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Winter does not seem to be leaving at any kind of a fast pace – snow is still a threat in every forecast and not just a dusting! It’s more likely that we’ll see rain and those cold, damp 40-ish temperatures that make you feel as if you’re living in a dungeon, but, as they say, those April showers bring May flowers, and I think it’s safe to say we’re all ready for that!
At this point it’s worth gearing up for a day on the water and at least testing your favorite trout stream or river to see if the fish are interested in a trip to the frying pan. Whatever is going on in the atmosphere, no matter how much snow there may be left on the ground, trout and salmon will begin to stir because, day by day, the water temperature will rise and with it comes the need to feed.
In fact, if we get the rain that’s predicted over the next several days, local streams will be running high and muddy. Along with the mud will be an endless stream of natural foods (worms, caddis nymphs and the like) being washed along in the current, and winter-lethargic fish will begin to take notice. The heaviest feeders may congregate in certain protected pools and runs, but that’s always been part of the angling equation – find where they are and give them what they want!
There have been some amazing (perhaps “astounding” is the better word) strides made in the realm of fishing tackle, with most manufacturers offering a complete line of “ultra” products including rods, reels, lines, lures and terminal tackle. It is easy to spend close to $500 for a quality outfit, and fly-fishermen will attest that a top-to-bottom retrofit will cost more than twice that amount.
Fortunately, today’s trout are no more sophisticated than the salmonids of yesteryear. All an angler has ever needed to catch a feed of trout was a short, medium-action rod, 4-pound-test line, a swivel, a small Colorado-style brass spinner and a No. 6 or No. 8 snelled hook. Add a lively garden worm to the hook cast to the head of a pool and let the bait drift downstream as far as it will go and, when a fish bites, reel him in!
A simple variation of this (designed to get more action out of the spinner blade) is to cast across or downstream and reel very slowly, allowing the worm-and-spinner rig to work it’s way upstream between rocks, logs and other obstacles at the slowest possible pace. Pause occasionally to allow following trout to see and attack the baited hook, and keep your rod tip down to ensure that the rig stays deep throughout the retrieve.
I’d say many millions of trout and salmon have been taken with this simple rig over the decades since rich sports from New York, New Jersey and beyond spent their summers in Maine. In fact, the effectiveness of “primitive” tackle is the primary reason we have such stringent rules governing today’s trout fishing. Anglers used to remove coolers full of 3- to 5-pound brook trout from our major streams and lakes on a regular basis, and I remember seeing this done as recently as the early 1980s, when trollers on the Moose River and Moosehead would return to the dock with so many big trout in the cooler they couldn’t get the lid to shut! “Modern” technology wasn’t a threat then – we used traditional lures and streamers, maybe some lead core line, and often nothing more than a standard fly line and leader, yet we fooled fish after fish all season long, many of them in what we’d now call the “legendary” class of 5-pounders and up.
It’s a tad early for trolling on the big lakes, of course, so we’re relegated to fishing small streams and sections of river that are open and low enough to justify the effort. If you can find an early-clearing beaver pond well back in the woods, don’t be afraid to fish it in the warmth of midday. The sun warms the water and brings trout to the surface to feed on growing populations of insect larvae and various small critters that are stimulated to move about in the water column by the increasing temperatures. Drop ‘em a line, they’re almost sure to answer!
If nothing else, arm yourself with a short, willowy spinning or fly-casting rod, a few extra hooks and a can of bait and head for the nearest small stream. By small, I mean small enough to jump over, small enough to be barely visible from the road – small enough to keep other anglers from bothering with it. Most of our major streams and rivers have dozens of smaller tributary streams entering or leaving them that contain plenty of trout at this time of year.
The challenge is getting a baited hook to the water due to the tangle of saplings, alders and brush that often hang over them, but where there’s a will there’s a way. Some 40 years ago I built a specialized Orvis fiberglass spinning rod that was only 5 feet long and limber as a wet noodle. It was useless for serious casting or trolling, but in tight quarters it ruled the roost. All I had to do was creep close enough to cast or drop a baited hook into the water, often threading my offering down through two or three layers of crisscrossed limbs and saplings, and any trout within 20 feet was mine.
This is finesse fishing at its best and not every angler can do it. There’s a knack to moving along these small streams without disturbing the fish (which can feel the vibrations of heavy footsteps far downstream), and an even greater trick to presenting a bait smoothly and naturally with barely enough space to poke the rod through the twigs and limbs.
Done right, small stream fishing is a pleasure, but start stumbling around in a hurry to get things done and you won’t catch many fish!
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