A Pilgrim's Progress

A Pilgrim's Progress

How to adapt small-stream tactics to big rivers

  • By: Jeff Erickson
As a teenage Twins and Vikings fan back in the 1970's, I fortuitously fell under the spell of fly-fishing for trout on the lovely limestone spring creeks of the Driftless Region in my home state of Minnesota. Over time, I branched out to similarly small, bluff country streams in southwestern Wisconsin and even northeastern Iowa. Nearly a decade ago my wife, Mary, and I left Minnesota for Helena, Montana, for new jobs and more expansive landscapes. As Helena residents, we have had the wonderful pleasure of getting to know the immense upper Missouri River, mainly the productive stretch between Holter Dam and the town of Cascade.We had a significant learning curve ahead of us, shifting from streams that often ran at less than 30 CFS, to a river that usually ranges between 4,000 and 5,000 CFS during typical mid-summer flows. My first few encounters with the Missouri were frustrating and largely unsuccessful. I remember fierce winds which beat back my casts, sullen and uncooperative fish, and-most of all-being swallowed up by a massive, hard-to-read river. Searching for clues that reminded me of the small streams back home, I hardly knew where to start. Today on the Missouri-hundreds of trips after that first excursion-I sometimes feel I've attained fly-fishing nirvana, but the journey there wasn't quick or easy. With the wisdom of hindsight, what would I have told myself 10 years ago, knowing what I do now? What humble tips could I offer you if, for example, you're a small stream specialist planning on heading out West next summer for a wade-fishing trip on a large Western river, especially a comparatively slow tailwater like the Missouri? Well, here's the knowledge I've accumulated during my transition from Midwest trout streams to the mighty Missouri: Break Down the Components: Remember confronting that first term paper in college or high school? All you could see was how hopelessly daunting it was. If you were like me, it took a while (years and many incompletes at the University of Minnesota, in my case) to learn how to break a large project down into manageable parts and begin making headway. The first time I saw the Missouri, all I could see was how big it was, and I didn't know where to start. It pays to take a little time and look around. The more you observe, the more you'll see that what at first appeared to be a vast and seemingly featureless expanse of water has a myriad of characteristics that could keep you busy exploring and learning for years. Be patient and the big river will begin to reveal its various facets. Islands and Side Channels: OK, breaking down the components sounds good in theory, you may be saying, but how about something a little more tangible and specific to get started? Look for islands and side channels. Let the river break itself down for you. I'd guess that at least 80 percent of my wade fishing on the Missouri is focused around island systems and associated gravel bars. Often, I'll spend the whole day happily fishing my way around a big river archipelago. What are the advantages of this approach? For starters, trout like the side channels islands create. Side channels provide shelter from the main current, spawning areas and a diversity of habitat, and they funnel insects into a small feeding area. There's often a temptation to think that the biggest fish in a large river are hunkered down way out in the middle, where wade anglers can't reach them. But one of the marvels of big rivers is that some of the nicest fish can often be taken in channels the size of small rivers or even creeks. For an ex-Minnesotan used to small streams, it was reassuring that even on a giant river like the Missouri, I could fish water no larger than what I was used to back in the Midwest. Two obvious places to explore once you're out on the island are the tips and tails. Fish will often lie in the current seams on either side of the tail, and farther down where the current lines merge. Immediately below the tail, there is often a calm area where trout can get out of the current. During and after a hatch, insects can accumulate here, which pulls in fish; trout will also cruise into the shallows just off the tip after sunset looking for bait fish, or Bugger-like morsels you may want to imitate. The upstream tips might have less intuitive appeal, but these can be productive too. The current seams and ripple lines created where the channels sweep past the tip can hold many nice fish. During a hatch, the gravel flats that often fan out above islands can be alive with rises. On one July trip to the Missouri-during a summer of fire, smoke and spectacular sunsets-I landed a 19-inch brown on a caddis emerger and 10 minutes later a 19-inch rainbow on the upstream tip of an island I was fishing. Don't ignore the banks while island hopping. Some of the best side-channel fish may be holding in only inches of water, feeding on Baetis, Pale Morning Duns, Tricos, midges, caddis, ants-or just waiting for a hopper or Bugger to ricochet off the bank above them. Because the wind often presents significant