As I reeled in my line to change my fly yet again, it took just a glance to confirm I needed a new leader tippet. I’d tried six dry-fly patterns on just one pool alone and had previously visited three different spots on two other streams. Wading slowly and carefully to shore in the brisk current and high water, I settled down under a good-sized birch tree and leaned back against the trunk to refurbish my leader and peruse my fly boxes for the Holy Grail of feather and fur fake insects.
Thunderstorms and constant heavy showers every other day throughout late July and early August saturated Aroostook County. Rivers, brooks and even the lakes were at April levels or higher, right here during the dog days of summer when farmers and fishermen alike are usually praying for rain to break up the hot, dry weather. This year the incessant wet weather has rendered most streams unfishable with dry flies, and the trout, salmon and togue in many normally productive lakes remain very ambivalent to lead core and downrigger anglers.
Weather or not
For three straight weeks whenever I had an evening or weekend day set aside for a casting junket to a nearby creek, either lightning was dancing on the horizon or it was raining hard enough to drown a frog. On the very next night the weather would be tolerable, but by then the brooks were running brown in near-flood conditions. Ten days ago Mother Nature made a mistake and for three entire days our neighborhood got a break with only a bit of drizzle one afternoon. Areas an hour north and south still got their daily quota of liquid sunshine, but somehow we enjoyed a break and although still abnormally high, local waterways actually cleared up and receded a bit.
Driving home from work the sky was overcast with several distant, dark and threatening pods of clouds, but suffering severe withdrawal symptoms I’d made up my mind. Supposing I had to float a canoe in the irrigation ditch along the potato field beside my house, I was going fishing. Leaving a trail of clothes from the front door to the closet, I was changed into fishing duds, had my gear packed in the truck and was back on the road in about 10 minutes. During my record-breaking pit stop, I had still fit in a fleeting kiss for my better half, offered ideas for a late supper and grabbed a protein bar and bottle of water. At least I think there was a smooch involved along the way — just before the door closed I remember her uttering, “Thanks for the house call,” and there might have been some sarcasm involved!
My first stop was at a long, slow stretch of riffles on Three Brooks where I tattooed the pool’s surface with five dry-fly patterns in varied sizes, shapes and shades with no notable interest. Two wet flies later, a trout fin and a march brown, and I’d covered the usually productive run with nary a rise nor strike. A small creek flows in at the head of a long corner eddy on a secluded section of Whitney Brook. A 15-minute drive from Three Brooks via back roads and one rutted farm field trail and I was floating new patterns on this fresh remote trout pool.
Both waterways were stained an alder color but certainly not dark enough to obscure my gray slim Jim, mosquito, light Cahill, Henryville special and hare’s ear dry flies from any trout’s sharp vision. Finally, at the spring’s mouth where the influx cleared the brook water somewhat, an 8-inch trout that was either starving or deranged lazily rose and slurped my size 14 Hendrickson. Drifting a silver doctor wet fly across the runout at the pool’s tail end also coaxed a solid strike, but mere seconds into the fight about a 10-inch brookie rolled to the surface, thrashed and threw the fly.
With twilight closing in I had one other stream in close proximity, and thinking that perhaps three was the charm, I toddled back to the truck and motored cross country to a Prestile Stream pool near the Canadian boundary. My dry-fly offerings had been a bust and only one trout had responded to my wet fly, and now with less than an hour of fishing light remaining, here I was sitting under a tree, changing leader and wondering what feathered concoction to tie on next.
When I heard the truck door close, I was perusing my third box of fly patterns. Glancing across the stream I spotted a figure making his way through the brush and down the steep rocky incline to the riverbank. By chance the other angler was an old acquaintance, and despite seeing my vehicle, it jumped him a bit when I greeted him from under my birch instead of being out on the stream. He offered to move to the lower pool, but noting he was wielding a bait rod, I gave him my blessing to have at it since I couldn’t seem to stir them up with flies.
After threading on a gob of worms and tossing the weighted ball of bait into a slow moving run near shore, my old schoolmate mentioned that the previous evening about this time he had caught five trout between 10 and 14 inches. That he wasn’t spinning a yarn became evident halfway through the very first drift as the line stopped, straightened and started moving laterally cross current. Setting the hook, my old chum enjoyed a short tug of war before stiff-heeling at least a 10-inch trout into the grass along the bank.
