Tuesday, September 3, 2013

As Summer Fades: Muck, Weeds and Big Trout

I knew the fishing would be tough and I knew the water would be low, but when I crossed over the cattle guard and looked at the river, I didn't expect to see a slow moving complex maze of aquatic plants and mucky weeds that had taken over my gin clear prairie stream. My first thought was how would you ever find fish or even get a drift? I'm sure the big browns were eating crawdads and bugs from the weeds. I'm also sure this botanical maze created a perfect haven for thousands of dace and minnows which would provide the nutrients to put big shoulders on trout.

But how would I ever get a fly to these fish. I would be slimed, tangled and ensnared all day and if I was lucky enough to hook a big fish, how could I ever land one. The one good bit of news was that the water seemed cool enough to put the fish on the prowl looking to pack in the  mega-calories available in these weedy buffet lines.

Big predators have big teeth!
Why predators need big teeth!
So I rigged up, not convinced I had any chance of success. As I walked across the heavily grazed alfalfa field, a hot wind, the kind of wind that bakes the life out of you, blew the dust from the tire tracks that snaked through the field. I crossed two irrigation ditches and waded through chest deep grass and thistles to reach the stream. In the first run, dense weed rafts lined both banks. I threw a large foam hopper letting it glide inches from the raft on the far bank. Small dace and minnows immediately mobbed it. They were too small to eat the hopper, but my oh my, the browns must be eating well. 

I caught nothing in this run and nothing in the next. My choice was difficult long casts across weeds rafts creating very short drifts or probing casts up narrow slots that had to progressively go further in hopes of fly eventually running into fish.

In the third run, I saw a tail from a brown rooting in a weed bed that sat hiding in the shadows far under the overhanging willows. I managed on my third try to get a good drift and a 16" brown confidently slurped my fly. It was a start!

As I landed this fish, I saw a big ruckus in the next run. Crawdads were skittering across the water's surface and silvery minnows went airborne... this was no 16" brown. This was a big fat predator, at least 20+ inches, on the make.

Low water with the slicks clogged on both sides and often thru much of the middle!

I walked up to the run collecting great bundle of weeds on the loops in my fly line. As I stood there ripping the weeds off my line and leader knots, I studied the run. It was mostly muck, rocks and weeds, but a grass bank did have some current running against it and I was sure this had to be home base for the fish I had seen prowling the neighborhood. Given his recent meal choices, I wasn't sure a big hopper was enough of a snack, but I lofted a cast against the cut bank and like the overweight, blase' glutton he was, he deigned to nonchalantly add my hopper to his daily intake.

Hooked, he went for the weed banks, burrowing into anything he could find. To land him, I had to perform a major gardening project just to extract him and pull him off the stream's bottom. Taped, he was a thick 21 inches and was the first act in a play I would repeat only a few times in the five hours I fished. It boiled down to this:
Fresh from the factory...

... and after a little sprucing up!

1.) Study the run. 
2.) Pick the most likely, oxygenated ambush spot.
3) Try and get a fly to drift naturally through the spot without it being highjacked by weeds or debris... 
and most importantly,
4) Be patient while the fly agonizingly crawled along. 
For the day, I caught six fish, all over 20 inches and I touched another three or four. Surprisingly, two of the fish landed were rainbows. One shot at me like a rocket slapping me in the leg before heading for the weeds.

Eventually, the hot wind gave way to a light overcast which brought a brief, but welcome rainstorm. The added benefit to the cool air brought by the storm was the rich afternoon light that just made these fish more beautiful and the price paid to catch them, all the more worthwhile.

All the effort made worthwhile!

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