challenges on big Western rivers, side channels offer a diversity of angles and options to help you adjust to the gales. After nearly decapitating yourself with a heavily weighted Woolly Bugger, you'll appreciate the option of wading to the other side of the channel-or to a different channel entirely-to catch a better vector on the wind. An added advantage is that you can often find some shelter even from near-hurricanes in densely wooded side channels, or those with high banks. Generally, big-river trout rise with greater zeal when the surface is protected from wind. On large rivers, wind exposure is often a key factor in determining the day's dryfly opportunities. Sometimes the wind can work to your advantage. Working through a system of side channels during (or after) a hatch, the wind will often push clusters of insects against banks exposed to the breeze. There have been many windy Montana days when a cursory glance revealed no rising fish, but closer inspection uncovered nice fish coming up in scattered spots under the banks where the bugs were being pushed. This phenomenon happens on the main channel too, but these productive pockets are often easier to locate and reach in side channels. Inside Bends and Current Seams: On small streams, the inside bends often tend to be shallow, silty and free of cover-not spots where trout generally hang out. I brought this template with me when I moved to Montana, and it took me a while to realize I needed a paradigm shift. The same hydraulic forces that shape inside bends on smaller streams are also at work on larger rivers, but the fishing opportunities are greatly improved. Big-river trout are often comfortable in the relatively featureless and shallow slack water around inside bends, places where they can avoid battling the main current, but still find plenty to eat, especially during a good hatch of insects that aren't in a big hurry to leave the water (e.g., Baetis on damp, cloudy October days). Further out from the inside bank, the areas where the bottom drops off toward the center of the channel can be prime locations as well. The seams and ripple lines where the current cuts around the bend can be especially good, and should be worked carefully. Toward mid-summer-especially in slow, fertile rivers-these inside bends can get weedy, and the fish will be working and holding along the edge of the vegetation, or even sometimes moving in and poking their snouts up through the weeds. Of course, current seams in all types of water, big or small, are often prime locations. Wherever you see bits of foam and debris sliding past slower water, take a closer look. The fish can take it easy in the slower water, while still capitalizing on the conveyer belt of protein going past a bit farther out in the current. Shallow Water: There are few things in life more exciting than hooking a large rainbow in shallow water, and holding on while it frantically careens for the depths. Don't assume there necessarily needs to be good cover in the river shallows to hold large fish, especially during a hatch. It's almost instinctive to think the biggest trout are holding in deeper water. Sometimes it's true. But I can't tell you how many times I've hooked psychopathic, 18- to 22-inch Missouri rainbows holding in water less than eight inches deep. As always, one key is to be patient and observant, a mantra I continually repeat to myself as I excitedly fumble with my equipment during a good hatch. A conventional rise to a dun can be fairly obvious, but be alert for more subtle signs too-a slight ripple, odd reflection, slowly waving fin or a minnow jumping out of the shallow water. Trust your intuition when you think you see, hear or sense something next to the bank. This advice holds whether you're laying down a size 22 Trico spinner or throwing a size 6 Girdle Bug. Generally, big-river trout are in shallow water because they're hungry. Finally, don't make the mistake I see a lot of anglers committing-leaving the river too soon. The beer will still be cold when you get back to the car after dark. The best shallow-water prospecting on large rivers often occurs immediately before and just after sunset. Once the sun is off the water, trout seem to lose their caution, and are often much more likely to attack a streamer, or slash a stripped-in Elkhair Caddis. Buy a headlamp, and stay for the encore. Ripples, Runs and Eddies: Being mostly a small-stream fly angler when I moved to Montana, I wasn't very familiar with major eddies, such as the one that had trapped a furiously swimming rattlesnake a few years ago as Mary and I canoed past. Last summer, a Missouri eddy I was fishing held a pair of dead, five-foot-long bull snakes, possibly victims of some regrettable misidentification farther upstream. I've learned to love big, slimy eddies, and I now sometimes emerge from Missouri whirlpools-slathered in weeds, mud and rotting bugs-holding a 21-inch brown for my efforts. With all the sticks, beer cans and styrofoam bait containers circling around, you might think you're fishing for largemouth bass or carp. It ain't pretty, but it works. Eddies and coves capture lots of crud, but they can also suck