Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Small Stream Summer Ramblings

By guest author Jim Cumming

It’s been said that if you don’t like the weather in Maine, wait five minutes and it will change.  This summer has been no exception, with conditions bouncing back and forth from flood warnings to near drought, from 90 degree heat to jacket weather, and everything in between.  For fishermen, the task has been clear…..adapt or risk dancing with the skunk.
Jim is not only talented at writing fishing articles like this one, he's also a heck of an angler and a good friend.  I hope you enjoy his work.  Please note the links to his other articles posted within this blog at the end of this post.  I'm sure you'll enjoy them as well.
A few weeks back, I avoided my usual left turn toward work (always a good move when you can swing it) and headed right for the Western Maine Mountains in cloudless, bluebird skies.  Conditions were perfect for soaking up some Vitamin D, but the unlimited sunshine would have small water trout at their spookiest.  The hour drive to higher elevations passed quickly for me.  A bite to eat to fortify myself for several hours on the slippery stream bed and I’d be good to go.  The local warden pulled up as I was finishing off my turkey and cheese and greeted me with a question.  “Heading out or finishing up?”.  When I told him that I hadn’t wet a line yet, he didn’t offer much encouragement.  “It’s been tough.  Water’s down and with this much sun you’d be better off waiting till dusk.”  He went on to suggest several other spots.  I thanked him, but since additional driving or staying late were not in the cards, I had no choice but to stay the course and adapt.

Sometimes it takes an escape from the confines of my work cubicle to be creative.  How creative can one be when a move of a foot and half in any direction causes a collision with a file cabinet or a cubicle wall, a trip over a power cord, or other typical Monday through Friday hazard?  Leaving that in my rearview cleared my mental fog and ignited a focus on the task at hand that I hadn’t felt in days.  As I waded up the rocky streambed, I compiled a mental journal (a “play-by-play” if you will) of my thought process for dealing with the tough conditions of low water in bright sunshine, and what ultimately did or didn’t work.  I ended up with a series of mental snippets and observations leading to the following bits of advice which should be helpful wherever similar conditions prevail.

Stay Low
It’s great to know that fish are at least in the stream you’re fishing.  It’s not great when you make this discovery by virtue of wakes of spooked fish darting off.  That was the result of my approach to the first pool upstream.  I thought I’d been stealthy enough, but the trout proved me wrong.  Time to “Get low, Jimbo”, or to get behind a shoreline rock or bush to block my quarry’s view.

Get High
What’s this?  Is he truly altering his frame of mind?  For sure, I’m a child of the sixties and seventies, but being on the water is buzz enough for me.  What I’m referring to is the benefit of getting higher in elevation in a watershed in summer conditions.  An obvious benefit is lower water temperatures, particularly if your quarry is a cool or cold water fish like trout.  Another benefit is the lessened impact of flood damage at higher elevations.  After ruining my first pool by spooking its residents, I waded for an hour or so with no sign of life in the fish department.  I had noticed that the bottom was very light in color, not the dark, productive, food-rich bottom environs I’m used to.  If that was a sign of scour from flooding, what I found around the bend was a dead giveaway.  Mystery of the slow bite solved.  Flood waters gain volume from run-off and tributaries as they rush downstream with gravity.  The lower section of the stream had fallen victim to this.  Time to get high…or at least increase my elevation.
Although the water was low when the author fished it, debris piles reveal a history of flooding that left this stretch of stream unproductive, at least for a season.
Easy Going Doesn’t Mean Easy Fishing
A move uphill was just what the doctor ordered for finding a stream that hadn’t been damaged and scoured by flood waters.  On top of that, the fine gravel and sand was easy wading on my half century (plus) old legs.  On the other hand, it lacked the cover to hold fish.
The author enjoyed wading this featureless bottom, but the action was non-existent.
A move to a bottom with larger boulders and bedrock got the catching into higher gear.  Yeah, the slips and trips multiplied, but so did the bites.
What this stretch lacked in terms of easy wading, it made up for in good action.
This feisty wild rainbow trout struck readily in a stretch of broken water.
Don’t Get Cut Off
Over the years, I’ve been immersed in large metropolitan area traffic from time-to-time.  Now, living in Central Maine, that’s largely behind me.  Still, getting cut off on occasion is enough to re-ignite the road rage in me.  It’s also something to be avoided on a stream.  Under the existing low flow conditions, the pool in the foreground in the picture below has enough depth to hold fish, but is cut off from the main flow toward the top of the picture.  Water cut off from the main flow is productive only under very limited circumstances, and rarely during the summer.  It is not as well oxygenated as water in the main flow, which can be critical during the warm months.  In addition, it suffers from the continual problem of lacking the current conveyor belt that fish favor to bring food to their doorsteps.
The water in the foreground had adequate depth, but lacked the current that stream fish favor in holding areas.
Leave the Swimming Holes to the Kids
A little more wading brought me a deep, slack water hole.  Great to cool off in.  It was a weekday morning so I had the place to myself.  The quiet, however, wasn’t enough to help the fishing.  I rarely do well in stretches like this, in spite of legends of occasional big fish falling to mainly bait fishermen.
This deep, slack water hole is great for a dip, but poor for summer trout action.
The Shadow Knows
The catching can get nearly impossible at mid-day in the open stretches of a small stream.  You can often break the funk by fishing in the shade of a high bank or tall trees.
This high rock ledge cast just enough of a shadow to be a potential fish holding area at high noon.
This deeply shaded hole held a nice fish, but the author ended up with a swing and a miss.
I had the right fly, made the perfect cast, had a nice drift, and had a nice trout nail my dry fly in the picture immediately above.  An imperfect hook-set left me with an empty net.

