The Unsung Heroes of Fly Fishing

I spent the duration of the 2016 trout season fishing without an ACL in my right knee. It took nine months after injuring it last January to get an MRI, be referred to a specialist and have reconstructive surgery scheduled. If any good came of the long wait, it was that my surgery was scheduled for October 5th – just five days after the end of trout season.

For the last week, I’ve been confined to a couch in my living room where I’ve relocated my computer and enough conveniences to keep me entertained. The first couple weeks of post-op will be mainly resting and icing my knee in between physiotherapy, leaving a lot of time to waste watching Netflix and messing around on my computer. It’s a long healing process, but if all goes well, I hope to be back on the water for trout opener next May, not missing a beat.

With lots of time to waste, I’ve been going through and organizing some of my old photos. As I browsed through my mess of fishing pictures, I realized how much we favor celebrating larger fish, with the smaller ones rarely making it into the spotlight. It’s understandable how we’re all drawn pictures of large fish, but it’s the rest that keep us entertained on slow days. In fact, we spend the vast majority of our time on the water catching small fish, helping us learn and fine-tune our fly fishing skills so that perhaps one day we’ll come back to catch grown-up versions of the very same fish we release.

So this post is dedicated to this season’s smaller, often overlooked unsung heroes of fly fishing. Without these little guys, fly fishing would a whole lot more dull. As it happens, these fish by and large inhabit the most picturesque environments that can be found. In Southern Ontario, our Brook Trout are the real gems of our cold water rivers and it’s no surprise that most of the fish here are Brookies.

Colorful small stream brook trout caught on a new budget Echo Carbon 2wt rod.

Colorful small stream brook trout caught on a new budget Echo Carbon 2wt rod.

I picked up a new Echo Carbon 7’3″ 2wt rod this year specifically for Brook Trout on small streams. Given the budget price, it was a no-brainer purchase. As you would imagine, it’s super light and ultra fun for small Brookies, but it’s also very well constructed for the cost. At the other end of the price spectrum, I purchased a new 2016 Chevy Silverado this year, making my trips to the river much more roomy and enjoyable. It’s still begging for a drift boat to be towed behind it and/or a pontoon to be tossed in the back though.

My new toys: an Echo Carbon 2wt on my new Chevy Silverado.

My new toys: an Echo Carbon 2wt on my new Chevy Silverado.

I put a good number of fishing kilometers on the truck this season, although most of my Brookie fishing happened earlier in the year when the water levels were higher. Most smaller brookie rivers and tributaries were unfishable from mid-season all the way to closer due to the abysmal water levels. Thankfully though, much of the the Brook Trout waters of the upper Credit maintained a fishable amount of water and I was able to sample some of its excellent fall brookie fishing before the season ended.

Another colorful September Brook Trout, this one from the Credit River.

Another colorful September Brook Trout, this one from the Credit River.

As for the smaller streams which were absolutely teeming with native brookies in the early season, they were largely overrun with Atlantic Salmon after the MNR dumped tens of thousands into them. When the water level drops out, the hatchery raised Atlantics seem to very aggressively hold in the best spots on these streams, likely driving Brookies into less ideal water. On the rare occasion that I visited these streams later in the season, I was hard-pressed to find Brook Trout.

Stocked Atlantic Salmon dominating a once pure native Brookie Southern Ontario stream.

Stocked Atlantic Salmon dominating a once pure native Brookie Southern Ontario stream.

In addition the the Atlantics overrunning these small Brook Trout streams, it’s no secret that they are also very abundant in the wild Brown Trout waters of the upper Credit. It’s become more common to catch larger (16″+) Brown Trout than small ones, which is definitely not what you would expect. Water that is typical for small Brown Trout is similarly overrun with stocked Atlantics and it’s become exceedingly difficult to find and catch small browns. This season I managed to catch a few however, which was an improvement from the previous season. I’d heard similar reports from other anglers as well, so hopefully my experience was not just a fluke.

A small Credit River Brown Trout, always good to see.

A small Credit River Brown Trout, always good to see.

