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Embracing Weedy Streams

Last week, I wrote about how and why streams are so weedy this year, this week, I plan to write about how to fish them and how to embrace these weed-filled streams rather than curse them.

Red grasshopper caught brown trout
This brown came to a bright red grasshopper fly. It was exactly where I expected it to be.

Yes, there are many (MANY) good reason to curse the weeds. No question, they can be a huge pain in the ass. They make casting lanes smaller, currents trickier and more difficult, and, of course, there is so much stuff to catch if you don't hit the seam just right - and sometimes even if you do. I was out the other day and I am sure that I cleaned my Morrish Hopper at least 30 times - yeah, that sucks! They can make wading a real challenge. So far this summer I have face-planted when I tripped on an rock hidden by the weeds and another time, I stepped in having no idea that the stream was deeper than my wading pants. There is a lot not to like about weedy streams.

Surveying a weedy stream reach
Doing habitat surveys this summer - before the weed REALLY took off.

Many bemoan the fact the streams are so weedy - I say embrace it. There are some advantages - the fish are generally more concentrated and it is very easy to read the water and know where they are. Additionally, they provide cover for fish, food for macroinvertebrates, and help keep the streams colder - which this year, is a massive advantage. They also help "knock down" your wake while wading, making it a little easier to sneak up on fish. And they help obstruct us from the fish's view. In some ways, weeds put a few more things on our side of the ledger...of course they also make a few things more difficult for the angler.

seams in the weeds
From the bridge railing - the weeds are almost acting as riffles, scouring a hole and delivering food.

And the fact is, the weeds will be there whether you embrace them or not, so you might as well get on board. In my experience, at least in "my" part of the Driftless, many of the colder reaches this summer - an abnormally hot and dry summer (or is it...) - are either weedy or they are heavily shaded which creates its own set of challenges. Now this is not to say that all weedy or canopied streams stayed cold this year but these factors have made those reaches more likely to stay cold. So it might be stop fishing, find warmwater fishes to chase - and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that - or embrace the weeds, perfect that roll cast and fish the canopied streams, or fish streams so small that the banks and terrestrial vegetation shade them to prevent much weed growth. Don't love your options? Learn to deal with the weeds.


How to Deal with the Weeds


As with anything fly fishing-related, there are many opinions about how to best deal with the weeds. These are mine from 30-plus years of mostly being a spring creek angler. Share your experiences and tips/tricks in the comments below.

  • Wade, don't walk the bank. I am fairly often a proponent of staying out of the water, when possible, so to not spook as many fish. There are exceptions. There are times when you need to be in the water to get a better angle to make a cast. In the middle of summer when the weeds make the casting lanes even smaller - and let's fact it, on Driftless streams they are small enough - I prefer to wade nearly all the time. There are three main reasons for that:

  1. First is the aforementioned smaller casting lanes which are a major issue. With smaller windows come a need to get closer and make even more accurate casts than normal. The Driftless angler - and even those that fish the non-Driftless Pleistocene Plateau - know that making accurate casts by far trump making long casts - that is even more true in "weed season" when the window shrinks even more.

  2. The second is that weeds prevent the wake you make while wading from moving so easily so getting closer is generally easier. We have all waded a still, shallow section and seen that we spook more trout than not. Weeds make getting closer to fish easier - much like moving water in riffles do.

  3. Lastly, if you are, in my opinion, fishing the *right* places in July and August - the places where there should cold enough and have a large amount of terrestrial inputs - there is a lot of shit to catch your backcast on. A lot! Yes, the heavily grazed pastures are easier to fish but what terrestrials do they hold? Late summer is terrestrial time and you should be seeking out the places where terrestrials are common which are generally not heavily grazed pastures.

Shaded stream reach
A fairly well shaded reach - which generally requires a good bit of roll casting. In places like this, I am fishing ants and beetles.
  • Tailor your terrestrials to the riparian zone. I have linked it once or twice already but I wrote a post about where and why to fish different terrestrials - hoppers, crickets, beetles, ants, and more. Much like aquatic macroinvertebrates, terrestrials have habitat preferences and a seasonality. I get it, hoppers are more fun to fish than most other terrestrials, but to tie one on and fish it "blindly" often does not work, even in the heart of "hopper season". I've written about this elsewhere so go read those posts.

Typical small window channel
A classic mid-summer small window spot. With all the weeds, the open water is likely deceptively deep. An accurate cast from below is your best chance.
  • Make fewer casts, make them more consciously. As I wrote above, casting lanes are smaller and with smaller windows, fish are more concentrated. And, for me, terrestrial time is a time to catch larger than average fish. Much of the year, I start at the base of pool or run and work my way to the top of it. In many Driftless streams, it is tough not to spook a lot of fish. Given the advantages of "weed season", I am often slowly working my way to the best spots - the deepest seams, the best undercut banks, and making a cast or two (or three) to the best spots.