in incredible numbers of insects during a hatch, and the trout know this. Big-river eddies are like the party house where the action keeps rocking after the bars and clubs have shut down. They hold actively rising fish and a seemingly endless parade of insects, particularly those unable to escape the current, such as spinners. On cool, cloudy, damp days, mayfly duns have greater difficulty leaving the surface, and are more easily trapped in eddies. Because of the tricky currents, practice a variety of drag-inhibiting casts, and get used to whipping weeds off your fly and tippet every other cast or so. It's worth it, if you don't mind getting dirty. Structure and Features: The triumvirate of riffles, runs and holes that hold trout in waters from Wisconsin to West Virginia work fine on big Western rivers too. The challenge, especially on relatively sluggish courses such as the Bighorn or upper Missouri, is that these features may be spaced farther apart than you might be used to. Or, they may morph into each other more subtly than they would on a faster river. It's not like walking a small stream, where a 10-minute hike might take you past numerous riffles, runs and pools. On a large, slower trout river you may have to search more intently for these familiar features, but they still pay rewards when you locate them. As on other waters, the mouths of tributaries are worth seeking out, especially when rainbows and browns are on the move during the spring and fall spawning seasons. Similarly, boulder-strewn pocket water-where you find it-can be productive on large rivers. The same goes for gravel bar drop-offs. Big river trout gravitate to riffles for the same reasons as do their smaller stream siblings: abundant insects, enhanced dissolved oxygen and the cover afforded by broken water. Given that a number of large Western rivers are open to angling all year, be mindful that trout tend to move out of the riffles during the coldest months, hunkering down in the deeper, slower water more suited to their languid winter metabolisms. Venture out in January, and the fish won't be as widely distributed as in July, but find the right hole, attach a strike indicator, tie on a scud, beadhead Pheasant Tail, Lightning Bug or Brassie, and you could be in for some action. If the river goddesses are really smiling (i.e., if it's mild, cloudy, calm and damp), you may even luck into some hot midge action on the surface. Look for subtle structure-the small rocky point creating a ripple line, a fence line intersecting the river, the slight depression in the bottom gravel or a protruding beaver lodge. On classic riffle-run-pool rivers like the Big Hole, the structure is often easily discerned. Larger, slower rivers can be more coy. Keep your eyes open, even when it's nearly too dark to see. Last summer, around 10:30 pm, I was walking up a favorite Missouri side-channel to the car when I heard slurps in a little cove behind a few rocks that jutted out. Standing 15 feet behind where I thought I saw the activity, I whipped out a size 18 CDC caddis emerger, and stripped it back toward me through the slack water and bits of foam. In the next 20 minutes I had the best fishing of the evening, sequentially hooking, getting pulled downstream by, and landing several 17- to 20-inch rainbows, plump from devouring way too many caddisflies. The Value of Backing (and Larger Nets): Back in my Midwest spring creek years, I always wondered why experts stressed the importance of backing. In my early days as a fly angler, I didn't have any backing on my reels, and never carried a net. I was too lazy and cheap; why bother? It's probably only a reflection of my own angling deficiencies, but I can't recall a Midwest small-stream trout ever getting anywhere near my backing. Of course, I never tried for Great Lakes steelhead, but the point is, for much small-stream fly-fishing, you generally don't need backing, or a net, especially a large one. Since moving to Montana, however, I've gotten used to seeing backing scream off my reel at astonishingly high speeds. On one occasion last summer, a large brown took all my backing, and I was forced to sprint downstream and across a fast side channel in pursuit, narrowly avoiding a snap-off. Don't even think of fishing large tailwaters without an adequate supply of backing. And if you lasso a rocket, hold your rod high to help keep the line and leader free of underwater obstructions. On those first hot runs, avoid applying a lot of pressure to stop the fish. That's why you have plenty of backing on your reel; what goes out (eventually) comes in, with a bit of skill and luck. Better anglers than I may disagree, but I'm convinced that at particular times, on certain days-big Western rivers or small Midwestern creeks alike-you just aren't going to catch much. Try everything in your box if you want, move upstream or down, adjust your approach, fiddle with your leader and put on some 7X-it doesn't matter. Don't fight it. The wonderful thing about fly-fishing is that there's always a lot more to it than just catching fish. Sit down for a while and watch the world turn on a big river until things change, as they always do.