The lure of small streams – by Dave Binns

How many times have you passed by or over a small, shallow, rock filled stream or the upper reaches of a river and peered in only to convince your self that it wouldn’t be home to target-able populations of fish, let alone anything of any size? Well, as they say, never judge a book by its cover as these type of waters can offer some cracking sport to the light lure angler.

Of course were talking mainly trout. Wild, naturally occurring populations of these hard fighting fish thrive in this sort of environment. They are spreading at a frantic pace and it hasn’t taken anglers long to realise it as they are fast gaining popularity. No longer just a target of the game fly angler, lure anglers are now getting in on the act with spectacular results and fish of between four and six pounds are regularly been reported.

Within half an hour of home I have four rivers that offer good trout sport. A couple of them are quite large, the other two are a lot smaller and one of those you would definitely call a stream in places although it does open up in parts and more so from the middle sections of its length. There are still good trout to be had but chub, perch and the odd pike also show in these parts. However, it’s these smaller, more intimate waters that interest me the most.

 So, what is it you may wonder that attracts me to such small, overgrown places? Well, it’s the feeling of been at one with nature, like you belong there and somehow become a part of it. As you slowly and carefully make your way upstream, waist deep in clear water you see and here things you wouldn’t normally see while trudging along the banks snapping sticks as you inevitably step on them and forcing your way through head high brambles and nettles. And, if your careful, nature doesn’t see you. King fishers zip past so close and fast that you feel the wind off of their wings. Moore hens will stare at you like statues as you pass their nests and if your lucky you can creep up on the fish, watch and study their behaviour before making your move. And of course the hard fighting and stunningly marked fish.

On larger rivers you can quite easily bank fish, wandering along flicking lures out all day. However, on these small waters waders are a must. The banks are generally much more over grown and you will simply not see or even fish the little pools and holes that the fish are laid up in standing on the bank as you are unable to cast to them. It also makes playing and landing fish so much easier. I use a Cortland fly fishing net clipped to the strap of my lure bag as I’m in the water and do not require a handle as such. It’s also great for resting the fish.

Whilst on the subject of resting fish here’s a quick note about handling trout too, something which was brought to my attention by a fly fishing friend. DO NOT squeeze trout behind the head as the fishes organs are located right up there and it leads to death once released and you will not even know. They fight like hell too and I always make sure I rest and release the bigger ones just like I would with barbel, holding them head up in the flow or rested in the net and only letting them go once they are fighting me to go. Again, early release will see them shoot off only to go belly and get washed away later.

Wading and fishing upstream is an absolute must if you don’t want to spook the fish and ruin your chances before even putting a lure in the water. Fish sit facing upstream so you don’t need me to tell you that it’s better to sneak up on them from behind. Every footstep you take will produce a sound, which will of course be carried by the current so let the current take it away from where your fishing. This goes for any sediment or weed which you might disturb too, you don’t want it been washed down into a nice pool where a big trout might be sat.

Trout also like to sit on the bottom looking upstream for flies and insects been washed towards them in the current so let your lure do just this by casting upstream and working it back towards you. Of course if fishing from the bank this doesn’t matter quite so much but I do still have far better results casting upstream and working the lures back towards me with the current. The only time I cast downstream is when fishing too a feature that has some sort of obstruction like a fence or bridge preventing me from casting too it from below.

Right then, lets move on. You might now be wandering what sort of gear you would need to fish these small rivers and streams and, if you haven’t yet sampled light lure trouting what you need to actually catch them. Chances are that most of you will already have an outfit suitable with maybe a minor tweak or addition. A 6 or 7 foot light casting rod around 10 to 20 gram will do but nothing too soft otherwise you will struggle to pull better sized fish out of fast water.

I use a 7ft Drennan Spincast which isn’t actually casting weight rated but marked up at 1.25lb test curve for some strange reason. It might sound a bit on the heavy side but I find it works very well. Don’t be tempted to go for a rod much over 7 feet in length though as you will find it becomes a hindrance in and around bushes and overhanging trees. Reel wise, any small reliable fixed spool to balance your chosen rod will suffice and I currently use a 2500 Shimano Catana.

