Trout in the Tribs: How to Fish a Stream in Early Spring

I was ready to catch my first trout of the season

The stream usually requires but a hop, step, and jump to cross dryly. From my porch, I could see the water winking through the alders and briers and tangles. Trout season had just opened.

I was going in.

Afternoon temperatures were allegedly headed to 60 degrees, and I was ready to catch my first trout of the season–or try, anyway. The problem was my chalky, surging local river, which offered little in the way of angling dreams and far more in the way of mountain snowmelt.

I am a careless autumn leaf raker, or so I have been told, which has an upside on spring mornings such as this one. Within a few minutes I had a couple dozen worms and had headed off to the stream, where a few hours of fishing resulted in a runaway pair of sunglasses, renewed appreciation for the stem density of briers, and five trout, the largest of which was a satin-black native brookie that passed the vaunted 9-inch mark.

Spring angling’s star-crossed union of desire and dingy water is nothing new, of course. More than 50 years ago, H.G. Tapply wrote in Field & Stream, “Tell you first where not to catch trout this opening day–in your favorite trout stream.” Tap suggested a small stream, which he predicted would have lower, clearer, and warmer flows–to say nothing of fewer anglers.

I like to think that the brook behind my house would have met with Tap’s approval. I know he would have admired the brookie.

Small streams like mine are resilient in retaining or regrowing their trout populations. The health of any water is only as good as the health of the habitat around it, of course. But small streams tend to rise and fall more quickly than big rivers, and tend to hold their clarity longer, or at least regain it more quickly, even in the wake of wrath-of-God “weather events.” For instance, my stream receded to within its banks within three days after Hurricane Irene, thanks to its brief flow, wooded environ, and gentle descent. Its only major changes are the new thatches of trees that now cross it (which is fine with me, as they may convince casual anglers not to bother trying). Other, larger trout streams nearby took weeks to look even remotely fishable.

I avoid predictions when it comes to fishing, but I’ll bet my first trout of the 2012 season comes from this creek, too.

The Trickle ­Approach:

Catching trib trout begins with an understanding of their behavior. Given the infertility of most small streams, trout cannot afford to be picky. They try to find a feeding station that brings the most food and provides the most cover. So look in front of (not behind) obstructions, where the current washes against branches, logs, rocks, and edges in deep pools.

Since small-stream trout are necessarily opportunists that feed on things that fall into the water, worms or half crawlers are the easy No. 1 bait. If there are spring-spawning rainbows in the stream, you might drift a salmon egg in the riffles. If you’re fishing for brookies and the dace are “bothering,” try a chub tail. Most small streams are fairly shallow, so use 1⁄8- to 1⁄32-ounce spinners (Mepps, Panther Martins, and Rooster Tails are all good choices). The same goes for wobblers–opt for Little Cleos, Dardevles, and Phoebes, as small as you can find. For flies, a Woolly Worm in black and olive, Beadhead Hare’s Ear, and Royal Coachman (in brookie waters) will generally be all you’ll need. Carry a few marabou streamers in white or yellow for fishing beneath undercut banks. The fish aren’t selective, but the bigger ones want a fly to be drifted or retrieved in a natural way–and marabou offers the maximum movement in tight quarters.

Lighten up terminal tackle to get more natural drifts. Use 4- to 6-pound-test line and the smallest split shot you can buy. If you’re flyfishing, a 3- to 4-foot leader and a floating line are all you need.

In many ways the art of small-stream fishing comes down to using to your advantage the obstacles the trout claims for its own advantage. Although I generally go with a 5-foot spin rod, I’ve found spots where I’ve wished I had another foot of rod to reach over a certain rock. The trick is to get close while remaining unobtrusive, even though things are cramped. You don’t have to wear a plant on your head like Bill Murray in Caddy­shack, but dull colors will help. Wear hip boots so you can kneel in the shallows and on the wet banks; small-stream trout are particularly sensitive to movement from above. It is also easier to fish beneath the canopy that way. In short, do what you can to get close to the trout and present the right drift. This is why small-stream fishing is so engrossing: Fishing each spot requires its own guerrilla campaign, making every trout you catch quite memorable.

From the April 2012 issue of Field & Stream magazine.