Trout Behavior (Part 1)

Understanding a Trout’s Vision and Instincts for a Better Approach….

On numerous occasions guiding clients in the Smoky Mountains, I have been met with a suspicious and doubting eye when I provide certain instruction regarding approaching and presenting the fly to wild mountain trout. The reply is often something like, “Are they really that smart?” No, trout aren’t that smart. They have the brain the size of a pea. But the fact that they aren’t that smart is what allows them to be so good at what they do. Unlike us more “intelligent” humans, trout aren’t distracted by health care reform. They don’t watch college football or pay the mortgage. And they don’t care who got voted off American Idol last night. Their entire existence is ruled by instinct. Their only real concerns are receiving enough oxygen, eating, and not being eaten! When your life is that simple, it allows you to remain pretty focused.

Think about a simple housefly for a moment. Trying to catch one is difficult. A housefly isn’t smart. It’s not planning out evasive maneuvers in the event of a human attempting to catch it. First I’ll cut right, then I’ll go up, then I’ll get behind the blinds at the window…. It’s pure instinct. Survival. Something we humans have to go through rigorous, repetitive training to achieve.

One of the biggest mistakes anglers make when approaching fish is doing so from upstream. To a trout, a stream is a conveyor belt of food. It constantly delivers hatched aquatic insects and terrestrials on the surface and juvenile aquatic insects (nymphs) between the surface and the bottom. Trout aren’t looking down the conveyor belt to see what they’ve missed. They’re looking up the conveyor belt to see what meal is coming next. If the trout see something suspicious at the top of the conveyor belt, like you, they’re going to likely quit feeding until they feel safe again. They may even go hide!

So the trout knows I’m trying to catch him? No! But you spooked him. Think about a situation when your senses were heightened. Maybe you’re walking alone late at night on a dark street and you hear a strange noise up ahead. Is it the wind? A stray cat? Another person? A serial killer? You don’t know, so what do you do? Do you race up ahead to check it out? Do you ignore it and keep on as if nothing happened? You would probably stop doing what you’re doing and assess the situation. You might even turn around and go the other way. It’s the same thing if something disrupts a trout’s comfort zone while they’re feeding.

Another interesting way to look at it is if you take the dark street scenario described above and insert a thirteen year old rather than an adult. Due to limited life experiences and a feeling of invincibility, the thirteen year old may proceed with less caution, if any at all. Now you know why big (old) fish are harder to catch than small ones!

You’ll be far more successful if you approach the fish from downstream and cast upstream. This puts you behind the feeding fish where you are less likely to be detected. Notice I said less likely. You can still alert fish to your presence by making a lot of commotion through careless wading. When possible, stay out of the water or right on the edge. When you do enter and move through the water, do so quietly and deliberately. Stomping along the stream bottom and/or splashing through the water will produce excessive vibrations, again alerting the fish to possible danger.

You also want to keep a low profile to remain unseen by the fish. So trout have eyes in the back of their heads? No, but to an extent, they can see things behind them. Trout are predators and prey, and their vision benefits them in both roles. Like humans, they have binocular vision that allows them to see straight ahead underwater. Because of the placement of their eyes, they also have an extended range of peripheral vision, allowing them to see things on either side of them. They use this vision to look straight ahead and to each side. Consequently, there is little distortion and it’s very clear. It’s similar to how we see under water.

Trout Cone of Vision
The cone

But trout also have a cone-shaped field of vision above them that allows them to detect predators from above. Because of the distortion caused by light refracting as it hits the surface of the water, trout are unable to clearly make out objects, so this is used to visually detect movement more than anything else, such as a Kingfisher swooping down to get them.

It’s the same as if you were to lie down on the bottom of a swimming pool and look up. You can see objects but the distortion makes it difficult to differentiate between a person and a tree. But you can pick up movement. However, something that is right on the surface, like a mayfly dun, is clearer to the trout than something above the surface, like a bird. At least the silhouette is much more distinct. This ability is highly effective for feeding on adult insects and terrestrials.

As you’ll notice in the poorly illustrated drawing above, that field of vision does extend a little behind the trout – upward and outward. The fish can detect everything that makes its way into the cone. So, when approaching a trout from behind, how close you are determines whether or not you’re in that cone of vision. Notice however, that a short object can be directly behind the trout and unseen while a tall object would be in the field of vision. This is why many successful Smoky Mountain anglers crouch or squat when closely approaching fish. The lower profile keeps them out of the fish’s “window.”

