Fly-Fishing In “God’s Country” Pennsylvania
By Joshua Blass
Small streams can sometimes be intimidating especially if you’re used to fishing big water, but many Pennsylvania skinny waters hold some absolute monster wild brown trout! These tactics work well on Native Brook trout streams too, as brookies are one of the most skittish trout you’ll encounter! Take what you’ll need and leave the rest.
1. Be Stealthy: With the width of small streams usually no wider than the fly rod in your hand, you will have to get up close and personal to the water's edge. The wild trout that inhabit these waters are usually very wary and can spook in a split second. Wearing natural colors to break up your profile is essential. Not all Fishermen can plan around the weather for the day either, so use the sun or lack of sun to your advantage. On a sunny day, I keep a very close eye on my shadow, because it will differentiate throughout the day. Sometimes the easiest way to avoid spooking a trout with your shadow is to cross the stream and fish from the opposite side simply. You can try a different angle in presenting your fly too. Sometimes the sun can be your worst enemy; working in every possible way against you to get the right cast, presentation, or drift. On small streams, you usually only get one or two casts before the wary wild trout catch on to you.
2. Stay Low: If this means belly crawling through the Willow saplings and weeds, it’ll all be worth it. Even though a trout may be facing forward in the current, it can still see slightly behind and on sides. The angler can take full advantage of the blindspot if the trout are visible. And the deeper the pool, the further above the surface they can see. Sometimes staying low is the only way to control your shadow. I prefer fishing the cloudy, overcast days as opposed to a clear, sunny day. One less thing you have to keep your focus on when chasing tails! With that being said, I’ve also caught a lot of very beautiful trout on the sunniest of days.
3. Sight Fish: One of the best ways to learn a small stream is to be there when the water is low and clear. This helps the angler visualize what the stream bottom actually looks like. This will give the nymph guy/gal the upper hand. I often walk stream banks in the dog days of summer without a fly rod when the water temperature is dangerous to fish. If you happen to be fishing during low water conditions, try to see where a trout is lying when he comes and strikes your fly. This will give you a little insight on where to place your fly for the next time you hit that spot. This is very handy, but keep in mind that a trout’s holding area is going to change from season to season and even as water levels increase or decrease.
4. Take Risks: Don’t be afraid to get snagged and possibly even lose some flies. Trout hide out in some of the hardest to access areas, mostly for cover from aerial predators. Taking a risk at casting into a log jam or undercut bank will pay off in the end. If you get snagged, it isn’t a problem wading in to retrieve your fly on small water. Don’t become complacent with “hole hopping” either. Spend the time and pick apart every inch of the fresh mountain water. Make some casts in the difficult spots and other areas where you’d never suspect a trout to be hiding. Just because a trout is holding in a location during the spring, doesn’t always mean he will still be there when winter comes. If you take risks, often you will place your fly in the strike zone of an uneducated fish.
5. Short Casts: Become familiar with the many different types of short casting techniques. Personally, I prefer using either a bow and arrow cast or the roll cast. These two casts will be 80-90% of the ones you’ll make. I also use the side-arm cast frequently to plant my fly under a bridge, other structure, or just to stay below the tree limbs. On many streams, things will be very tight, so adapting and overcoming is the only way you will succeed. Sometimes the bow and arrow cast is all about presentation and accuracy. Once you get this cast down, and you’re able to land your fly in the strike zone, you will be much more successful. Many times you won’t even need to make a back cast unless you’re fishing a nice long run or pool. Becoming accurate is extremely important, as most times you only have one cast to get the perfect drift without spooking the trout.
6. Fish the High Water: Some of the best times to fish small streams is during/after a good rainfall, and water levels are above normal. Not only do you not have to worry about being stealthy, Big wild brown trout tend to feed heavily when the water is chocolate colored and above normal levels. This is one of my favorite times to fish with an articulated streamer pattern.
7. Familiarize Yourself with the Water: Locating and understanding where trout are most likely to be laying is very important. This often takes long man hours, missed hookups, and frustration if the angler isn’t accustomed to fishing small water. Look for log jams, overhanging bushes, rock ledges, and undercut banks. These are all very good hiding spots for trout.
8. Understanding Prey/Food: The best way to find out about a trout's diet on a stream, is by flipping rocks over and educating yourself on nymph identification. It’s amazing the difference in sizes of baitfish, nymphs, etc. from one stream to another. Do the research on the Entomology and baitfish that frequent the water your fishing. Understanding the prey will greatly help you target the predators! Although Fly size is still important, your presentation will usually outweigh that.
9. Don’t Become Stagnant: Be willing to change your game up at the snap of a finger. I like to carry at least two fly rods in my vehicle, so I can change setups if one isn’t working. Using tippet rings will cut the time down if you would want to switch your setup on the water. I also prefer to carry tippet ranging from 0X-6X, so I can throw dries, nymphs, streamers, and mouse patterns. I prefer to be adaptable to what the fish are currently feeding on. If you plan on nymphing correctly, you will constantly be adjusting your rig. Continue to change flies until you find what they’re feeding on. Experiment with different strategies to see what works best; one technique could be great on one stream and worthless on the next.
All of these tactics will help the angler become more successful and confident when chasing wild trout on small mountain streams. As with most things the more time and effort you put into it, the better off you’ll be. Practice makes perfect, although, in the Fly Fishing world, it’s hard to be a perfectionist. You must be willing to adapt to change!
Article Written by Joshua Blass
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