Desert Trout

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Desert Trout

I know that it sounds kind of funny to put those two words together in a thought.

Usually when people think of desert trout their minds wander to the mighty Lahontans of Pyramid Lake or the famed rainbows of the Ruby Marsh. Yet, there are other desert trout that lurk in forgotten pockets and oases, streams that lie like ribbons scattered across the western landscape. Over the years I have chased those blue lines on a map searching for riverine brutes. Nine out of ten times I came up empty handed because in all honesty, I didn’t understand what conditions redbands needed to grow big. Yet that tenth time was magic and I usually stumbled on it by dumb luck. Then one day it dawned on me. Every time I found sizable redbands, the surroundings were similar. There was a formula to follow. It was almost mathematical. If X (river conditions) +Y (riparian habitat) = Z (fat redbands) in the spot I was at, why wouldn't it in other places that had the same circumstances? It may sound obvious now, but when you are burning gas and blowing out tires traipsing across the desert to the north fork of the south fork of a creek which nobody bothered to name, you can miss the big picture. Hell, I caught so many six inch trout looking for X+Y=Z that I started to go a little crazy. But as time went on, I stopped going on those wild goose chases and began focusing on the formula. 

Then one day, I found a friend named Google Earth.  That changed everything about how I searched for desert fish. I was no longer just looking at the map, I had real imagery that showed riffles, pools, slots where fish like to live. What the bank looked like, were there trees to shield the water from solar input? I could see historical imagery, what the river looked like during drought years, how it had it behaved and changed with every passing season up to the present. Google Earth became one of the most powerful tools in my fishing arsenal because it changed my perception of how rivers ran and how people used them. I was no longer exploring waters just on a gut feeling or a hunch, I was doing it scientifically and systematically. Between maps, Google Earth and scientific studies, there was no more guessing and no more wasting time.

This is what I learned. ​

First of all, man-made reservoirs are the life blood of fat desert fish. The problem is, while they are food factories and offer protection, they are cyclical. So, one of the things you need to keep in mind is that when the reservoirs go dry, which happens every few years, all the fish just don't sit there and die. They get the hell out of dodge. By the time the reservoir hits dead pool, many fish are already looking for the safety of the deep holes/shade/o2 of the inflow river. On the other hand, when times are good and there is lots of water and demand for it from downstream, the gates get opened and those fat reservoir fish get washed into the tailwater. Simply put, you find a decent sized reservoir out here, there is most likely nice fish immediately above and below it. The problem is, these areas are usually pretty accessible and will get fished pretty hard by the local bait chuckers. So here are few things to keep in mind when applying the formula X+Y=Z

Cows are tasty but screw the fishing up. Those clumsy critters stomp the bank and eat all the willows, which in turn disrupts the whole life cycle on the stream. Because of cows, these desert streams can have more siltation, erosion and higher water temps. But there is a caveat to that. If you find a place that either is coming out of National Forest or BLM land with no grazing and the river hits a ranch, right above the ranch or even the first half a mile where the cows are at can be money for big wild fish. So look for places that run out of a canyon(preferably east/west) and have a reservoir downstream somewhere between 2 to 10 miles or so. Then look for the ranches that will be between the reservoir and the canyon, use Google earth to look for major diversions, if there aren't any, there is a good chance some nice redbands are in there somewhere. This also applies for the tailwater sections below the dams. Once you know what you are looking for, these areas are kind of easy to spot. 

Speaking of cows, here is another scenario to keep in mind. Say you have a creek or river running through the desert and there are 2 ranches(hay fields, cows etc). Between the 2 ranches the river runs through public land that may not have been grazed recently or goes through a small 2 mile canyon(cows don't like canyons) and that is where you will find the fish. There is shade, cooler water and food and temp difference can be as much as 7 degrees in that area in comparison to the ranch water. Solar input makes a big difference on both the bugs and the fish. 

These fish can handle much higher water temps than coastal trout or high elevation fish. The redband strains, whether they be the Donner and blitzen fish or our redbands over here, have adapted to the conditions and do actively feed in water above 68 degrees. Of course, they prefer cooler water but can hack it out in the worst conditions when other fish go belly up. For a good idea, look for Dr. Benkhe's work "Trout of North America". 

Just because it is skinny water, doesn't mean it doesn't have brutes in it somewhere. I have caught nice fish in creeks I could pee across. That also goes for places that people drive by frequently and figure there is nothing in there so no one fishes it. Happens all the time. Just because you see no fish rising doesn't mean they aren't there. 