The other thing you should consider is the type of water you’re fishing. The faster and more broken the water is, the more difficult it will be for the trout to detect you, making it easier for you to get closer to the prey. On the other hand, trout in the slower, flatter runs and pools are going to be able to detect you much more easily and may require you to stay back a little more and put a little more distance on that cast.

In any situation, the more you can conceal yourself, the more successful you will be. Stay low. Wade slowly and quietly. Hide behind rocks and boulders when you can. And for God’s sake, leave the bright orange, hot pink, neon yellow clothing at home. Don’t worry about dressing in full camo with twigs and branches in your hat to catch fish here. Just dress in earth tones. Wearing browns, olives, khakis, and greys will go a long way toward not scaring every fish before you even make a cast!

Check back soon to see Part 2 of this series about how trout feed and how to effectively present your fly.

A Matter of Degrees – Water Temperature

Understanding Water Temperature

Checking Water Temperature
Checking water temperture

One of the most significant factors that determines how, when, or even IF a trout feeds, is water temperature – at least with wild trout. Stocked trout are raised in hatcheries and fed every day, so they are used to eating every day. Water temperature can impact the way they feed but not nearly to the extent it does a wild trout.

Cold Weather Fishing
A cold weather stocker

An ideal water temperature for a trout is in the upper 50’s to low 60’s. If you show up at the river, dunk your thermometer in the water, and get a reading of 60-degrees, chances are you’re going to have a pretty good day – assuming you do everything else right. On the other hand, if you do everything exactly right but the water temperature is 38-degrees, you may not even get a strike.

On a broader scale, I think of anything between 50 and 68-degrees to be reasonable. But there are variables. 52-degrees and falling due to a cold front may result in tough fishing. 48-degrees and rising due to a warm front may produce excellent fishing. Fish will probably be sluggish if it’s 68-degrees and rising in a summer drought. But 68-degrees and falling because of a summer rain may really turn them on.

With warmer temperatures, it’s more about the oxygen than anything. Trout need oxygenated water and typically, the warmer the water, the less oxygen. If water temperatures hit 75-degrees for more than a few days in a row, trout can’t survive. They’ll either search out more suitable conditions or die.

Stream Thermometers
A stream thermometer can be a valuable tool when searching for active trout

With excessively cold water, it’s more about metabolism. As a survival mechanism, their metabolism changes when water temperatures get extremely cold and they don’t require as much food. It’s similar to a bear during hibernation. So if you’ve ever tried to get me to take you fishing in the Smokies in January and I talked you out of it, that’s why. I have great gear and am not afraid of getting out in the cold, but the fish just wouldn’t be feeding.

On some extremely fertile rivers, this may not be the case. There may be enough food through the winter to keep the fish feeding. I know I’ve fished some excellent winter hatches in Montana. But the streams of the Smokies are the opposite of fertile. They’re some of the oldest mountains in the world and consequently very acidic and nutrient poor, which means there is just not a lot of food, especially in the winter.

There are a number of things that can influence water temperature, with air temperature being one of the most obvious. In the mountains, air temperature and consequently, water temperature can vary significantly by elevation. For instance, a river at 2000’ elevation may see an air temperature of 85-degrees in July with a water temperature of 68-degrees. But if you go to a stream at 3800’ elevation on that same July day, you may find an air temperature of 75-degrees and a water temperature of 61-degrees. That’s why I typically like to focus on high elevation streams in the middle of the summer.

Of course, the opposite is true early in the season. The high elevation streams may be too cold while the low elevation streams are starting to turn on. I once guided a local gentleman on a high elevation stream in July and we had a very productive day. He called me, frustrated, the following March. He said he’d just been to the same stream I took him to, did everything the same way, but didn’t even get a strike. In July, the water temperature had been 60-degrees on that stream. When he went back in early March, it had been closer to 40-degrees. It matters.

Tree canopy can also have a big impact on water temperature. A bigger, more open river may not be very productive on a late June afternoon. But a smaller, more heavily canopied stream at the exact same elevation might be very productive. It seems pretty obvious when you think about it, but the more direct sunlight that reaches a stream, the warmer the water is going to get.

Time of day is another big factor. A lot of people think you have to be on the water at the crack of dawn to catch fish. This is only sometimes true when you’re talking about stream trout. In the heat of the summer, very early and very late in the day are probably the times when you’ll find the most active fish, because you’re getting slightly cooler water temperatures. However, if you’re fishing in early March or late November, you’ll likely find more active fish in the middle of the day, when water temperatures are slightly warmer. That’s one of the reasons why our peak fishing seasons are in months like May or October. The temperatures are mild pretty much all day, and the fish are active pretty much all day.

