Squirmy Worm

Pink Squirmy Worm Fly Pattern

Many fly fishing purists cringe at the idea of fishing a worm pattern. I’m not sure why since a major part of fly fishing is matching the food source of the fish. And worms are a major food source for fish everywhere.

I think it’s the same hangup that many traditionalists have with strike indicators. They just don’t want to participate in any sort of activity that resembles bait fishing. I suppose that fishing a worm pattern under a strike indicator is about as close to bait fishing as you can get. However, when you really think about it, it’s no closer to bait fishing than using a Prince or a Pheasant Tail. It’s not as if the worm is real, or even scented. In either situation, you’re using an artificial imitation of a food source to fool a fish.

The San Juan Worm has been the main target of ridicule for many years. It gets its name from the San Juan River in New Mexico, where it imitated the many aquatic worms in this river. But worms are not isolated to the San Juan River. They are abundant in nearly every body of water, even more so where softer, muddy banks exist.

Red San Juan Worm Fly Pattern
Traditional San Juan Worm

Worms tend to burrow in muddy banks and when water rises, it floods worms out of those burrows. We see the same thing at our homes. After a good rain, you see an abundance of worms found on the pavement. They were flooded out of their homes. Worms that live in a river bank don’t end up on the driveway when their burrows are flooded. They end up in the river and fish seek them out.

Worm patterns can be intermittently effective anytime. But the best time to fish them is during, or just after, a good rain when the water level rises. In essence, you’re matching the hatch in these situations. Again, isn’t that the idea? So, in freestone streams like the Smokies, these changes in water levels are periodic. But on tailwaters like the San Juan, changes in water levels are daily.

The Squirmy Worm is not exactly a ground breaking fly pattern. You use the exact same technique as a San Juan Worm with a different material. Traditional SJW’s used vernille or micro chenille for the body. The Squirmy Worm uses a rubbery material which makes it more lifelike.

Rubber Squeeze Toy Fly Tying Material
Old school squirmy material

I’ve tied them for years, long before Squirmy Worm was in the fly fishing vocabulary. Many fly tyers have. But what is now mass marketed as Squirmy Worm material didn’t exist. We used things like rubber tentacles off of children’s toys. They worked great, but the new material is made for fly tying and allows for longer, more uniform bodies.

Spirit River Squirmy Worm Material
New squirmy material

The Squirmy Worm is available in a number of different colors. Pink and red are my two favorites. And you can get them with or without beads. In either case, note that the rubbery material of this pattern can give it sort of a neutral buoyancy when using minimal weight. If you really want to get it down, you may have to use a little more weight than normal.

For you fly tyers, it’s not a complicated pattern to tie. However, the Squirmy Worm material can be a little awkward to work with, as it rolls on the hook. It’s also easy to cut through the material with fly tying thread. There are a few ways to deal with that. My preferred method is to apply a small amount of dubbing to the thread before wrapping around the rubber material.

It’s ugly and it’s trashy, and it very well may be one step away from bait fishing. But it sure does catch fish!

Squirmy Worm

  • Hook: TMC 2457 #16-1
  • Thread: 8/0 color to match body material
  • Dubbing: Dry fly dubbing to match body color
  • Rib: Fine copper wire
  • Body: Squirmy Worm material

January Fishing Forecast

West Prong Little River Snow

Smoky Mountains

Winter fishing in the Smokies is not usually productive, at least not consistently. And I don’t expect this January to be an exception. In addition to the cold water temperatures that keep these wild trout fairly inactive, it looks like our wet weather will continue. Water levels will probably remain pretty high most of the month.

If water levels are cooperative, one of the best things about fishing the park in the winter is the solitude. You will likely only see a handful of other people and probably no other fishermen. Embrace the solitude and significantly lower your expectations on activity and you can have a pretty enjoyable day!

Clinch River

The Clinch can fish well in the winter because it’s a tailwater and its water temperatures remain pretty constant. The water temperature in January is nearly the same as it is in August. However, we are still paying for a VERY wet 2018.

