Thursday, January 24, 2013

In Search of Winter Trout

    Virginia is irrigated by over 2,900 miles of trout streams, 2,300 miles of which are occupied by native brook trout, and the rest, as hosts of the Department’s diligent stocking programs, are finned by rainbow and brown trout.  The result is a variety of trout fishing opportunities, but, because the majority of these opportunities are restrained to the western portion of the state, trout fishermen of the piedmont often play a game involving hard work, research, and a go-out-and-find-it attitude in competing for the limited resource.  In such a game, every outing gets one a step closer to reward.
    This was my aim on a foggy January morning.  In an attempt to pacify my exploratory fishing itch, I packed up my cold-weather gear and open mind and headed to a local stream that holds trout in the winter, but that I hadn’t devoted time in attempting to understand.
    As much research as I could do provided me with knowledge of the designated stocking area, the surrounding land, and of trending fly patterns.  A fellow from a local fly shop informed me a week before that fish were being caught on typical midge patterns on a stream more than an hour to the north.  “Small, dark flies are the way to go,” he said, “A buddy of mine catches fish this time of year on size 32s.”
    Local knowledge is an invaluable resource.  Likewise, stashed in my daypack I carried two fly boxes—one filled with small, dark-colored dry flies, and the other, stocked with entomologically similar nymphs.
    Rounding out my pack was a camera case for documentation, food for a day, and extra clothing and leaders.  You never know when you might take an unforeseen dunk, and it all too often coincides with trying to free a snagged fly.
Photo by Matt Reilly
    A ten minute walk along the riverbottom reinforced a main point.  As with fishing as a whole, fishing stocked trout waters requires the elimination of unsuitable water.  Flat, shallow, slow, and muddy pools should be passed up.  Noteworthy locations should either be marked for later evaluation or evaluated on the spot by fishing it quickly and effectively.  No serious amount of time should be devoted to fishing a single pool if the water is foreign and the actual location of holding fish is not certain.
    Coming to the first promising run of the river, I tied on a fresh leader, followed by a favorite all-purpose black nymph.  With obedience to my education, I made a few casts upstream—first to the tail of the pool, then to the strength of the run as it winded around a root mass, and finally to the head under an undercut bank.  My casting yielded nothing in the way of fish, so I packed up, scaled the riverbank, and continued on.
    The next pool was a bridge pool, which hold a special promise to many anglers because they are often deeper than their surroundings and accented by rip-rap pilings, discarded tires and the like that serve as fish attractors.  They furthermore provide a constant source of food because of the many insects that call the precarious undersides of bridges home.  Nonetheless, this pool produced no fish.
    A few minutes of walking separated me from the next good-looking spot, during which I tested the water temperature to gain food for thought—42 degrees.  Rainbow, brook, and brown trout all spawn at temperatures in the low forties.  In comparison to a warm-water fish such as the smallmouth bass, which spawn as temperatures approach 60 degrees, trout will remain fairly active when Old Man Winter tightens his grip on others.
Black midges abound around these wintry
waterways.  CKs and Zebra Midges are both
relative fly patterns.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    The tail of the next pool, and the last that daylight allowed me time to fish, gurgled with an anticipatory excitement only the fisherman knows.  Gaunt, dormant dogwoods and redbuds reached out over the water from the rocky hollow, and whitewater polarized the pool with wild bounds into peripheral eddies like the whitetail’s tail does the woods.  I devoted special attention to this piece of water, but again with the same systematic approach.  Nothing.
    The sun was dipping low and a shadow was cast on the hollow as I began to pack my rod back into its tube.  I was leaving without fish, and with a feeling that I had done something wrong; though, when I reached for my rod tube, I discovered a small pod of black midges on the green fabric, hinting that my shortcomings were not conceptual.  Fish were not holding in the water I had fished, but that is to be expected on such an outing.  Success comes in knowing what was done wrong, and making corrections, and in gaining clues from the experience to be employed in future attempts.  Next time, I’ll know where to start.

*First published in The Rural Virginian   

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