There is nothing more daunting than pulling into the parking lot of your favorite trout stream to find it full of trucks with rod arches. You walk down the trail to see people crammed into the pool you planned to fish. This can often occur in the spring in the northeast and during the summer months in the west. The boats are overflowing with trailers, the banks are covered with fishermen and the fish have seen all the flies ever attached.
No matter where you fish, pressure will always be a factor. Some areas are worse than others, but learning to adapt to heavily fished rivers and streams will make you a better angler. The popularity of fly fishing continues to grow, reaching a record 7 million fly fishermen in 2019, according to the Fishing Special Report 2020. The increase in the number of fishermen is excellent for sport and conservation. It might mean more people in your seats, but if you can learn to work around the pressure, you’ll still catch a lot of fish. Here are 5 simple tips to help you target educated trout on crowded rivers.
1. The best time to fish for trout? At the first and the last light
There is no better way to beat the pressure of fishing than to beat the pressure. Setting the alarm clock for dawn can be scary when you have to get out of bed in the dark. But you’ll feel a lot better when you’re the first car in the lot. Settle in the day before and turn off the headlamp in the morning. If you know a place will be under fishing pressure, especially on weekends, go down to the river in the dark and wait on the shore. Once a spot is taken in the morning, there’s a good chance it will disappear for the day.
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Besides the benefit of claiming a spot, the first light is also one of the best times to target actively feeding fish. As the sun rises throughout the day, the bite usually stops. This doesn’t mean you can’t catch fish in the middle of the day; you certainly can. It could be a little more difficult. As the day progresses more and more fishermen come to the river and the more educated trout become. I often like to take a midday break for lunch when the sun is at its highest point before heading out again for the evening. Like in the morning, the last light usually sets off a solid bite, especially on summer afternoons when the hatches start to come off.
Pressurized Streams can often be a pick game in your battles. Sometimes midday isn’t worth competing to hold back some of the water. Head back to the truck, grab some lunch, a cold drink, and maybe a nap. Recharge your batteries before leaving for the evening bite. If you focus on the first and last light, you’ll avoid larger crowds while maximizing your fishing time.
2. Fish like a ninja
Nothing educates trout more than recklessness on the river. It means plowing the stream, slapping streams at the trout, or having a poor presentation. If you’re not careful about being stealthy on a pressurized stream, you won’t catch a lot of fish. You have to remember that educated trout have seen all the stuff in the book, and one wrong move can ruin your luck.
Being stealthy on the river means moving slowly and taking your time. Look for rising trout and fish suspended in the water column. If possible, you want to identify a fish before it knows you are there. I try to stay on the shore when looking for new fishing grounds and avoid disturbing the water at all costs. You won’t see all the fish until you hook them, and you will have to get into the water to have a chance to catch them. When venturing into the creek, avoid swimming pools and other areas where trout might be found. If you blow a hole, it could be shot for the day.
3. How to select the correct tip size for trout
Despite what some anglers think, tip size is essential for targeting pressurized and educated fish. These fish have seen it all and the slightest presentation anomaly can prevent them from catching a fly. I can’t tell you how many times switching to a lighter tippet made all the difference. Make no mistake: a good cast, the right fly and a good presentation are all essential factors in hooking fish. If you do everything right, match the hatch, and still get snubbed, there’s a good chance this is your tippet.
Last spring I was casting trout on the Delaware River. There was a large Hendrickson hatch sticking out of the water at the last light, and I was in the right spot with the right fly. Cast after cast, I had fish that looked hard but unwilling to take. I was frustrated before I finally changed my tippet from 5X to 6X. The very next casting, I hooked up and landed a beautiful brunette. That’s all I needed to believe in the correct size stake.
4. Catch more nymphs
Dry fly fishing is my favorite way to catch trout. But sometimes that’s not the most effective. Unfortunately, dryers and streamers don’t always do the job, especially on pressurized streams. A transition to pupation can make all the difference between success and failure on crowded rivers when the fish stop looking up. You just need to know when to make the change.
Often times, a nymph with an indicator or drip hopper platform can dramatically increase your hook rate. Trout spend much of their time in the water column feeding on aquatic insects, midges and nymphs. If the fish are not aggressive, which is often the case in areas under pressure, pupation can be a saving grace. Just like with tippet, going with smaller nymphs is a good rule of thumb when fishing for educated trout. Tie up a small creek native nymph and toss it over a hopper if you still want a chance to bite on the surface. Fast water is always a good place for pressurized trout as they won’t have as much time to inspect your fly and its presentation.
5. Learn to spot trout
One of the most common tips hunters and fishermen hear is to step away from the pressure and do some extra work. I believe in this philosophy because it works, especially in high pressure areas. Many anglers are unwilling to do the work necessary to find new places where fish might be held.
Scouting can pay big dividends. Try using apps like Google Earth and onX Hunt to locate more remote and less popular access sites. Asking for permission to cross private or posted land could result in productive places on the river away from crowds. Be creative, take the time, and the rewards will follow.