The Clinch is not only releasing water all day every day, they are sluicing approximately 5900 cfs. That’s a lot of water. You definitely can’t wade it under those conditions and it’s really too much water for decent fishing from a boat.

If they relax that water release schedule, this will be a good option. But it looks like this is what we’re stuck with for a while.

Delayed Harvest

The delayed harvest streams in the Cherokee National Forest are the best things going right now. Stocked fish continue feeding more regularly in winter than wild ones do. They’re not as good as they were in the fall, mainly because of poaching. But there are still plenty of fish and they should remain active through January. Assuming roads remain clear and safe to drive on, this is probably your best bet right now.

On the Fly – Unwinding a New Leader

I get to see a lot of things as a fly fishing guide and instructor. Few things make me cringe more than watching someone pull out a new leader and start yanking at either end. The result is inevitably a rat’s nest and nobody wants to start their day that way. It’s an easy thing to avoid and this quick tip will help you get start the day on the right foot!

How Stuff Works: Sink Tip Fly Lines

Rio Sink Tip Fly Line
Sink tip fly line

Floating fly lines are by far the most common, and for most trout fishing situations, they are all you need. When nymphing below the surface, weight in the fly or on the leader (split shot) is enough to get the fly and leader down where it needs to be. Doing this while the fly line is still floating can be advantageous as it allows the line to be mended when necessary and provides for quicker pick up when setting the hook on a dead drift.  Even when fishing with streamers, a floating line is often adequate when stripping a weighted streamer through shallow trout streams.

But what if you want to get a streamer down and keep it down when retrieving it through deeper, swifter water? Such scenarios might include a mountain trout stream that’s running high from recent rain, or a tailwater fishery during generation. Both of these scenarios have produced some of the largest trout I’ve ever caught. Or what if you’re wanting to fish a streamer 12’ deep in a lake for stripers?

Performing the above tasks with a floating fly line would require a very heavy fly with a long leader. And the result would be extremely difficult casting and very limited “contact” with the fly. When fishing streamers, shorter leaders allow you to better control the motion of the fly when retrieving it, and give you much quicker feedback when the fish takes it.  Additionally, because of the floating fly line, the fly would rise with every strip of the line rather than staying deep in the target area.

Breakdown of a Typical Sink Tip Line
Breakdown of a typical sink tip line

A sink tip fly line solves these problems by allowing the front portion of the fly line to sink. Weightless flies that are easier to cast and sometimes have better “action” can be used and so can shorter leaders. And with the fly line submerged, the fly will stay down and retrieve more in a straight line rather than upward toward the surface. Full sinking lines can also be used for this task but can be clumsy to cast and nearly impossible to mend. A sink tip line more or less gives you the best of both worlds.

Sink tip fly lines have a number of variations. First, they will often have different lengths of sinking heads. In other words, the entire fly line will float except for the front 6’ or 15’ or whatever the case may be. In general, a shorter head will be easier to cast. A longer head will keep more of the line, and consequently the fly, down deeper. They will also come in different sink rates. Some manufacturers may provide a measurement in grains but most will be designated in a class – like a class 5. A Class 5, for instance, will typically sink at a rate of approximately 5” per second. A Class 2 will sink at approximately 2” per second. They commonly range from Class 1 (often described as an intermediate line) to Class 6.

Sink Tip Fly Line Sink Rates

Very often, the weight classes will correspond specifically with the actual line size. For instance, you may find a 10-weight sink tip line that is a Class 5, or a 6-weight sink tip line that is a Class 3, but there may not be an option for a Class 5 6-weight.

Sinking Poly Leaders
Sinking “leaders”

You can also find separate add-on sink tips to convert any floating line into a sink tip. This is convenient if you don’t want to carry an extra spool or if you don’t plan to fish sink tip lines frequently and don’t want the expense of an extra spool and line. However, my experience with these is that they hinge at the connection with the floating line and cast terribly.

As with nearly everything in fly fishing, you need to figure out what’s best for your task at hand. Where are you going to be fishing? What are you trying to do? What size rod will you be using?

