Friday, December 9, 2011

Small Stream Magic...Going With the Flow

By guest author Jim Cumming

The twenty inch brown trout added an exclamation point to what was already rising to the rank of a career day.  It strained my four pound test in the strong flow, but everything held and my net hand was true.  After a brief moment of admiration and a snap of the shutter, he zipped off to join ten other browns that had slammed my Yozuri Pin Minnow in the course of the last couple hours.  I took in the scene for a moment, enjoyed the satisfyingly strong pull of the current against my chest waders, and chuckled at my fortune for having escaped the “you should have been here yesterday” mantra that eats so many well-intentioned trips for breakfast.  My revelry was broken by a dimly visible figure working his way down the bank toward me in the failing daylight.  It was a county sheriff’s deputy.  I had to strain a bit to hear him over the current.  “Hey, buddy, I received a call about someone in trouble in the water.  You OK?”  As humorous as the situation may have been to me, I realized that this area had been under a flood warning just two days earlier as the first strong cold front of the fall plowed into what was left of summer’s stickiness.  To be sure, I no longer waded as surely as a blue heron and my sporadic stumbles probably attracted some attention.  Still, there was only one answer for the deputy’s question, “I’m fine.  REAL fine.”  No field sobriety test was administered, and he left me with, “All right.  Just be careful.  I don’t want to get called back here later tonight to fish you out.”  Well past sunset now, there was just a sliver of light left on the western horizon.  Still time for a final cast or two.  Enough for another chunky brown before hitting dry land.

The sheriff’s deputy had worried about me being in trouble, and perhaps I was, but for a different reason.  I was nearly two hours late when I pulled into the driveway, but my wife was unfazed.  “Was the fishing good?”  I’m sure she knew the answer before the question left her lips.  I’m almost always on time, almost to the minute, unless to quote myself, “Something dramatic happens.”  On this evening, the fishing clearly had risen to that level.  By why?  What were the triggers?  Ah, let the small stream journey begin.  It’s a journey that I started nearly forty years ago and is still my calling to this day.  Like any trip, it is best broken down into smaller, easily navigated segments.  By their very nature, small streams can change more quickly than lakes and other more stable parts of the water world.  Seemingly, they can morph from nearly dry streambeds to raging torrents overnight.  It only makes sense to start the small stream adventure by “going with the flow.”

Hair styles have changed since he caught these brown trout in 1976 and a smallie
in 1985, but the author's passion for small stream angling has only grown.
Going With the Flow
The very things that can make fishing small streams challenging and difficult can also make them easy to master if you keep a few basics in mind.  Fish relate to current in predictable ways regardless of a stream’s geographical location.  Fish rely on current to bring them food; however they will rarely stay in open current areas for long periods of time in order to avoid expending too much energy fighting the current.  This makes current breaks behind boulders, below riffles, or behind woody cover key spots to target.  The fine September evening described previously provides an example of two other locations that are often keys on a small stream……the outside of bends in the streambed and a confluence with a smaller tributary.  I encountered the brown trout that night at a spot where the water deepened below a set of riffles, while at the same time bending to the left.  This meant that the right descending bank (the outside part of the bend) was scoured out and deeper.  It was all the better that a smaller tributary flowed into the stream at this point, creating a small fish-holding eddy.  This was a classic, “textbook” stretch of stream, with three or four great things going on within 100 yards or less of each other.  You don’t find that everyday!  But finding and recognizing even one of these fish-holding features on your favorite stretch of stream will maximize your chances of finding a concentration of fish.

This stretch of a Maine coastal stream has many key fish-holding elements...a deep pool, a current break, an undercut bank, and even a nearby confluence with tidal water.
The spot yielded this fine early spring sea run brook trout for the author.
Riffles and pools are important structural elements of small streams.  As their gradients increase, streams quicken as they pass through shallower, faster riffle areas.  Further downstream, the gradient lessens, the current subsides, and depth increases into a pool.  At the downstream end of the pool, the depth decreases, the current picks up, and the next set of riffles marks the beginning of a repetitive stream bed pattern.  The eternal question with this and every other situation on the water is, “Where are the fish?”  The answer will vary with the stream flow, time of day, time of year, and other factors, with stream flow usually being the most critical. 