Small stream brown trout
This small stream brown came out of an undercut bank - shot out like a torpedo!
  • If you have ever fished a spinner - no, not a mayfly spinner but a spinner on a spin cast rod - you will probably understand this. In my experience, fishes that are "turned on to" terrestrials will hit your fly on the first couple of casts. After that, you generally stand less chance. Of course, fish are dumb and if you give them time to "un-remember" a cast or two, they may still hit. But in general, most of the fish I catch on terrestrials, I catch on the first cast or two to a likely spot which is why I take my time to make that cast.

  • Any channel in the weeds is a likely spot but those close to the bank are the most likely spots. If I see or know where a deep outside bend is, I am going to take my time to approach it slowly and give the spot time, knowing that my first cast is probably my best chance. I also find that I don't catch as many fish on terrestrials - grasshoppers in particular - in faster moving water. I think they are often feeling the "splat" of the fly - I often see them come from under cover from several feet away - but nearly always on the first, maybe second cast.

Grasshopper eating brown trout
A gorgeous brown caught on the first cast at a deep, undercut bank - on the first cast.
  • I might reduce my casts by half or more on a good terrestrial day. Going along with what I wrote above, July, August, and early September is a time to slow down and make casts count. Don't cast quite so blindly as fish are more likely to be concentrated in the fewer deep spots in the weed channels. Take your time to get into position and make a good, accurate cast.

A favorite stream before the 2018 flood
A stream that no longer exists - pre-2018 flood, this was a favorite reach to fish low floating terrestrials over the weed channels.
  • "Rope up" - Put away the 5X and even the 4X tippet and go with 2X or 3X and probably cut back your leader. Come "hopper season", I am fishing shorter and heavier leaders knowing that I am going to catch streamside vegetation and I want to be able to pull the fly out and hopefully have it land seductively on the water. Those are some of the coolest dry fly eats there are. So often, I will see fish wake at the fly as soon as it hits the water - they have made their minds up, they're not going to be tippet shy.

  • Put the dropper away. While I think fishing dry and dropper is often more of a pain in the ass than it is worth, it is never more true than when the weeds are up. There are times that I want to cast my hopper very close to shore and a dropper just gets in the way. During "weed season", fishing a dropper just gives you another hook to catch weeds.

  • This year is not that different. We live in a region with some of the most productive coldwater streams in the world - weeds are nothing new. Yes, this year they came on heavier, earlier, but it is not like we have not experienced them before. My thoughts are that we had a few years with fewer weeds after the 2018 floods. Sure, we have had a few floods since 2018, but 2018 was the one that really changed things. Many streams, some more than others, were massively rearranged in the 2018 floods and have since stabilized through years or smaller floods and more normal flows. That stabilization has lead to the rather prolific weed growth we have seen this year. This year, everything seems to have been just about perfectly in place for a weedy year.

  • Observe, experiment and learn from successes and failures. Some days, fishes are tucked up under the weeds along the banks and want a fly dropped inches away. Other days, I have found casting too close to the banks is detrimental to success. Each day is different. Some days they are willing to move several feet once they feel a fly hit the water. Other days or even other individual fishes, the fly hitting the water spooks them rather than triggers them to eat.

    • I find that hooking success is often very low on hoppers. In part, that is because they often hit them with reckless abandon, other times, I wonder if they are trying to drown or stun it first, and sometimes, the fish just can't get it in its mouth. Anything you can do to increase hooking success should be learned from.

    • Time of day and conditions can have a pretty great affect on success. I find hoppers are pretty late risers. Mornings can be great for tricos - and because the spinner fall is over riffles, weeds are generally much less of a factor. However grasshoppers rarely get moving before 10:30 AM in my experiences. They are large insects and it takes some time for these cold-blooded organisms to warm up and get moving. However, some days, fishes are on them at 11 AM, other days they don't really seem to key into them until later in the day. The weather I plan my fishing day around is when it is warm and mostly cloudy to quite overcast.

    • Switch it up if it is not working. Like many, I love to fish grasshopper flies and it will be my default pattern but there are some times it just does not work. My first action is usually to downsize my grasshopper pattern - I firmly believe too many people fish hoppers that are too large. If that is not working, I move to a cricket, ant, or beetle next.

    • If I am not seeing and hearing grasshoppers moving along the banks, I am probably not fishing a grasshopper fly for very long if I am not having success.

The Take-Home


Be smart but get out there and fish! That means taking water temperatures and finding reaches that are likely to remain cold. Weeds change fishing but they don't ruin it. For me, mid- and late-summer is probably my favorite time to fish.

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