Hopefully, this sheds a little bit of light on sink tip lines. They can be terribly confusing, mainly because every manufacturer seems to have their own way of describing them. You really need to read through the fine print in the description of the lines to figure out what’s what. Your best bet is to talk to someone at a local fly shop. They can really break down the differences for you.

Flies: Pat’s Rubber Legs Micro Jig

Pat's Rubber Legs Micro JigOnce again, this is my variation of an existing pattern.  Pat’s Rubber Legs is a stonefly pattern created by Idaho guide, Pat Bennett. But keeping it real, Pat’s pattern is really just a variation of an older pattern called a Girdle Bug. I talked about this before, but what constitutes an original fly pattern and what is simply a variation on an old standard is a REALLY fine line!

The Girdle Bug also originated out west and is a very effective imitation for stoneflies, hellgrammites and any other big meaty nymph. Found most commonly in size #8 and bigger, it consists of lead wire, a black chenille body, and white rubber legs on the rear, front, and sides of the fly. Pat’s Rubber Legs is the exact same thing but has variegated chenille rather than solid black, and uses a material called Spanflex rather than traditional round rubber legs.

Both are great patterns. I personally don’t see any added value to the Spanflex material, but I do think the variegation provides a great and simple color contrast. Other stonefly patterns like the Bitch Creek Nymph and even my own pattern, Rob’s Hellbender Nymph, have used a weave to achieve this contrast. But I sure like simple. And using the variegated chenille is way simpler than weaving!

While I have had a lot of success with the traditional Pat’s Rubber Legs, it, like many big stonefly patterns, has a real tendency to hang the bottom. All heavy nymphs do. Many fly tyers, including me, have tried to strategically weight flies to reduce bottom snags with varying degrees of success. Of course, fly tying, like most anything else, has evolved over the years.  And in recent years, the evolution of European Nymphing has given us the micro jig hook.

Spin fishermen regularly use traditionally jig hooks. But they are just too heavy to cast effectively with a fly rod.  However, the newer micro jig hooks come in much smaller sizes. They use a specially cut tungsten bead to fit on the uniquely shaped hook. The result is a hook and bead combo that allows the fly to ride hook up – most of the time. Certainly with the faster and generally varied currents found on most trout streams, you’re going to get some rotation on the fly.

To accommodate for this, I, and many other fly tyers, tie flies on these style hooks “in the round.” This means the fly essentially looks the same from any angle. Flies tied with a very distinct top and bottom can look strange when the fly isn’t oriented properly.  Tying the fly in the round insures the fish will get the proper view of the fly no matter how the hook is oriented.

I saw Pat’s Rubber Legs, with its simple, variegated body, as a perfect candidate for a micro jig style fly.  The result is a heavy fly that you can fish deep and slow with minimal bottom snags. In addition, I frequently like to incorporate just a little flash to my nymphs for a subtle suggestion of movement. For my variation of this pattern, I added a small amount of Ice Dubbing behind the head. It’s a great fly anytime of the year. I particularly like it in the colder months of winter when deep and slow is the name of the game. Give it a try!

Pat’s Rubber Legs Micro Jig

Hook: Orvis 1P2A Tactical Jig Hook #8
Bead: Black 1/8” slotted tungsten
Thread: Brown 6/0
Body: Brown and yellow variegated chenille
Thorax: Pheasant Tail Ice Dubbing
Legs: Wapsi pumpkin barred Sili-Legs

Note: This recipe is for the golden stonefly nymphs common throughout the Smokies. You can alter colors to better imitate stoneflies or even hellgrammites in your local trout or smallmouth streams.

2018 Holiday Sale

Santa Claus Tying FliesThe Overview: On December 3rd, the first ten people to book a guided trip or purchase a gift certificate for a guided trip will get a second guided trip free.  If you’re not one of the first ten people, you can still buy one guided trip and get a second for 50% off anytime between December 3rd and December 24th. Just mention this offer.

Read below for full details and frequently asked questions…

 How many can I buy?  The only restriction is on the free trips.  For those first ten people to contact me, there is a two-trip limit on the freebies, meaning you can buy two and get two free.  Past that, there is no limit on how many you may purchase for the 50% offer, so if you want a total of twenty guided trips, ten of them will be half price.

