Fly Fishing Freestones to Beat the Heat

McCloudFirst Published in California Fly Fisher Magazine, August 2006

For as long as I can remember, my favorite time of year has been summer. When I was a kid in Northern California, summers meant long and lazy adventures in canyons, playing in the cool streams to beat the heat. I would toss on a T-shirt, cutoffs, a ball cap, my black high-top Converses, and tape a rod tube to my stingray bike to launch forays deep down into the lush green canopies and cool waters of Butte Creek or the Feather River canyon to explore, swim, and fish. I would often emerge from the canyon after “kid dark,” not to be confused with “adult dark,” that time when your parents told you to be home. Probably too large a part of the attraction for me to pursue a career in education was the opportunity for time off in summer to continue this passion. There is still no place I would rather be than knee-deep in cool canyon water on a sunny summer day.

For many anglers, the summer heat, or the summer doldrums, often means few hatches and small fish. The prolific springtime hatches have come and gone. The rivers have become creeks, the water is crystal clear, the fish are spooky, and the most accessible runs have been fished over hard. By late summer, trout have seen it all, and running a big bright indicator through the run that produced in the middle of the day in the spring rarely produces happy results. Summer flows might make fishing accessible and fun, but the catching can be downright challenging and technical.

Over the years, with a good deal of help from friends, I have discovered some techniques for approaching freestone rivers in the summer that helps to keep fishing fun, improves my success rates, and doesn’t require that I purchase new, expensive equipment or develop completely new skill sets. Quite the opposite in fact, most of these techniques return my fishing to the simple approach I loved as a kid.

Before discussing specific summer techniques it may be helpful to share some basic tenets that make these techniques effective. In the summer, a trout’s need for oxygen, shelter, and food does not change, but the place fish hold in the river to find these essentials in the summer does.

Locating Oxygenated Water
High air temperatures and slow-moving water combine to create higher water temperatures, which makes water less able to hold oxygen. Less turbulent flows also result in less mixing of oxygen from the air, which further compounds this deficit. In the low flows and heat of summer, trout seek cooler water, which is better able to hold oxygen. Trout move from their softer spring lies in the hearts of runs to the turbulent whitewater head of a run or to fast-moving pocket water where oxygen is mixed in from the air. Trout (especially large ones) also prefer deep holes were cooler water sinks, and they are especially fond of places were cool tributaries or springs enter the river. Trout seek water with temperatures in the mid 50s, but temperatures into the 60s can produce in rivers, or sections of rivers, where warmer temperatures are the norm. This is particularly true on rivers such as the Pit, the North Fork of the Feather, and the upper Klamath, where much of the water is warmed in small, shallow impoundments. I have found it is often productive to make use of a thermometer to help locate the cooler water in rivers I do not fish frequently.

William enters the ShastaTrout Hawg of Fame with a McCloud River trophyBrown TroutLocating Shelter

Often, the same whitewater run or deep, cool water that provides oxygen for trout conveniently also provides cover. In the low, crystal-clear flows of summer, trout avoid direct sunlight and seek shelter from predators by holding under whitewater currents, in deep holes, or near structure (rocks, boulders, logs), all of which help obscure a predator’s view. On summer freestones, where you find oxygenated water and shelter from predators, you will often find trout.

Locating Feeding Fish
To catch these trout, you must also realize that after the large insects hatches of spring are gone, most of the aquatic life is small, so fish must feed efficiently and optimize calorie intake while minimizing their calorie output. Because trout are cold-blooded, their metabolisms slow when water temps get too cold or, in summer, too hot and they feed less actively. With less energy and smaller food items, trout are unwilling to move far to take the small morsels, so the trout’s feeding zone is smaller than it was in spring.

As a result, it is not only important to reduce the size of your flies and tippet (4X to 6X) but also to present your offering tight to a fish’s lie. Getting your fly to a trout’s nose can be complicated by the fact that with less cover, clearer water, and the angling pressure they have encountered, trout become very wary. You need not only to adjust the type of water you fish, but also your techniques and tactics to present your offering in a way that results in the joy of a dancing trout on the end of your line.