Knowing I’d fished over that trout several times, I was a bit frustrated, but when the worm-slinger hooked another brookie a few minutes later, that little light over my head finally clicked on. You can’t catch fish during spring water conditions using summer tackle and techniques, regardless of the time of year. How I could have over-looked something so obvious I’ll never know. I bid the other angler a hasty farewell, wishing him continued luck, and by the time I got to the truck, I was disgusted enough to be able to kick myself in the rear end about every other step. But I had a new plan of attack by then and couldn’t wait to see if my theory was valid.
Low and slow
As it turned out I did have to wait a couple of days for a return engagement due to previous plans, but since there was a gully-washing thunderstorm the next evening, I didn’t miss much. While raindrops pelted against the windows and drummed on the roof and thunder rattled the foundation, I was busy making equipment changes. My reel with the floating fly line came off the rod and was replaced with another reel loaded with a 20-foot sinking tip line, and into one of my fly vest pockets went a spare reel spooled with a full sinking line.
During an Atlantic salmon fishing excursion to the Matapedia River in Quebec a few years ago, my group encountered torrential rains that raised the water level more than two feet. Along with the increased speed and height, debris of every size and shape was swept from the shoreline and floated through the pools in the coffee-colored water. It’s almost unheard of to deal with such a massive rise of water in midsummer and I was heartsick, sure that the trip was ruined.
My guide, the unflappable old veteran Richard Adams, salved my doubt and despair with one laconically posed question, “You really don’t suppose the salmon have up and left the river ’cause of a bit of water, do ya? They’re already plenty wet ya know, and that’s their home.” Truer words were never spoken. The salmon had simply moved from the heavy current to slower runs close to the shoreline, into eddies below the islands and into backwaters below brook inlets where the influx of clear water diluted the muddy river flowage. Using a sinking line and larger, heavier flies, we fished calmer, clearer runs, and in spite of the terrible conditions, I still got a 17-pound salmon that afternoon, hooking it not six feet from the riverbank.
Transposing that salmon river situation to current trout stream conditions and applying the same solution was a simple deduction. It just took the success of a bait fisherman to spark the comparisons. Along with my transfer to sinking lines I also shortened my 9-foot, light tippet tapered leader to a 5-foot, heavier one-piece leader. This would help keep the flies deeper and since the water was dirty and debris-filled, I wasn’t worried about spooking fish with too heavy a leader.
Next, I dug out a different set of fly boxes lined with row after row of large terrestrial, nymph and aquatic imitations. Since the rains were steadily washing all kinds of real bugs, insects, and worms into the streams, food was plentiful, so to entice strikes it was imperative to imitate natural food sources. Also a key to steady action was to place the fly right in front of the fish, because with plentiful choices the trout were not going to leave their set feeding lanes to chase a snack.
To further improve my odds, I selected dark patterns that would show up well in the dingy water, and also weighted flies that would drift closer to bottom. Bead eyes and strands of wire wrapped around the hook shank under the body material are two tricks to add weight, allowing flies to sink and swim deep in moderate current. Among my feather, floss and fur imitators were colorful attractor streamers, a couple of baitfish imitations and a dozen leech, sculpin and matuka patterns.
Three evenings after my humbling, high-water dry fly fiasco, I was back at the same Prestile pool but armed with gear and flies to delve deeper. From the top of the ledge eddy I’d cast, let the fly swing, perform a slow upstream retrieve for a few feet, then strip out another foot or so of line and repeat. Drifting low and slow, my olive woolly Bugger was on its fifth swing when a trout hit hard enough to pull a few inches of line from the reel. After a great tussle in the swift water I gently slipped the hook from the jaw of a 13- to 14-inch brookie.
Over the next hour until dusk forced me to call it quits, I hooked nine more trout, six of which fought to the finish and were then released. A brown sculpin proved most effective, but I even caught one fish on a little brook trout pattern on a size 8 long-shank streamer. Work ran late the next day, yet knowing I would have an hour at most to fish, I just had to verify the success of my low and slow tactic.
This time I chose a deep, slow pool on a bend of Three Brooks where I knew dozens of brook trout holed up. Leech and matuka patterns drew only slight interest from the alder-stained creek, but after tying on a muddler minnow, I hit the jackpot. When that pattern wore out its welcome, a hornberg picked up the slack, and by dark I’d released eight 7- to 12-inch trout and kept one for breakfast.
A handful of warm days resembling summer have actually kept the rain at bay for the best part of the week and stream levels are slowly receding to normal late-summer conditions. Perhaps there will one or two more dry fly trips, but if the rain returns, this time I’m going to be ready.