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March 31, 2011 / flogginwater

Technique Corner – Spin Fshing for Stream Trout

I’ve been meaning to get this put up here since I started this blog – the only thing I can say is laziness has been the thing that has kept me from getting it done. I wrote the following post originally on iFish.net, and later on the Oregon Fishing Forum – and titled it CQC – Close Quarters Catching as it was/is geared mainly to fishing small streams. The techniques I present here will work equally well on larger waters, with or without some adaptations. Lets get on with it, shall we?

Small streams hold a very special place to me – my first solo fishing trips when I turned 16 were to small streams – places where I could work on my newly developing fly-fishing skills, and learn how to fish artificial lures. They are places to explore, they’re changing environments, and you can go back to them and find things completely different from how they were a week or two ago – water fluctuations, new dead falls, or an industrious beaver’s engineering projects.

Some very productive small streams can be found disguised as those little ‘ditches’ that flow through the culvert under a neighborhood street, or the brush lined trickle that runs through a city park. All of those trickles end up somewhere – feeding larger trickles that turn into streams that turn into rivers.

Native, wild cutthroat trout are usually the name of the game on the waters I consider my home waters. There are the occasional rainbow trout – wild fish that are the successors to previously stocked fish, or fish that have found their way from stocked ponds adjacent to the stream. Some streams see small, but thriving, runs of steelhead, coho and chinook salmon, and some even host sizeable populations of squawfish aka ‘northern pikeminnow’. In some reaches, where the stream floods farm ponds, you can occasionally find a bass or sunfish that has somehow survived the cold water and carved out a living in the stream.

In Oregon, the vast majority of these streams which remain open to fishing are subject to artificial lure and fly regulations, along with strict catch & release rules.

A trophy trout from these waters would be in the 14 or 15 inch range – 10 to 12 inch fish would be very large, and the average adult trout are in the 5-8 inch range. These are fish that are generally not over-pressured from anglers, and may have adapted to urban living, and thus are not quickly disturbed by some noise or movement on the bank (from park strollers or vehicles passing overhead.) The streams that they call home could be anywhere from narrow enough for a man to straddle without wetting his feet, to twenty or even thirty feet across in some places. They can be from an inch deep to ten or twelve feet deep – but average only a couple feet. A deep run will usually be three or four feet deep.

There will be the typical makeup of any other stream with riffles feeding runs that feed pools. There will be undercut banks, gravel flats, boulders, maybe a water fall or rapid. Unlike larger streams though, all of this topography can be found in just a hundred yards or so of stream.

You can find the same stream topography on larger waters, especially in the lower flows of summer, when rivers run low and clear. Islands emerge that, during the winter are covered in feet of water. Channels split, and the river takes on split personalities. A good example of this is the Wilson River – which is a very different river in June, July and August than it is in November, December, and January (the rainy season).

The photo above was taken on such an island, bone dry in the June sun. In a few more months, the place I was standing will be under water as the fall and winter rains come. When you encounter such situations, approaching the river just as you would any other small stream will often produce results – sometimes surprising results. We’ll cover this a bit more later.

The best approach to fishing small streams is to get wet – that is – to wade while fishing. Most small streams could be thoroughly covered from the banks – however wading puts you in the unique position of being able to effectively fish both sides of the stream without changing position, as well as more importantly – being able to cast directly upstream to fish holding structure and cover. Also keeping in mind that most of these streams are brush lined, casting can be encumbered. Standing in the stream will give you more casting room, and allow for better presentation of fly or lure. I personally prefer to wear chest waders, even if I’m not expecting to wade water deeper than my knees. Chest waders keep me dry – and more importantly, warm. Even in the middle of summer, most of these small streams – fed by cold springs or snow melt – never warm much above 50 degrees. I prefer a stocking foot wader with a good all leather wading boot and felt soles – but a wet wader could get by with just a good pair hiking boots to which they’ve glued felt or carpeting to for traction on the slippery silt and algae covered rocks. Small stream rocks are just as slippery, and just as hard as big stream rocks, and falling down hurts just as much on water with no one around to see you.

