Fishing for stocked trout
A few months ago I posted a blog featuring a visit to volunteer at a Virginia Hatchery, which was a trip that was very enjoyable. I learned a lot about the State hatchery program and spent time with the hatchery manager in part discussing the life of a stocked trout (both pre- and post-transplant). Obviously a hatchery manager is going to know a lot more about the former than the latter, but you would probably not be surprised how much one can learn about a species that you witness in captivity for the first year of its life!
To start with, although these hatchery fish are fed pellets at various intervals throughout their communal life in the culture tanks, the pellets will not be the only food source they are exposed to. These fish are reared in wilderness areas, so insects and amphibious creatures that make their way to the waters of the raceway can become prey to maturing fish; how often that happens can impact an association with feeding patterns once the fish are transplanted.
Another behavior pattern that is imprinted on these hatchery fish is the repetitive schooling of the fish in the culture tank. Once the fish are transplanted to another water they are likely to continue to school together in the new habitat (particularly rainbows as brown trout can be more solitary), but not necessarily in the exact spot the fish have been introduced. In fact, these fish are likely to scramble about looking for comfortable surroundings, which allow them to school together and sort things out (that may be giving the fish too much credit, but lets leave it that way for now).
At this point I am going to pause to recognize that there will be a select group of readers ready to dismiss me as a stocker chaser. But that would not be a fair assessment of me as a trout angler – I am just as happy as the next guy to pursue wild or native trout species in the waters around the Washington, DC area, and I have just as much fun landing a native brookie from SNP or a stream-bred brown from Big Hunting Creek.
But because of an intense business travel schedule during my career, allocating time to fishing outside of vacations was a challenge. When I was able to steal a day or two to fly fish, I would typically choose a water that I knew would be well-stocked so as to improve the chances that the day would be memorable. I now have more time to regularly explore accessible waters that have native or wild fish, which I do, but it is still nice to show up at a water where hooking up a few stocked fish is a good probability. What is wrong with that?
This is where I get to the point of this blog post – how to increase the chance of catching stocked trout. If you consider the feeding and behavior patterns I discussed earlier in this post, then it would follow that you find schooling trout and present them with something that looks like a pellet. My confidence in this approach stems from the multiple occasions that my strike indicator has been viciously attacked in an area with a school of stocked rainbows (sometimes more than once following the same cast). There have also been countless times that I have witnessed a trout rise rapidly from the shadows to take an egg pattern that has just hit the water, which suggests an imprinted reaction to round pellets hitting the water.
So which are the flies that are most likely to tease a strike from a stocked trout? I rely on (and have extreme confidence in) three patterns that have served me very well in hooking up stockers –an egg pattern, such as the glo bug (or nuke egg), the san juan worm and the woolly bugger.
The effectiveness of the egg pattern does not take much to understand. It simply looks like a food pellet floating through the water, and stocked trout (especially recently transplanted fish) will be imprinted to recognize this as a meal. Drifting this fly under an indicator (and weighted with a split shot) through a school of trout inclined to feed (and compete for the food) is potent.
When the egg pattern becomes too familiar – and yes stockers can get wise (or shy) very quickly – I will move right to the san juan worm. I am still trying to figure out why this fly pattern is productive – I think it may have something to do with the fish figuring out which of the things splashing down in the water is food. I have read that twigs are commonly found in the stomachs of stocked trout, so maybe the worm is a trial run at figuring out what is food. If the worm does not have a tungsten bead head (which I prefer), then I will also use a split shot to get the fly quickly to the bottom.
My third option is a woolly bugger, and usually black (although as water clarity improves and the sky clears, I may go with light green). Why this pattern works perplexes me more than the worm, but it generally is as productive as the other two I mention in this blog post. My guess is that after a period of sampling prospects, certain stocked trout begin to get a sense for which aquatic life is good food and key to a robust meal, like a leech or a crayfish. Like the other two patterns, I will dead drift this fly under an indicator and add a split shot if the fly is not weighted by a bead head.
The bottom line is that after years of fishing for stocked trout I have become comfortable with a set of fly patterns that I am reasonably confident will work for me on most waters in the Washington, DC area. So fish with confidence and tight lines!