Fishing A Headwater Stream

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Scientists with the University of Alberta want to understand Arctic grayling population structure and genetic diversity in Alberta, with the hopes that this information will play a key role in the development of Arctic grayling management plans in the province.

To this end, my colleague, Jess Reilley, and I spent our summer fishing for grayling in waters across the province.

There were good numbers of grayling present during our many expeditions, but they shared company with several other fish species.

While fishing a headwater stream near Edson, every fifth pool or so would hold Athabasca rainbows, most every pool held Rocky Mountain whitefish, and while we could not definitively prove it, the multiple bite marks on the fish we were catching suggested bull trout made this neck of the woods home. It was a thriving little stream. And so long as we followed the golden rule, that is walk 500 meters from any access point, the fishing was fantastic.

To catch all the different fish species meant using different tackle in different places, but considering our summer job was to angle streams throughout Alberta, we were getting pretty good at it.

Grayling were our main target, but we caught all the other fish too, and over time we started figuring out all these fish were creatures of habit. Rockies liked to lay low, keeping a simple life right on the bottom. Athabasca rainbows preferred cover, be it an overhanging bank or a downed log. Grayling liked the heads of pools, and interestingly, they outrank whites in the pecking order, being that they were bolder and more aggressive. Grayling were almost always the first to bite in any promising pool. Bull trout, being the resident fish eater, lived pretty much in the larger pools, but low densities meant they were scarce.

I remember this headwater stream well, because at the access point there were no fish and the low flow suggested there may not be any. We took a look upstream, then downstream and chose to fish up. We fished a string of very nice looking pools, prospecting with our most trusted of search lures, that being the No. 1 Panther Martin spinner with the fly on the end of the hook. It’s not that the spinner is “the stuff” when it comes to catching fish, but what it does do best is attract attention. It seems every fish in a headwater stream will, at the very least, show themselves by rising up, swirling or following the lure, and originally that’s what we were looking for – a response, confirmation that fish were living there.

For the first half dozen pools there was nothing, but at a beautiful little corner pool with some downed wood protecting the far bank, this all changed.

Jess said, “I see one, I think it’s a rainbow,” and shortly the rod bent and a rainbow was dancing all around.

Once fish had been confirmed, we almost always changed up gear. Off went the spinners and out came the flies. Flies are super effective at catching fish, they’re just not as good at searching for fish, which is why we leaned on the spinners to start. We also liked flies because they are single-hook lures that are typically easier on the fish, making for a quick release and less hook damage.

We probed the pool with flies and to our surprise, a half dozen rainbows called this little stretch of stream home. They were super fun to catch, but with grayling on our mind and none showing themselves, it wasn’t long before we were moving.

With fish confirmed and our confidence boosted, it was time to switch up tactics: I became the scout and Jess was the finisher. I would fish ahead of Jess with the trusty Panther Martin, and at any hint of a fish, I’d pull the spinner away and visually mark where it showed. Jess would then follow up and send a fly to the spot and more times than not, we’d catch the fish.

We were fishing for a living, which is a great job if you can get it, and the team approach is highly effective, but the same idea would work well whether fishing by yourself or with a buddy. Prospect for fish with a spinner, and then target them with flies.

When it came to which flies to use, there were many that could fit the bill. But if we had to be limited to only a few, the beadhead prince nymph would top the list. Just about anywhere, this fly caught all the fish species and it was especially effective on grayling and whitefish.

Because grayling were typically more aggressive, it was easy to tailor an approach that targeted them. I would clip on a dime-sized bobber and attach the nymph a foot or so below it. It didn’t matter if the pool was three feet deep or more. What I was looking for was that patented, aggressive response, where a grayling would rise up to hit the fly, and sometimes the bobber.

For as long as the bobber and fly on the short lead would catch grayling, I kept fishing it this way. But just as soon as the bite died off, I’d extend the length of the lead so the fly would sink down closer to the bottom. This would get some more to commit and when that action dried up, I’d set the depth so the fly was dragging bottom.

Putting a fly on the bottom almost always meant a huge spike in whitefish activity and a significant tapering off of grayling action. That’s when I knew that I’d caught all the grayling that were willing to bite. If I was into catching whites, I could drag bottom with a fly and catch whites all day long. In some of the larger streams, in a single pool, a school of whitefish could number in the hundreds.

