*This article was originally published in the Michigan Out-of-Doors Spring 2020 print edition.
By: Andy Duffy
I couldn’t see the trout, but I knew I had one on.
I felt my line tighten and run between my fingers. Then I set the hook. Mayhem broke out in the creek as vibrations coursed through my monofilament. The trout ran and thrashed about.
I saw firsthand what a tempest in a teapot looks like. That’s the thrill that comes with fishing a small stream. A person finds big action in tiny spaces.
Creek fishing for trout is simple enough. An angler merely needs to find a stream and work quietly along it. Then, wherever a trout might be lurking, the fisherman can just drop in his bait.
A lot of folks will dramatically increase their catch rates, though, by paying attention to some things I’ve learned through the years.
First, a person needs to recognize where a trout is likely to be hiding. Fly anglers who fish rivers call that reading the water. Creek anglers need to read the water, too.
Prerequisite number one for trout is water depth. Trout don’t always need a lot of water above them, but they need some. They can get by with less depth if they have overhead cover.
Don’t look for a trout, then, in the middle of a creek in a shallow riffle. A fish might dart out in the riffle to grab some food, but an angler can make better use of his time and effort by fishing deeper water.
What trout really need is a protective canopy of some sort above them. This is especially true in creeks.
In rivers, water depth can serve as protection. Birds of prey can’t dive deep enough fast enough in a river’s deep pools to ambush a trout. They often can in creeks, though.
So, when fishing a creek, anglers should look for deeper water with overhead protection. If the water moves slowly enough or has something to work as a current buffer, so much the better. Trout don’t want to expend a lot of energy fighting the current.
Often, an angler might miss ideal trout cover. Undercut banks are famous trout lairs. They easily escape notice, though.
I often wade into a creek after I’ve fished a section of it. I kick the banks trying to see where the current has gouged them out. I’m often amazed by what I find. Some places that look as if they haven’t been undercut have lots of room to hide a trout.
So, besides being able to read water, it helps if an angler knows the water. That familiarity doesn’t come with the first trip to a stream. It requires lots of excursions.
Once an angler understands where trout hide, he needs to figure out how to approach them. That’s where stealth becomes a factor.
Heavy steps send vibrations into the water and send trout fleeing. Just by remembering to tread lightly, anglers will find more success.
Being stealthy, though, includes some other elements. I know a guy who wears camouflage on streams. That’s not overkill. At a minimum, a person should wear subdued colors.
Another advanced tactic is to use a long rod. I have a friend who has mastered this technique.
He stands well back from the edge of the streams he fishes. He pokes the tip of his rod through the brush and drops in his bait.
I call it the “walk-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick technique, and it works like a charm.
Anglers should also be mindful of the sun and shouldn’t let their shadows fall on the water.
People need to remember that they’re not really trout fishing; they’re trout hunting. That means they shouldn’t stay in one place.
They should remember to keep moving. Drift a worm through a likely spot a couple of times. If nothing hits, move on. Probably no trout is there. The anglers that cover the most water will probably catch the most fish – at least if their approach is stealthy enough.
I live in a water-rich environment. A major river flows through my area. Numerous small creeks feed the river. Many of the creeks are good trout streams.
Besides the natural streams, though, the area has lots of drainage ditches.
Years ago, farmers dug some of the ditches to drain fields. County road commissions maintain some drains to protect roads. Some of the drains hold trout.
Every spring, starting the last Saturday of April, I’ll see cars parked by almost every culvert, no matter if a stream or a drain is flowing there.
Trout anglers will fish the plunge pools below the culvert, but that is as far as they go. They don’t move from the road.
And that is partly because the streams, whether natural or man-made, are flowing across private property. Some property owners won’t permit anglers to fish their property. Often, the anglers don’t bother seeking permission.
But serious trout anglers will want to leave the road and work along a creek. Instead of waiting for a trout to come to them, they will go to the trout.
And anglers can go trout hunting easily enough if they want to. They can knock on doors and ask for permission to fish a stream.
They can fish creeks that flow across public land. And, of course, they can fish streams that cross private property that are open to the public.
Anglers should make certain of a stream’s status before assuming it is public water. Some streams that are considered navigable water, though, are hardly more than creeks. Anglers can fish them if they stay in the water.
By staying in the water instead of slipping stealthily along the banks, they might scare some fish. But scaring a few fish is better than not fishing at all.
So, this is how to fish a creek. A person slips along the water – on the bank, if possible – looking for places where a trout might be hiding.
Every place where a trout might be lurking, he drops his worm. Some people use crickets or minnows. I’ve tried them and don’t see that they offer any advantages over good old garden worms.
