Early Season Trout

     It’s only a matter of weeks until trout seasons start opening across the northeast. There are essentially two types of early stream fishing to consider: Fishing for lake-dwelling fish that are making their spawning run and fishing for trout that are part of the resident population.
     Spawning-run fish are anadromous, meaning they ascend rivers to breed. In the springtime in the Northeast this primarily means rainbow trout and steelhead (I’ll not delve into the subtle difference between these two fish at this writing), although other fish, such as bullhead, are also spring river spawners. Fishing anadromous runs are a lot like fishing for early season resident fish: most of the action is at the bottom of the stream and therefore fishing deep is going to be the most productive.
     Regarding fly fishing, most any nymph pattern has potential to work and there will of course be local as well as personal preferences. For the novice who hasn’t got anyone to consult with I would offer the usual fair of hare’s ears, pheasant tails and princes and if those don’t produce try whatever you like. These trout are not necessarily going to be selectively feeding and sometimes throwing something unusual at them will stimulate a response. They may also be aggressive due to their intent on spawning and may strike anything suspect that comes drifting toward them in defense of their territory. In this regard big, bright streamers can be effective. Flies tied on hooks as large as #2s are not out of the question especially since lake-run fish are frequently much larger than their stream-dwelling counterparts.
     I don’t do a lot of stream fishing with a spinning rod but when I do I like to try worms or egg sacs drifted along bottom. This requires a splitshot or two anywhere from 14 inches to two feet above the bait. The exact distance depends on a number of factors including water depth, how fast the water is flowing and water clarity. You’ll just have to experiment until you find the right distance. There are lots of lures available as well. Small spoons and spinners are solid picks and jigs can be deadly as well. My only gripe with lures is that you have to pass up a lot of shallow water for fear of dragging bottom. If the lure is scrapping the river bed it is not likely to catch fish and will probably snag on bottom.

The Battenkill in Southern Vermont, March 2013. The water here is deep and the logjam at left-center provides excellent cover, a valuable commodity for fish no matter what time of year

     Fishing deep pools and runs is usually the most productive way. But spawners tend to move upstream on principle, which means they will have to traverse shallow water and negotiate obstacles as well. Keep your eyes open and pay attention to all the water. Just because it doesn’t look like a good place for a trout to be milling about doesn’t mean you won’t find them there.
     Fishing for resident trout is not that much different although it tends to be more productive a little later in the season when the water starts to climb out of the high thirties and low forties. Again, focusing on deeper water tends to result in more fish hooked. There is the possibility that fish will start to feed on the surface which opens up more options for the fly fisher. Usually dry fly fishing gets started around the beginning of May and gets better into the summer. Those who use a spinning rod may be at something of a disadvantage when it comes to topwater fishing but they can make up for it by fishing the deeper pools. This is especially true of those pools that are too big to effectively wade into or are bordered by high, steep banks or trees and brush. In these instances there is no room for a fly fisher’s back-cast and consequently these spots will not get as much pressure from the fly-rod crowd.
     One of the most critical aspects of early season stream fishing is water temperature. It is going to be cold no matter what. Water temps right around freezing might be worse than temperatures in the high 40s but high 40s is still plenty cold. It can make the fish lethargic and less likely go charging across an expanse of water to chase a fly or lure. This means you may need to be meticulous about covering water thoroughly. Trout may not strike unless their intended quarry hits them in the face.
     But cold water comes with other concerns. Make sure you are dressed appropriately and don’t risk falling in. Taking an unexpected swim in June is one thing but getting dunked in a hypothermia-inducing river is quite another matter. Water levels in early spring can also be high due to snowmelt so be aware that those spots that are easily waded later in the season might be dangerously deep. And if the water is that deep, you might as well stand in the shallows and fish it.

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