For main line I use mono and this may come as a surprise to a lot of modern lure anglers but let me explain. When I first started to target trout I was loosing and missing more fish than I caught and at times I felt like pulling my hair out. Trout like to live in fast water, sometimes very fast meaning they only have a split second to decide if your lure is food or not. This means they hit hard and fight hard! Quite often they will go airborne right after the hit and its not uncommon for them to do so 3 or 4 times simultaneously. Other times they will thrash about on the surface especially as you are about to net them. Mono absorbs a lot of this, cushioning the hook hold where as braid, with its lack of stretch just leads to hook pull after hook pull.

After a bit of playing around with various brands and breaking strains I settled on 8lb Daiwa Sensor. Its light enough to not hinder casts, its robust enough to withstand a bit of hammer from rubbing on rocks and tree branches and is more than strong enough to turn trout when they make a run for tree roots. Just be sure to periodically check the last few feet for wear and tear especially if like me you stick a few wayward casts in the trees or the stretch of river you’re fishing is particularly rocky.

The only disadvantage I have found to using light mono is when snagging lures as 8lb will fail to bend most lure hook out. However, this is negated by the fact your wading shallow water and can simply walk over to your lure and remove it from the offending object in most cases.

Leader wise, I don’t bother and just tie a small swivel snap direct to the end of the main line. It’s not going to gain you any advantage as the fish hardly have time to study it in the fast water anyway. But, if it gives you more confidence an 8 or 10lb fluro leader wouldn’t hurt. Lower down stream though where I’m more likely to encounter pike I do use wire. Like a lot of people use on their lighter hard lure outfit I use 18lb K2K. It doesn’t seem to put the trout off. The only detrimental aspect has been to the action of very small lures.

This brings us nicely to the next part, lures and hooks. Trout will for the most part, given half a chance take just about any small lure. There are though times and conditions when a little more thought is required and I’ll cover the various lures and scenarios when I would choose each one after a quick look at hooks.
Trout, unlike other predators have quite small, delicate mouths and treble hooks are not required. Just ask any fly angler for a look in his fly box and you are very unlikely to find anything with a hook much bigger than a size 14. With this in mind, and after a bit of playing around and talking to other anglers I swapped all the hooks on my trout lures for VMC predator inline’s. The majority size 6’s with the odd bigger lure carrying 4’s. And on smaller lures I find a single size 8 is ample. Using singles in conjunction with mono has lead to a massive drop in missed takes and lost fish. The hook holds are superb and it’s so much easier to pop a single out than risk damaging the fishes mouth trying to remove trebles.

Nailed! Right in the bottom lip on a single.

So then, which lures do I favour? Minnows, little dumpy cranks around 4 or 5cm, similar sized wake/surface baits and spinners all come into their own. Unless your choosing surface baits you will find that sinking lures are far superior. As I said before, trout love to live in fast water and trying to fish such spots with a floating diving crank can be neigh on impossible as the lure simply will not dive due to the water pressure pushing against it and killing the action. Sinking lures get down past the worst of the boiling, swirling water on the surface and stay down.

A killer tactic, especially for wary fish is to play around with lures of different weights and sink rates until you find one that will suspend as the flow holds it up. Then, rather than wind you can cast it out and just twitch it as it is carried downstream. It’s particularly effective too for working under cover and places you can not cast to. Cast upstream and let the flow work your lure under the cover for you, then hold on tight as a fish shoots out from under the cover and smashes your lure.

From left to right – Salmo minnow, Yogi, Mark Houghton custom minnow, MH crank ‘n bean, Vibrax #2

Unless I’m targeting an area I know very well, or a certain swim 9 times out of 10 my starting lure is a 5cm Salmo minnow in either trout or minnow pattern. These are effective in anything from a foot of fast water to 3 or 4 feet of steadier water and are good for exploring new areas where you are unsure of the depths. They are also a good lure for the twitching method I mentioned earlier.

For bomb holes (my pet name for a certain type of spot which I’ll explain later) and deeper runs I go for something with a bigger lip like a Salmo hornet or Yogi, both 4cm. In normal use these would dive well over 5 foot but in the flow, with the rod tip up a bit or in fast holes they don’t go so deep and work well.

