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Fly Fishing: Adapt or Die (Part I)

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

A quote to live by: "Prior proper planning before taking action prevents poor performance"

When fishing for trout, in particular wild trout, it is critically important to be versatile, adaptable, and comfortable being uncomfortable, as well as making sure you plan ahead! This article dives into how to better select water to set you up for the best day possible".

A picture from a gorgeous small stream in the middle of nowhere.

This past weekend I had the fortunate privilege of heading out, on an overnight fishing trip, with a great fishing buddy of mine. We have travelled many places and covered countless miles of stream over the years. What we faced this past weekend though put us in a precarious situation. Just a few days prior to our trip, in Central PA, where we would be staying and fishing, they received a lot of rain. All the main rivers, were blown out, or close to it. This reminded me of some of the things that have helped me get through challenging situations in my endless pursuit of wild trout. Read along as I discuss five things that can make or break a fishing trip.

Tip #1 - Know your options

When I first started fly fishing all I knew is trout lived in cold water. I was unaware of specifically where in the river they may be. I had no idea they migrated throughout a watershed. Moreover, I was oblivious to varying types of streams. I knew there were rivers, creeks, runs, etc. However, what I didn't know is there are three main types of trout streams. They are as follows:

A.) Freestoners; streams that are from rain/runoff. Very seasonally dependent on temps and precipitation. Great to fish in spring of fall.

B.) Tailwaters; streams that are a bottom release from a reservoir/dam. They are very stable water temperature wise, but get low or high based on rainfall. Great to fish year round

C.) Springs; streams that are source fed from ground water. They are both stable for water temperature and level. Great to fish year round

Knowing that PA had just got a lot of rain, here was my thought process......

  1. Check the spring creeks; they were elevated and off color, but had warm winter temps

  2. Check the rivers to see how quickly they were dropping; they were too high and muddy to fish, so I ruled this out

  3. If spring creeks were okay, and rivers were blown out, check the freestrone streams because they rise and fall very quickly after rain within 24 hours.

  4. There were no tailwaters available in the area, so this option was ruled out

We took a chance and "blue lined". In other words, we fished small tributaries to other creeks and rivers. They were elevated but clear and had room for fish to move around. The trade off for this decision was colder water temps. Therefore, we would need to adjust fly presentation on these streams, but it was the best and most logical choice for success.

A picture of Eric taking his first cast into a remote blue line stream that would yield a few hungry brook trout

Tip #2 - Know your resources

In 2023, there are countless resources that make our lives easier and some arguably too easy which provide too much information. What I will focus on here are things I have found to help me as I make decisions on location choice.

A.) USGS- This website has stations, sometimes multiple, on a river to help you track in real time stream flows and water temperature. I focus on a couple things.....

  1. CFS- Cubic Feet Per Second. Be careful with this. Not every river is equal, or the same. 250 CFS on large rivers may be low, but on small streams may mean they are raging!

  2. Water Temperature- Seasonally this will dictate you options. For example, in the summer it will tell you what is simply unfishable (68-70 degrees and up!). Also, not all streams have this measure. They may only include levels.

  3. Historical Trends- Check the mean, median, and percentile heights. This will give you a detailed look into will this be in line with historical data and roughly on par for the course.

Having monitored the USGS from Friday morning to Saturday morning I could see river levels were far too high for comfortable wading, also even some of the spring creeks were in the 75th percentile of levels and much higher than seasonal averages. As a result, I concluded I could expect tiny freestones to have leveled off, even if the rivers were just now starting to drop.

B.) Use State Maps- I mentioned we would be fishing in PA. I know they have an interactive online map. I was able to strategically find 3-4 small streams, that were Class A and Wild Trout designated. This insured wild fish were present, and in some cases detected which type of trout and the density of their population. I was able to pre-select these options to narrow down what I wanted to chase. We were after brown and brook trout, so I searched accordingly.

C.) Check online forums, books, Youtube, etc.- Though I did not explicitly use these resources for this trip, I had prior. Previously, I had looked at an online forum of Fly Fisherman who discussed tactics and streams in PA. I went and searched for videos, read the Keystone Fly Fishing guide, and more. This allows you to scout the area from afar and hopefully make better decisions about where to try.

D.) Google Maps- So basic, but so important! I can use map and satellite modes to view streams. I can check for access points, pull offs, parking areas. What I tend to do is check the satellite view and see how wide a stream truly is. I can see riffles and runs, lay down trees, and much more. This data helps me select sections I wish to explore as well as mark access points to know where to park.

E.) onX- I don't use this app personally. However, I know many who do. This app provides used the ability to see property lines. You can delineate what is public, private, state, etc. As a result, you can feel more comfortable knowing you are fishing water that is open and accessible.

