Chasing trout in small rivers and creeks is fairly easy if you are following the stocking truck to its’ next destination. Many savvy trout anglers enjoy the craft of hunting wild or holdover trout, which are much more difficult to catch on a consistent basis than the freshly stocked “hatchery” trout. When I am not chasing the elusive muskellunge on the Allegheny River, I really enjoy fishing for big browns, rainbows and brook trout. Targeting stream/river trout can be very rewarding
First, let’s discuss trout biology 101. Trout have a high amount of mitochondria, which convert oxygen into energy and help maintain bodily functions. This simple biological fact will give you the insight on trout locations containing high amounts of dissolved oxygen. Current/riffle areas, cold water springs or deeper water very near the thermocline (on lake systems during the summer months) will hold trout, if they are present. Brook trout have the highest oxygen requirements followed by rainbow and brown trout. It is not uncommon for big browns to inhabit deeper, slower moving water and use feeding stations very near cover such as, log jams, boulders, and undercut banks while the ‘brookies’ will be very near the riffles with the rainbows anywhere in between. The slack water area behind any obstruction will likely hold trout as will current seams that form when fast water pushes into slower moving water. Trout will set-up feeding stations along these areas anticipating their next meal. Both rainbow and brown trout can tolerate water temps slightly above 70 degrees provided the water has a high amount of dissolved oxygen. The warmer the water, the closer you will find trout hanging around fast current because the “riffles” have an abundance of oxygen, which trout desire. Conversely, in cooler streams and rivers, trout may hang in slower moving pools or current edges to feed. Understanding the correlation between water temperature and trout location will increase your success by simply knowing their physiological requirements which will dictate their locations.
Another important biological component is a trout’s keen sense of sight. Fly-fisherman can attest to this because their approach is usually very subtle. A size 24 dry fly can hardly been seen by most humans but trout seem to pick up on this small presentation from several feet away. Whether you use flies, live bait or artificial tackle, the presentation is a huge part of the trout puzzle. If fishing predominantly clear water, which is usually the case on trout infested waters, there are a few things that you must remember. First, you must be matching your tackle to the water you are fishing and the size trout you are catching. I typically use 8lb. Excalibur copolymer line on the Middle Allegheny River because the line diameter is a tad thinner than monofilament while keeping the stretching qualities of monofilament. I also tie a 3-5 feet 10lb. fluorocarbon leader using a uni to uni knot (instead of a swivel) for a strong connection. The two main benefits of using the uni to uni knot is you can reel the knot through your guides without the fear of chipping them, and since the leader is 10lb. test, you will have a more durable connection to your bait. I use a longer leader so I can re-tie directly to my bait over and over and still have plenty of leader material left by day’s end. I feel much more confident with the fluoro leader for several reasons. Fluorocarbon is invisible; it sinks, has a smaller diameter and is more abrasion resistant than monofilament. With these properties in your favor, using fluoro in clear water is highly recommended when chasing savvy trout.
Trout also have a very good lateral line, which allows them to feel pressure waves given off by prey as well as predators both inside and outside the water column. When I used to fish the famous limestone streams of Central PA, wearing camouflage and quietly crawling along the stream bank searching for trout holding areas was the norm. Keeping a low profile while taking very soft steps was imperative as not to spook the wiley browns living there. Believe it or not, the fish can feel you coming even if you are not in the water. (I have seen many seasoned trout fisherman enter the water like a Labrador retriever chasing a “fetch toy”.) Those big browns we all desire, can feel our footsteps as they are transmitted through the ground, into the water, and along their lateral line. This sneaky approach is especially effective when walking near undercut banks and tree root systems where big browns love to hang out.
Another tackle selection I have found very useful is moving to a longer rod. When wade fishing small to medium sized rivers/streams, line drag really becomes a factor in presented your bait as realistically as possible so to reduce drag, you simply increase the length of the rod which will allow you to use a thinner diameter line. I typically use a 7’6″ to 8’6″ St. Croix Avid rod for casting artificials and an 8’6″ to 10’6″ St. Croix Avid Steelhead/Salmon rod for live bait presentations. The extra length has a huge impact on line drag that directly influences the speed in which your bait is drifting along the bottom. Strike detection is enhanced due to less line being used while achieving the same drifting depth as compared to using a shorter rod. Other benefits of using a longer rod are: less work required on the hook set, the ability to use lighter/thinner line, longer casting and increased margin of error while landing “lightly” hooked fish. My live bait presentation primarily focuses on threading live minnows that are indigenous to your particular waterway. I prefer shiners in the 3-5 inch range here on the Allegheny River. When I thread my shiners, I like to use a 6 to 8 inch bait needle. By simply pushing the needle through the mouth of the minnow and out the anal vent, I then attach a small treble hook to my line. After securing the hook to the main line, I prefer pulling one of the hook points into the area just behind the vent and the shank of the hook will be recessed inside the vent leaving you with 2 hook points free from obstruction. By securing one hook point behind the vent, it becomes more difficult for the hook to slide forward and tear the tissue along the belly of the minnow when casting. Threading live minnows is more tedious than sliding on a night crawler or red worm but the natural rolling effect of the shiner as it travels with the current is simply too good for most trout to resist.
