Spring Brook Trout
Text & Photos By Scott Earl Smith
Big Water - Brook Trout
The first time I ever fly fished for brook trout was on a tiny
meadow stream between two large beaver dams. The inky-black water
was perhaps three feet deep at its deepest point, and, if so inclined, you
could likely jump to the other bank with a good run. The brook trout in
the stream came eagerly to small, traditional wet flies. They were mostly
eight or ten inches long, and the biggest of the day was a whopping
twelve inches. My heart raced when it boiled on my fly.
This, I presume, is the brook trout experience most fly anglers are accustomed
to. But, now, fifteen years later, the brook trout gear stowed in my equipment
room is formidable, high-tech assault stuff, and I realize that the pursuit I've
undertaken for big brook trout on big water is now an entirely different game.
A game where twenty-inch brook trout are more the rule than the exception,
and fifteen-inchers are considered "twinkies." Of course, it helps that the
place I'm fishing is Ontario's world-renowned Nipigon River, where the
world record brook trout of 14 pounds 8 ounces was caught in 1915. As
I'm the eternal optimist, I suppose it's possible that another fish of that
stature could come from this big, brawling river. But I do know for sure,
first-hand, that "brookies" ranging from five to seven pounds are caught
on a regular enough basis to keep me flogging the water vigilantly every
summer. Brook trout fishing here is unusual - unusual not only because
of their size, but also because of the unusual techniques we employ to
Fly fishing for big brook trout, and for that matter any other salmonid,
in a deep, fast river is tricky business. So tricky that many anglers write
off fly fishing altogether and opt for spinning gear and deep-diving lures
and plugs. But if you're like me and you're not content unless there's a
length of polymer between you and your fish, there is a way to conquer.
Quiet water, big flies, and the right jive.
The first step is to gain an understanding of where to find trout in big water.
For the most part, game fish in big, deep rivers are bank-orientated. This is
because they can find all their required needs near structure along the bank.
Fish will not hold in blasting current twenty-feet deep for the chance at a
mayfly or even a minnow. They'll opt for quieter water along a riprap bank
or behind a sunken island, logjam or gravel bar and wait for the food to
come to them. Think like a fish, or at least put the concept into human
perspectives: would you drive taxi in Metro Toronto for two-dollars an
hour? Once you get a grip on this concept, you'll save hours of fishing
time by not hurling ninety-foot casts into empty water.
The next step: think big. Big fish in big water like big things to eat, especially
if they're going to expend any amount of energy in the pursuit (back to the
cab-driving analogy). Large streamers that represent baitfish, crayfish and
sculpins are worthy of a good chase by a trout. On the Nipigon, we fish
rabbit-strip streamers 3 1/2 inches long regularly. Trophy-sized trout need
large prey to sustain themselves. They didn't get big by munching on
tricos - believe me.
Not only does your fly need to be near the bank (or at least near some structure),
and represent a large, natural source of food, it needs to look and act like the
real thing. This means putting some action on your fly. Forget the stiff-legged,
stiff-wristed, mime-like swing of the English wet fly; get into the groove and
pump that fly. Flex those knees, loosen up those hips, put a big grin on
your face and pump the rod with your wrist and make that fly look like a
darting minnow. Strip the fly right in front of your feet so you can see the
action while you work the rod tip. Experiment with it until you find the
right jive. Quite often the movement you impart to the fly can make the
difference between a fishless day and one that will go down in "the best
of" your fishing journal entries.
While I'm talking about the movement of the fly, I should mention the
most fatal mistake I've seen on the river when retrieving flies with big,
trophy brook trout following - stopping the retrieve. Call it brookie-fever
if you wish, but I've seen it happen a number of times now. When a big
brook trout is following a fly, don't ever stop the retrieve. The fish stops
as well and slowly turns and swims away, because something in his
natural-prey-memory-chip tells him that fleeing baitfish don't stop and
wait for him to catch up. Keep the retrieve constant or even speed it
up if you notice a trout following your fly. If you can manage it, a
change in the direction of the fly often produces a strike.
