Monday, May 25, 2015

Into the Hills

I was on the road at 5:00 AM on Saturday. I picked up my friend Aaron in Cambridge, then drove nearly the entirety of Route 2, ending up at the Deerfield River.

We walked about a mile along some train tracks to reach our first destination - the confluence of the Deerfield and a medium-sized tributary. It was chilly starting out, but the warm May sun soon peaked over the steep sides of the valley. The tributary was still in deep shadow, so we decided to start out on the main stem of the Deerfield. We both picked up a few Smallmouth Bass, but not the trout we were looking for.

We saw a few rises, and I even got a hit on an Elk Hair Caddis, but my overzealous hookset snapped the tippet. Aaron had two nice strikes on a wooly bugger, but neither resulted in a fish. Still in high spirits despite our lack of success, we decided to hike back to the car and try another stream.

I'd been planning a trip to this stream since the middle of winter. Some of my internet research revealed that this stream may be one of 2 or 3 streams in Massachusetts with a naturally reproducing population of Rainbow Trout. I had caught wild Brook Trout, Brown Trout, and Landlocked Atlantic Salmon in MA, and I hoped to catch a wild rainbow to complete my MA wild salmonid grand slam.

We arrived at the stream and found the water somewhat low, but crystal clear and quite cold (Aaron regretted forgetting his waders). The sight of a trout stream destroys what little patience I possess, so I quickly set up my rod and tied on a dry. I was ready before Aaron, so I decided to head into the stream and take a few casts into a nice riffle.

On my second cast a fish rose to my fly, and I pulled in a small wild brookie. I yelled out "I got one" to Aaron, who replied: "really?!?" I had told him this would likely be a productive stream, but I don't think he believed me. I have been know to lead him on wild goose chases in search of wild trout in the past...

We worked upstream, pulling brookies from nearly every pocket. Catching brookies is great, but I began to worry I wouldn't get my rainbow. The survey that found rainbows here was nearly 20 years ago, and this watershed was hit particularly hard by Hurricane Irene, so I thought the population may have died out.

It wasn't long before my worries disappeared, though. As I pulled in what appeared to be another wild brook trout, I noticed it was lighter in color than the other brookies I had caught. When he settled down and stopped thrashing in the net, I noticed a distinctive red stripe on his side - a telltale sign of a rainbow trout.

We fished on, catching many more brookies and one more rainbow before calling it quits and making the long drive home. While I love the trout streams of Eastern MA, there's something special about the clear waters of a mountain stream. I can't wait to head back into the hills.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

1.5 Months

It's been 1.5 months since the river that runs through my town was last stocked. While it's usually stocked multiple times throughout the spring, it's only been stocked once so far this year. This river is primarily put and take, so I was worried the fish from the first stocking were long gone, destined for a dinner plate.

I decided to fish it anyway, a decision that paid off. I found three trout, all likely holdovers from the first stocking. They weren't the easy-to-catch stockers I usually find here immediately after a stocking - these fish fought hard, had nice colors, and were holding in water far from the original stocking point. The last 1.5 months have been good to these fish.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lake Michigan

I spent the last week visiting my girlfriend at her college near Chicago. She still has class, which gave me the opportunity to fish in Lake Michigan. Fishing the lake can be tricky due to high winds and large waves, but I found a spot on her campus where a pipe (presumably a storm drain?) provides a current that consistently produces fish.

I think this is a Chinook Salmon Parr

I had a blast catching recently stocked salmon parr and small rainbows. Although they were small, I was able to sight fish in the crystal clear waters. It’s not every day you get to watch a small trout rise through 8 feet of water to pick off a dry fly bobbing in 3 foot swells.

I saw a small caddis hatch - I never knew they hatched on stillwaters

My Spot

Another Rainbow
Now I'm back in MA, and back to wild trout! Hopefully I will have a wild trout trip to report on within the next few days.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Small Stream Dry Fly Season

With water temperatures rising into the low 60s, our small streams in MA are in prime condition for dry fly fishing. Here’s a few tips on fishing dries for wild trout.

Don’t worry if you don’t see rises

Unlike trout in large rivers, small stream trout rarely feed selectively. Hatches are usually sparse, so these trout rely on terrestrial insects that fall into the water. While many fly fishers don’t think about terrestrials until late summer, they are effective Spring to Fall, especially in small streams. While trout in large rivers are often too far from the bank to feed on terrestrials, small stream trout are always close enough to grab an unlucky beetle or ant. One study found that terrestrials make up 85% of a trout’s diet in some small streams! 