Going back to the Brook Trout… something I have noticed that is very interesting about them is how distinctive Brookies from different streams will often look. They seem to adapt to the water and bottom color of the streams they live in. I suppose it’s just a form of natural selection that is common among all trout, but it’s especially noticeable and beautiful in brookies. If you browse the brookie photos on my site (or even just in this post), it’s fairly easy to pick out which fish were caught in the same streams.

I spend the majority of each season fishing small streams for Brookies and in the process catch hundreds of fish, so it’s impractical to take pictures of all of them. While I’d love to have a collection of 16″+ Brook Trout pics that rivals my 20″+ Brown Trout, I’m very far from accomplishing that goal. We still have healthy populations here in Southern Ontario, but our Brookie rivers and streams are simply not taken care of like they need to be. Most streams still allow anglers to keep fish and those that are catch & release are poached heavily. Add to this heavy stocking of hatchery fish and global warming – and catching a couple 12″ Brookies in a season has become a real accomplishment. Rarely a Brookie pushing 14″ may be caught and I know for a fact that there are still Brookies equaling or exceeding 16″ in our local streams (I have seen them!), but they are extremely rare and nearly impossible to fool. I equate catching such a fish on a fly equal to catching a 30″ resident brown trout by today’s standards.

At any rate, these fish are still fairly plentiful in Southern Ontario and they are as wild and beautiful as ever. Each one is as diverse and colorful as trout come and they are always a pleasure to catch. Below is a small slideshow of some of my Brook Trout fishing from the beginning and end of the 2016 season.

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The Night Bite

There’s never a dull season fly fishing in Southern Ontario, for better or for worse. This year began with moderate temperatures, average water levels and lots of bug activity – just about perfect conditions for fly fishing. I was casting to big Brown Trout rising to large bugs on the surface and our local streams were teeming with native Brook Trout. Unfortunately, a severe lack of rain (the worst I can recall in recent history) and high temperatures led to low water levels and few insects for the second half of the season. My beloved Brookie streams were reduced to mere trickles, where the only signs of life were leftovers from the tens of thousands of hatchery raised Atlantic Salmon juveniles that had since taken over. Even Smallmouth Bass were struggling on many rivers.

Still, on the upper Credit River, solid numbers of both large and small trout were being caught throughout the season. Cool evenings and the many cold springs that feed the Credit kept temperatures safe for much of the season. Of course, in extremely low, clear water with little bug activity, fishing becomes difficult during daylight hours. More often than not, the fish are completely inactive – hiding in undercut banks, vegetation and under logs, waiting for the cover of dark. This is especially true for Brown Trout and it happens to be ideal conditions for night fishing.

Fishing past dark on a brighter than normal evening, thanks to a near-full harvest moon.

Fishing past dark on a brighter than normal evening, thanks to a near-full harvest moon.

For the most part, my night fishing has become less intentional than in years past. Aside from a few planned late-night outings with friends, most of my night fishing has simply been the result of fishing a couple hours before dark, then refusing to leave after that magic half-hour window when the action just starts to pick up. Some years are better than others and I can recall a couple seasons ago spending a significant amount of time fishing past dark with little to no results. This has been no such year.

A large Brown Trout caught after dark on the closing day of trout season.

A large Brown Trout caught after dark on the closing day of trout season.

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Pike Pool

If you follow my blog, you probably know that the special regulations trout waters of the upper Credit River have been host to the occasional Northern Pike. These toothy fish have continued to escape from Island Lake on a regular basis, but I’ve noticed my catch rates steadily increasing in more recent years. It’s possible that my findings are inconsequential and due to either (bad) luck or an increase in targeting big fish. Whatever the reason, it’s somewhat disturbing knowing how many Pike are lurking in the deeper holes of the Credit.

Not too long ago, I was out on the Credit for the last couple hours of daylight. The weather was decent and I had hoped to have a run-in with either some Isonychia or some leftover Hexagenia. I encountered a decent hatch of the latter on some Brook Trout water a few days prior, but hadn’t had the luxury of fishing them to Browns yet this year.