This is all very specific to free flowing streams. Tailwaters are totally different animals all together. When a river is dammed to form a lake, they release water from the dam every day to control flooding and to generate electricity. The river that is formed below the dam from these releases is referred to as a tailwater.

Norris Dam
Many rivers below large dams maintain nearly constant water temperature all year

The water that they pull from the lake to form the tailwater comes from near the bottom of the lake. Because that water is so deep, it receives no sunlight and is basically insulated by all the water above it. So, the water that comes out of the dam is approximately 50-degrees, regardless of time of day, time of year, or air temperature. That’s why that big, wide-open river can support trout. Spring Creeks are very similar because the water source is deep underground, insulated by earth.

How deep the lake is determines how much cold water “storage” it has. That and the volume and frequency of water releases determine how far down river the water stays cold. Your typical East Tennessee tailwater will maintain these temperatures, and support trout, for about 25 miles. So when it comes to tailwaters, you’re always going to have about the same water temperature, making them year round fisheries. With tailwaters, it’s mostly the timing and duration of the water releases that determine when, or even if you can go and how much success you’ll have.

Back to the mountains, water temperature is one of the things that I pay the most attention to when deciding when and where to fish. I’ve been doing this a long time so I just kind of know based on all of the conditions. Until you “just know,” a stream thermometer can be one the most valuable pieces of gear in your bag.

Clouser Minnow

Clouser Minnow
Clouser Minnow

In freshwater or salt, one of the best baitfish patterns around…. I recently went to Perdido Key, FL on vacation. Once a year, my wife and I take a beach vacation somewhere, usually with another couple. And while these trips are more about relaxation and socializing, I always try to work in at least a little fishing, sometimes with a guide. I didn’t know much about this area and never really even took time to research. I just packed some gear and planned to figure it out when I got there.

On our first day, while kicked back on the beach enjoying an adult beverage, I observed a tremendous amount of feeding activity in the surf. Schools of bigger fish were ripping through schools of smaller fish. It was happening up and down the coast as far as I could see. I wouldn’t have to do any scouting after all. All the activity I needed was right outside my back door!

My big problem was that I didn’t know what kind of fish were getting eaten and what kind of fish were doing the eating. Don’t you just love beach problems? My saltwater experience is just as limited as my saltwater gear, so I approached it in the exact same way I would approach an unfamiliar freshwater situation. When in doubt, go generic. It was apparent that they were feeding on some kind of baitfish. And what is the most generic, universal fly for imitating a baitfish? A Clouser Minnow.

The fly was originated by Bob Clouser in 1987. Bob was a fly shop owner and guide in Pennsylvania. He developed the fly for smallmouth bass on the Susquehanna River. I first learned of the fly in the early 90’s and fished it regularly on the smallmouth streams of Central Kentucky. Over the decades, it has been varied in color and style, and has accounted for nearly every species of fish known. Whether freshwater or salt, the diet of nearly every big fish includes small fish. And whether freshwater or salt, most baitfish have some very common characteristics. Most have a long, slender profile, a darker back and a lighter belly, and pronounced eyes that often act as a trigger for predators.

Clouser Minnow Colors
Clousers are tied in almost every color combo

While there are various color combinations to better match specific baitfish, all Clouser Minnows have the above-mentioned characteristics. They also have lead eyes positioned in such a way as to allow the fly to ride hook up. And with their bucktail bodies, they retain very little water. This makes them feel lighter and easier to cast than most other flies their size.

While I most often use this fly for warmwater species, I’ve taken a number of trout on it. It works in tailwaters and even the occasional large brown in the park will eat it. You can bet I’ll fish it more than once in late fall in the park. It’s great when those big browns begin moving before and after spawn. I tie them on traditional streamer hooks for trout, on larger gape hooks for bass, and on stainless hooks for saltwater species. I’ve had success with a number of different color combinations but my “go to” colors are white and black and white and olive.

So the first morning I was at the beach, I got to the water at sunrise with a black and white Clouser tied to my leader. On the second cast into the first school of feeding fish, I hooked up. The ol’ Clouser did it again. Add a couple of speckled sea trout and a whole lot of ladyfish to its list of victims!