Because these trout feed on a variety of insects at any given time, they don’t develop a feeding rhythm. This means the trout always have an eye on the surface, even if they aren’t actively feeding there. If you do see a rise, that’s a great sign, but don’t let a lack of rises prevent you from trying dries.

Try dries first

This goes hand in hand with my last point. It’s rare for a small stream trout to refuse a dry, so why fish anything else? Streamers and nymphs have their place, and they catch fish, but I find them difficult to use effectively on small streams. Dead drifting a nymph through the conflicting currents is tough, and casting a nymph or streamer rig in tight quarters is bound to lead to tangles and lost flies. Save yourself some time and frustration and start with a dry.

Go big or go home

Ok, maybe “go big or go home” is a bit of a stretch – you can definitely still catch fish with small flies. But why bother? If small stream trout will take a small dry, they’ll almost always take a big one too. If anything, the trout might be more willing to expend the energy to swim to the surface if the result is a large meal. Big dries are easier to see on the water and float much better than small dries – the only downside is that some small stream trout are too small to fit a big dry in their mouths. Heavily hackled and/or deer hair flies are best – my favorites are:
  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Humpy
  • Royal Wulff
  • Stimulator
This wild brookie took a Yellow Humpy

Make the first cast count

Small stream trout often hit on the first cast, so be ready to set the hook. It’s amazing how quickly a trout can react – sometimes it seems like they hit the fly the instant it touches the water. Your next few casts are important too, but your chances diminish rapidly after that. As I said above, these fish aren’t picky. If you don’t get a hit after a few decent drifts, the trout is probably spooked. You’ll catch more fish if you move on after a few casts in each likely spot. Because your first cast is most important, take time to set up your cast. Here's my protocol for approaching a new pool:
  1. Locate the best place from which to cast - ideally I look for a small patch of sand or dirt on which I can kneel comfortably and still make a backcast. This spot should also allow you to present the fly without dragging the fly or lining the fish.
  2. Find the best route from your current location to your casting spot - if possible avoid wading, as it can spook fish, and avoid walking on a high bank (trout are most vulnerable to aerial predators, so they are especially wary of movement above).
  3. Scan the water from your new spot - Does your new vantage point reveal a deep hole you hadn't seen before? Are there conflicting currents which might mess up your drift? Do you see a fish?
  4. Look back to ensure there are no obstructions to your backcast - even if there's only one small branch in the way, your line will find it if you don't take precautions.
  5. Cast and be ready for a strike!
Small stream wild brown on the first cast
Screw convention

You often won't be able to make a nice overhead cast. Sidearm, roll, and bow and arrow casts are both effective and necessary on small streams. All you have to do is get your fly in front of the fish without spooking it - it doesn't matter how you get it there. 

Small stream dry fly fishing is a blast - hope this helps some people out!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Balloon Indicators

Swift River rainbow caught under a nitrile glove balloon indicaor
Nymphing is difficult and not particularly effective in the small streams I fish in MA, so I didn't have much practice before coming to the Driftless. Realizing the abundance of scuds and nymphs in the spring creeks here, I decided I needed to learn how to fish nymphs.

I started out using indicator putty, but I found that it didn't float well and frequently fell off the line. Next I tried the ubiquitous Thingamabobber, and while I liked the way they float, I found them hard to adjust and frequently spooked fish with the loud splash they tend to make when they hit the water.

In researching alternatives, I found that the Thingamabobber was inspired by some guides who use water balloons partially inflated with air. The consensus seemed to be that balloons land more softly than Thingamabobbers, but that they are even harder to adjust, as the only way to attach them is with a slip knot.

Luckily, I found this article, which describes a variation of the New Zealand strike indicator, only using a balloon instead of yarn. I won't go into detail on setup, as the linked blog has that covered.

Here's a few variations I've found effective so far:

Trying different balloon materials. 

The standard balloon for an indicator is a water balloon. These work great, but I discovered this technique in November. Things may be different in warmer parts of the country, but here in Minnesota no one is selling water balloons in the fall, so I had to improvise. I tried standard party balloons, but it's nearly impossible to make a balloon smaller than an inch. That might work on a big river when you're using a ton of weight, but on the small streams I fish it's overkill.

Brookie caught under a standard water balloon indicator

Next I tried Nitrile Rubber Gloves. I was able to use the fingers of the gloves like mini balloons, so each glove provided 5 indicators. I was able to get these smaller than party balloons - the minimum size is probably about 1/2". The light blue color of these gloves should be good for spooky fish, but it could be tough to see in rough water. These indicators were also tougher than standard balloons - while the balloons tended to deflate over time and were easy to puncture, the glove indicators have remained undamaged for months.