A Hexagenia Atrocaudata spinner from a few days prior.

A Hexagenia Atrocaudata spinner from a few days prior.

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Browns ‘N Bugs

I’ve been getting behind on my updates this season, partly due to starting a new job, but also because I’ve been fishing rather than writing in much of my free time. I’ve shifted my working hours a bit earlier as well, which has given me more free time after work for fishing and family, but less free time for writing. Things are finally starting to normalize again though, so I expect to resume a more normal frequency of updates going forward.

Since the Green Drakes in early June, I’ve been back to the Credit just a handful of times to fish for browns. I went into lots of detail about the Green Drake hatches in my last post, so I won’t reiterate that here. However, I did manage to fool one more nice brown on a Green Drake spinner during the tail end of that hatch. It was a stronger, heavier and more colorful fish than the previous ones I’d caught during the hatch – and it put a nice bend in my 4 weight.

A large Brown Trout from the tail end of the Green Drake hatches on the Credit River

A large Brown Trout from the tail end of the Green Drake hatches on the Credit River

Speaking of my 4 weight… I managed to break it last month while fishing the Credit. I was never particularly gentle with the rod (Hardy Zenith #4) and I suspect it may have suffered some prior damage where it broke. It’s been sent back to Hardy for repairs and I’m hoping it won’t take too long to return, as I’m left to fish with a 7′ #3 and 9′ #6, neither of which I’m overly fond of for brown trout on the medium sized rivers I fish.

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Return of the Drake

If this wasn’t a fly fishing blog, you might think this post was about our fellow Canadian rapper/musician who shares the same name. Come to think of it, the title of his hit song Started From The Bottom is surprisingly appropriate for the topic at hand. Maybe he was thinking about aquatic insect hatches when he wrote it… or, maybe not.

Of course, I’m referring to mayflies here, the Green Drake specifically. If you fly fish the upper Credit River, you probably know that the Green Drake has been going through a rough time. Once a prolific and highly anticipated mayfly hatch on the Credit, it underwent a rapid decline in the past couple decades and had all but disappeared. Dr. Henry Frania, an entomologist with the Royal Ontario Museum, has been studying the Green Drake issues for many years and rather than reiterate his findings, you’re better off Googling it yourself. Essentially, it had been found likely that the nymphs were dying due to ingestion of a toxic substance (chemical or organic). As a result, very few nymphs were reaching the adult stage, leading to the Green Drake being (for the most part) functionally extinct on most of the Credit River.

Fast forward to 2016 where (as I indicated in my previous post) the season started with some of the heaviest Hendrickson hatches seen in years. Blue Winged Olives were also in good numbers, followed by Sulphurs, Yellow Sallies and Gray Foxes. Next up was the infamous and ever-absent Green Drake. I was told they made a half decent showing in 2015 (relatively speaking), although I managed to miss them entirely. In serious need of a break from work and feeling optimistic with the number of bugs so far this year, I took a few days off in hopes of witnessing some of these giant mayflies. As it turned out, the weather and timing were perfect and I was able to spend three evenings among what was possibly the largest showing of Green Drakes since their decline many years ago.

A slightly beat-up Green Drake Dun from the Upper Credit River

A slightly beat-up Green Drake Dun from the Upper Credit River

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Happy Hendrickson Day

Actually, it’s Mother’s Day… but damn those Hendrickson hatches have been thick lately!

Trout season kicked off a couple weeks ago and I’ve been uncharacteristically slow to take advantage of it. I injured my knee over the winter (torn ACL) and thanks to our great free healthcare system, I’ve made little to no progress in getting it treated or even looked at yet. I’m sure those who know me are sick of hearing me complain about it. Anyway, it’s had me sidelined and will no doubt continue to affect the type of fishing I’m able to do this season. That said, I’m pretty stubborn and have already found myself scaling beaver dams and hiking terrain much more rugged than I should have been.

