Missouri Trout Hunter

Blog for sharing thoughts, beliefs and opinions on issues affecting the world of trout fishing in the Ozarks.

Friday, July 01, 2016

River Update -- transitioning into summer

We’re having a transition in feeding behavior, which tends to prompt me to write up a river update. Before we jump into it, one quick pitch.

I’m sure most of you are already aware I take a group to Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, every summer. I’m currently booking for next summer’s trip (2017). It’s $2000 per person, which includes the float plane from Ketchikan to the Island, lodging, access to one of three Ford pickups for exploring the island, and instruction and guidance from yours truly for the week. If that sounds interesting, be sure to let me know. HOWEVER, something new has just occurred. The lodge owner had three weeks worth of booked guests drop out on him at the last second, and he’s asked me to spread the word that we can put together a short-notice trip for THIS summer. That is really unheard of. So if any of you would like to go to Alaska NEXT MONTH, let me know ASAP. Like, I mean right now!  Ok, enough of that. Let's get to it.

The last month or so of fishing has definitely been interesting and a bit unpredictable, but things are starting to finally take on a typical summertime pattern, so I thought I'd take a few minutes to break it down for everyone.

In the spring, when the river levels are fluctuating and oxygen levels are high, we tend to see the trout migrate upstream into crowded conditions. They're feeling good, they're acting competitive with each other, and they feed pretty aggressively. Part of the reason is the decrease in available food, relatively speaking. More fish use more resources, so they don't have the luxury of feeding lazily. It reminds me of my local Chinese buffet. At 11:00 a.m. I can pick and choose what I want, because there's only a few of us there. At 12:20, you grab what you can, because the place is packed, and they keep running out of general chicken. In other words, the fishing is usually pretty fantastic, because beggars can't be choosers. A bit later in the season, suddenly, the action seems to stop on a lot of our rivers. Most folks simply chalk that up to summertime, and they're not wrong, but it's more complicated than that.

Late spring and early summer brings evening hatches, and some of those bugs are pretty big. Depending on your river, the volume of bugs can also be surprising. So we have heavy feeding on emerging insects that starts at twilight and continues well into the darkness. When the sun comes up, the trout are simply not as hungry for breakfast as they were the week before, so the morning bite is notably slower. By the time they actually get hungry, the natural bug activity has slowed down. That sets up an interesting event: a late day bite on pretty much any big fly. It's during this time when I'll tend to hit the rivers midday and fish until dark. The bite will often be best at the outset on big meaty attractors, since we have hungry fish but not much food available to them: glo-bugs, Y2K's, stoneflies, and woolies in size 8 drifted like a nymph, and occasionally a big foam grasshopper or Chernobyl Ant plopped on slow smooth stretches. As evening gets closer and the natural bug activity begins to pick up, you'll often need to switch to a fly that more closely resembles the typical trout prey.

This behavior pattern usually continues until the big evening hatches come to an end. Then we have a period of relative stability. The bugs tend to be active during the times when the sun is off the water, meaning morning and evening twilight, of course, but also off and on throughout the day in those areas in deep shade. Even in late morning and early afternoon, you can walk past fishing spots in full sun and fish the ones in shade and find actively feeding fish. It's during this pattern that I'll guide clients based on their skill level. If a client has sharp skills, I'll take them out in the morning, so we can get into fish right away during the morning bite, and as things slow down, we'll find those shady spots. If a client is a beginner or is rusty, we'll start early in the afternoon looking at those shady spots, so he can shake off the cobwebs and sharpen his skills as the bite improves into the evening. All-in-all, it's a pretty nice system.

Well, the pattern has officially changed. You might think that the late fishing trips end when it starts getting wicked hot in the afternoons. That's partially correct. The real kicker seems to be when it stays warm overnight. If it gets up into the 90's in the afternoon, but we're still seeing 60's at night, the late trips still tend to work out well. When overnight lows stay up in the 70's, however, the afternoon fishing results begin to worsen.

Warmer water sheds oxygen, so the fish find it tougher to breathe and also to feed. They won't move nearly as far to intercept food, so your fly placement has to be very precise. In addition, water levels are typically low and clear this time of year, and sudden movements and sounds tend to spook these fish already nervous about being so exposed. Not to mention lower slower flows do not add oxygen to the water though the normal churning you'd see at higher levels.

With cooler overnight lows, the rivers start the day in better shape and oxygen levels don't degrade enough during the day to really stop the bite. With warmer overnight lows, the rivers start the day in mediocre shape at best, making the morning hours perhaps the only time a trout can really feed well before midday oxygen depletion knocks him out.

Since fish are cold-blooded, warmer water means faster metabolism and greater hunger. This means we have late-day hungry trout without the ability to effectively hunt, and that CAN mean we have ravenously feeding fish at sunrise. It also means a late-day (hungry) trout CAN be caught with a great big fly drifted right to his snout, a big hopper dropped in his cone of vision, or even a slowly swung streamer tickling his nose. Some of my biggest fish have been caught that way. And, yes, while it stresses the fish, it's okay to catch those fish in warmer conditions. Just net them quickly and take plenty of time reviving them below some riffles, when the oxygen levels are higher.

So, to summarize this river update into an easy bite-sized recommendation: fish early and fish big. As a back-up plan, if the big flies aren't working, add a pheasant tail or scud or something similar as a trailer fly to double-check for selectivity. That's going to be a rarity though.  And before you give up and go home later in the day, plop a grasshopper in some fishy looking spots on your way out. Could be fun!

Hope that helps. See you at the Chinese buffet!

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