My final test material was balloon art balloons - the long skinny ones clowns use to make hats and animals for kids. These were nice because you can tie very small indicators (down to about 1/4"), and you can make many from one balloon. I found that these lost air rapidly (within ~24 hours), but you can cinch the line down on the balloon itself rather than the tag of the knot, which will usually blow the balloon back up. So long as you store in it's partially deflated state, it won't deflate any further.

A variety of balloon indicators made from Nitrile Gloves (blue), 
water balloons (top, multiple colors), and balloon art balloons (bottom, multiple colors)

Pen tubes for tubing.

You don't need to buy the New Zealand Strike Indicator tool or any special tubing. I've been cutting small pieces of the ink tubes of ballpoint pens (the small tube on the inside, not the outer pen tube). These work perfectly, and you're almost guaranteed to have access to an old pen you can cut up for free.

Luckily dry fly season is upon us, but nymphs will still catch fish!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Aquifers: Saviors of Suburban Trout Streams

What are Aquifers?

Aquifers are large pools of groundwater close to the surface. The temperature of this groundwater is roughly equal to the mean annual air temperature and changes little over the course of the year. Most of the wild trout in Eastern and Central Massachusetts rely on these groundwater inputs to survive.

Unfortunately, suburbanization is a major threat to trout streams. Impervious surfaces like lawns and paved areas cause warm rainwater to run directly into streams, rather than soaking into the ground where it can cool down. This can raise water temperatures to levels lethal for trout. Luckily, many of our wild trout streams flow over aquifers, which contribute enough cold groundwater to buffer the effects of runoff. The springs also have the added bonus of keeping temperatures slightly warmer in the winter. I find that the spring-influenced suburban streams fish better in the winter than the more pristine streams in the western part of the state.

Lots of impervious surfaces = no wild trout in my town

How to Find Spring-influenced Streams

As usual, MA OLIVER is a great resource. It provides a map layer called "Aquifers by Yield Green Shades", which is in the "Aquifers" folder, which itself is in the "Physical Resources" folder. This map is pretty self explanatory - green shaded areas are aquifers, with darker shades of green representing those with a higher yield (more water).

You can combine this with the Coldwater Fisheries layer (also in the "Physical Resources" folder) to see which trout streams flow through aquifers. You'll notice that many of the remaining coldwater fisheries in Eastern MA pass through aquifers.

There are also smaller aquifers that aren't listed on the map. Look for areas with large sand and gravel deposits. These are common in large river valleys, especially those, such as the Nashua and Connecticut valleys, that were previously covered by glacial lakes. Groundwater can easily flow between sand and gravel particles, so these areas tend to have springs where streams pass through.

Another tell-tale sign of spring-influence is a small watershed. While freestone streams depend entirely on water that falls as precipitation within the watershed, spring-fed streams are composed of both ground and surface water. This means that a spring fed stream can have the same volume of water in a much smaller watershed. If you see a decent-sized, perennial stream with a small watershed, it's likely it has springs.
A spring given away by melted snow
You can also look for springs as you are fishing. In the winter look for areas where significant amounts of snow have melted. You'll also sometimes see green vegetation in the water near springs long after other plants have died off. Sometimes you can see water seeping into the stream from the bank - this is especially common in areas where a stream cuts into a steep hillside. My theory is that the water table is slightly higher in the hill, and the erosion from the stream allows some of that water to "leak" out into the stream. Individual springs are good spots to fish in the winter, when fish will seek out the warmer water, but leave them alone when water temperatures get dangerously warm - trout will seek these spots as thermal refugia.

Green plants in a spring during winter

The spring from the above picture is in the bottom right corner of this picture - note the melted snow

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How to be a Wild Trout Detective: Part I

Finding wild trout streams can be difficult. Anglers are notoriously tight-lipped about their favorite spots, so you won't find much first-hand fishing information available online. Most of the time you just have to get out and explore. Fortunately, there is plenty of publicly available data that can help you find the most promising streams before hitting the road.

Tools of the Trade:
Here are the programs/websites I use frequently to find trout:

Caltopo: This is a mapping with topographic maps covering the entirety of the US. It's especially convenient because you can overlay different map types with the menu in the top right corner of the screen. I usually use Google Hybrid as a base layer with USGS 7.5' Topos on top. You can also save maps marking stream locations to your Google account.