Do I have to book the date(s) when I purchase?  No.  While you are welcome to reserve specific dates, I can also just mail you a gift certificate.  You may book your trip(s) at a later date and apply the gift certificate.

Do all gift certificates have to be for the same person?  No.  Use two as gifts for the same person or for two different people.  Give one as a gift and keep one for yourself.  Or use them all for yourself – I won’t judge you!

How do I purchase gift certificates?  Unfortunately, I don’t currently have a way to offer this deal on gift certificates online (though I’m working on it).  To purchase, just call me at 865-607-2886 with a credit card.  I’ll get some basic information, like who the certificates are for, and mail them to you.

On Day 1 of the sale, December 3rd, there tends to be a mad dash to get the free trips.  Since I am just one man with a cell phone, I am requesting that you email me at guide@fightmasterflyfishing.com and just indicate that you’re interested in the offer.  I will call you back that morning to get information.  The first ten emails I receive will qualify for the buy-one-get-one-free offer.  If I get twelve emails at the same time, I’ll honor the offer to all twelve people.

How early can I contact you?  Don’t try sending me an email at midnight on December 3rd.  That’s cheating.  The sale officially begins at 8:00 a.m. EST on December 3rd. All emails received at or after 8:00 a.m. will qualify.

How do I redeem my gift certificates?  You will now be able to book online using your gift certificate!  Go through the online booking system as always and at the payment screen, enter the coupon code on the gift certificate.  Of course, you can always contact me via phone or email and I will make the reservation for you.  Just mention that you have a gift certificate.

 How long will I have to use my gift certificates?  All gift certificates will have an expiration date of 12/31/19 and I ask that you please be mindful and respectful of this.

Why is there an expiration date?  In addition to this annual offer, I donate multiple trips every year to charity fundraisers.  I am happy to do both, but when free trips from years past blend with free trips of the current year, my calendar gets so full of free trips that I don’t have enough available days to produce revenue.

Are there any other restrictions?There are no seasonal or weekend restrictions. If the date is available, you can reserve it with your gift certificate.  All of the same cancellation policies apply and there are unique policies for gift certificates.  You are encouraged to view all Policies and Restrictions found under Booking and Rates on the web site.

Flies: Soft Hackle Wired Caddis

Soft Hackle Wired Caddis Fly Pattern
Soft Hackle Wired Caddis

Caddis have always seemed to be one of the most overlooked and under-imitated aquatic insects in the fly fishing world.  Maybe it’s because they haven’t written about caddis as much as their sexier mayfly cousins over the years.  I mean, they gave mayflies names like Pale Morning Dun, Quill Gordon, and Gray Fox… just to name a few.  They gave caddis names like Green Caddis, Brown Caddis, Black Caddis…

Caddis Larva
Caddis Larva

Regardless of the lack of respect given to caddis over the years, they have always been and continue to be abundant in nearly every body of freshwater and a staple in the diet of trout everywhere.  I have numerous caddis patterns that I fish seasonally in the Smokies, but one that finds its way into the line-up more than any other is the Soft Hackle Wired Caddis.

There have been a number of wire body caddis patterns over the years and this is simply my variation on similar recipes.  I sometimes tie it without a bead, but most often with a black tungsten bead at the head. It fishes well on a dead drift under a strike indicator but, especially when caddis are emerging, can be very effective fished with a drift and swing method.  Learn more about this method and other similar techniques in this article on Active Nymphing.

Soft Hackle Wired Caddis

Hook:#18 – 12 TMC 2457 (or equivalent)
Bead:Black tungsten to match hook size
Body:Small chartreuse wire*
Back:Peacock herl woven between wire wraps
Thorax:Black or brown Wapsi Life Cycle dubbing*
Hackle:Black or brown hen*

*You can substitute other colors to match specific caddis species

How Stuff Works: Packs and Vests

Guided Fly Fishing in the Smoky MountainsAs with most things in fly fishing, fishing packs and vests have come a long way over the years.  The great thing about that is you now have a seemingly endless array of ways to carry and organize your on-stream tools and accessories.  The bad thing is those seemingly endless choices can be a bit overwhelming.

