Low Pressure Trout Strategies

Off the beaten path fly fishing

Trout are smart. Their peanut sized brain my not afford them the kind of intelligence needed to use sign language with their fins or swim a choreographed ballet at sea world, but they do have the cunning to identify fake food with a hook in it. The fact of the matter is that trout remember getting caught and become more cautious in their food selection as a result. Anyone who has fished a famous stream or river that receives heavy fishing pressure has probably gone through the ego deflating experience of watching a trout refuse one fly pattern after another while gobbling several natural insects in between careful inspections of the artificials. Trout that have had little or no interactions with anglers rarely take time to inspect a fly and almost always take a decent imitation of anything remotely resembling food with reckless abandon. In the mid 90s I had the opportunity to travel to Kamchatka to fish for trout, grayling and salmon. We set the trip up with a fledgling tourist company that promised us visas and an opportunity to fish. Since we didn't have advanced knowledge of the type of rivers we would fish and realized that we would be essentially guiding ourselves, we used Alaskan patterns as our basis for the flies we tied leading up to the trip. When we set out for the trip I had tied over five hundred egg patterns, egg sucking leaches, flash flies and other Alaskan mainstay. After several long airplane flights and two full days of four wheel drive roads we arrived at our destination. To our surprise the river was actually a large spring creek that originated from the base of a tall Volcano. The waterway was complete with weed beds, glassy currents and gin clear water. Our first instincts were to present size 22 midge patterns that would be standard fair on similar waters back home. Upon this realization we had a slight panic attack when recognizing that we had left our fly boxes with spring creek patterns back in the states. As it turned out, we spent our time on this amazing river casting size 4 egg sucking leaches and mouse patterns to huge resident rainbows. Since these trout had never been fished to they took the oversized patterns eagerly. 

As a rule of thumb, fish that have had less pressure behave differently than fish that have seen a lot of angling pressure. Low pressure trout can be caught with heavier leaders and tippet resulting in a shorter fight and better odds of landing a trophy. Low pressure trout are more aggressive at taking flies and will take reasonable imitations of their food a higher percentage of the time than fish that have been caught more. Low pressure trout will often take larger patterns more willingly than high pressure trout. Since large flies move trout much farther and also attract larger fish this gives an angler a distinctive advantage when fishing for less wary fish. Finally, low pressure trout often put up amazing fights because they are fresh and are not used to being caught. Due to the many advantages of finding low pressure trout, I find that focusing on the fishing pressure is just as important as other variables such as fly selection, hatch schedules etc. when I plan a day on the water. Here are a few of the strategies that effectively provide more opportunities at lower pressure trout.

Fish in areas where other people don't

"Resist the urge to pull out your rod at the first good looking run that you come to. Try to estimate about how far an average angler would get from the bridge if they spent the day fishing up or down from it and hike to this location"
This is the most obvious strategy for finding low pressure trout, but still the most effective. This method can be employed both locally on home rivers and on once in a lifetime fishing adventures. The easiest way to find lower pressure areas is to walk from access points. Find areas of your favorite stream or river that have remote areas in between bridges or other fishing access locations. Resist the urge to pull out your rod at the first good looking run that you come to. Try to estimate about how far an average angler would get from the bridge if they spent the day fishing up or down from it and hike to this location. I regularly hike for twenty minutes to an hour in such locations before fishing because the fishing is often exponentially better than in the zones immediately upstream and downstream of access areas. As a fly fishing guide in Montana I spend many of my days floating in a drift boat or raft. It becomes very obvious when float fishing what parts of the river get the most pressure. It is very typical encounter "pods" of anglers within a half mile of most bridges of fishing access sites. Many of these easily accessible runs have someone fishing in them nearly every day of the season while runs just as good a brisk walk downstream receive relatively little pressure. 

When planning fishing vacations it also pays to think about fishing pressure. Famous fishing destinations such as Alaska, Montana, New Zealand, Argentina etc. all get fishing pressure to some degree. Investigate how many lodges are in the area you are planning to fish. How many different rivers are available to fish in the region? You may be able to research the user days on different rivers through state or national fisheries departments. Ultimately try to get a feel for how many anglers are spread over how much water is in the given area. 

Use alternative vehicles for transportation

"We often use rafts and drift boats on these sections to access the river and stop along the way at our favorite runs to get out and wade."
Walking is still a great way to get to out of the way locations, but don't rule out mountain bikes, boats, dirt bikes and atvs. In the area of Montana that I live in, there are several sections of local rivers where fishing out of a boat is illegal. We often use rafts and drift boats on these sections to access the river and stop along the way at our favorite runs to get out and wade. Accessing many of the runs by hiking would not be practical or would limit the number of runs we could fish in a day. I have also used a mountain bike for years to travel down gated logging roads and other trails along streams and rivers to quickly get away from access points in order to access less pressured parts of the fishery. 