Dry-Fly Fishing
If a 12-inch wild trout taken on a warm summer day with an attractor dry doesn’t bring out the kid in you, perhaps you should consider participating in a sport that encourages keeping an accurate score. Fishing with artificial flies is inherently a qualitative experience, and perhaps there is nothing that epitomizes this as clearly as the rise of a trout to a dry fly. The summer can be a great time of year to fish dry flies on freestone streams, provided you use some common sense. It is best to fish shaded water. Deep canyons, where freestones are located, have plenty of shade, particularly early and late in the day in the summer, which is also when insects are most likely to be active.

Chuck Volckhausen, a Mount Shasta guide, likes to start early and fish until noon, take a break, and resume fishing around four, five, or even six o’clock, when things cool a bit. He says, “I always save some casts for the exciting last few minutes of the day. Almost always you can find a good fish rising within casting range. Some of the biggest fish my clients catch in the summer are fooled by small dry flies right at dark.”

There often is a great morning Trico spinner fall during the summer on the upper Sacramento, a hatch that sees very little fishing pressure, most likely because anglers arrive after the action has ended. The evening hatch on north-state freestones also sees little pressure, except from a few locals in the know. Heed the regulations, which allow anglers to fish until one hour after sunset. In deep canyons in summer when the sun sets late in the day, this means dark thirty.  If you are not making your last fly change with a headlamp, you likely missed the hottest action.

Rick Cox, who guides on the McCloud and upper Sac, offers a trip he calls the “Evening Frenzy” – three hours at the end of the day during which he targets summer hatches that are compressed into the last hours of light. He states: “Dry-fly fishing is all I do in the evenings. I work the pools from top to bottom and match the hatch and then just before dark put on a big Stimulator.” Charlie Costner, a guide from the Ted Fay Fly Shop in Dunsmuir, found that adding an emerger dropper to the Stimulator can sometimes fool even the wariest trout late in the day, with the bonus of having the big Stimulator serve as an indicator in the failing light.

Dries with Droppers
Mitchell Barrett, a former guide, demonstrated the value of a dropper-and-dry rig to me a couple summers ago on a hot afternoon on the McCloud. Wading up to his waist, he caught fish after fish from the pockets in the fast water between the big pools. He rigged a Stimulator as an indicator and a small nymph with some mini shot to sink the dropper.

I was surprised to discover Mitchell’s dropper was so long. When I lengthened my dropper to two to four feet, the magic began, but I soon discovered that I preferred casting tungsten bead flies or copper-bodied flies instead of mini shot, because it helped me to avoid tangles. When fishing pocket water with this technique, keep casts very short, dead drifting the fly just 3 to 10 feet, with only the leader and buoyant fly touching the water. Some of us refer to this technique as “shotgunning,” because we often make rapid casts to small targets as we wade quickly upstream searching for the most aggressive fish.

One of the delightful challenges of this technique is adjusting the timing on your hook sets. You’ll miss fish from setting too slowly on the nymphs and too quickly on the dry. If you fish this technique frequently, you’ll get the pleasure of hearing the groan of your partners above the roar of rushing white water when they pull the big dries out of the mouths of big, aggressive McCloud browns.

Chuck Volckhausen’s reveals that “a guide secret on the McCloud is to carry two rods, one with a nymph setup for fishing the deeper pools and faster pockets, and the other with a dry fly and dropper for fishing the shallow, slower water where fish might be spooked by an indicator. Rick Cox also carries two rods, but states that “we’ll work the dry-dropper first, then follow through the same piece of water with the nymph rig.”

If you’ve ever waded wet in the cold, spring-fed McCloud in the summer, you know that fish are less active due to a lack of insect activity, not because of higher water temperatures in the summer. When employing the two-rod strategy, Rick Cox advises that “with the nymph setup, work the water column thoroughly before moving on. The fish are there, it’s just up to you to find them.”

