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Fly Fishing Lessons: Where the Trout Eat

Updated: Feb 18

As anglers we often make fishing much more difficult than it needs to be. This becomes especially true when fishing new water or stretches of river we are unfamiliar with. The draw to a slow pool or perfect foam line running down a seam can be irresistible for most anglers and admittedly, I still find myself gravitating to good looking lies where there are simply no trout to be found. Over the years the amount of time I have spent spinning my wheels on inactive fish, or areas with no fish is lightly depressing but has taught me some great lessons while searching for trout in unfamiliar water.

Fly Fishing Alpine Lakes

One of the largest lessons I’ve learned has come from fishing the high altitude lakes of the Western United States. Many times, during the warmer month of the year, it can be tempting to chase the fish cruising the perimeter of the lake that occasionally rise to pick a hatching insect off the surface. However, these fish can be very selective and spooky depending on the conditions. Wind can ruin opportunities and keep trout down in the water column. Often, these are also solo fish with no competitive drive to feed.

Fly Fishing for California Golden Trout

On an adventure to Northern California, a couple buddies and I took a long hike into the Inyo National Forest for some native California Golden Trout that were reported to inhabit several lakes deep in the mountains. We started our 17 mile hike at 6am that morning and arrived at the chain of three lakes just after noon. After the long hike in I was ready to wet my line. It didn’t take long to spot several trout roaming the shallows. After spending an hour on two fish and receiving only a handful of refusals and one short strike, I was ready to find greener pastures. I moved upstream scanning for more trout and spotted a few more individuals cruising the shallows that didn’t seem like they were in the mood to rise to a fly. After passing on these fish, I made it to the top of the lower lake where a short (40 feet long, 20 feet wide) stream connected to the middle lake. My first cast into the small inlet led to a splashy rise and a subsequent swing and a miss. I quickly laid the fly back into the current and another fish rolled on the elk hair caddis. This time the hook set loaded the rod and after a short fight, I had landed my first golden trout. 9 of my next ten casts yielded rising fish and 6 more trout to the net. I left the hole to my buddies and continued up the middle lake in search of a trophy.

The same story repeated on the middle lake. I fished to the uncooperative cruisers along the lake perimeter, only landing one fish. After walking another three quarters of a mile through the tall meadow grasses along the lake I reached the next inlet. This one was a mere 2 feet wide at most before entering the lake. Hungry trout were absolutely stacked at the mouth and after landing two dozen fish I was ready for the long hike back as I felt I had learned a valuable lesson.

Inlets and outlets of these alpine lakes are excellent places to find hungry fish congregating for much of the year. On windy days, you will also find trout congregating points on the lake that provide a break in the surface current that can funnel insects and other invertebrates. I have found success with Golden Trout, Brook Trout, Tiger Trout, and Cutthroat Trout with this method, so don’t be afraid to put some extra miles on the boots looking for greener pastures rather than settling for the first area that looks inviting.

On the river, knowing the seasonal movements and activity level of the trout is important in finding areas with the most active fish. Winter is often straight forward when trout tend to hang around deeper pools with slower water for comfort. Warmer days with increases bug activity may see these fish slide to the rear of the pool to take advantage of the easy meals, but little tends to change until spring.

As the days warm in spring, trout spread into all parts of the stream, taking advantage of various feeding opportunities. High water from spring rains and runoff position fish in sheltered water until optimal conditions return. This can be a more challenging time of year to pinpoint the best places to fish as trout will be feeding in a variety of areas where they feel they can optimize their food intake.

Late spring and summer bring more consistency to the stream. During periods of hatches and higher activity, trout will slide into areas with quicker water where there will be more food availability. The tailouts of runs and riffles will always provide the heaviest concentrations of insects. These areas are excellent targets for anglers to find the most aggressive trout that can be fooled easily. It is impressive at times just how may trout can squeeze into the skinny, knee deep, riffles and remain unseen.

Fall sees these patterns continue and others emerge. Along the Pacific Coast, late summer and fall bring salmon runs to many streams. These runs provide an additional food source for various trout and char species that reside in the rivers and follow these fish on their annual runs. Rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, and Bull Trout all utilize these runs to pack on calories for their subsequent spawn and the winter months. I learned an important lesson while targeting Bull Trout in western Oregon one October that has better help me understand the behavior of these transitory fish.

Fly Fishing the Metolius River

The Metolius River is unquestionably one of, if not the most beautiful river in North America. Its beauty is only complimented by the colorful Redband rainbow trout and predatory bull trout that call the river home. Each fall hundreds of thousands of hand size kokanee (landlocked sockeye salmon) travel up the Metolius from Lake Billy Chinook on their annual spawning run. Lake run Bull Trout follow these kokanee upstream and join the river resident bulls in feeding on roe and fish weakened from their spawning efforts.

Fly Fishing for Bull Trout

When I arrived in late October thousands of dead kokanee lined the bottom of pools and eddies. My first reaction was that the bull trout would be in a feeding frenzy as the overabundance of protein would encourage more eating. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After four or five hours of fishing and covering two to three miles of water, the amount of expiring kokanee that would make easy meals for any giant bull trout seemed to make any of my streamer flies completely insignificant. I had seen no bull trout in the gin clear waters and was beginning to question my strategy.

I decided to switch gears and begin nymphing with some egg patterns in deeper holes where lethargic trout may be lurking. After a few more hours this did produce a couple Redband rainbows which I was still proud of catching but were not the bull trout I was targeting. Moving downstream I came to a small offshoot arm of the river where a group of kokanee were actively spawning in shallow water. I wanted to get a closer look at one of the females to better dial in the size of the egg fly pattern I had on so I flipped my nymph rig into the middle of the action.

In the blink of an eye a silhouette bolted from the undercut bank where I stood into the middle of the spawning salmon. As my line began to take off I set the hook and was rewarded with my first Bull trout. After a quick picture and release I wondered if it was completely luck. My very next cast to the far side of the group of spawners led to another hookup with a bull trout that came from the far bank.

I fished the rest of the offshoot arm of the river which yielded a couple more smaller bulls. When the action slowed, I continued downstream looking for similar features in the river. Each braided section of river I came to, and a couple more actively spawning groups of kokanee, all produced bull trout. These were not the epic streamer eats I had hoped for that day, but I did manage to figure out where to find the hungry fish. While the giant bulls were like satiated with expiring kokanee there were plenty of smaller and medium sized bulls packing on the calories in an effort to join the group of bid bulls in coming years. This lesson paid big dividends on my trip to Alaska on my search for Dolly Varden and a couple subspecies of cutthroat trout.

For more Fly Fishing Lessons learned the hard way and other Fly Fishing Stories, check out the Georgia Wild Trout website where you can read more articles as well as anything you want to know about Fly Fishing North Georgia.

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