My few outings so far have once again been dedicated to brook trout on small streams, something I just never get tired of. For me, the allure of these fish lies in their diversity and in the environments they inhabit. Small, cold, clean headwaters streams that are often overgrown and difficult to present a fly to provide a constant challenge. Every fish is a treat as no two are alike and while the smaller fish are usually eager to take a fly, the largest southern Ontario brookies are truly elusive.

I fished the last couple evenings and at times the Hendrickson hatches were very thick. In fact, they seem to be the thickest I can recall in the last several years. Unfortunately, I haven’t been on the water for a really good spinner fall yet, but the fish are keying in on them nonetheless.

Hendrickson from a fairly thick hatch on a small stream.

Hendrickson from a fairly thick hatch on a small stream.

Each evening has produced a dozen or so trout, with many missed rises and brook trout juveniles attacking my fly with reckless abandon. At times the abundance of smaller fish can be detrimental to catching a larger fish that is holding in the same water, since the smaller fish will dart to your fly without a second thought. The result is the larger fish being put down after hooking the smaller one. This has certainly been the case a few times already this season for me.

An average, colorful small stream brookie from the weekend.

An average, colorful small stream brookie from the weekend.

I also had a run-in with yet another Pike in a large slow hole on one of my favorite local streams. I was casting to brookies when I noticed something very large swaying back and forth at the bottom of the pool. From its long slender body, it was immediately obvious that it was a Pike: around 5-6 lbs. In an attempt to remove it from the stream, I cut the tippet off my leader and managed to sink a large streamer in front of the pike’s nose and hook it. It wasted no time in abusing my flimsy 3 weight and excess fly line slack and wrapped my line around a sunken tree. Needless to say, it’s still terrorizing the brookies in that hole.

I’m hoping to get some Hendrickson spinners tied in the next day or so and get back out while the hatches are still good. I may need to pack a heavier rod as well and pay that pike another visit.

Credit River Woes

Anyone who’s had the fortune to discover the beauty and allure of fly fishing the Upper Credit River for wild Brown and Brook Trout in years past surely has a heavy heart when they consider its current situation. The Upper Credit has always been a touchy subject. For decades, merely saying the name around those who fished it would result in a visible tightening of their lips. Today, you’re more likely to trigger a two hour rant about how the MNR and other groups have decimated the river with their misguided Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program and lack of focus on restoration and maintenance of the existing wild trout fishery.

A peaceful stretch of water on the Upper Credit River

A peaceful stretch on the Upper Credit River, now overrun with 4-6″ Atlantic Salmon juveniles.

In an effort to start things off on a more positive note, I want to share a couple great videos that my friend Steve Noakes compiled, sharing some of his fly fishing experiences on the Upper Credit River over the years. He’s a strong advocate for protecting what we have on the Credit River today and has been heavily involved in numerous conservation groups and restoration projects. If you ever doubted whether the Credit has a wild Brown Trout fishery worth protecting, Steve’s videos do a good job convincing you it does!

I’ve already written a bunch about the issues the river is currently facing, some of which you can read here. There’s also an interesting thesis on the subject, written a few years ago by a University of Waterloo student. April Vokey even made a stop at the Credit River during part of the first episode of Shorelines last year, where she interviewed and talked with several key people on the subject. Although you won’t find a lot of political debate or side-taking on the show, I’ve heard from at least a couple people who have exchanged words or email with her, that it was shocking how many strongly opposing voices were encountered during the process.

I find it interesting that after so many years of having such a high quality resident trout fishery, only now are people starting to talk about it publicly. In fact, The New Fly Fisher even aired a show on fly fishing for Brown Trout on the Credit recently, something that I believe would not have happened during the river’s tight-lipped past. I can only wonder whether part of the inspiration for airing this was to raise awareness of the river and the great wild trout fishery that exists, at a time when the river has little left to lose (i.e. Atlantic program and proposed Brown Trout culling by MNR). I could probably write a whole series of blog posts on the subject of naming rivers, but the long and short of it is: perhaps things would look differently today if there had been less secrecy, more awareness and more voices to speak up.