Fish tend to hold in predictable locations based on the stream flow.  As a rule of thumb, I’ve found that fish tend to hold in the large numbers at the head (upstream end) of a pool under lower flow conditions.  The same can be said of the tail (lower end) of the pool where currents increase approaching the next set of riffles downstream.  On the other hand, when flows are up from rainfall or snowmelt, the current at the head and tail a of pool tends to be swift.  Fish are no different that the rest of us…..they love food on their dinner plates, but want to avoid expending too much energy in getting those tasty morsels to their mouths.  Fish in pool and riffle sequences handle high water conditions by holding in the deeper, more placid sections of pools. 

The drop off into a pool below a set of riffles is a classic spot for pre-spawn fall brown trout.
This large brown responded to a well-placed crankbait.
At bends in the stream bed, fish also react to flow changes.  In low or normal flows, fish will tend to stack up in the deeper outside part of the bends.  On the other hand, the same current that scours out these outside bends to create what is normally good holding water, will become too swift for comfort after rain or snowmelt.  When flows go up, fish will often slide up into the shallower flats on the inside parts of bends.  This provides an important example of why you should cast the shallows first before wading in and potentially spooking fish. 

The small stream game is a multi-species affair.  Even crappie and white perch congregate in pools below riffles.
Smaller tributaries can be an ally in several ways when flows on the main part of a stream go up.  The confluence of a tributary and the main stream creates a relatively placid, fish holding eddy.  I remember a particular outing in May 2009 on the Androscoggin River in Maine.  May is still “early spring” at that latitude, and snowmelt is still very much a factor.  My buddy Dick and I had ventured out in his canoe on a pleasant Saturday.  Quite honestly, as good as his company was, I was thinking that yard work would have been a pleasant alternative (that speaks a mouthful for me) after having fought with the canoe in the current for the whole morning with only a fish or two to show for it.  We decided to tuck back into a protected cove to get out of the current for lunch.  The cove was located where a small tributary flowed into the main river, creating an eddy area.  Two bites into his sandwich and Dick’s glance fixed on the eddy, “Was that a fish?”  I turned in time to see the spreading rings of a surface swirl.  Lunch would have to wait, but it tasted a lot better after we’d brought a dozen or more quality smallies to hand. 

The author with a large smallie that was holding in an eddy where a small tributary entered a swollen main river.
Smaller tributaries themselves can give you a nice “Plan B” if you find a larger river unfishable.  They have smaller watersheds and won’t blow out as badly after a rainfall event.  In addition, if the water gets high enough on the main stream or river, fish will move up into the lower reaches of the tributary.  An outing with Fat Boy back in November 1985 comes to mind.  We had planned an outing during the week for late fall smallies on the Upper Potomac.  Vacation time approved, gear packed, and anticipation building.  What could go wrong?  Moisture-laden Hurricane Juan, that’s what and that monsoon muddied our plans as surely as it did the Potomac.  Never being inclined to throw in the towel in our fishing pursuits, Fat Boy and I were determined to make lemonade out of the weather lemonade we’d been dealt.  Plan A would become Plan B, C, or Z if needed.  The selected back-up plan of attack was to hit the lower reaches of a few tributaries to beat the main river blowout.  The first tributary we tried was what I call “high, fishable” and only slightly muddied.  Twenty five plus years have a way of muddying your memory more than that tributary, so I can’t recall with certainty which one of us scored first.  I do know that, “Fish on!”, “I’ve got another one”, “Good smallie”, and other simple phrases dominated our conversation throughout the day.  No need for deep, philosophical discussions on the meaning of life when the bite is on.

