The fact that the opening day of trout season in New York coincides with April Fool’s Day does not seem to be a coincidence to many people in the Adirondacks. To any rational human, the thought of standing for hours along a partially frozen stream, fending off hypothermia and frostbite only to wait for the slightest tug on a monofilament line epitomizes foolishness. However, for many avid sportsmen, April 1st is just as sacred as the opening of big game season and regardless of how miserable the weather can be, there is a need to get out and “wet-a-line” in a favored fishing spot on this day.
The cold start to spring this year has kept ice along the shores of many streams and brooks, and in some slower moving waterways, there still exists a solid covering of ice for long stretches. Fishing for trout under these harsh conditions is an extreme challenge, yet experienced anglers are often able to snag enough brookies or browns to make a meal.
Both brook and brown trout slip into a lethargic state in late autumn as the water temperature drops into the 30’s. In order to remain in one specific location in the moving water, these game fish migrate to places where the force of the current is greatly reduced. This allows them to expend relatively little energy while they wait for spring. Deep holes are favorite wintering sites as the water at the very bottom of a sizeable depression can be nearly motionless. A hole in the side of a steep section of stream bank is also inviting to a trout seeking relief from the continuous flow of water. Nooks beneath the edge of a boulder, or the space between several large rocks are other locations where the current is almost non-existent and attractive to a trout. The eddy behind a submerged log also creates a place with swirling back currents that can be used as a temporary resting spot.
Even though stream trout greatly reduce their level of activity in frigid waters, these cold-blooded entities still develop the desire to eat. Edible items that have been disturbed from the sediment or gravel upstream and are transported by the current close to the bottom are occasionally seen and ingested shortly after they pass the trout. A chunk of ice that has broken free and collides with any obstacle in the water can be pushed downward by the current and scrape the bottom, releasing numerous invertebrates that pass the winter imbedded in the streambed.
The eggs from trout that spawned in autumn may also be disturbed from their nest and sent downstream with the current. (Trout are eager to eat any type of fish egg that is being carried by the current. At this time of year some anglers use a piece of corn which is believed to resemble a trout egg that has become dislodged from a nest.) As an otter, mink or muskrat digs in the sediment looking for dormant crayfish, frogs, mussels and salamanders, various types of invertebrates are kicked up and grabbed by the current to serve as food for trout. A maturing beaver that is beginning to travel small rivers and streams in search of a territory of its own can also kick up debris from the bottom with its webbed feet, producing yet another burst of food items for stream trout.
Many stream anglers spend no more than 10 minutes fishing a single hole or other sheltered spot in the absence of any nibbles. The lack of a hit to the bait may simply mean that the resident in that spot is not currently in the mood to eat. In cool water trout often allow edible items to pass by without eating them. However, the lack of a strike on a hook may also imply that a trout vacancy currently exists at that particular spot and that it is best to target a different sheltered site.
Aside from dealing with the cold, the challenge facing an early season angler is allowing a small piece of bait to continuously bounce off the bottom without getting snagged in various chunks of submerged debris. Allowing the bait to drift too high in the water typically places it out of the reach of a stream trout at this point in the season. Also, getting the bait to briefly linger in front of a known hole, a rock cubby, or the edge of an eddy takes exceptional skill.
Like many people, I find it foolish to engage in this type of recreational activity at this time of year. However, I have been known to venture out on April 1st to conduct ecological investigations centering around the feeding habits of stream trout, purely for scientific purposes.
Photo: A Stringer of Adirondack Trout, Unknown Photographer, from the collection of John Warren.