I also prefer to keep my small-stream tackle light and compact as possible. I don’t like to carry a lot of useless gear – so I’ve pared down my tackle to a small chest pack – which carries a single double-sided Plano tackle box
(spinners on one side, a couple small flatfish and assorted terminal tackle – hooks, swivels, corkies, and tooth picks on the other), a pair of needle nose pliars (for the jobs that foreceps cannot handle), a couple small slip bobbers, a small (1″ by 1/2″) plastic box that holds a couple dozen 1/32oz – 1/80th oz marabou jigs, a small tube of split shot, a few spools of assorted tippet material (6, 4, 3, and 2 lb test) and a couple small packs of 3″ senko worms. The pack also came with a clip-on floating foam fly box, which uses magnets to stay closed. I’ve put about a hundred flies – nymphs, wets, streamers, and dries, with a few egg patterns – together in the box. To the outside of the vest I clip my foreceps (painted black, with the long arms wrapped in black electrical tape – which does double duty – if I cut myself, I can peal the tape off and wrap the cut with it until I get back to the car and access proper first aid gear. I also have a pair of nail clippers which are on a spring loaded lanyard, and a Gerber diving knife that has a semi serrated edge on one side, and a line-cutter on the other side of the blade. The back of the pack has two mesh carriers for water bottles, along with a zipper pack that can carry another small tackle box, or other flat items.

This chest pack keeps everything from shifting unlike my previous setup – which was an Eddie Bauer butt pack. The problem with the butt pack was that when I unzipped it to take out an item, all the others would shift, and I would have to redo everything when I put the item back, just to get it to close properly. And it would bounce while I walked – which is a personal annoyance. It also beats the day pack that I also used to use – the day packs biggest drawback was that I kept every piece of tackle I owned in it. Salmon tackle, steelhead gear (including my leaders with corkies/yarn/snelled hooks wound around pipe insulation tubes), trout gear, bass gear, and sturgeon gear. I could fit three large plano boxes, and about a dozen small ones in it, with leader spools from 2 to 40 lb test, spare reels, fly boxes, lunch, and a change of clothes if I really wanted to. That got heavy at the end of the day – and as I get older (okay, I’m not that old, but I’m not a strong young 18 year old anymore either) I appreciate less weight to pack around.

When fishing small streams I prefer ultra-light tackle, and I usually carry two rods with me (I’ve done trips with just one, but I always find myself gravitating back to carrying two) – usually an ultra light spinning rod, and my four weight fly rod. Occasionally it’s two spinning rods, rigged with different lures. My favorite, go-to rod is my Okuma Celilo 7’6″ ultra light spinning rod. I keep 4lb Trilene spooled on the Shimano Sienna 2500 spinning real. I’ve also recently acquired an 8’6″ Celilo ultra light – which is wearing the same reel. It’s got a quick action, it’s light weight, with an ultra light power rating. The reddish brown blank, at least to me, blends in with the natural surroundings better than a darker blank of other rods. The new Celilo is one of Okuma’s new revamped Celilo’s, and features a nice olive green blank that also blends well with the natural surroundings.

90% of my small-stream lure fishing is done with in-line spinners, and 90% of that fishing is done with Rooster Tail spinners, though I have recently begun fishing more with Panther Martin and Blue Fox spinners in their smallest sizes. The Rooster Tail isn’t going to be displaced in my tackle box though – I’ve caught more fish – trout, bass, and panfish – with Rooster Tails than any other lure.

My small stream trout spinners range from 1/24th oz to 1/6th oz, with the 1/16th and 1/8th oz sizes being the most commonly used. My top three favorite patterns of Rooster Tails are hot pink with a silver blade, rainbow trout with a brass blade, and black with a silver blade. If I had to pick one lure type, in one pattern to do all the fishing for the rest of my life with I would happily take a hot pink rooster tail. It fishes well in muddied waters as it does in low clear summer flows.

I must say before I get much further – I modify all of my spinners. I clip two of the prongs off of the treble hooks and pinch the barb down on the remaining prong. Since I release almost all of the fish I catch, this modification makes releasing them unharmed as easy as possible. I’ve been doing this for the last ten years, and have not noticed a dramatic difference in the number of hookups from when I was using the barbed, unmodified treble. While I may have more fish spit the lure during the fight (almost always when they jump and shake the hook free on a slacked line) – it’s worth it to me, personally, not to cause extra harm to the fish by pinning them with multiple barbs, necessitating longer time out of the water, and more handling. With a single barbless hook, I don’t have to remove a fish from the water except for photos for most fish, and those that do come out are usually out for only a few quick seconds.

