Little Creeks and Wild Trout
By Josh Czech
There are thousands of miles of little creeks in the northwest that have trout in them. There are spring creeks that meander drunkenly through soft meadows, and freestone creeks that march through dense forests with much more purpose. You can find a certain subspecies of cutthroat and rainbow in most of these streams, as well as some brookies and a few brown trout. Every once in a while you may come across Bull trout, or adult salmon and steelhead on their spawning journeys. You might also encounter Mountain Whitefish, suckers, sculpin, and minnows. As always, check the regulations before you go anywhere new, but most of these streams will be under the general zone regulations in the ODFW regs book. These regulations vary slightly by zone, but typically it will require catch and release of wild fish (fish with an intact adipose fin) while using single barbless hooks and artificial flies/lures.
Rods and reels:
Most of these fish will be on the small side, averaging about 6-10 inches depending on the stream. The creeks themselves will also be on the small side, and having a more delicate rod can enhance the overall experience. On the west side of the Cascades, there will usually be heavy riparian vegetation, meaning that a short rod gives you an advantage in the sense of being able to false cast in a smaller window of space. On the east side, the streams will typically have more casting room, but a lower gradient, meaning the water flowing through will be calmer and the fish will be easily spooked. A 2-4 weight rod will be a delight on either side of the Cascades, preferably in the 7-8 foot range. Everyone has their casting preferences, but I like a slower action rod to present the fly as softly as possible. Setting the hook without breaking light tippet is much easier with a softer rod as well. Tenkara rods can also be a blast in close quarters, and can help you nymph small pocket water very efficiently.
Reels are not very important in that you don’t need some incredible drag system because, well, these fish aren’t that big usually, and even if they were, they wouldn’t have any room to make big long runs anyways. Where the reel comes into play most in these situations is weight. Both in terms of packability, and balancing the rod. With these lightweight rods you’ll be using, you don’t want to just slap ye olde Sears catalogue reel from 1978 that grandpa got you made out of fiberglass and bowling balls on a lightweight trout rod. It will annoy you at the very least, and screw up your casting stroke and make your arm sore at the worst.
I will always advise carrying tippet from 3x-6x on you whenever you go trout fishing, but for 90% of the fish you’ll encounter in smaller creeks 5x to 6x tippet will be what you want to use. On some of the tinier creeks, 7x and up is okay too, but on most creeks 7x is too light and can break or result in playing fish for too long, which can be important not to do in the summer months due to higher water temperatures. 5x will work for most applications, but 6x comes in handy for smaller dry fly fishing (think size 14 and smaller) to reduce drag on smaller flies and 4x comes in handy to turn over small streamers and big bushy dries (probably size 10 and bigger).
As a general rule, fishing upstream is better than fishing downstream because the fish are oriented upstream most of the time, and you can get much closer to them before they see you. Just because these fish will eat nearly any fly you can produce does not mean that they aren’t still hyper-aware of predators. Stealth is helpful in getting the bigger fish to eat, both in terms of walking along the creek and making casts that don’t spook fish. One perfect cast is better than 10 good casts.
Most small creeks do not have picky fish in terms of bug hatches. They are part of a stream reach that doesn’t produce many nutrients, meaning that macroinvertebrate life isn’t as prolific as it would be on places like the lower Deschutes that have multiple streams adding nutrients and biota to its waters. This is a good thing for anglers, because it usually results in highly opportunistic fish. These fish don’t have the luxury of sitting in one spot for hours and slurping down a sushi conveyor belt of nymphs like a lower Deschutes redband might have. They need to eat, and they need to eat whatever comes their way. This means that A) these fish will more readily take attractor patterns instead of keying in on one specific hatch, and B) they will be aware of surface feeding opportunities since things like grasshoppers and beetles falling in to the water make up much more of their available food source than they would in a stream with more macroinvertebrate life. On a lot of streams on the west side of the Cascades, swinging bushy dry flies or flies designed to move a lot of water such as muddler minnows can be very productive if fish aren’t coming up for dead drifted offerings.
