By Dylan Cooper, columnist
It’s been a busy year for me, so my lack of free time for fishing has me capitalizing on any opportunity to sneak in a quick trip while I’m traveling for other stuff. The circumstances around this type of fishing excursion usually start out with being wholly unprepared, which ultimately leads to some valuable learning lessons that I hope you’ll pick up on for your next trip.
As far as scouting prior to your trip, doing research online, on Google Earth, or in books/magazines takes too long for a spur of the moment outing. It’s easier just to show up wherever you’re going with a hunch that fish will be there somewhere. Just pull up your google maps app as you’re riding into town and start dropping pins on places that look good. For trout, I look for the first “blue line” stream coming out of protected public land in the mountains nearby or perhaps some deep looking outer bends in the river in the valley floor. But if you must have more of a plan, you can’t beat the knowledge of the local fly shop. Just go in there, bat your puppy dog eyes, and hope they offer up some tips to point you in the right direction. If this works, make sure you at least buy a handful of $5 flies and maybe even a new rod.
This worked for me once this summer, and I picked up my first Tenkara rod while in a fly shop in New Hampshire. The purchase was mostly because I found I had time to fish on my trip but didn’t have any gear with me, and because a Tenkara rod is pretty much a dummy-proof fly rod. With no reel, it has a fixed amount of line tied to a piece of string (called a lillian) protruding from the rod tip. It’s very flimsy and similar to a bamboo/cane pole, but it breaks down into a size easily stowable in luggage. The rod I got from Red Brook Tenkara has an adjustable length out to 12’9” so I can be sure to whack it against even the tallest branches while beating through the brush looking for brookies. And on my third trip with it since, I actually did break it. Maybe it’s not completely dummy-proof.
Next to worry about on your hasty fishing trip is your outfit. Of course you didn’t pack anything appropriate for wading a river or traipsing through the brush. No need to stop at Eddie Bauer or Columbia to buy hundreds of dollars in new gear. Go ahead and tromp out through the water in your bright white T-shirt from the last vacation you went on. And if it’s hot out and the water is wadeable, forget the waders. Just don your swim trunks to blend in with all the swimmers’ legs the fish are used to seeing. I actually prefer camo trunks to hide from the fish a little better. Too hot for socks and knee boots? Go with crocs if it isn’t going to be slippery. And if it is, just stick your bare feet in your wading boots and go for a half hour hike to the nearest trout stream from your hotel. Your feet will hate you later like mine did.
If you happen to be traveling to the north, such as to the White Mtns of New Hampshire, or the west, like the river valleys of Colorado, do NOT forget the bug spray and proper clothing. The northern mosquitoes will carry you off, but somehow their bites don’t itch for nearly as long as the western ones, at least in my experience. On the NH adventure, I found myself deep in the woods without any bug spray, so my best defense was to put on my heavy coat. Why did I have my heavy coat in the summertime? Well, because it’s the North. Despite being sweaty, those 747s couldn’t penetrate it, so all that got tore up were my hands and face. Now I see why head nets are popular when fishing in the far north.
And when you think a trip to an arid western area like Colorado will be bug-free, think again. They are even more concentrated around where you’re fishing because that’s often the only place with water. And they just laugh at your Off Deep Woods spray. So you may think to try the two handed clap method on them at first. But be warned: those blood suckers will come from miles around when they hear the audible echo of your fish fondlers smacking together. Or they could just be drawn to the extra CO2 you’re now putting off since you’re doing a full-on Richard Simmons exercise to keep the buggers at bay while whipping around your fairy wand (fly rod).
Instead, I prefer the one-handed catch method. This keeps your dominant hand on the rod at all times while you use your free hand to snatch and smush. Silent but deadly. And if someone were to observe you from afar, it looks like you’re Harry Potter going after the Golden Snitch, so they will probably think you were tripping on something and stay far away. Aha! Honey hole protected!
Finding fish can sometimes be difficult in a brand new place. After several empty holes, I just go on to the next stream or perhaps much further upstream. I need to maximize on the little time you have. This worked for me in New Hampshire. One entire mountain stream seemed devoid of native Brookies from top to bottom, but I went to the next drainage over and found some right away. As a side note, this is why barriers to aquatic organism passage (dams, culverts, etc.) need to be removed. In cases like New Hampshire, where Hurricane Irene devastated some watersheds, the surviving trout need to be able to move around to repopulate those areas.
Relying on friends with local knowledge of where you’re going can always help. I didn’t realize I was really in for a challenge in trying to find trout when staying in Asheville, North Carolina this spring. It took me several dud streams to finally break down and follow a local friend’s direction but it worked. Suddenly, I could catch little wild rainbows everywhere I went with a dry fly, and I even found nice stocked brookies that liked a crayfish pattern, but no natives.
It can get really bad when a place becomes your fishing kryptonite. I found myself in West Virginia again this year, which is the state I visit more often than any other due to my work needs. I fished the stocked waters of the North Fork SB Potomac with no luck. I fished a native brookie stream and watched them dart away from my nymphs. I fished the infamous Shaver’s Fork during stocking season and caught only smallmouth on a yellow Wooly Bugger. Go figure. Last year, I made special trips to WV waters stocked with golden trout, and found plenty, but could never get them to bite. And so, I have still not caught a WV trout in many years.
Sometimes though, you think you got lucky when you find fish in the first spot where you step off the highway, as I did this summer in the Yampa River in Colorado. In front of me was a beautiful braided stream with wide deep pools, short rocky runs, well-vegetated banks, and big trout and whitefish rising to the surface. Behind me was a tourist hellscape of a resort town that I was happy to leave behind for a moment. I was well out of my comfort zone here with barely a year’s experience with a fly rod in hand and no clue what hatch to match. I tried several of those $5 dry flies right where fish were coming to the top of the water but never got a strike. Eventually I fished much further upstream in cooler water with tons of “invasive” brookies (yes they are invasive to any western state because they are only native to the east). It took me a while to find what they would actually take, but I finally figured it out to be anything gray or olive in size 18-20.
And then the mosquitoes reminded me I was in their turf. That brings me back to my last bit of advice. Short evening trips are ideal after your daily activities are finished, but be prepared before you go out. As the light begins to fade and the bugs get thicker, now is NOT the time to swap flies repeatedly, tie on more tippet, or get a bunch of bird’s nest tangles in your line. Nothing like low light conditions and a swarm of mosquitoes bearing down on you to make you get your knot-tying and untangling skills in tip-top shape. Alas, the darkness arrives and out of the water you see the entire silhouette of that same trout rising all evening trying to catch its live dinner. No point in continuing to cast your dead-looking offerings. Failure is certainly an option because by now you’ve donated enough blood to the mosquitoes to make the American Red Cross jealous. As you lick (scratch) your wounds, you walk back swatting away while basking in the memories of another glorious outing in nature, happy whether or not you brought a fish to hand.
Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.