When approaching the first section of stream I intend to fish, I first watch from the bank for a minute to see if I can spot any fish cruising, or fish rising, then ID the most likely fish-holding spots. I’ll make my first casts from the bank, before approaching the water. If entering the stream at a pool, I’ll make a cast directly upstream and parallel to the shore on my side of the stream – as fish will hold tight to the banks on these waters. Then I’ll make my next cast to the most obvious fishy locale – either a cut bank on the other side of the stream, a blow down sticking out into the water, or to a boulder. If there’s no obvious structure or cover to key to, look at the water. Look at the color – do you see the darker, deeper water? Is there a riffle or a rapid feeding the pool?

Cast into the frothy water and reel downstream, just faster than the current – or just fast enough to make your spinner blade turn, or your crank bait wiggle just right. Let the lure drift down through the darker, deeper water. Keep in mind that on a small stream like this, a depression no deeper than a foot print can hold a good fish, and the trout’s coloration is thanks to eons of evolution, they can hide right amongst the rocks even in direct sunlight.

If you don’t get a strike the first cast, cast there again. If you see a fish follow the lure without striking, cast again. No luck? Third try, cast again, vary the lure speed. Work the edges of the current, especially with a micro plunge pool. Sometimes the trout are just fussy and won’t move six inches for a meal. I don’t consider a lie really spooked until I’ve either made a dozen casts to it, or I see the fish physically leave the lie in a panicked manner. Once you’ve tried the head of a run like the one pictured above, start working the next likely area, and work your way to the tail of the run. One thing that could mean success or failure is simply altering your position slightly – a step upstream or down changes the angle that the lure is presented to the fish. I’ve had a number of fish finally strike the lure when the angle changes just so.

I normally work upstream – so when I move up the stream, I’ll make a down-stream cast if I’ve not caught a fish or two from the run, before working the next stretch of water upstream. This is also a move that could coax a tight lipped fish into striking. Cast downstream, let the current do the work for turning the spinner, and just retrieve the lure at a slow pace. I like to sweep the rod tip back and forth when I do this – it causes the lure to zig-zag – changing directions like a bait fish.

The potential reward is worth making a cast, isn’t it?

Pocket water and small rapids are always worth fishing on a small stream. As pictured above, I would work a lure across the current, using the rod tip to guide the lure’s path in and out of the little eddies and currents, thoroughly working every inch, then casting down stream slightly and doing the same. The water in this section of the stream is very aerated, and has a steady supply of food – although the fish only get a split second to decide yes or no to grabbing it. For this reason, I will make more than one cast to an area if I don’t get a hit the first time through, but I usually won’t make more than two or three casts before moving on.

Since I usually fish spinners, let me talk for a moment on the best technique I’ve found that works for me (it will work with crank baits and flatfish also):

Standing downstream and about a rod length off to the side of your target. Cast upstream, keeping your rod pointed slightly downstream, and keep the rod low to the water. Reel just fast enough to keep the blade turning on the spinner or the wiggling action going on your crank bait. Let the current belly the line and keep slowly retrieving the lure. When the lure has drifted down just about even with your position, sweep the rod tip upstream, keeping the rod low to the water. This action causes the lure to accelerate momentarily while changing directions. Decrease your retrieve speed when the current ‘grabs’ the lure and you can feel the beat of the spinner blade, or the wiggle of the crank bait. Many strikes will come at this time – when the fish perceives their prey is escaping. For spinners, this will cause the lure to rise to the surface like a nymph or a bait fish.

This technique is killer in the deeper, slower sections of the stream, or when fishing a plunge pool as it keeps the lure low in the water column until the very end of the retrieve.

Upstream presentations also keep you out of a fish’s field of view, and reduces your chance of spooking fish, like this little bruiser below (which was taken from the Wilson River.)

When the water is high or discolored, fish the calmer edges tight to shore first, then hit the current seams. This requires pinpoint casting accuracy – and I highly recommend sidearm casting. In fact, for just able all your small stream fishing – the sidearm cast is going to be the preferred method. The cast I use second most (talking about conventional tackle here) is a flip-cast.

