By Dave Hughes
Have you ever fished a small to medium-size stream and wondered if you’re catching the biggest trout it has to offer? There’s a way to find out in a hurry. Luca Troiani, a guide out of Sweetgrass Rods, in Twin Bridges, Montana, showed it to me. It’s simply this: Cast a streamer that might seem outsize for a small stream into the most-likely holding lies, and see what rushes to attack it.
Those lies needn’t always be deep and dark, as we’ve come to think of streamer water. Depth is relative. On a big river it’s five to 10 feet down there. On smaller water, however, the depths might be just two to four feet, so long as they’re dug a bit deeper than the water that surrounds them.
Reading the water, finding those promising lies, becomes the key to catching trout on streamers. These lies that hold nice fish on small waters don’t always announce themselves like flashing neon lights. Instead, they’re marked by the way they meet the salient needs of trout, first for food, second for shelter from stern currents, third for protection from predation.
The main current typically delivers food. That same current erodes the deepest depths: not always deep, but always deeper than the water that surrounds it. Those relative depths also provide protection from overhead predation. So when you read a small to mid-size stream for its best streamer water, you look at the way the current digs its depths, remembering that it does most of its excavation in winter, not when you’re standing there with a fly rod in your hand during much lower flows.
Clues to lies can be obvious. Look for the spot where a current tongue peters out toward the deepest central part of a pool. That’s where food gets delivered, and it’s where osprey and otter have the toughest time getting at a trout in the pool. It’s the sweet spot. Another obvious lie is the outside sweep of a bend pool. In winter heavy currents carve depths against the far bank. When the water subsides to late-summer and fall levels, that’s where the current is most likely to deliver meals, and it’s where a trout feels safest.
Another likely lie, rarely deep but always sheltered, is the corner where a riffle breaks over a shelf. That corner might be a prime lie even if it’s not much more than a foot deep. An abundance of food is delivered there, trotting down from the rich riffle. Trout tucked at the edge of the faster current don’t have to fight it. They can laze there and dash out to intercept whatever enters their gunsights. Because the surface of the corner is wrinkled by the riffle, trout are concealed from predators.
When my wife, Masako, and I fished a medium-size Montana stream with Troiani, the biggest trout I caught came from just such a riffle corner. The water was a bit swollen by a recent fall rain. The pool downstream from the riffle was small enough that I read the corner’s two-foot depths as the most likely lie. I hiked straight up there, kneeled next to it, and made my first cast right to it. The streamer smacked into the shallow current two feet upstream and one foot outboard from the soft corner. It didn’t swim three feet before getting whacked by an 18-inch brown. It was pleasant to hold that trout in my hands, though Troiani explained carefully that it was not nearly the biggest trout in the stream. A client a week earlier had held that one. It was 28 inches long.
Size, like depth, is relative. I wasn’t about to complain about my little brown trout.
Foam is the nearest thing to a flashing light on a small stream. It’s formed in fast water, gets delivered downstream, gathers in eddies and over soft spots in the current. If the shape of the water gives any indication of depth under that foam, it’s the best signal you’ll ever get that a trout is likely to hide there. It’s especially true in streams that hold brown trout, but never underestimate a rainbow or cutthroat’s wisdom to notice that food, like foam, gets gathered there, and that predators can’t see what’s tucked under it. I like to work the edges of a big patch of foam with a streamer before casting directly into it. But if a foam patch is tiny it’s often wise to park the first cast right onto it, drive the streamer through it, force whatever lies under to make an instant decision.
Rigging streamers for small water is aimed at one goal: hitting small targets. You won’t do well if your rod is too stiff, your line too light, or your leader too long. That might be why Troiani armed the three of us with demo bamboo rods from the Sweetgrass shop. We were trepidatious, but he told us not to worry, the rods would stand up to it. He was right. We not only failed to break one, we were delighted to cast accurately with them, hit those small spots that were most likely to hold nice trout.
The rods were 8 to 8-1/2 feet long, and loaded with 4- to 6-weight lines. Their actions were modest to almost brisk, so they worked their wonders in slightly different ways on the stream. Troiani rigged the rods with floating lines, leaders about the length of each rod, tippets 0X at the heaviest, 3X at the lightest. He doesn’t feel that a trout focused on a streamer is distracted by a stout tippet unless the water is clear. He knows, as do we all, that a heavier tippet makes it easier to turn over a streamer, and a stronger tippet makes it more likely you’ll land a big trout once you hook it.
We differed slightly about flies. Troiani’s favorite, based on his experience catching lots of trout on it, was an olive articulated leech with a rabbit-strip body and silver conehead. It worked for us. We all caught trout with it. But Masako briefly engaged what might have been the nicest fish of the day, then abruptly lost it. When she brought the fly in, the hook was not dangling dangerously at the rear of the rabbit strip, to snag short-striking trout. It was wrapped around the head of the fly. In that posture, it was rendered harmless. I thought back to several trout we’d had on for a few tugs and did what I always do—re-rigged with an Autumn Splendor tied on a long-shank hook, with its marabou tail clipped short. Whatever streamer you choose for smallish water, keep its size down to around 4 to 8, and if it’s articulated check it after every couple of casts to be sure it hasn’t taken itself out of action.
Because Troiani fishes streamers often, and I turn to them less often than I ought, I snuck around and watched him fish them every time I got a chance. Since the title of this column is Practical & Useful, I’ll give you what might be my best piece of advice: If you get a chance to fish with somebody expert at a method, implore him or her to fish ahead of you at least part of the day, then watch carefully while they put their flies into play.
Troiani did not stick to any rigid formula. He read the water for the types of lies described earlier, placed his casts so his streamer would land near but not in the places he suspected a trout would hold, then did his best to swim his streamer into that water as if it were a baitfish out for an amble. He based his retrieve on the shape of the water. In most places he cast upstream, then fished his streamer downstream with the current. In places where the shape of the water either demanded it, or made it look more profitable, he cast across the current, let the fly achieve some depth, then retrieved back across it or simply let it swing. In a few places where the holding lie was small, and protected by bank-side brush or submerged boulders or logs, Troiani smacked his streamer to the water, got nothing or instant hits.
On the average cast, Troiani let the current impart all the action the streamer was going to get. If the cast was upstream, he’d draw in line fast enough to keep the streamer swimming downstream. If the cast was cross-stream, he’d let the current swim the fly. But when the average cast failed to hook a trout, Troiani repeated the presentation with what I’ll have to call a coaxing retrieve. Sometimes that consisted of leading the fly with some pulsing motion of his rod tip. Other times it meant gathering line in staccato strips. He never did make his streamer race, but he found ways in each bit of water to make his fly look alive.
Someday I’d like to spend a day watching Troiani working the water the way he would if nobody else was around to observe it: be the mouse in the corner. As it happened, he was too polite to fish much of the good water ahead of Masako and me. The most important lesson he imparted to us was to give streamers a try on water of any size, and not to be afraid to do it with bamboo.
Lucas Troiani is a certified Wulff School Casting Instructor. Reach him at 406-684-5440; www.sweetgrass.com.