Look at waters that drop quickly in elevation to a reservoir. Now look for the creeks that don't have a main road or campground around them but drop from high elevations to low elevation ( think 7k to 1500 ft) in less than 20 miles. Those creeks can have a magic zone in them, usually in the 2k to 4k ft elevation range is where you want to look. Again, the big fish use big reservoirs or rivers below to escape to. 

Big river redbands almost, and I mean almost, never hit a dry fly out in the desert. Every once in a while it happens, but nymphing brings out the brutes. At times, hopper/dropper(I prefer beetles and wasp patterns) can be effective, but trying to keep the dinks from hitting the dry is too much work when I am after the bigger trout. 

Native redbands are just steelhead that got stuck here, well, kind of. They jump a lot and are quite acrobatic when compared to coastal trout. Sometimes they will have a slight orange tinge or slash under their jaw. They aren't cutbows, it is just what happens. The bigger ones will have very large black spots on their backs and at times a purple tinge to their gill plates and parr marks even into adulthood. Of course, those that spend a lot of time in a reservoir get real silvery, but after being in the river a while darken up pretty fast. 

Pay attention to historical runoff, especially on those streams that have a steep gradient and go from 7k to 1500 ft in relatively short distances. If redbands have run down to the big reservoirs but we have a very low snowpack, sometimes the fish don’t have high enough or enough water at all to make it back up their creeks. Some of these desert creeks can hit 700 to 1000 cfs for a month or 2 which gives the fish enough time in April or May to make their spawning run. So, if you have been catching nice redbands in one place above a reservoir and then we have a bad snowpack, the next year can be iffy. Obviously, not all the fish run back and forth, some stay up in the creek and never leave but you will find the numbers of big fish diminished for the most part. 

Snakes, rattlesnakes to be exact. Now I am not anti-snake. Hell, for that matter I’m not really pro snake either. However, I recognize that these animals have their place in this world. Unfortunately, rattlesnakes and redbands happen to inhabit the same areas. That could be both good and bad I suppose. It does keep people who get freaked out by snakes from fishing your spots. On the down side, you are usually a nervous wreck by the end of the day because you have been poking every rock with a stick. So how do you deal with them? Well, what I have learned is that while rattlesnakes can swim, they don’t really like to do it. So, my suggestion is that you stay in the water as much as possible. When you are on the bank, watch your step and take the long way around if you have to. It also helps to carry a sidearm as a last resort. I use a 38 with snake shot. It’s light and gets the job done. You have to remember, you are by yourself out here, you get bit by a snake, you might not make it back to the truck. 

Water clarity and temperature don’t mean the same thing out here as it does in a high mountain stream. As I mentioned before, redbands have a higher tolerance to water temperature than most other trout. While they don’t prefer the warmer water, sometimes they have just have to deal with what they’ve got. The key here is solar input. Look for canyons that run east to west where the sun isn’t hammering the water surface all day long. I have done temperature experiments and have found stretches of streams that varied by 7 or 8 degrees just within a few hundred yards. Of course, the fish will be congregated in those cooler stretches. As for water clarity, it doesn’t seem to really matter to the fish. A lot of streams out in the desert will appear “chalky” due to the minerals in the soil. Some will be crystal clear. Of course, the fish in the clearer streams can be spooky and harder to sneak up on. You just have to be stealthy. As for the streams that have a funny tinge to them, you don’t have to be a ninja to get close to those fish. You don’t want to be a clumsy fool either. I usually have a game plan and approach them from downstream anyway. Don’t be thrown off by the color of the water, the fish can see your flies just fine. 

Chasing desert trout has become a passion of mine over the years. Usually, all I am carrying is a 7.5' 3wt and a box of nymphs and a few dries. It is one of the few types of fishing that a fly fisherman can approach with minimal gear. Its not like you are on a spring creek trying to catch a 20 inch brown on a size 20 baetis. These fish are hungry and not all that selective when food is presented to them in a relatively believable fashion. Yet, there is more to chasing desert trout than just the pure sport of it. If you do your homework, you will find places beyond your imagination in natural beauty. Someone once said that it was no coincidence that trout live in some of the most majestic places on earth. When it comes to the redbands of SW Idaho and Eastern Oregon, I tend to believe them.