Anglers should leave the bails on their reels open. First, they will be dapping as much as casting.
With a reel’s bail open, the current can carry the bait to the cover that an angler might not be able to reach with a cast.
As Charles Cotton advised, we should fish fine and far off. Things are compressed on a creek; we are fishing less far off than we would on a river.
Rather than always dropping bait into a hole right at our feet, we should allow the current to carry our bait to the fish when we can. That is the only way to fish some places without scaring the trout away.
Anglers should hold the line loosely between their thumb and index finger – if they have one. (I know an expert trout fisherman who is missing an index finger.) That way, a striking trout can pick up the worm and run with it rather than having it ripped out of its mouth.
Also, the angler will feel the line go and will know that either the current is taking his line, or he has a hit. With experience, a person can usually tell the difference.
Anglers should also watch the business end of their lines. They’ll often see the line change direction in the water or see the flash of a trout.
After the trout hits, it is up to the angler to decide when to set the hook. Some people let the trout swallow the bait. Hooking percentages go up that way.
It also leads to hooking mortality on sub-legal fish. I prefer to set the hook quickly, even if it means losing a few fish.
We can’t discuss advanced creek fishing tactics without mentioning the use of split shot. When streams are high, a person might want to use some weight to get his bait down.
Trout aren’t likely to come to the top of a stream to grab a worm getting swept by in a torrent. And we won’t catch a trout if our line is getting tangled up in the top of a log jam before our bait gets carried under it.
For day-in-and-day-out angling, though, I prefer to use no weight.
The most natural presentation possible seems to work the best. That means making a dead-drift presentation.
That is the technique fly anglers use when they’re nymphing or using dry flies. That’s the way trout are accustomed to seeing their food come to them. That method works best for many trout lies. For the lies where conditions preclude that option, a person might want to carry a few split shot with him.
Experienced trout anglers keep the present conditions in mind. Cloudy skies and rain will bring trout out from under cover to feed in the stream’s main current.
We can be a little more relaxed with our presentations and with our stealth when skies are cloudy and rain is dimpling the stream’s surface. During a storm, catching trout usually becomes much easier.
Anglers eventually become aware of what they can get away with on a stream, too.
Last summer I was fishing a creek when I came to an undercut bank. Because of the brush along the stream, I couldn’t effectively present my worm without getting in the stream very near the undercut.
I waded in as stealthily as I could. The current wasn’t going to carry my worm under the bank, so I let it drift along the edge of it. A trout came out and struck. I think it was my largest trout of the day.
Trout are notorious for disappearing during the dog days of summer. Some have been caught and kept. Some have just migrated to cooler waters.
Whatever the reason for the disappearance of the trout, it is the dog days that really test an angler’s mettle.
The smaller the brook, of course, the greater the effect of groundwater on it. The tiniest streams often are trout havens when the weather is hot. And streams even a yard wide or less, if they’re deep enough, hold good fish during the dog days.
So, when the weather is hot, think small.
Near my home is a little drainage ditch that I once fished regularly. It emerges from a swamp and runs along a county road for a couple of miles before changing directions abruptly and flowing into a nearby river.
During the early spring, the ditch never had much cover. As the season progressed, though, watercress would grow and fill the stream.
The watercress’s bulk, of course, had the same effect as putting pebbles in a glass of water.
Once weeds filled the stream, the water level normally remained high enough to harbor trout even in dry conditions.
Anyone familiar with the story of Archimedes and the crown will understand the principle.
The current kept little channels clear. Brook trout would lurk in the vegetation and wait for food to drift by in the channels.
The ditch was my go-to location whenever I wanted to take guests fishing during mid- and late summer.
We would stand on the bank above the creek and drift worms through the little channels. We would watch as the trout darted out from the vegetation, seized our worms, and disappeared again.
Sometimes, the trout wouldn’t even make an appearance. Our worm would simply disappear as a trout right at the edge of the weeds sucked it in.
Then, a couple of summers ago, the road commission came through and stripped out all the watercress.
I suppose it was routine maintenance. It ruined the stream, though. The watercress still hasn’t made a comeback. The water level gets low in the summer, and a person is lucky to catch a few tiny brookies.
Other streams, though, still fill up with weeds, and anglers can remember that trout hang out in them.
A lot of anglers don’t bother fishing creeks. They would rather fish lakes or rivers where casting is easy, hordes of branches aren’t waiting to snag a person up and they don’t need to bother with the nitty-gritty aspects of fishing small streams.
Those who enjoy stalking unseen fish in tight cover, though, can find success by observing the principles listed here.