Early Season Wet Fly

Early Season Wet Fly

In the Smokies, we typically see some of our best hatches of the year in spring. So, it’s no wonder that once March rolls around, most Smoky Mountain fly fishermen have dry flies on the brain. Count me in that group. I love fishing dry flies, especially to steady feeders during a hatch. But just because there’s a hatch, doesn’t always mean you’re going to have a lot of success with dry flies.

There are always an abundance of nymphs and emergers available to trout in any hatch. Trout can often feed on them more easily and without exposing themselves to potential predators. And there are certain situations that may make them even more reluctant to feed on the surface, such as marginal water temperatures. We see that a lot around here in the winter. Bugs are hatching, sometimes heavily, but you don’t see a single rise. Another scenario that many don’t consider is a dry, sunny day.

During a hatch, many aquatic insects linger on the surface while their wings dry before they can fly away. This makes them easy pickings for a waiting trout. Damp, overcast conditions are great days for dry fly fishing for this reason. The bugs are on the surface longer and the trout are looking for them there. But on dry, sunny days, they are able to get off the water almost immediately, making them a tough target for a trout. In those situations, trout often key in on the nymphs and emergers.

This certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fish dry flies on sunny days or when the water temperature is less than perfect. But when things aren’t going your way during a hatch, you may want to consider changing your tactics. For me, that often means fishing a wet fly. The Early Season Wet Fly is a great one for, you guessed it, early in the season.

Most of the aquatic insects that hatch around here in the early season, until around mid April, are dark in color. So this fly, with its darker body and wing, does a great job mimicking the majority of bugs that a trout might see. Past April, I might fish a similar fly in a lighter tan or yellow color.

I honestly don’t know where this pattern originated. I’m sure there are many traditional wet fly patterns that are very similar. But I believe this particular version originated in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Regardless, I learned about it from the same source that I’ve learned most things about fishing in the Smokies: Walter Babb.

I fish it a number of different ways. On days when I’m expecting a hatch in the afternoon, I might fish it in the morning in tandem with a dark nymph – maybe a Pheasant Tail or olive Hare’s Ear. In this situation, I’m usually fishing it with a dead drift. At the very beginning of a hatch, or throughout a hatch with little surface activity, I might fish two of these flies and allow them to swing in the current. And even during a hatch when fish are actively feeding on the surface, I often fish this fly as a dropper off the back of my dry fly.

In any case, it’s a go-to fly for me in the month of March and a good one to have in your stash. I doubt that it’s available anywhere commercially but if you’re a fly tyer, I’ve included the recipe below. Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Early Season Wet Fly

Hook: TMC 3769 (or equivalent) #14 – 12
Thread: Tan or brown 8/0
Tail: Dun hen hackle fibers
Rib: Copper wire
Body: Mix of grey and tan hare’s ear dubbing
Hackle: Dun hen
Wing: Mallard flank feather dyed grey

Dressing For Success

One of the Easiest Ways to Catch More Trout in the Smokies….

I recently guided a husband and wife on a small brook trout stream in the Smokies. The stream, like most in the Smokies, consisted of a lot of pocket water. That meant getting closer to the fish. Both were novice fly fishers and their skills improved steadily as the day went on. As a matter of fact, their skills were about equal, but as the day progressed the wife was getting 5 or 6 strikes for every 1 strike the husband got.

We were moving up the stream together and they were taking turns fishing. They were fishing the same fly. And as mentioned before, their casting ability, approach, and presentation was nearly identical. What was different, you ask? The wife was wearing a drab green shirt and the husband’s shirt was bright red. Simple as that.

Bright Colors in the Smokies
Look how this white shirt stands out

Casting can be challenging. Getting good drifts can be challenging. Figuring out what the fish are eating can be challenging. But dressing appropriately is one of the easiest things to control and can greatly improve your success on the stream.

Blending in on a Smoky Mountain Stream
Now look how well this fisherman blends in

Years ago, three seasoned fishermen from Montana walked into Little River Outfitters frustrated that they had fished two days without catching a fish. One was wearing a bright blue shirt, another was wearing a white shirt, and the other’s shirt was bright coral color. My good friend, Walter Babb, was sitting in the shop and without pulling any punches, said, “Well, those fish saw you guys get out of the car!”

When the fishermen pointed out that they wore the same clothing in Montana and caught plenty of fish, Walter went on to explain that in big western rivers, your background is the sky. Here it’s the trees and bushes.

Camouflage
This is a bit extreme!

You don’t have to be a fly fishing commando decked out in camouflage and twigs in your hat to catch fish in small mountain streams, but dressing in earth-tone colors does make a huge difference. Think drab greens, browns, tans, and greys when you dress for a day on the water. While bright white t-shirts and orange Tennessee ball caps may be appropriate for game day at Neyland Stadium, they are doing you no favors on the trout stream.

