The big rivers are blown out. Hurricane rain from whoever-we’re-up-to-now flooded the watershed, and it’s looking like slow mornings and lots of vise time for the coming week.
The weather has changed. 70s are no longer in the forecast. The mornings are crisp, and the leaves are all but gone. Stripping a fly line over fingers builds a chill in the bones.
I’ve been in a different mindset for a few weeks, now. Whether it’s my brain associating past years’ memories with the photoperiod and weather, the silent drama of a dying year, or the firm passage of the warm, bountiful, easy-fishing days of spring and summer, it’s time for a change of pace. Different species. Different programs. Big flies and big fish. Trophy hunting.
This defines the hunt for musky on the fly, but with the musky haunts blown out and chocolate for the near future, my mind turns to the other predatory fish that fin our region’s more protected fisheries. Brown trout.
The Old Dominion is blessed to be on the doorstep of a handful of tailwater fisheries. The products of hydroelectric dams built in the last century, many of these rivers have relatively stable temperatures year-round, predictable and near-daily high flows as a result of regular power generation, and rich water chemistry that supports dense bug populations and, thus, incredibly robust wild trout populations. Brown, and to a lesser extent, rainbow trout thrive in these systems, often growing to gargantuan proportions.
WINTERTIME IS THE RIGHT TIME
The cold months represent the angler’s best opportunity to tangle with a giant member of the brown trout population.
As the weather cools, the boat traffic dissipates. Boat ramps that saw 30 launches per day in the warm months grow less busy as the hatches thin, the fish eat less frequently, and the fair weather fades. Fishing pressure dies.
As macroinvertebrate activity, and the trout’s metabolisms, slow, fish turn to always-available food sources—larval macroinvertebrates on the river’s bottom, and fish. Brown trout become primarily fish-eaters at a young age—about 14 inches—and the biggest members of the population have to eat a lot of bugs to maintain their weight. So, particularly as water temperatures drop and make young fish more vulnerable to predation, big trout seek out big meals in their finned contemporaries.
These environmental conditions pair perfectly with the biological spurs of a spawning ritual that occurs between October and February in tailwaters across the country. As the brown trout gear up to spawn, they feed heavily, anticipating a period of fasting as they focus on their reproduction. After the deed has been done, they do the same, working to restore lost calories.
High water during this time of the year is the nail in the coffin for a big brown trout. And when all of these factors align, it’s go time.
FOGGY MORNING CANNIBALISM
The access point is dead, relatively speaking. It’s a Friday, and only two boats are in the parking lot at one of the most famous tailwaters in the country. After we put in, they’re right on top of us, but they won’t be for long. The other boats are anchored up on riffles and pockets, nymphing midge larva to the same trout they’ve been fishing for all year. We’re on the move, anchor up, covering water, looking for the “one.”
A dense fog covers the river, bordered by dead (drowned and frozen) grass. It’s bleak but beautiful. The water is rolling. Bank full, and just a tinge green. Perfect conditions for an ambush.
There are very few places to escape the current when the water is this high, but that’s a good thing, because they’re easily identifiable. Ledges, seams and pockets along the bank, and inside bends in the river all show slower water than the main current, and this is where Grampa Brown lies in wait for a disoriented meal of flesh. He’s crazed, hungry, and opportunistic. Now is the time to eat and not be detected. And if that meal of flesh is of his own kind, so be it.
I stood in the bow, taking the first swing. We rolled through a shallow, swift run, and as the run tailed out and slowed, an obvious target presented itself. A big sweeper
on the bank, and a slow pocket amidst the chaos.
I fired a cast deep into the pocket, and a fly larger than the first few trout I caught out of this river splashed down. With each jerky strip, the fly twitched and fretted like a not-quite-ok baby brown trout.
And then, an explosion of gold. Orange, and a white mouth full of small but significant teeth. An act of cannibalism, and a brief example of one pursuit that will pull me from bed and into the cold until spring. *Originally published in The Rural Virginian