You will be surprised at how little water trout will sit in and 6in is more than enough even for fish of over a pound. Quite often you can find fish sat in little holes 8 or 10in deep when the surrounding area is little more than a trickle. To target very shallow sections, or when bottom weed is a problem I reach for some custom designed minnow baits that I had made by Mark Houghton. They are around 6cm and sink but they only run at around 6in deep on the retrieve. They also have just the one hook in the rear and when fitted with an upward facing single they can be run across gravel and over the top of weedy areas without fouling and getting stuck.

Next up are surface baits, these are quite possibly the most enjoyable to use for me. As you creep along the river keep watching for signs of fish taking flies and insects from the surface. When you find some stick on a little wake bait, something like a Mark Houghton Tadpole, Crank ‘n Bean or Salmo bug, cast well upstream past the fish and gently twitch it as it comes down with the flow. Takes are generally instant.

And last but not least, the good old spinner. It’s so easy to catch trout on these that I rarely bother now as its just no fun and offers no sense of achievement for me personally. However, that’s not to say they do not play a part in this kind of fishing. Neither is it a guarantee to catch fish. If your new to this sort kind of fishing or if you just want to catch a few trout or even let the kids sample something new then I fully recommend spinners.

Number 2 Mepps or Ondex in silver, gold or copper will all catch fish. The Rotex spinners from Savage Gear are also pretty good and, in fact, the number one rotex is actually a good lure to target grayling with. Now there’s a challenge for you. The only time I do opt for spinners though is if the rivers are up a little and carrying colour. When everything else fails I found that an orange Vibrax spinner will winkle out a few fish.

On to location now then and you will find trout are so predictable and easy to catch yet at other times so annoyingly unpredictable. Smaller trout, and to some extent bigger ones can be located in just about any sort of water but then the very next day they are like hen’s teeth. I have no idea where they disappear to, presumably they just took them selves away tight to the bank and under stones and bushes. These small ‘shoal’ fish can be found in good numbers in long, smooth glides with even bottoms although they will also be found in smaller, faster spots too. One thing trout don’t seem to like is mud or silt and my results have been very poor in such areas.

There are though a few spots to keep an eye out for while working your way along the river, spots that in general hold numbers of bigger fish. I’m not talking swims here or, like on bigger rivers a nice big slack on a bend. I’m talking something the size of maybe half a coffee table and even smaller that might hold just 3 or 4 fish. One thing to note though is that you are very unlikely to get more than one fish from such spots as once hooked the fish will spook the rest of the group and they will scatter.

Big trout I find are quite solitary beasts and equally territorial. They can turn up out of the blue just about anywhere but they do tend to have a favoured spot to sit in on the bottom and lay in wait for passing food. Anything that stands out like a small undercut bank, steep drop off or a deep hole behind a large boulder are all good places to locate bigger fish. Been territorial means that should you miss or loose one, return at a later date and you will more than likely find it waiting for you in the same spot.

In general trout like fast water and if your unsure as to weather its too fast or not then it’s probably not!

Don’t be afraid to have a chuck in the fastest of fast bits as they normally throw up a surprise or two. Any spot with fast water, faster than the surrounding areas all hold fish and the well oxygenated parts are the ones to run your lure through. Below rapids and weirs are prime examples. Creases, confluences, bridge supports, in fact any sort of feature you would normally look out for will all hold trout of various sizes.

Lastly is my favourite feature, the ‘Bomb Hole’. So called because it looks like a bomb or grenade has gone off creating a crater in the river bed. Actually it’s created by soft rock been worn away by fast water directly below rapids. Just like a waterfall plunge pool only on a much smaller scale. A word of warning though, NEVER attempt to wade through these holes as even in small rivers and streams they can easily be deep enough to go over chest waders.

And there you have it, my take on lure fishing for trout in small rivers. If you haven’t tried it yet get out and have some fun. The fight you get from some of these fish just have to be experienced. Before I go there’s just a couple more things to note. If you didn’t already know trout have differing seasons depending on which area of the country you live in. Generally covering the traditional closed season and on into October but its advised to check your local by laws.

Lastly, they may look tasty and it may be perfectly legal but lets leave them to grow into 6 pound fighting machines and let them all go, they are readily available on the fish counter after all.