Hopper-Copper-Dropper
Nymphing as a technique on freestone streams is without question the most effective way to catch trout. The hopper-copper-dropper technique uses a buoyant indicator fly to support dead-drifted nymphs with less chance of frightening spooky fish in the crystal-clear runs of summer, which can often happen with indicators. The heavy Copper John was created just for this technique. On the freestones of the north state, I have had the best success with a large Stimulator (size 6 to 10), with about a three or four-foot drop to a Copper Caddis, with a small Pheasant Tail Nymph or Micro Mayfly Nymph hung a little over a foot below the copper dropper. I typically tie the droppers off the hook bend. which helps to avoid tangles.

I also find that shortening the dry-fly leader a bit, say from 6 to 8 feet to the big Stimulator, seems right for most conditions. This rig can be a challenge to cast across to the shady foam line on the far bank where wary fish have been pushed by angling pressure. Excellent loop control is required to avoid tangles, but the rewards can be worth the investment.

Again, this technique is best employed on shaded runs. I have had some success fishing with it later in the morning after a spinner fall, when some of the bugs have been drowned in the wash, and also prior to an evening hatch, as the emergers begin their activity. There is a run on the upper Sac dubbed the Paranoid Pool where we’ve had some limited success fishing this technique in New Zealand style, with one angler sighting big fish and the other making the casts – good fun indeed when you hear your partner shout “set”!

High Sticking, aka Czech Nymphing
While we all appreciate the aesthetics of a well-formed loop and fishing dry flies, the object of the exercise remains to catch a fish. So . . . if you are Jonesing for the throb of a wild trout dancing on the end of your line, high sticking is the technique of choice. Provided you locate productive water, this is easily the most effective technique for freestone streams in summer.

Steven Bertrand, a guide with the Ted Fay Fly Shop in Dunsmuir, likes the fast-water riffles in between the pools. He states that “this type of water most likely holds fish all year round, but fast, well-oxygenated water is at its best when the river is at its lowest, making this water more accessible.” He notes that “I also like to fish where the topography of the canyon works in my favor, hitting areas where the canyon is narrow and gets shade early and where springs enter to provide a nice flow of stable cold water to moderate the river water temperatures.”

While Bertrand fishes this water with a dry and dropper in the shallower spots and along the edges, “when the water is more than a few feet deep, I switch to tight-line [high-stick] nymphing, which is much more effective than indicator nymphing for targeting the small, very turbulent pockets of fast water.”

The beauty of high-stick nymphing is its simplicity and the direct contact to a fish’s take. It is the easiest technique to learn, but one of the more challenging to master. Typically a tippet of 4X to 6X attaches two weighted flies to a 7-1/2 foot leader with enough split shot to get the flies down to the fish, but not stuck on the bottom. I like 9-to-10-foot fast-action 4-weight or 5-weight rods and seldom have more than a few feet of line out of the rod tip.

With this setup, the flies have to be lobbed, quartering upstream and across. Then I allow them to sink immediately into the whitewater head of the run, pocket, or seam that I have targeted. The key to getting a great drift is leading the flies slightly with the rod tip, finding the sweet spot between tension on the flies and slack in the line. With a bit of experience, most folks get quality drifts, but mastering the technique involves learning to detect strikes and developing lighting-quick hook sets.

There is a magic moment as you progress toward mastering this technique when you can’t tell what you saw or felt to detect a strike, but you just know that a fish has taken. Fly-fishing literature refers to this magic moment as the “wink of the trout.” Having said this, though, perhaps 20 percent of the fish that even masters catch with this technique hook themselves, most often just as the flies lift off the bottom at the end of the drift – a perfect result for novices fishing their first summer freestoner.

To use this technique to best effect, Chuck Volckhausen reminds anglers, “with lower, clearer water and less bug activity, a great run, seam, pocket, or riffle may provide only one fish. Be happy with one fish and move on to the next piece of water. Freestones have so many spots that fish well, if you pick up one fish from each spot, you’ll very likely have a very satisfying day.”