What about strike indicators? They’re bright and colorful. Don’t they spook fish? Sometimes they do, but usually for different reasons. It’s not really the bright color that spooks fish; it’s movement. These are wild trout in the Smokies and they’re right in the middle of the food chain. Any kind of movement, particularly above them, often means a kingfisher or heron is about to swoop down and eat them! The less you blend in to your background, the more pronounced your silhouette is, and the more noticeable your movements are.

Trout Cone of Vision
The cone

All of this becomes more and more important the closer you have to get to the fish, even when you’re behind them. Trout actually have a “cone of vision” above them that even extends a little bit behind them. The closer you get and the higher up you are, the more you will be detected in that cone. So in addition to what you wear, think about how you move through the water to reduce the chances of spooking fish. Move slowly and quietly. Stay low, particularly when fishing in close quarters. See that big boulder in the stream? Don’t fish from on top of it. Stand behind it.

Finally, keep your false casting to a minimum. Fly lines are often brighter colors so that you can see them in order to mend and achieve good drifts. Remember, it’s not the color so much as the movement. Repeatedly false casting a fly line over a trout’s head is excessive movement in that cone of vision and will send him under a rock.

Nippers

Fly Fishing Nippers

It’s Time to Quit Using Your Teeth….

Welcome to the wonderful world of nippers! It’s probably pretty easy to figure out that the primary function of nippers (aka clippers, cutters, snips, etc.) is to cut your line. They are mostly used to trim the tag ends of monofilament after tying a knot or to cut a new piece of tippet from a spool. But as you’ll see, the right pair of nippers can perform a number of other tasks as well.

As I described before, my beginnings in this sport were humble at best and my funds were rather limited. There was a lot I could do with $10 back then and I certainly didn’t want to waste it on nippers – not when I could just use fingernail clippers. That strategy served me well for a time, until I figured out what a lot of fishermen eventually figure out. First, they make fingernail clippers out of very cheap, soft metal. After you repeatedly clip monofilament line, they form a series of nicks in the blade. It’s not long before they become completely useless. Second, when regularly exposed to water (such as every time you go fishing), they rust – quickly.

So you can constantly replace in expensive fingernail clippers or you can do what I ultimately did – drop $10 on a decent pair of nippers. They’re rustproof and will last years before the blades begin wearing out. The other benefit to a good pair of nippers is they are designed to cut line, not fingernails. What does that mean?

When working with smaller trout flies, particularly dry flies, it can be difficult to prevent the large, curved head of generic fingernail clippers from also clipping away some of the hackle. The straight, somewhat recessed blades on fly fishing nippers work and cut in tight spaces. Most nippers designed for fly fishing also include another simple but highly useful feature – a small needle.

When a fly tyer finishes a fly, he knots the thread at the hook eye and coats it with a thin, invisible cement. Well, in the world of fly tying, time is money and production fly tyers apply that cement quickly, often leaving an invisible layer in the hook eye. When you need to tie that fly on your line, you can’t get the tippet through the hook eye because it’s coated in glue. This happens even more frequently with painted, hard-bodied poppers, only the paint coats the hook eye. The little needle on your nippers will clear that layer of cement or paint and preserve your sanity when attempting to attach a fly.

Multi Tool Nippers
Multi-tool nipper

As with most any fly fishing product these days, there are seemingly endless nipper styles and features to suit your needs and tastes. Some have a different shape, boasting a better ergonomic design. Others come with additional tools for tasks such as tying knots or sharpening hooks. Want to take it to the next level? Check out this description of Abel’s nippers:

  • Designed, manufactured and assembled in the USA
  • Anodized 6061-T6 aluminum body construction
  • Replaceable jaws – machined out of premium grade Crucible CPM S35VN stainlesssteel, then heat treated to 58-60rc
  • Engineered to cut 7X – 100 lb mono and braid
  • Two Year limited warranty on the jaws after initial purchase
  • Pin – 316 stainless steel
    Abel Nippers
    Trout print nippers

    And they can be yours in black for a mere $85. For custom colors, they’re just $105. And with a cool fish print… a steal at $165. Yep, $165 for line cutters. All of a sudden, $10 for a pair of nippers doesn’t sound too bad, does it? As with anything else, if you have the disposable income and want to spend $165 of it on nippers, go ahead. I won’t judge you.