulders in the tailout, you can use those to obscure your presence. Always be careful where you wade. If it’s spawning season (fall for brook trout), make sure you’re not walking through a redd. Redds are fairly easy to spot; they look like a clean-swept area on the stream bottom.
Many high-gradient brooks lie deep within gorges, pools locked between stark rock walls, with waterfalls at their head. The only place to stand is in the tailout, so you have no choice but to fish upstream. While you can expect to catch a lot of brookies fishing dry flies upstream, there are drawbacks.
On some longer, more languid pools, your fly line might spook the fish the moment it hits the water. Even if you approach carefully, you can still startle brookies that are sitting in tailouts. You’d be surprised how often that happens. On one stream I fish, there’s a pool with a long, shallow tailout that always holds brookies, even on sunny days. You simply can’t get near them from behind. That’s a perfect situation to switch dry fly tactics.
Downstream Dry Fly
The biggest advantage to the downstream dry is that the trout sees the fl y before he sees anything else. In the situation just described, that’s critical. You can cover the entire length of a pool this way, fl y fi rst, and get a natural drift in the bargain. When I’m fishing a downstream dry, I sometimes use what I call the drift cast. Say a pool is 30 feet long. I’ll strip off about 25 feet of line (remember, you’ve got a leader and tippet to account for) and drop the fly in the current at my feet. As the fl y begins to move downstream, I’ll begin feeding line into the drift. By constantly keeping one hand on the line, I’m ready to set the hook the moment a strike happens.