There is certainly no right or wrong pack or vest.  The best option for you will boil down to how much stuff you plan to carry. Where you plan to carry it (backcountry or more roadside) is another factor. And how do you want to organize things? As with fly rods, the more diverse your fishing adventures are, the more likely you’ll need multiple options. What might work well for backcountry trout fishing may not work very well wading saltwater flats.  But for most folks, you should be able to find one system that works for all of your fishing needs.

Again, what works best for me may not suit you at all. I’m not going to try to tell you the best product.  However, I have had the opportunity over the last 30 years to use most every style of vest/pack.  I’ll share below what I believe are pros and cons of each.

Orvis Fly Fishing Vest
Fly fishing vest

Vests: For decades, this has been the standard for carrying fly boxes, tools, etc. on the stream. While there have been some changes over the years, the basic concept is still the same. This is still the choice for many anglers.  One of the greatest benefits of a vest is that with individual pockets for nearly everything, it’s really easy to keep things separated and organized.  And the design of the vest is such that you can keep most of those items quickly and easily accessible.  Most vests will also have larger compartments on the back for items that you may not need to access as frequently, like a rain jacket or lunch. D-rings on the back of a vest also make a great place to attach a net where its out of the way but easily accessible with the addition of a magnetic or clip attachment.

While there have been numerous improvements over the years, the biggest complaint with vests is that they feel heavy. You carry most of the weight on your neck and shoulders.  Another downside is they do not wear well with a backpack.  If you like to do a lot of backcountry fishing, you may want to carry more safety and comfort provisions. That often necessitates a backpack in addition to your fishing gear.  It can be difficult to comfortably and practically wear a backpack when the straps are going over full, bulky pockets on a vest.

Umpqua Hip Pack
Hip pack

Hip Packs: You wear these around the waist on the rear when not fishing. Rotate to the hip to access items in the pack. Probably their greatest advantage is that they stay out of your way when fishing. This offers total freedom of movement when casting, etc. You can also add accessories (built in to some packs) to a net.

The biggest downside to a hip pack is that it doesn’t keep items as organized and it can be more difficult to access those items.  Additionally, the hip pack, by itself, usually does not have the capacity to carry larger items like a rain jacket or lunch.  However, a hip pack does wear comfortably with an additional backpack. Many will use the hip pack alone when fishing closer to the car and add a backpack when fishing in the backcountry. Finally, these are not the best option for someone who does a lot of deep wading.  Although, there are a lot of waterproof options now.

Fishpond chest pack
Small chest pack

Chest Packs: These, as the name implies, are designed to be worn on the chest. They come in a number of sizes and they organize things in much the same way a hip pack does. But items are far more accessible on your chest and high out of the water.  Many will have a D-ring on the rear of the neck strap for carrying a net. I would include a chest fly box (like I use) in the same category as a chest pack, except that there is no need for separate fly boxes.

Richardson Chest Fly Box
Chest Fly Box

Some don’t like having a cumbersome item on their chest and some of the larger chest packs can be quite cumbersome.  Smaller chest packs are very comfortable but don’t carry as much stuff.  In either case, you won’t have enough capacity to carry large items but like a hip pack, you can easily wear a backpack with your chest pack to carry more things when traveling far from the car.  Some companies even make “fishing backpacks” designed in such a way that a compatible chest pack can clip to the front of it.

Orvis Sling Pack
Sling pack

Sling Packs: These are the latest trend in fishing packs. They’re designed to be more accessible than a hip pack and more out of the way than a chest pack.  They’re worn diagonally across your body so that they can be easily “slung” around to your front when you need to get to it.  It can then be “slung” around and secured out of the way on your back when you’re fishing.  They come in small and large sizes depending on how much you need to carry.

These packs are well designed and very comfortable but even the big ones don’t have enough capacity to carry everything you might want to take on a trip deep into the backcountry. On such a trip, I typically carry a rain jacket, lunch, first-aid kit and plenty of water.  I also regularly carry my wading boots in on long hikes. You need a backpack to carry those items. A sling bag just can’t be worn and utilized with a backpack.  The other downside to a sling bag is there just doesn’t seem to be a good place to carry a net (if needed) without it getting in the way.

