Our Man In Canada
April 17th, 2000

Spring Brook Trout
Big Water - Brook Trout

Text & Photos By Scott Earl Smith

The first time I ever fly fished for brook trout was on a tiny meadow stream between two large beaver dams. The inky-black water was perhaps three feet deep at its deepest point, and, if so inclined, you could likely jump to the other bank with a good run. The brook trout in the stream came eagerly to small, traditional wet flies. They were mostly eight or ten inches long, and the biggest of the day was a whopping twelve inches. My heart raced when it boiled on my fly.

Nipigon River Brook Trout

This, I presume, is the brook trout experience most fly anglers are accustomed to. But, now, fifteen years later, the brook trout gear stowed in my equipment room is formidable, high-tech assault stuff, and I realize that the pursuit I've undertaken for big brook trout on big water is now an entirely different game. A game where twenty-inch brook trout are more the rule than the exception, and fifteen-inchers are considered "twinkies." Of course, it helps that the place I'm fishing is Ontario's world-renowned Nipigon River, where the world record brook trout of 14 pounds 8 ounces was caught in 1915. As I'm the eternal optimist, I suppose it's possible that another fish of that stature could come from this big, brawling river. But I do know for sure, first-hand, that "brookies" ranging from five to seven pounds are caught on a regular enough basis to keep me flogging the water vigilantly every summer. Brook trout fishing here is unusual - unusual not only because of their size, but also because of the unusual techniques we employ to catch them.

Fly fishing for big brook trout, and for that matter any other salmonid, in a deep, fast river is tricky business. So tricky that many anglers write off fly fishing altogether and opt for spinning gear and deep-diving lures and plugs. But if you're like me and you're not content unless there's a length of polymer between you and your fish, there is a way to conquer.

Quiet water, big flies, and the right jive.

The first step is to gain an understanding of where to find trout in big water. For the most part, game fish in big, deep rivers are bank-orientated. This is because they can find all their required needs near structure along the bank. Fish will not hold in blasting current twenty-feet deep for the chance at a mayfly or even a minnow. They'll opt for quieter water along a riprap bank or behind a sunken island, logjam or gravel bar and wait for the food to come to them. Think like a fish, or at least put the concept into human perspectives: would you drive taxi in Metro Toronto for two-dollars an hour? Once you get a grip on this concept, you'll save hours of fishing time by not hurling ninety-foot casts into empty water.

Big Flies for Big Fish! The next step: think big. Big fish in big water like big things to eat, especially if they're going to expend any amount of energy in the pursuit (back to the cab-driving analogy). Large streamers that represent baitfish, crayfish and sculpins are worthy of a good chase by a trout. On the Nipigon, we fish rabbit-strip streamers 3 1/2 inches long regularly. Trophy-sized trout need large prey to sustain themselves. They didn't get big by munching on tricos - believe me.

Not only does your fly need to be near the bank (or at least near some structure), and represent a large, natural source of food, it needs to look and act like the real thing. This means putting some action on your fly. Forget the stiff-legged, stiff-wristed, mime-like swing of the English wet fly; get into the groove and pump that fly. Flex those knees, loosen up those hips, put a big grin on your face and pump the rod with your wrist and make that fly look like a darting minnow. Strip the fly right in front of your feet so you can see the action while you work the rod tip. Experiment with it until you find the right jive. Quite often the movement you impart to the fly can make the difference between a fishless day and one that will go down in "the best of" your fishing journal entries.

While I'm talking about the movement of the fly, I should mention the most fatal mistake I've seen on the river when retrieving flies with big, trophy brook trout following - stopping the retrieve. Call it brookie-fever if you wish, but I've seen it happen a number of times now. When a big brook trout is following a fly, don't ever stop the retrieve. The fish stops as well and slowly turns and swims away, because something in his natural-prey-memory-chip tells him that fleeing baitfish don't stop and wait for him to catch up. Keep the retrieve constant or even speed it up if you notice a trout following your fly. If you can manage it, a change in the direction of the fly often produces a strike.

