Keys to successful fly-fishing for brook trout on mountain streams
Shenandoah National Park brook trout
I have previously written of the ‘native’ treasure of Shenandoah National Park (SNP) that is the brook trout. A day exploring trout streams of the SNP for frisky brookies is a delight that really is unparalleled in central and western Virginia. Waters such as Jeremy’s Run, the Rapidan River and the Rose River are favorites among the anglers I mingle with in my local chapter of Trout Unlimited. These mountain streams of the SNP are so much fun because the brook trout can be feisty.
While preparing for a trip to a new water in the Park that I had yet to fish, I viewed a few YouTube videos that I had not seen before. A couple of these chronicled experiences that were less than successful, and it was not hard to understand why these anglers were challenged. I do not want to discourage these video producers from honing their craft or be dismissive of their attempts – they were doing their best. But it did present me with an opportunity to highlight ways to enhance the prospect for a successful day fly-fishing for brook trout on mountain streams.
Plan your trip well
In one of the videos, the angler was following a well-travelled loop trail reached from Skyline Drive and having a hard time finding the water. In fact, nearly half of the video is of him wondering out loud if he was indeed on the correct trail. He remarks that he had started down what he thought was the correct route (it was) but had second-guessed his choice and returned to the trail head to follow the other branch of the loop. Surprisingly, he was actually carrying a map of the route with him and was lamenting that he had not activated a trails app on his phone before leaving the car park.
The National Park Service (NPS) provides links to 15 different trail maps on their website for Shenandoah National Park. These are very well drawn and contain detailed descriptions of many of the popular hiking routes. The NPS also has a mobile app for which you can download content for offline reference before you arrive to the Park, as mobile service is virtually non-existent in the Park. There are also numerous hiking apps/sites containing detailed cue sheets for familiarizing yourself with a new trail. The Northern Virginia Chapter of Trout Unlimited also has a guide to day trips from Washington, DC for trout fishing.
Pick the right time
While I have found that brook trout can be active at any time of the day, generally an early start produces the best results. In the aforementioned video, the angler laments having started so late on a hot summer day. He also wonders aloud if he should have brought a gauge to measure the temperature of the water (that would be a yes).
In the summer, the waters in the Park heat up and make conditions challenging for the fish. Temperatures above 65 degrees will deplete the oxygen and fighting fish in these conditions is detrimental to their health. In winter, these brook trout are spawning and many conservation-minded anglers will not fish for them during the spawn. If you feel differently, then at a minimum do not wade the stream and be sure to cast away from breeding redds.
Fish all the water and be stealthy
Pools below cascading water provide excellent habitat for brook trout and present the best prospects for hooking up on a feeding brookie. In the videos I mentioned previously, the anglers more often than not fished directly to the top of the pool, without first casting to the lower and middle parts of the pool. Sure, the top of the pool is a likely trout magnet, but you can also be rewarded by covering the entire water, starting with the lip, moving to the tail, then mid-pool and finishing within the corners beside the frothy cascades. Fish holding in those parts downstream of the cascade are likely going to get spooked by your fly line landing on the water if you start immediately at the top of the pool.
It also helps to approach the water cautiously from a downstream position and to fish short casts upstream with as little line as possible out of the guide. Feeding fish are often looking upstream in anticipation of a meal, so approaching from downstream and keeping the fly line off the water will decrease the chance of spooking the fish.