Hang Around Something Cool
As the afternoon wore on, the bite slowed again.  A check of the water temperature showed it had gone up a few ticks since morning….from 65 to around 68 degrees.  This was enough to put the cold water-loving trout off their feed.  As a note of caution, I avoid fishing for trout in water with temperatures much above the mid-60’s.  Catch and release may not be successful after the fight in warmer water.  The solution on this day was to find cooler water, which was provided by tributaries draining higher, shaded terrain or fed by springs delivering groundwater.
A tributary from higher terrain joins the main stream (at the top of the photo) providing cool water and concentrating trout.
It may not look like much, but this spring seep (at the left of the photo) delivered enough cold groundwater to create a fish-holding spot where it joined the main stream.
Both of the spots pictured above produced multiple fish, including the “hat trick”….not a three goal game in hockey, but instead a mix of brook, brown, and rainbow trout.
Wild rainbows dominated the catch in this stretch.
But native brookies were by no means a rarity.
And with persistence and a little luck, the day’s catch was rounded out with a big, colorful brown trout.
Beware of Imposters
Not all tributaries are created equal.  Some drain boggy, dark bottom areas and many actually deliver water that is warmer than the main stream itself!  The excessive green algae in this tributary are a strong indicator of a high nutrient content and warm water temperatures.  However, the surest way to determine this is with your stream thermometer.  I can’t stress enough the importance of having one and using it, especially for summer fishing.  At 71 degrees, this tributary was three degrees warmer than the bulk of the stream and certainly didn’t hold any trout.
While most tributaries deliver cooler water and good summer action, this warm drainage brought in warm water and had the opposite effect.
Summer Breeze Makes Me Feel Fine
For those of you who weren’t around, this is a soft rock title from Seals and Crofts (1972).  It was a day for flashbacks, what can I say?  It did have relevance to my fishing situation however.  Hot sun in the mountains is called “destructive” in meteorological jargon, meaning that it is self-limiting, and leads to instability and often showers.  Kind of casts a cloud on a beautiful day, doesn’t it?  Speaking of clouds, the heat of the day on my outing did indeed cause thermal updrafts, mountain breezes, and just enough cumulus clouds to dim the sun and ignite a few bites.
A few afternoon clouds blocked the bright sun just enough for the action to pick up.
Pick Some Pockets
No, it’s not my latest get rich quick scheme to follow-up on the Economic Stimulus.  Instead, it’s another way to bring a few more fish to net in tough summer conditions.  As my upstream trek neared its end, the combination of cool tributaries, higher elevation, and lower sun angle had water temperatures back down into the mid-sixties.  Still, it was quite bright and the bite wasn’t what I’d hoped for.  However, the stretches of water with broken water and deep pockets provided the cover and feeding lanes to hold a decent number of fish.  Strikes from opportunistic trout were swift and enjoyable.
This pocket water yielded three or four quick fish to cap off a good day.
I ended my day with a pleasant walk down the dirt road back to my car.  I thought of how the day started with a warden questioning whether my time would be well-spent on this stream, and I chuckled about how a few tricks I had up my sleeve had beaten the odds.  Those are the most satisfying days on the water for me.  I hope others find my approach helpful.  You can do a lot worse than warm sun, a good bit of exercise, and a hat trick with no ice in sight.

Blogger's Note:  Thank you Jim for this wonderful contribution.  I'm sure that everyone that fishes will love this post and your beautiful pictures.  For those of you that are interested in more of Jim's work, here are some quick links:

Small Stream Magic...Going with the Flow

Small Streams...Arctic Style


Rodger Moran said...

Great article and great pix too - thanks Jim!!

Fat Boy said...

Thanks for the feedback Rodg...I'm sure Jim will appreciate it too!