In some pools, however, I found lots of grayling and whites hold down deep, protected by faster water at the surface. And no matter how much leader length I put between bobber and fly, the current would always sweep the fly away before it ever got down to the fish.

So, I came up with an alternative. It is extremely effective, but I’ll also forewarn you: it’s an extremely, and I do mean extremely, frustrating technique – floating a fly into the fish using the aid of a split shot.

The trick here is to put on enough weight so it will get the fly down through the fast water, but not too heavy a split shot, because the weight is extremely prone to snagging. I stood at the head of the pool and slowly fed out line until I felt the weight touch bottom, at which point I lifted just a little. Once I had the right amount of line out, I’d float the fly, side to side, guiding it with my rod and working a broad swath of the pool, intercepting a ton of fish as I went. Most of these fish were tight to the bottom, so that’s where I sent the fly and that’s where the bites came.

Between the bobber and nymph and the split shot and nymph, I’d say the great majority of headwater stream fishing situations are covered, but there are a number of other techniques that are good to have in your back pocket.

The obvious situation is when fish are rising. In these cases, it can pay to send a floating fly their way. Most of the surface bug activity comes from any manner of mayflies or caddis flies, so I had a few imitations of each.

Rather than bring a fly rod, I continued to use my same spinning rod. I attached that dime-sized bobber a few feet up the line and then tied on my chosen floating fly. I applied some dry fly floatant, to make the fly stand up pretty, and then I cast the rig slightly upstream of where I want the fly to go. Just before the bobber lands, I stopped it mid air, thus straightening out the fly from the bobber, where it would neatly land on the surface of the water. When the fish rise to the fly, I’d wait for it to turn back down towards the bottom and then I set the hook. Waiting to set the hook I’m sure has helped me hook and land significantly more fish than if I were to set the hook the moment the fish struck.

There is one other trick I highly recommend, whether fish are rising or not, and that’s to tie on a foam black ant.

“Never underestimate the power of the ant,” is something my fishing partner, Jess, and I would often say to each other during our summer of fishing. I recall a day on the Freeman River where the ant showed us what it was made of. The Freeman is not a headwater stream where we fished it, but this is a particularly juicy example I just had to share.

We hit this one beautiful pool that was just full of grayling. I gave it a go, first with my spinner, then with a bobber and nymph, picking up several as I made my way through. Jess followed and picked up some more, but the action had definitely tapered, or so we thought.

She then tied on the little black ant and chaos followed. The grayling came alive and were voraciously hammering the little ant like hungry sharks. It was like we had never fished the pool and the ant more than doubled the catch. I think we ended up catching 18 in that one pool alone and the ant was the reason why. The cool thing is an ant doesn’t have to float, so if the foam becomes waterlogged because of all the fish that are biting, and it sinks into the surface film, it just looks like a drowned ant and the fish continue to eat it. It’s a great deal. Ants work everywhere, especially in headwater streams where lots drop in.

All these approaches I’ve discussed will ensure that I can get a presentation to a fish, no matter where they are hiding in a stream, but sometimes small flies and such are simply not interesting to a larger specimen. That’s when it’s time to throw them a curve ball.

If I think there is the potential for larger fish, I’ll tie on a much larger, fish-imitating fly, like those big bucktail flies used for salmon fishing. It only takes a few casts in any headwater stream pool to see if Mr. Big is around. Typically, within a few seconds of the first cast hitting the water, a big meat-eating fish will have already seized the opportunity and the fly.

While this scenario plays itself out most often with bull trout, or pike, I’ve seen enough hog-sized grayling and whitefish materialize out of the depths to know that when I’m dealing with them, I’m dealing with a different animal altogether. While they may be grayling or whites, they are fish eaters, and they will only respond when presented with a fish-like imitation. Nothing else will do.

Using these approaches will turn a great many headwater fish into biters. Hit the pools and the good water fast and carry on. It only takes a few minutes with a fly or lure to cover most all the fishy water.

Sometimes, a particularly good-looking pool can be void of fish and leave you scratching your head, but take it for what it is. Miles under the soles of your boots is often the difference between a slow day and a great day. Wear a good pair of polarized glasses to help you see what’s going on and take time to drink in the beauty of the area for many headwater streams are quite far removed from people. Expect deer, mink, martin, otters, weasels, beavers and the occasional moose to keep you company, and expect to be surprised by the peacefulness of standing deep in the heart of the boreal, listening to the gentle sound of a stream flowing by.

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