Heavy gear and laid-back casting
Putting all these concepts into play on a big river like the Nipigon is not
quite as simple as I've articulated here. You need a good boat, a capable
handler, and a repertoire of advanced casting skills. You'll need to place
your fly right next to the bank, work it like a real baitfish, and quite often
swing it deep through the holding water. To accomplish this you'll need
a steelhead-sized rod and reel and some serious sink-tip and shooting
head line systems. Moderate sink-rate lines have no place on big, fast
rivers; you need to present your fly deep as quickly as possible. Several
line manufacturers, such as Scientific Anglers, Cortland and Teeny, make
heavy duty sink tips as long as 30 feet. Another way to go is with
custom-made shooting heads made from Scientific Anglers Deep
Water Express. This heavy line comes in a 30-foot length and is cut
into varying chunks for fishing different depths and finished off at
each end with a Cortland leader loop. The line comes with a chart
showing the appropriate lengths of Express that can be handled by
varying rod weights. For example, with my Sage 796 RPL+ I can
nicely handle up to twelve feet of an 850 grain Deep Water Express.
The advantage of the Express system is that you can make up a number
of heads in varying lengths without carrying extra reel spools.
Casting all of these lines requires a great departure in technique from
traditional dry-line casting. I've noticed that most anglers have difficulty
mastering heavy sinking lines for the first time, and notably so if they're
accustomed to size 16 dries on nice 8-foot bamboos. Put a guy like
this in your boat and it's hardhat country - if you get my drift. The
cast, simply put, is reminiscent of casting an apple on a rope: you
must keep your back cast on a sidearm plane and the forward cast
on an overhead plane all the time keeping your rod fully loaded with
maximum tension on the fly line. And slow the cast down. This
notion doesn't seem to sink in with the dry fly types so I'll paint
you a little word picture: Take one of those dry-fly casting videos
with the crisp swish, swish, swish of the expert slow down the frames
on the VCR until the cast goes wwoooooooshhh, wwooooooooshhhh.
Get the picture?
This doesn't mean you cast without using any muscle, though. You
need to really put your body and your arm into the cast to hold the
heavy line in the air. When you release the line to deliver the cast,
launch the line high so that the trajectory carries the fly as far as
possible. And, please, dispense with all those false casts. Casting
a sink-tip is as easy as a quick pick-up, one false cast to change
direction and then let it fly.
The right boat
Once you've got your mind around all these things, the cast, the fly,
the action and so on, you'll want to fish the water effectively. This
will require a good, stable boat with a casting platform clear of
obstructions so your fly line isn't encumbered by things strewn
about the deck. The best way to fish the Nipigon, or any other
similarly big, fast and deep river, is to work the bank from a boat.
On many rivers, drift boats will do the trick, but on the Nipigon,
numerous lake-like sections of river make drifting impractical. In
addition, you simply can't hold your boat safely in many places
with an anchor. Instead, the boat must be held in the heavy current
with a quiet, smooth-running motor while the bow caster methodically
works the shoreline. At present, I'm fishing the river with a 16-foot
Princecraft Starfish Deluxe with a 35 hp Johnson motor, which seems
to have the elbowroom and stability for casting without being overly
big and noisy. I've seen folks fishing the river in both cabin cruisers
and canoes, and, at both extremes, these are less than desirable.
The path of the fly as it angles from the bank and sinks gradually
as it sweeps midstream is similar to the wet fly swing a salmon or
steelhead angler employs from the bank, except that it is exactly a
mirror image of that, sweeping from the bank to midstream and not
the other way around. The technique works well, and, when you
think about it, a baitfish dislodged from its holding lie along the bank
might just angle downstream and head for cover in the deep. Takes
from big brook trout are thunderous with this method. If they're on
the bite and they've decided to intercept your seductively jiving fly,
there will be no pondering about what's going on when a big fish
climbs on for the ride.
Fighting a big fish from a boat on a river in the current, twisting and
turning you about, is not quite as tricky as it sounds. For one thing,
if the fish decides to head downstream, as they often will, you can
easily follow them (unless there is a downstream obstruction or
hazard - as on the Niagara for example) and simply wait for them
to tire before finally slipping the net under them.
And there you have it: big fish, big water, big dividends. Try it
some time - either on a trophy brook trout river like the Nipigon,
or on any number of Canada's brawling salmon, steelhead and
trout rivers - places where the faint of heart and frail of backbone
fear to tread. ~ Scott Earl Smith