Orvis Fly Fishing Lanyard
Fly fishing lanyard

Lanyard: A fishing lanyard is basically a necklace for carrying your essentials around your neck.  Most will comfortably carry and organize nippers, forceps, tippet, floatant and small fly box.  By itself, this is for the absolute minimalist.  For others, it may be a way to keep essential, frequently used items immediately accessible while carrying other less frequently used items in a hip pack or backpack.

The downside is fairly obvious with a lanyard.  It has almost zero capacity.  There is no place for rain jacket, lunch, water, camera, leaders, multiple fly boxes, etc.  In my opinion, the only reasonable use for a lanyard would be in a boat or in conjunction with another pack as mentioned above.

Flies: Tellico Nymph

Blackburn Tellico Nymph Fly Pattern
Blackburn Tellico

My friend Walter Babb said that most people’s favorite fly is the fly they happened to have on the first day the fishing was really good.  The implication of his statement is that more often than not, it’s the archer, not the arrow.  When you present it well and the fish are feeding, it probably doesn’t matter what your fly is.  And if the fish aren’t feeding?  It probably doesn’t matter what fly you have on!

But you had that fly on the first day the fishing was good. Now you have confidence in it.  Now you tie it on first and leave it on longer.  I have countless fly patterns that I abandoned because they didn’t catch fish the first time I tried them. All too often, that first time was after I tried everything else.  Nothing was working that day!

With all of that said, I have, by far, caught more big brown trout in the Smokies on a Tellico Nymph than any other fly.  But, you guessed it… the first big brown trout I caught in the Smokies was on a Tellico Nymph.  I have confidence in it.  And since most of the big browns I caught over the years were either spotted first or caught during “favorable brown trout conditions,” I put a Tellico on in anticipation.  So, it’s a bit deceiving.  Who is to say I wouldn’t have caught those fish on a Prince Nymph had I chosen to tie one on?

Nevertheless, the Tellico Nymph is a good fly and it’s been around a long time.  Its exact origins are unclear, though most think it was obviously created and first fished on the Tellico River in East Tennessee.  It has definitely been around since the 1940’s, but some estimate that it may date back to the turn of the 20thcentury.  In any case, the Tellico Nymph is the most famous fly from this region. It still accounts for fish in the Smokies and all over the world.

In addition to its origin, there is some confusion as to what the fly imitates.  Many contend that it represents a caddis larva.  Others are just as certain it imitates a mayfly nymph.  To me, there is absolutely no doubt that it represents a golden stonefly nymph.  The coloration and size are consistent with that of a golden stone, and the Tellico River is known for its abundance of these nymphs.

As with any popular fly that has been around for this long, there have been a number of variations on the pattern over the years.  Rick Blackburn devised personal favorite.  I tie most in size #10.

Blackburn’s Tellico

Hook:3XL nymph hook #12 – 6
Thread:Dark brown 6/0
Weight:.015 to .035 lead wire (depending on hook size)
Tail:Mink fibers (I often use moose as a substitute)
Rib:Gold wire and 2-3 strands of peacock herl
Wing Case:Section of turkey tail – lacquered
Body:Wapsi Stonefly Gold Life Cycle dubbing
Hackle:Brown Chinese neck hackle, palmered through thorax

Spotting Fish

Rainbow Trout in Flat, Shallow Water
A 14″ rainbow feeding in flat, shallow water

In some fly fishing scenarios, spotting fish is absolutely critical for success.  Fishing the saltwater flats for bonefish, redfish, tarpon, etc. or the freshwater mud flats for carp will provide little more than casting practice if you can’t see the fish.  In other scenarios, such as fishing a mountain trout stream, you can tell where fish should be by reading the water, and you can catch a lot of fish just by fishing likely spots.  But even when fishing trout streams, the ability to spot fish in the water can sometimes allow you to locate and target larger fish.  In the fall, this is particularly relevant in the Smokies as large brown trout begin moving into flatter, shallower water preparing to spawn.

