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In the sporting world, much is made of the biggest fish, the highest scoring bucks and the heaviest moose or bears. Small fish are tossed aside without a look and many game animals are passed up because they are too small and won’t impress the folks back home.
For some odd reason, I actually find it appealing to think small in May. While everyone else is out on the lakes and rivers vying for the heaviest trout or salmon, I like to creep back into the woods and see how many 7-inch native brook trout I can fool with a fly or worm.
I have been fishing the small brooks of Maine and elsewhere for more than 50 years and still get a kick out of them. For most anglers the sport constitutes a mess – too much brush, too many logjams, barely enough water and fish so small a whole night crawler can last all day. The challenge, of course, is in managing to present a bait or fly to fish that are frightened by the wind, in holes you can cover with your hat in water that’s often mere inches deep. The vibrations of your footsteps can send trout streaking upstream or down for an hour, and until they settle down you won’t get another bite.
This stuff is nerve-wracking work at best, but therein lays the challenge. When things go right you can catch a pan full of plump, native trout in minutes, although you can’t expect that to happen very often. I have had red-letter days only a few times in my half-century of plying the little waters, but I remember them well. Most times the fish win, but that only means a return trip is necessary because, fishermen being what they are, no trout is going to make a fool of us!
Leave your standard trout or bass rod at home if you want to dive into alders in search of pure-strain stream brookies. Long ago I created the perfect small-stream rod from an Orvis kit that included a 4.5-foot rod blank, special fine guides and a reel seat made of thin aluminum rings. I added the smallest reel available at the time (a Mitchell 308, still one of the great reels of all time) with about 50 feet of 2-pound-test line with a fine wire hook. That’s it. The game was to sneak in quietly (on hands and knees at times), work the rod tip slowly through the alders over a bit of open water and drop a garden worm, grasshopper or cricket into the pool as gently as possible. In most cases a fat brookie would strike instantly, and if the bait were small enough (and the fish was big enough) I’d have the first course of a noontime feast in my creel seconds later.
This is not “fishing” in the active sense, because there isn’t much movement involved and the average “cast” is about 3 feet in length. You’re really just “putting” your bait out there, not really casting it. Dropping a lightweight bait through a maze of logs (with a spider web or two for added challenge) can be a tedious experience at best, but when you do it right and your line tightens the feeling is as glorious as if you’d hooked a 20-pound togue or a 40-pound striper. I know because I’ve done that, too, and yet I still yearn for a warm spring day with my little flea-flicker rod and a can of red wigglers.
What’s best about this vest-pocket type of fishing is that our area of Maine is replete with tiny streams that contain Lilliputian trout that rarely see a hook and line. These tiny fish are aggressive and determined in the cutest fashion – that such a small fish can develop an “I rule the stream” attitude like that is admirable but, of course, foolhardy because their succulent flavor when coupled with a strip of bacon and a serving of fiddleheads is legendary.
To be honest, catching these just-legal trout is easy, but that’s what makes it so much fun. I used to spend a morning catching just enough trout for a feed at lunchtime, and then spend an hour building a nice, hot fire and cooking my meal in a small cast-iron skillet. Coupled with hot coffee-can tea and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, those trout were worth their weight in gold.
Nowadays, I use a tiny gas stove and add potatoes, seasoned rice or some other side dish along with tea or coffee brewed in a Sierra Club cup, but the ambience is much the same. I enjoy spending a few minutes in the cool shade of the cedars while I fry up a quartet of brightly colored trout. For some reason the tea seems to taste better and the trout are sweeter than anything available in the finest of restaurants, and the best thing is that, in that time and place, the stream, the trout and the day are all mine.
One of the major complaints fishermen have these days is that most lakes and rivers are overcrowded with anglers, boats and other recreational users, but you won’t find a boat or jet-ski on any small stream, and if the stream is small enough to jump across (as many are) you won’t even find another fisherman there, either.
If you want to find plenty of great small stream fishing and have it all to yourself, just take a walk up any power line or logging trail and start probing the small streams that border or cross them. Walk up or down stream far enough and you’ll find some pools and undercut banks that are sure to hold a trout or two.
Be cautious, use light tackle and be patient with your presentation. You won’t catch any big fish, but you’ll have a big time trying, I guarantee you that!
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