Heavy gear and laid-back casting

Putting all these concepts into play on a big river like the Nipigon is not quite as simple as I've articulated here. You need a good boat, a capable handler, and a repertoire of advanced casting skills. You'll need to place your fly right next to the bank, work it like a real baitfish, and quite often swing it deep through the holding water. To accomplish this you'll need a steelhead-sized rod and reel and some serious sink-tip and shooting head line systems. Moderate sink-rate lines have no place on big, fast rivers; you need to present your fly deep as quickly as possible. Several line manufacturers, such as Scientific Anglers, Cortland and Teeny, make heavy duty sink tips as long as 30 feet. Another way to go is with custom-made shooting heads made from Scientific Anglers Deep Water Express. This heavy line comes in a 30-foot length and is cut into varying chunks for fishing different depths and finished off at each end with a Cortland leader loop. The line comes with a chart showing the appropriate lengths of Express that can be handled by varying rod weights. For example, with my Sage 796 RPL+ I can nicely handle up to twelve feet of an 850 grain Deep Water Express. The advantage of the Express system is that you can make up a number of heads in varying lengths without carrying extra reel spools.

Casting all of these lines requires a great departure in technique from traditional dry-line casting. I've noticed that most anglers have difficulty mastering heavy sinking lines for the first time, and notably so if they're accustomed to size 16 dries on nice 8-foot bamboos. Put a guy like this in your boat and it's hardhat country - if you get my drift. The cast, simply put, is reminiscent of casting an apple on a rope: you must keep your back cast on a sidearm plane and the forward cast on an overhead plane all the time keeping your rod fully loaded with maximum tension on the fly line. And slow the cast down. This notion doesn't seem to sink in with the dry fly types so I'll paint you a little word picture: Take one of those dry-fly casting videos with the crisp swish, swish, swish of the expert slow down the frames on the VCR until the cast goes wwoooooooshhh, wwooooooooshhhh. Get the picture?

This doesn't mean you cast without using any muscle, though. You need to really put your body and your arm into the cast to hold the heavy line in the air. When you release the line to deliver the cast, launch the line high so that the trajectory carries the fly as far as possible. And, please, dispense with all those false casts. Casting a sink-tip is as easy as a quick pick-up, one false cast to change direction and then let it fly.

The right boat

The Right Boat for the Job
Once you've got your mind around all these things, the cast, the fly, the action and so on, you'll want to fish the water effectively. This will require a good, stable boat with a casting platform clear of obstructions so your fly line isn't encumbered by things strewn about the deck. The best way to fish the Nipigon, or any other similarly big, fast and deep river, is to work the bank from a boat. On many rivers, drift boats will do the trick, but on the Nipigon, numerous lake-like sections of river make drifting impractical. In addition, you simply can't hold your boat safely in many places with an anchor. Instead, the boat must be held in the heavy current with a quiet, smooth-running motor while the bow caster methodically works the shoreline. At present, I'm fishing the river with a 16-foot Princecraft Starfish Deluxe with a 35 hp Johnson motor, which seems to have the elbowroom and stability for casting without being overly big and noisy. I've seen folks fishing the river in both cabin cruisers and canoes, and, at both extremes, these are less than desirable.

The path of the fly as it angles from the bank and sinks gradually as it sweeps midstream is similar to the wet fly swing a salmon or steelhead angler employs from the bank, except that it is exactly a mirror image of that, sweeping from the bank to midstream and not the other way around. The technique works well, and, when you think about it, a baitfish dislodged from its holding lie along the bank might just angle downstream and head for cover in the deep. Takes from big brook trout are thunderous with this method. If they're on the bite and they've decided to intercept your seductively jiving fly, there will be no pondering about what's going on when a big fish climbs on for the ride.

Spring 2000 issue

Fighting a big fish from a boat on a river in the current, twisting and turning you about, is not quite as tricky as it sounds. For one thing, if the fish decides to head downstream, as they often will, you can easily follow them (unless there is a downstream obstruction or hazard - as on the Niagara for example) and simply wait for them to tire before finally slipping the net under them.

And there you have it: big fish, big water, big dividends. Try it some time - either on a trophy brook trout river like the Nipigon, or on any number of Canada's brawling salmon, steelhead and trout rivers - places where the faint of heart and frail of backbone fear to tread. ~ Scott Earl Smith

We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!

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