The flip cast is performed with the lure dangling from a rod length’s of line, swing the lure in toward you in a pendulum motion, then flip it out by extending your arm as you drive the rod tip forward toward the target (but keep the rod tip up so the lure swings toward the target instead of falling into the water at your feet). This is a short-range cast – I use it when I need to get a lure into a really nasty root wad, or under a blow down, or into the depths of a beaver lodge.

Like the root ball above (and below.)

When the water is high, but clear, work the edges of the current in plunge pools below rapids, and where two current seams come together. Fish will lie in the slow water and rise up out of their lie to grab a bite to eat, then dash back to their cozy easy lie. Once you’ve worked the edges thoroughly, try the fast water by casting up into the rapid or riffle, and letting the lure get washed down into the froth. Retrieve the lure just fast enough to get the action working, let the current control how quickly the lure moves downstream.

Once you reach the point where you decide to turn around and head back to your put in – fish the water you’ve already covered as you go back down – especially water you think you’ve spooked, or in spots you just couldn’t get the fish to commit at. Try changing things up – if you’ve been tossing a flatfish, toss a spinner. If you were tossing a spinner, toss a small crank bait. If you want to stick with the lure type you’ve been fishing, change up the colors or the size, and play with retrieve speeds. If legal on the particular water body – try drifting a small plastic worm or soft plastic egg cluster (or an egg fly) downstream on a natural dead drift. Depending on water depth and speed, you may or may not want to add weight to get the lure down, but stick with small BB size shot. a 3″ senko in a natural color is a good bait, as are Berkley Power Worms in the smallest sizes, or 2″ twister tail grubs. Nose hook the grubs with a #6 drop shot style hook, or fish them on a jig head. Another excellent lure are Trout Magnet jigs – they’re 1/64th oz, 1″ grub style jigs that are killer on trout and panfish. I’ve become a HUGE fan of these lures. Just be sure you check the regs before fishing soft plastics if fishing in Oregon. On waters that say “artificial fly and lure only” – soft plastics are considered bait, and are a no-no. In this case – try drifting a #8 or #6 Woolly Worm or Woolly Bugger fly in black, olive, or brown with a couple small split shot pinched 6 inches above them. San Juan Worms would also work – or float marabou or fly-tied micro jigs in 1/32, 1/64th, or 1/80th oz sizes under a micro float.

In longer, slower, deep runs another trick, borrowed from steelheaders (and some intrepid fishers from Arkansas) is to fish small marabou jigs under a small sliding float. White, black, and pink are good colors to start with. Alternately, you can fish weighted nymphs or flies the same way, if they’re not heavy enough, crimp a BB shot on the line right above the hook eye. Just let the surface disruption and current provide the jig’s action – short, light jigs in the 1/80th to 1/32nd size are optimum, though you might find that bigger is sometimes better, especially if the stream has any sea-run fish in it. Just don’t go too big.

Keep the jig a few inches off the bottom and adjust upward if you need to. Use the smallest float you can find.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, when nothing seems to be working, try something new – a new way to retrieve the lure, a different color, a different type – add a dropper fly to the lure, tip the hook with a piece of nightcrawler (only if legal!) – or rub some smelly jelly on it.

One more word about dressing for success – I prefer to keep my clothes a neutral color, to blend in to the background. Tans, light to medium green, and neutral grays are my preferred colors for shirts. If I’m not wearing waders, I wear olive colored fast drying cargo pants.

Wear a hat – I like a full brimmed model most times, but a ball cap works in a pinch. Sunglasses are a must if you’re not one who wears prescription glasses – as you WILL stick lures in the brush, and if you pull on the line to get them back, you WILL wind up getting smacked in the face eventually. Don’t want to loose an eye now, right?

Walk slowly when wading, try not to push waves in front of you, dont shuffle your feet, pick your foot up and place it quietly and firmly before picking up the other foot. Think of how a heron stalks through the water and try to emulate them. You’ll spook fewer fish this way, and it forces you to slow down and look at the water – which will in turn make you see things you might miss by moving faster (like that 10 inch long depression in the bank that isn’t quite an undercut, but has a single little root sticking out over it, where that 8″ cutthroat is hiding.)

Have fun, stay hydrated, wade safely, and take some pictures of your adventures. Good luck.

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