There are other factors that can trump all considerations for fish location in riffle and pool sequences on streams.  Forage fish like chubs will spawn literally right up in the shallowest part of riffles, with predators following them into the bony water.  One particular day in late April 1998 in Maine comes to mind.  Large brown trout pursued chubs up into spawning gravel, with their spotted backs breaching the surface as they chased their prey and made visible wakes as they homed in on a properly placed crankbait.  I shared that day with my buddy George.  George stays beyond busy as a restaurant owner, and we rarely get a chance to chat, let alone fish together.  Though whenever we cross paths, the conversation rarely seems to go more than ten words before we launch into our “remember the day” discussion about that blitz gone by.

I’ve also seen smallies drawn into shallow riffle areas to sip on diminutive mayflies that thrive and hatch in abundance in the turbulent, well-oxygenated water.  Anyone who doubts that smallmouth bass can be selective feeders has never fished for them in these situations.  “Matching the hatch” with Size 18 dry flies and getting the right drift in this scenario can be about as technically demanding as fishing gets.  But when your hook set into that little dimple of a rise leads to a heavy fish blasting off like a torpedo, all of the temporary frustration is forgotten. 

As critical as water levels are to stream fishing, it pays to check out stream flows when planning a trip.  I like to use the real-time stream flow data available from the U.S. Geological Survey at  This web site provides a map that allows you to click on your state and access real-time stream flow conditions.  Dam operators and power companies often have hotlines or web sites where you can also access flow information.  While most of the flow data you obtain will be for main rivers, over time you will be able establish how the flows on the bigger rivers correlate with the flows on the small streams covered in this article.

As with any type of fishing, it pays to constantly seek ways to improve your game.  On small streams, in addition to mastering riffles, pools, bends, and other features, it pays big time to look for “spots within spots.”  For example, if a nice pool also has some wood structure, the potential for action will often skyrocket.  Wood provides shelter for both predators and prey, plus it is the focus for insect hatches and a “drop in” site for grasshoppers and other terrestrial insects.  In other words, wood is a fish magnet.

The author prepares to net a native brook trout that hit a fly drifted by a downed tree.
This current seam with the benefit of sunken wood looked fishy in full daylight.
The author returned at dark to entice this stocky brown trout with a dry fly.
It can also pay dividends to locate spring seeps, particularly during low water conditions in summer.  In addition to noticeably cooler water in the vicinity of spring seeps, their location will often be marked by lush shoreline vegetation.  In summer, fish will seek out the cooler water that springs provide.  At times of low flows, I’ve seen streams literally bone dry above significant springs, while at the same time having substantial flow below.  It can also pay to make a mental note of these spring holes for winter fishing.  The springs deliver ground water that remains at a relatively stable temperature when compared to surface water in the icy grip of winter.

A dry spell left the upper reaches of this stream as dry as a bone in early August.
A mile hike through the woods led to a series of spring seeps which increased flow and created a veritable oasis.
A gorgeous August brook trout caught downstream from a set of springs.
I’ve presented a few thoughts about the relationship between fish location, flows, currents, and other factors.  I hope you find the information helpful on whatever you call your home waters.  If Fat Boy will have me back to his blog in the future, I plan to explore water temperatures, seasonal considerations, safety, resource protection, record-keeping, and other items that will enhance your success and enjoyment on small streams.

Jim Cumming has written fishing articles for the Great Lakes Angler magazine amongst other periodicals.  I've known Jim for many years, and have yet to meet anyone with the passion for small stream fishing that he has, whether it be fishing for trout or warm water species.  I hope that you all enjoyed Jim's piece as much as I did, and look forward to his next article as much as I do. 

Jim, thank you for your contribution to my blog.


Anonymous said...

Throughly enjoyed Jim's post. I'm looking forward to using his advice in the future!

Fat Boy said...

Definetly great advice to heed in the future, Rodger! Thanks for the feedback, I'll make sure to let Jim know that you enjoyed his post.