Depending on your level of determination for catching the largest brown trout in your system, you may have to turn nocturnal and hunt them at night. (Yes, you heard me correctly.) Pressured trout and/or trout living in gin clear waters will feed heavily under the cover of darkness, especially when the water warms to the low-70’s. As the sun’s angle on the water decreases, so does the median water temperature. This translates to higher oxygen levels which will likely kick-off an aggressive feeding window. When chasing the largest browns in your particular system, upsizing your bait selection is recommended. I typically throw minnow baits in the 5-7 inch range so the fish can find and attack the bait with relative ease. Remember, trout have great sight as well as good hearing so if they are hungry, they will eat, if your offering is presented properly. During the daylight hours, I will typically run my stickbaits very erratically to simulate fleeing baitfish but at night, I do the exact opposite. Much like night fishing for muskies, I will not zig and zag my bait but will slow it down and swim it with a straight retrieve occasionally pausing it to induce a strike. Another situation that can arise when night fishing is the “at your feet” strike when retrieving the stickbait or large spinner. By holding the rod tip under water as your bait gets very near the end of the retrieve and performing an underwater “half-circle”. The longer rod will keep this half-circle maneuver away from your body while not spooking any following fish. This technique will help you pick up a few bonus trout that otherwise would have been spooked while preparing for the next cast. Talk about getting your heart pumping!
I would also like to address body/boat positioning while chasing trout. Whether I am guiding clients in the boat or wade fishing, we always present our baits by casting upstream and bring them in the same direction as the current flow. Feeding trout will almost always be positioned facing into the current as to capitalize on potential food being washed down stream. If drifting live bait, we will drift our offering until the bottom “feel” is lost. At this point, I like to quickly open my bail and release an extra few feet of line while continuing the drift until the bait is directly down stream of my feet. Many times a trout will follow the bait many yards before deciding to eat it. To ensure yourself of catching these fish (which will be positioned just down stream of your bait), open the bail and allow the bait to almost drop right on their heads. This technique will not always work but for the extra 30 seconds of finesse required, it is well worth it, in my opinion.
Timing is another important variable that can positively impact your trout fishing experience. Low, clear water and blue skies are conditions we all try to avoid. If you have the luxury of choosing when to hit the water, early morning and late evening would be the best choice under these conditions. One of my favorite situations in which to chase trout is when the water is on the rise. Whether it is from a recent thunderstorm or an increase in outflow from a dam, rising water will really get the fish moving. In my opinion, high, stained water allows the fish to feel more secure and insulated from natural predators such as: hawks, eagles, herons, etc. The other variable that changes during rising water is the cooling effect it provides to the entire water system. As the water cools, the amount of dissolved oxygen will rise. This “rise” seems to give trout a little extra energy boost and will likely be the spark needed to kick off a great feeding window.
Lastly, I just want to mention a few things about tackle preparation. When using an artificial presentation such as stickbaits, spoons or spinners, always sharpen all hook points prior to each outing. I always check my line and leader for weak spots. I also check my knots, split rings and line for excessive wear and replacing/re-tying as needed. We all understand that catching fish on a routine basis would be great but in reality, we simply cannot control their behavior. We can, however, control our presentations and terminal tackle. Losing a big fish due to dull hooks or weak line is simply unacceptable. Using and adapting the aforementioned techniques and applying them to your particular waterway will maximize your time and success on the water.
Red Childress has been guiding on the Allegheny River for the past 13 years. He has many impressive citation fish to his resume. His specialty is guiding clients to trophy browns and rainbows as well as trophy muskies. One of his favorite techniques during the ‘dog days’ of summer is guiding clients after dark for big browns and muskies. To learn more about the Allegheny River, Pennsylvania fishing for big brown trout and muskies please visit Red’s web site at alleghenyguideservice.com