All is not lost (at least not yet), but if things don’t change, it will be. I mentioned the proposed Brown Trout culling above and also in previous posts. The unfortunate truth is, even though this is only still a draft proposal, there is already culling going on in secrecy. There is evidence of at least one occurrence of a number of large browns being lifted out of a section of the upper river. I’m not sure where they were taken, but my guess is they either died during the lifting/transfer process or they were dumped somewhere into the lower river where they will die shortly afterwards (and where there is no suitable spawning habitat).

It seems that every time I write a post on this subject, I have to cut out three quarters of what I want to say just to keep things on topic and interesting. Rather than having all this information eventually get buried in old blog posts, I plan to add a new top-level page to this site that’s dedicated to the topic and more easily accessible. If you have pictures, videos, information or simply ideas you’d like to share on this subject, feel free to let me know and I’ll consider adding it to that page or linking it.

Despite the gloom, I’m very much looking forward to getting back on the river when the season opens and making the most of what we still have. Only one month left until opener!

No Water? Stillwater!

Lack of rain and low water has continued to be a problem for the last several weeks, putting a damper in any chance of successful fall Steelhead fishing close to home. We did finally get a decent rainfall a couple days ago, with a bit more in the forecast, so hopefully more fish are making their way into the rivers and things will pick up.

In the meantime though, I’ve gotten out for some stillwater trout fishing at my usual spot. On calm days at this time of year, trout are cruising the shallows and stripping small unweighted streamers has been both fun and productive. It’s a nice change from having to fish an indicator setup or a sink tip line to deeper fish in hotter weather.

Stillwater fly fishing in the fall is about as peaceful as it gets.

Stillwater fly fishing in the fall is about as peaceful as it gets.

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2015 Trout Season Closer

Another trout season has come and gone and while mine ended in a traditional fashion, the majority of the season was anything but traditional here in southern Ontario. In an effort to keep this post positive and prevent it from derailing into another rant on our poor fisheries management in Ontario, I’ll simply say that 2015 will be remembered by many here as the demise of the resident Brown Trout. Yes, I’m mainly talking about the Credit River, so this isn’t a blanket statement (yet). However, some quick research into Ontario MNR fisheries management priorities should make it pretty clear that no river is safe in the foreseeable future, unless something changes. I’ll leave it at that for now, but I’ll be posting a longer rant on this in the upcoming days / weeks.

Now, on to the good stuff. As is customary, I spent the end of the season targeting Brook Trout on small rivers and streams. Even if our Brown Trout rivers had been fishing well (or, at all…), I’d still choose to target Brookies at this time of year. The waters they inhabit are scenic, have very little fishing pressure and the fish are in full pre-spawn colors at this time of year.

A nice, colorful native Brookie from closing day

A nice, colourful native Brookie from closing day

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Mousin’

Just when it seemed that summer was on its way out in Southern Ontario, it crept back in again and hit us with a wave of intense weather. Combine this with the low clear waters of late and it’s no time to be out on the river for trout.

However, these hot humid days mean the trout are hiding and expending as little energy as possible during the day and waiting for the cooler, dark of evening to feed. This is especially true of the largest trout in the river, which are nocturnal by nature. While I wouldn’t recommend fishing on evenings where water temperatures and dissolved oxygen levels are below safe levels, the right conditions can bring out some absolute monsters on nights like this.

It’s been a while since I wet a line after dark and I made a last minute decision to give it a go last night. I arrived during the last few minutes of sunlight, got familiar with my surroundings and downsized my leader to prepare for the impending dark. It didn’t take long before I hooked into my first brown. Unfortunately, an acrobatic jump (which I don’t see browns doing very often) resulted in losing the fish. I managed to get a good look at it and while nice (around 18″), I knew there were bigger fish to be had.

A few casts later, to a section of water that was yet undisturbed from the previous fight, proved me right as I hooked a much larger fish. I finally got a chance to break in my new Hardy Ultralite DD reel and hear what the drag really sounds like when it’s screaming.

Big brown trout taken on a mouse pattern after dark.

Big brown trout taken on a mouse pattern after dark.