ild trout are unusual, especially outside the Mountain West. Many anglers around the country go months or years without ever casting to a wild trout, thanks to stocking programs supplying hatchery-bred rainbows and browns, especially on tailwaters downstream of hydroelectric dams. As a result these anglers may not realize that many of the tactics they employ for stocked fish are less effective (or even completely ineffective) on “natural fish.” Here are ten tips to keep in mind when targeting river-born, often seasonal, wild trout.
#1 Stealth is your friend
Hatchery-bred fish are inured to the presence of humans literally from the egg. These fish have swum in, under, and around human feet all their lives. They may or may not eat your fly, but they are very unlikely to bug out and swim away in a panic merely because you enter the water. Their wild brethren are the exact opposite. A truly wild trout will not tolerate the presence of a human being if it knows the person is there. Whether in lakes, small creeks or large rivers, if you fail to move in a stealthy way, considering where you cast and when and even what clothes you wear, your success rates will plummet. You cannot overdo stealth when it comes to wild fish; on some mountain fisheries I wear my deer hunting clothing and spend a lot of time crawling on my knees.
#2 Use your eyes
Because wild fish are spooky, you are much less likely to accidentally catch one by blind-searching water than on practically any stocked patch of tailwater. This means techniques you may consider to be your bread-and-butter, like Czech nymphing over a run, are very unlikely to bear fruit. Instead, focus on covering a lot of territory and trying to spot the fish before it spots you. Once you see a wild trout, your chances of bagging him go up exponentially.
#3 Wild trout are LESS scared of flies and line
If wild trout were as spooky of flies and flyline as they are of human beings, we would hardly know they exist. Luckily this is not the case. Wild trout may not like large lumbering animals pushing wake over their shoals, but they typically do not give a whit for a passing fly line. Truly wild trout can easily be taken on monofilament tippet up to 0X, using comically large flies. I have seen large seasonal rainbow trout cross a shoal to snatch an extra large Clown Nose egg pattern during their spawning run. I have even caught an 18 inch rainbow trout by dangling the fly out of the rod tip a couple feet and miming a drift into his face. As long as they don’t feel you, they’re unlikely to feel your gear. The only caveat here is to avoid outright lining a fish. Always take an angle when casting at a spotted wild trout; your best shot will be casting directly upstream with a reach cast bringing the line about 20 degrees away from straight over his back.
#4 Learn what trout LOOK like
If spotting wild fish is the name of the game, you need to know what you’re looking for. It’s usually not as simple as “see fish, know fish.” Seasonal wild trout, both rainbows and browns, tend to be drawn upriver by freshets or pulses of water brought on by rain. (Browns typically come up in the fall, rainbows in the spring). With heavier flows, a fish can resemble an abstract painting at best. A good rule of thumb: with rainbows look for a teal or red streak in the water that may move laterally. A rock never moves. Colored up spawning fish will sometimes show their red flanks, while almost all deepwater rainbows have deep green backs which look teal in clean water. For brown trout, which have better camo but favor lighter flows, look for the shadow of the fish. If you see a lengthy dark streak with another streak of exactly the same length next to it, check the rear of the blob for a vertical line. That’s its tail, one of the only unnatural shapes on a fish.
#5 Protect and enhance your vision
Most seasonal wild trout fisheries occur when the sun is still low in the sky, either early or late in the year, and often under dense forest canopies. In these situations you want to have high quality amber or “sunrise” sunglasses, both to protect your eyes from swatting rhododendron or pine branches, and to help you spot fish. Even though this may sound like a “specialty lens,” don’t scrimp, because wild trout are also often some of the biggest you will get a shot at all year.
#6 Cover territory
Seasonal wild trout, especially rainbows, are usually present in rivers flowing down into larger bodies of water (whether lakes or deep rivers), having swum upstream into shallow water so that they can spawn. During their spawning run they will search for Nerds-candy-to-pea-sized gravel in which to cut their redds. When not actively spawning they will often stage at convenient locations, most typically where smaller creeks intersect larger waterways. In order to maximize your chances of finding a staging fish, or even one moving up during a fresh pulse of rain, you need to cover a lot of ground. Mountain wild trout fisheries tend to require up to three to five miles of hiking in a day. Bring a wading staff (or a large net) and use it. In the backcountry the worst thing that can happen is a leg or head injury.
#7 Fish upstream not down
All wild trout are more sensitive to human presence than their quasi-domesticated brethren. With that as a given, consider which way water flows: downstream. Any time you take a step into the river, you are dislodging dirt and sediment which will let fish downstream know that something unusual is occurring. They will literally smell you coming. Conversely, if you only fish upstream, you’ll always approach fish from behind (because their eyes are on the front end, after all), and all your sediment will wash away behind you. Wild trout fishing is more like deer hunting than it is stationary tailwater fishing, which means you need to play the currents, just as a deer hunter considers air currents when he masks his scent.
#8 Use your government-supplied resources
Believe it or not, the U.S. government does a heck of a job providing resources for outdoorsmen. We have free topographical and GPS mapping, not to mention free water level monitoring data. Get to know and love the USGS’s Waterwatch site, which provides real time updates of water levels which can indicate when fish will be moving.
#9 Brookies are wild trout too
Although not as large as their brown or rainbow trout cousins in *most* of their range, brook trout still provide a fantastic opportunity to test out your wild trout skills. Hungry to the point of suicide at times, they can be a great introduction to the principles of stealth, seeing fish, and using hunting-style tactics. Pick up a $30 gas station fiberglass three weight and a handful of foam hopper patterns, and you’re set.
#10 Respect the wild trout
Hatchery-bred fish are a tremendous resource and an important learning environment for almost all fly anglers. And, certainly, many of our nation’s hatchery-supported waters also support populations of wild fish in and amongst the truck-released fish. But a truly wild trout fishery is a rare and valuable thing. While it might be perfectly legitimate to take home a stringer of 11″ stocked rainbows on a tailwater, doing the same thing on a mountain fishery during a strong wild trout spawning run is cutting off your nose to spite your face. No one is going to replace the fish you take home except the fish themselves, and in a wild trout environment with no pellet feeding, growth rates are usually half those of the tailwater fish. Wild trout are thus especially well suited to catch and release angling. And remember, if you keep your spots quiet, you’re likely to be the one returning to catch those fish in future years anyway.