Google Maps: Although Caltopo can display Google Maps imagery, it has a less refined search feature, so Google Maps is still convenient for finding streams by name. Street View can also be useful in locating access points. 

Bing Maps: Bing Maps has a birdseye view that provides a more detailed look at the surroundings of  a stream than satellite imagery.

MA OLIVER: This site displays public GIS data on an interactive map. OLIVER is MA-specific, but I think some other states have similar sites. Search for "(insert state here) GIS" and see what you can find. If not, the useful GIS data is likely available in other, albeit less convenient, forms.

USGS Water Data: Few trout streams have USGS gauges, but those that do can be helpful in determining the size/temperature of nearby streams.

Fish Surveys: This data can be a bit difficult to locate, but it is probably the most useful. After all, there's no better way to determine a stream has trout than to look at electroshocking data. In MA this is available in the form of Water Quality Assessments. I'm not sure where to find this data for other states, but a google search for "(insert state) fish surveys" or "(insert state) electroshocking" should turn up some results.

Water Chemistry Data: I usually check water chemistry data last. Good water chemistry doesn't guarantee a stream will have trout, but it's useful to determine stream productivity after confirming trout presence. For MA I use the UMass Acid Rain Monitoring Project. As with fish surveys, this data is likely available in some form for other states, but it will take some research to find it.

Getting Started

So we know that there's tons of data available to help find wild trout.

Now what?

I like to divide my search into two phases: Stream Identification and Quality Determination.

Stream Identification

This is exactly what it sounds like: identifying streams that contain wild trout. My first step is to Google "(insert state) wild trout". Many state Fish and Game agencies document wild trout streams publicly, especially in states with relatively few streams. Even if there is no official information, this search will often lead you to news about wild trout. Oftentimes local newspapers will write public-interest pieces when TU and/or other conservation groups do work on trout streams.

If a Google search is unproductive, check out WildTroutStreams. They compile publicly available info on trout for all states with wild trout populations. For some states this means a list of streams; for others, like MA, it will lead you to fish surveys. Regardless of the detail of available info, it should point you in the right direction.

After a simple search and a look at WildTroutStreams, it's time to flex your "Google-Fu". Many people don't know about Google's advanced search functions. Here is a good summary sheet of the features - though you don't need to use all of these. You can use these search features both to find new streams and to learn more about wild trout streams you've already identified.

The feature I use most frequently is quotation marks to search for an exact word or phrase. For example:

wild trout 

Will get a lot of results that just happen to have both "wild" and "trout" on the same page.

"wild trout"

Will only get results where the two words were mentioned together.

Another useful search feature is the specific site search.

If you insert: 

into your search, you will only get results from

Putting these features together makes Google a powerful tool. Say you come across a blog or forum where people occasionally mention wild trout streams in your area. Rather than reading through post by post, you can search: "wild trout" massachusetts

This will allow you to quickly scan through all the posts relevant to wild trout in MA.

Keep in mind that while advanced Google searches are useful in initial Stream Identification, they are not limited to this role. These search techniques will come in handy in future sections of this guide.

Stream Documentation

As you identify more and more streams, it can get tough to keep track of them all. Once you've accumulated a few potential streams, it's useful to compile a list in one place. I prefer to use a mapping program, as it allows me to see the distance between streams and the distance from home.

I use CalTopo. As I mentioned above, this site is great for displaying multiple map layers, but here we I'll focus on markers. First, you need an account. I linked mine to my Google account, but you can also link to a Yahoo account. 

Here's an overview of Caltopo:

Once you're logged in and familiarized with the use of CalTopo, you can start marking streams. The easiest way is to right click on the spot you wish to mark, then select "New" and then "Marker". You should see a window like this:

Here you can name your marker, add comments (I usually put down what species I know/think are there and why I think it should have good fishing), and change the marker style/color if you wish. I usually stick to the dot markers, but sometimes I change the color to indicate different species.

It won't be long before your map looks like this:

End of Part I.

Part II coming soon!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The One That Got Away

I've been doing a lot of Smallmouth fishing this week. Most of the fish I've caught have been pretty big - probably in the 1 to 1.5 lb range, but last night I hooked up with a true monster.

I dropped a wooly bugger into the outflow of the same storm drain in my last post. The fish grabbed it and immediately started taking line. After about 3 minutes of fighting, I finally got him close to shore.

Unfortunately that's when I got cocky. I decided it would be a great idea to take a video as I landed it. Just after I hit record he turned his head and snapped my 3X tippet.

I caught a few more bass before sunset, but nothing like the big guy. I'll be back for him.