Tip #3 - Know your conditions

Have you ever fell in a stream? Have you done it in the winter? Yea, me too! As a matter of fact, I did this weekend as well. Before leaving I had checked the USGS, so I was familiar with water level and temperature conditions. I had scouted the weather channel to see the highs, lows, precip, etc. All of these factors played into my packing of outfits. Here is what I brought as a result of the conditions:

Base layer with polyester blend, seasonal outfit, jacket, gloves, two pairs of socks for each day, hat, hood, hot hands, and most importantly two sets of extra clothes in case I fall in! Thank God I brought this.

I knew before I left what my conditions were. I avoided rivers I didn't feel comfortable wading in, rivers that fish would be tougher to catch, and If I packed accordingly and over prepared then no matter what situation I found myself in I should be comfortable. And of course, I fell in during my hike back to the car in the skinniest of water that day with only 100 yards to go.

"Be comfortable being uncomfortable"- Peter Williams

Tip #4 - Know your fish

Not all trout are the same. Not only do the look different. They have a variety of unique differences, that based on the time of year, species, water flows, and more they will be found in different places of the stream.

Brook Trout- The best fishing for brookies is usually in the spring through fall. They are opportunistic carnivores. However, they are notoriously skittish. They are located in blue line streams mostly and can be found in the mountains with more freestone streams

Rainbow Trout- Mostly a stocked with on the east coast. Can be found in spring creeks and tailwaters with wild populations as well. They are the worst fish to try and take off a hook or photo with, if you know, you know. Rainbow trout fish well year round usually, mostly because of being in spring creeks and tailwaters. The tend to hold in the faster pockets and seams of a river, as their bodies most readily have adapted to the fast pace of riffles and runs. They are some of the most opportunistic eaters of the trout family.

Brown Trout- Browns are considered an invasive species. They are wary, but not overly spooky. They are opportunistic predators that hunt for large food sources and eat readily in good conditions. They love structure and slightly than average deeper water. I have found them in springs, tailwaters, and freestrones. They are everywhere, and thank God for that!

For this weekend, we knew we wanted to target browns and brookies. As a result, it left us fishing streamers, big nymphs, and even an occasional dry fly for the brookies. We knew where to look within the stream to target them. Thankfully, they were eager to feed as a cold winter is likely around the corner.

A picture of a native brook trout that ate a streamer in a slow pocket of a blue line stream in PA.

Tip #5 - Know yourself

Don't be a hero! I have tried to wade areas that just don't make sense. As a result of that poor decision, I took a spill in a stream where the water was moving far too quickly and I was toppled over, pushed down stream in water over my head, and by the grace of God, found my footing, by accident, mid stream. Thankfully, I was able to back out of what seemed like a perilous situation with no help in sight. In high water events I tend to stick to the banks now and I will bring a wading staff along to give added security.

It is critically important you know if you can hike up a hillside that has an elevation increase of 500-1000 feet. Are you comfortable wading when the water is up or the rocks, or uniquely slippery and covered with algae? If you haven't been using some of the previous resources I mentioned before, how will you know the battle you are up against to chase trout?

Trout live in beautiful places. The reality is those beautiful places can be dangerous. They are not easy to access, nor are the easy to traverse. You, as a fisherman, must plan ahead and have option A, B, C, and maybe even D ready.

When we got to PA, our original plan was to fish a spring creek, and we pivoted. We changed the playbook quickly to a small freestone stream. We were swiftly rewarded with a dozen plus brook trout. From there we changed gears to a small brown trout stream that is spring influenced. Sadly, it was too high and we managed only one fish from it. Lastly, we cracked the code by going to a full blown back woods, rhododendron and briar choked blue line stream. We were blessed with dozens of fish ranging from stocked rainbows, to wild browns, to a surprise native brookie. I knew this stream was an absolute gem. Why? Because I used my resources and I adapted! If I only a plan A, then that trip is dead on arrival. We would have been stuck blaming the weather, the season, or any other thing we could hang an excuse on. The reality is make a fly fishing trip memorable by:

  1. Knowing your options

  2. Knowing your resources

  3. Knowing your fish

  4. Knowing the conditions

  5. Knowing your fis

A picture of one of many willing brown trout , from a mountain freestone stream, to eat a Tasmanian Devil.

Get your boots wet and chase down some fish!

I hope this article, with tips included, helps you the next time you head out to the stream. Be sure to head over to my Youtube Channel and see the latest adventure, head over to the store for euro nymphs and leaders for your next outing, and consider booking a trip for the upcoming season through the website.

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