Spotting fish can be difficult to learn and there is no substitute for years of experience and practice, but there are a few things that can help you get started.  The best place to start is with a pair of polarized sunglasses.  The next thing to understand is how trout see, because as you seek out vantage points from which to spot fish, you want to avoid spooking the fish in the process.  Here is an article on trout behavior that goes into a little more detail. Now we’re ready to go spot some fish.

Start by looking for fish in slower water.  The more broken the surface is, the more difficult it will be to see through it. If possible, try to find a higher vantage point from which to look.  This will greatly reduce the amount of light refraction from the water’s surface.  Just remember that the higher up you get, the easier it will be for fish to pick up your movement.  Avoid standing erect on a large boulder, as your silhouette will be far more pronounced.  A high bank with a wooded backdrop is ideal, but you’ll still want to keep your movements slow and minimal.  If you are on a large rock above a pool, get on your belly and peek over the edge. Remember the old westerns where the Indians were looking off the rocky bluffs about to attack the wagon train? That’s the idea.

Now that you’re in position, take your time.  It’s extremely rare that you’re going to step up to a pool and immediately see a 27” brown trout.  You have to methodically scan the pool.  Start by reading the water and looking for fish where they should be.  Look for obvious feeding areas in and around current lanes and foam lines.  Look for areas with obvious cover under and around big rocks and/or fallen trees.  They blend in REALLY well, so look long and hard and train your eye to look through the water rather than at it.

It’s hard.  You’ll spot plenty of fish that turn out to be rocks or pieces of wood.  I once spent 15 minutes casting to a plastic grocery bag hung on an underwater limb. It had the exact shape and movement of a trout!  I was in the water and my buddy was above me, watching from a bridge.  We were both certain it was a fish!

Trout Feeding in Slow Water
There are four trout in this photo. Can you see them?

Movement and shape really are the best giveaways and that’s why it’s so important to take your time and give long looks to those likely spots.  You may not see anything at first, then you see a little movement and suddenly the fish is visible.  And once you spot one, you often begin to notice others around him.  Watching the actual stream bottom, especially on sunnier days, can be helpful too.  The movement that you often detect is the shadow of the fish.

Another thing to look for is a flash near the stream bottom.  The eyes of a trout are positioned in such a way that they look slightly upward.  When feeding on nymphs on the bottom, the trout has to angle his body to see below and will often “twist” his body when he eats the nymph.  When this occurs, his white belly reflects light and produces a flash.  This is always helpful when looking for fish, but especially in faster water.

All of this is easier the more familiar you are with the stream bottom.  If you have a favorite pool, maybe one where you spooked a big fish before, keep going back there and looking.  You will inevitably begin memorizing the stream bottom and will more quickly and easily be able to differentiate between rocks and fish. Again, it’s not easy and it takes time but like most things, the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

So, you’re starting to spot some fish… now what?  Don’t just jump in and start casting the second you see a nice one.  Keep watching.  What is the fish doing?  If you see a big fish just hugging the bottom, he’s not feeding and you’re wasting your time casting to him.  But good news… you found a big fish.  You might come back closer to dawn or dusk when he is more likely to be feeding.

Smoky Mountains Little River Brown Trout
This 22″ brown was spotted and observed for nearly 15 minutes before approach

If you spot a fish up in the water column, he’s likely feeding.  Keep watching him.  Is he looking up?  Does he consistently feed to his right?  Is he staying in one place or is he systematically rotating to different locations within the pool?  Pay attention to all of these things and then you can plan your attack.  Sometimes with big fish, you’re only going to get one shot and you want to make it count.

How much time you spend looking depends on you.  I know guys that do little more than target big brown trout, and they spend far more time watching water than they do fishing.  For me, it depends on where I’m fishing and the conditions.  If I’m fishing pocket water on a high country brook trout stream, I’m not going to spend much time, if any, looking for big fish. I’m going to cover a lot of water and hit the likely spots.  If I’m fishing a big pool on a brown trout river, I’m going to spend at least a few minutes looking before I jump in.  If I’m fishing that same big pool in late fall, I’m going to look a lot more thoroughly!