Float fish instead of wading
Although float fishing has become very popular on many western rivers and a few big eastern rivers, there are still many locations where it is uncommon to see anyone using a raft or drift boat to fish out of. Float fishing allows anglers to access parts of the river that wade fisherman can't and also allows to slightly different presentations. I grew up fishing in Pennsylvania and still remember returning home to fish with a raft and rowing frame after guiding in Colorado for a few years. We had outstanding fishing on rivers such as the Youghiogheny, Little Juniata and Penn's Creek while fishing out of the raft as we were watched curiously by wading anglers. Although canoes allow for limited float fishing, a boat such as a raft with a good rowing frame is much more useful to properly control the angle and speed of the boat which is essential when float fishing.

Wade fish instead of float fishing
On big western rivers such as the Madison RiverYellowstone River, Snake, etc. float fishing is very common. On many stretches of these big rivers it is by far the most common way to fish and although you will see many boats out you will see very few wading anglers. Although float fishing offers many advantages there are important drawbacks including: you only get one chance at a given holding area in the river and some sections of the river like small side channels can't be fished. I have found that it is often very effective to use a wade fishing mentality on popular floating sections of rivers like the Madison and Yellowstone. We generally still use a drift boat, but plan a much shorter float than would be normally required for a full days outing (for example 3 miles instead of 11). Although we will do a little bit of fishing from the boat, most of the time is spent wading. This approach works very well at lower water times of the season such as pre runoff or late summer when fish are concentrated in certain locations. I like to target runs that cannot be effectively fished from the boat such as fast pocket water that float fisherman move quickly through, side channels, large rocks holes and other deep heavy runs that require heavier rigs to get to fish than float fisherman are using. Although we are fishing the same water that traditional float fisherman are, we are targeting fish that haven't been presented to by boaters moving quickly by. 

Fish water that other fishermen skip

" Riffles and pocket water hold far more fish than deep runs during warmer months of the year because of increased oxygen levels, and more abundant food. "
There is something about the mysterious nature of big deep holes that lures anglers into spending a disproportionate amount of their time fishing in them. Are brain tells us that their must be a monster trout lurking at the bottom of the tantalizing depths. Although big deep runs do hold trout, they are not always the best holding water on the river. In fact, over the course of 20 years of fly fishing and guiding for nearly every 20 inch plus trout I have seen landed was holding in less than five feet of water and most in less than 2 feet of water. Riffles and pocket water hold far more fish than deep runs during warmer months of the year because of increased oxygen levels, and more abundant food. They are also easier to fish because wading anglers can mover through the shallower water easier and take advantage of the faster water that disguises their profile from the fish. On a weekend in July when Montana fly fishingis in full swing, the Gallatin River is very popular amongst both local and out of state anglers. Compared to other big brawling rivers the west the Gallatin is smaller, easier to read and easier to wade making it a favorite of wading anglers. Taking a drive up the Gallatin Canyon on a summer Saturday will show many of the big beautiful pools occupied by one or two anglers while the seemingly endless pocket water in between is often empty. The fish in all that pocket water probably receive twenty times less pressure than the trout in the postcard perfect runs. Under these very common conditions, skip the sexy looking pools and runs on your favorite river and quickly mover through the two to four foot deep pocket water fishing around each and every rock and seam picking up all of the fish that everyone else passed by. 

Target Low Pressure Conditions
Trout remember being hooked but they also forget. The longer a trout goes without having a negative reaction with a hook the less wary they become. Fishing seasons or fishing closures can eliminate fishing pressure, but so can high water from snow runoff or thunderstorms and even high water temperatures from drought and heat waves. Even a break of a few days can produce better than average fishing when fishing conditions return to normal. On western rivers it is no secret that the two to three weeks after runoff can produce outstanding fishing. Runoff on big rivers like the Yellowstone often lasts for over a month providing dangerously high water with cottonwood trees floating down a raging torrent of chocolate milk. When runoff finally abates and the rivers drop and clear anglers through giant flies on heavy tippet to eager trout that have forgotten what it means to be hooked. Summer thundershowers can produce a miniature version of this runoff effect well into July and August by muddying rivers for a few days. Many of the best mid summer days of fishing that I have ever logged have been when a river was in the clearing stage with about 2 foot of visibility following a few days of thunderstorm activity. Summer heat waves can also produce great fishing. During heat waves fish quit feeding during the gentleman hours and move their feeding times into the middle of the night and the early morning hours. Although there may still be some anglers trying their luck during these conditions they are often fishing during the times of the day when fish are dormant and thus are not getting hooked or pressured. Wise anglers will set their alarms for 4 am and be fishing at the crack of dawn to experience outstanding fishing during the early morning hours when water temperatures are low and the fish are feeding with little or no pressure.

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