Just because there might be less nymphs doesn’t mean that the fish ignore them completely. There isn’t a trout alive on this earth that hasn’t eaten a stonefly, caddis, or mayfly nymph at some point. A lot of these creeks will have tight pockets or conflicting currents however. The tough part isn’t the fly selection, the tough part is getting the fly in to these pockets while looking natural as opposed to zooming across the pool 1 inch under the water as your thingamabobber drags the nymph along like an unruly Great Dane pulling its owner down the street. Now, I can certainly attest to the fact that fish will eat your fly in some small creeks if it’s doing pretty much anything at all. But if you want to be a person with stories about giant trout in pieces of water you can step across, you’re going to need to present that fly properly under the water. Tight line nymphing will come in handy much more often than indicators nymphing because of the small, short feeding lanes.
Streamer fishing is usually a little cumbersome for small creeks, but some water, especially east of the cascades, will have cut banks that hold predatory trout looking to ambush smaller fish. A lot of times these fish will not move very far, so a cast that lands close to the bank is important. Castability is actually the main factor in choosing what streamer to use. In my experience fish in these small creeks will come up all the way to the surface to eat these streamers as long as you put it in their line of sight but will not move very far laterally. Some creeks with clear water (Like the Upper Deschutes or upper Metolius) will have fish that refuse to move out of cover, so putting the fly in the fish’s feeding lane is paramount to success.
If you are wearing waders, be sure to have a breathable pair with a good fit. The heat will get to you if you wear neoprenes, and if the fit is too tight or too baggy you reduce your flexibility and increase your chances of tripping or falling trying to make a step up on to a log or across some rocks. If you are wet wading, good footwear is a must since most of the time you will be hiking or fishing from the bank. You can wear anything from tennis shoes to the latest lightweight technical hiking boots, but no matter what, make sure your socks go above the tops of your shoes to avoid blisters. It’s a bit counter-intuitive in the hot weather, but I like mid to heavy thickness wool socks that are about calf high because they reduce the scrapes and scratches that can come with plowing through the brush down to the river. I find that having wet feet from river water is much more comfortable than wet feet from sweat. Don’t forget you can always take your shoes and socks off and rinse them out to remove gravel and sand if they get too uncomfortable during the day. You can look at it as an opportunity to observe a good run and see if any fish become active while you sit.
Hydration is also very important. Just like recreational hikers on a hot summer day, it’s always good to bring twice as much water as you think you need. I know that the pristine mountain stream you just caught a bunch of brook trout out of seems like it has water that’s okay to drink, but the small beaver dam in a side channel upstream of where you are might say otherwise. Ask anyone who ever got giardia, and they will tell you it’s not worth the risk. Gatorade or other drinks with electrolytes can be better than water sometimes on a really hot day when you need to replace salts and energy in addition to just fluids.
Some of the places you may find yourself in will be far away from civilization and cell service (the fishing is better out there anyways, since a fish can sense cell phones with its adipose fin). Always tell someone where you are going and when you should be back, especially if you plan to be gone for an extended period of time. There are bears, cougars, rattlesnakes, spiders, and other people out there that can all be a danger to you. Luckily, there are not many places where these things are common problems for anglers. Before you go out into the deep wilderness, familiarize yourself with safety precautions for predators or poisonous animals you might encounter. First Aid/CPR training is never a bad idea either.
PLACES TO FISH
They do get pretty crowded sometimes. Other than that surefire spot, there are a few not so secret pieces of water in the area that are still productive and secluded enough to be fun. The Oak Grove Fork and the upper part of the mainstem Clackamas River east of Estacada are good for a few cutthroats and rainbows, and large enough that you can escape crowds except on the busiest of weekends. Here in Welches we have the Salmon, the Sandy, Camp Creek, Still Creek, and the Zigzag that all hold trout. The most fun part to me though is looking on a map and picking out a little blue line (or satellite images of good holes/runs on Google Maps) and just seeing what’s there. Generally you want to look for creeks that have a relatively low gradient and are connected to a main river without a barrier falls along the way. Now, this could be hard to determine on a map, so the only real way you’ll have of knowing if fish are in the creek is to go out there and bother them with flies.