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Busting brush into the dark and overgrown headwaters of our better-known and larger trout streams can offer lots of exciting fishing. Hunting tiny creeks for pocket water and beaver ponds also presents a list of different problems for fly anglers to overcome. Casting to tiny spots without room for a back cast, fooling a trout at close range, or even getting to the stream without breaking the rod can offer trouble without some preparation or experience. This issue, let’s see how to deal with some of these challenges.
Fly casting to a trout that is holding under a bank only ten feet in front of you on a stream that is only six feet wide can be a tough shot. Add to that scenario tag alder, willow and cedar all around and you’ll have a perfect environment for trout to hold in and a nightmare to move about and to cast. A couple of things can help if you plan ahead. First, choose a rod that is suited to such a tight environment. Rods of six to seven feet are considerably easier to move in such tight spots. Also, very short rods, like small stream specialty rods, tend to be offered in lighter line weights. Many light line weight rods are designed in short lengths because they load more easily and manufacturers expect anglers to use them in tight conditions. Remember, fishing upstream and casting only fifteen feet ahead of you with seven to ten feet of leader and tippet means that the rod must load with only
about five or six feet of fly line past the tip. More flexible, slower action rods are ideal for this type of casting situation. So, if you’re looking for a rod for these conditions, make sure you try it that way at the store. A casting tool that suits you at thirty feet may be very wrong where you can’t pull more that five feet of fly line past the tip. Just make sure you can move the fly to the target.
Next, practice your roll cast. Since these overgrown environments don’t allow for much back casting, you should make sure you are proficient roll casting with minimal line in front of you. (Note: This practice must be performed on the water since contact with the water is necessary to load the rod, and prevent the fly from slipping toward you when you throw the line forward away from you.) Keep in mind these couple of important principles of roll casting: Keep the fly on the water, aim low toward your target, and apply the power late in the stroke. Applying the power too early in the cast will result in a wide loop that will pile up in front of you and will not reach your target. Also, right-handers should learn to work rolls casts across to their left. When roll-casting to their right, they must then cast across their bodies to avoid the line crossing and tangling. Practice from a crouched position too, as you will on the stream. Tight fishing requires stealth. Offering a low profile will help you sneak these fish, but the lower position can make casting more difficult. Practice.
To help you load, or bend, your rod with only a few feet beyond the tip of the rod, you can add more line weight. This can be accomplished by shortening the front taper of the line, or by using one line weight more. (i.e. a four-weight line on a three-weight rod) New, specialized tapers so-called “Power Tapers” are engineered to be a half a line weight heavier or at the heavy end of the AFTMA line weight standards. These too will help load the rod with very little line beyond the tip. Again, since this is a very specialized application of rod, line and cast, you must practice to be sure of the performance of such a unique system. “Retro” type fiberglass rods such as Orvis’ new Superfine Glass rods are slower action style rods that are perfectly suited to small streams and short casts. Last, don’t lose sight that your first consideration should be to choose the correct line weight for the fly you are fishing. Remember, a heavier line weight on your rod may help you on 15 foot casts, but it may also make 40 foot casts hard to control. However, when most of what you have on the water is only leader and tippet, line weight may not be a big factor.
Upstream or downstream? If you’re fishing upstream to sneak up on trout facing into the current, remember to consider your float. The upstream approach is stealthy and will kick up less debris and spook fewer fish. However, keep in mind that your float will cover only the water under the leader when you fish upstream. Your entire float begins where the fly lands and ends where your leader’s butt lands. As an example, if you are using ten feet of leader and cast forty feet upstream, beyond the first ten feet of float, you will have “lined” or spooked the fish. Be conscious of where your leader and fly land. Downstream floats can be as long as you can provide a drag-free float. But, moving downstream in tight quarters will sometimes spook your quarry before you can get into a good position to make a cast.
Finally, carry your rod through the woods with the tip behind you. It is much more difficult to react to a tip caught in a bush in front of you and stop in time to avoid breaking it. When the tip is caught on a branch behind you and you’re slow to react, it may pull your hand or the line, but it offers a margin for error that will allow you to stop before it breaks the tip.
This year, poke around in the back woods and explore some of the smaller streams hidden away from the masses. If the fish are smaller, they are also more cooperative. But don’t be fooled. Small streams can hold big fish. Regardless, consider these factors and remember to practice.
Dave Leonhard is a master certified fly casting instructor for the Federation of Fly Fishers, casting instructor for the Michigan Council TU Fly Fishing School, a life member of TU, a member of the Adams Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Traverse City, Michigan, owner of Streamside Orvis in Traverse City, Michigan, and director of instruction for the Orvis Michigan Fly Fishing School at the Homestead Resort in Glen Arbor, Michigan.