Indicator Nymphing
It is no secret that indicator nymphing is universally the most effective technique on freestone streams. A small piece of advice for summer: If you must, adjust. Again, the most important factor in the summer is to change the water you target. Alan Blankenship, a guide known affectionately by locals as the “Pit Pirate” for his love of fishing and guiding on the Pit River, targets cold, oxygenated water that comes from the base of dams, turbines, the mouths of feeder creeks, or springs. Alan says that “we look for those seems and pockets in the middle of heavy fast water and are amazed at the number of fish in these sweet spots that sometimes are only a few feet long and a few inches wide.”

To avoid spooking fish, it is best to replace your large, bright yarn indicator with smaller indicators in green, or even light blue and white and wade with stealth when heavy flows aren’t available to mask your moves. Alan sizes down to 5X fluorocarbon tippet and goes with size 16 and size 18 Pheasant Tails, Micro Mayflies, and Zebra Midges. Black Zebra Midges or tiny black San Juan Worms are great imitations of the blackfly larva that increasingly become available as they grow in masses on aerated rocks in the summer. An exception to these small-fly tactics is the behavioral drift by October caddis larvae midmorning. Then a classic pattern, a size 8 or size 10 Burlap Bomber, can be dead drifted to good effect, but it is likely that any light-colored larva pattern will do the trick.

Chuck Volckhausen has a helpful hint that will help improve success rates for summertime anglers: “These fish are extra sensitive and extra quick to spit a hook when insect activity is low. Anglers need to step up their games, focus on a quick hook set, set the hook on anything, and have confidence in the river they are fishing.”

Deepwater Nymphing
I’ll warn you up front: Even in the hands of an experienced caster, deepwater nymphing – dredging – isn’t very pretty. Getting your flies down 10, 15 feet, or deeper requires plenty of weight, and casting it can be an ugly chore.

But it can be rewarding, as Volckhausen notes: “Running a heavy rig under a big indicator through schooled-up fish in a classic deepwater pool usually finds a couple fish. However, we have seen McCloud fish totally avoid an indicator rig, even when they’re down deep, and especially after the first hookup. They simply move out of the way when the bright ball of yarn comes through.”

When this happens, I like to rig without an indicator, add more weight (I start with three AAAs), and position myself to lob my cast into the moving water at the head of the run. This technique is very similar to high sticking, except the line is longer – long enough to get your flies to the fish. Steven Bertrand notes that “dredging will get your flies in front of some very large fish.”

Strike detection and hook sets with this rig can be quite an adventure. I look for the slightest movement of line or wink from the fish. My favorite flies are tiny Pheasant Tail Nymphs, Micro Mayfly Nymphs, and sparse Birds Nests, but if I’m after larger fish, sometimes a Woolly Bugger or a leech pattern will do the trick. I have learned that an erratic strip retrieve at the end of a dead drift will also sometimes draw a strike.

I usually like to dredge the deepwater pools shortly before lunch. The pools make for great swimming holes, and it is pleasant to find one with a beach for the convenient afternoon nap my mother always recommended.

Easy Does It In Summer
Summer fishing on freestone streams is about the pure pleasure of the season, the pace and the place. Keep it simple – fish alone, or, better yet, with a good friend. Leave the waders and vest at home and toss a couple of boxes of flies in a pocket or small chest pack with the bare minimum of tools and accessories.

If you decide to make a day of it, target the hatches and spinner falls in the runs early and late in the day. Search for shade and fish fast pockets, riffles, and pools until the sun gets too high and hot, then take a break to eat, swim, take flight on a rope swing, and find a shady beach for a siesta.

Better yet, just stick a couple of extra flies in your hat for the evening hatch and call it good. Stay out until kid dark, hoping and waiting for the magic moment when your fly disappears in a large swirl and life gets just a little bit better.

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