The Fishing's Been Pretty Darn Good!
Disclaimer: this is the River Update Email from January, but it's being posted to the blog now in May. It will be valid information for most Januarys (Januaries?), but if you'd like to get information like this when it's more timely, shoot me an email to subscribe to the River Update Email.
There's often something special about trout fishing in Missouri in January. For one thing, there always seems to be a nice patch of weather when the sun comes out, the wind dies down, and everything that was frozen thaws. That's also a cue for the rivers to suddenly get a bit crowded as we fishermen look for an excuse to shake off the cabin fever. Typically, you'll see some fishermen doing great and others struggling to get a bite.
We don't have successful wild brown trout spawning in Missouri, but they still go through the motions. Almost immediately after that activity, our wild rainbows start in. Now that all that's over, both our browns and rainbows should start sagging back downstream. Also, you'll find the trout in the process of re-establishing pools and channels as home base instead of the shoals and riffles they like during spawning time. So, in other words, we're in a transitional period right now, and that simplifies things. You'll find fish in pretty much every type of water, so if you decide to walk past water to get to a spot, you'll probably spook fish out of that section you're ignoring. The fish aren't usually crowded together, but they are everywhere. You should also find good numbers of fish scattered from the headwaters downstream for at least a few miles, as they do their post-spawn downstream drift. These are good things.
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Regarding the bite, those of you who have followed along probably already know my philosophy on trout feeding behavior. We hope they're feeding aggressively (feeding behavior #1), because that means they'll chase your fly or lure and kill it. It's tons of fun, but the conditions have to be right for that to happen. If you're not seeing that behavior, we hope they're feeding opportunistically (feeding behavior #2), because that means they'll taste anything that looks like food. Drifting big goofy rubber-legged things or glo-bugs work great during times like this. Feeding behavior #3 is what I call "passive feeding," and this is most of what we're seeing right now. A passively feeding trout is still feeding, but they're generally feeding only on stuff they already recognize as food. This style of feeding calls for bringing out your flies that actually match real insects. The fourth and more irritating style of feeding is "selective." That typically occurs when there's a hatch going on, and the fish are seeing thousands of identical bits of food drifting in the current. Essentially, they zone out, and everything other than that bug becomes part of the background static. That's when you need the right fly in the right size and color, and you also need to present it properly. Selective feeding can make you lose your religion.
Luckily, they're not feeding selectively right now, but there is a little bit of selective feeding "flavor" going on. When a trout is feeding passively (#3), picking at familiar food items, what makes the food appear familiar is that those bugs are active and out and about. Right now the most active bugs tend to be itty bitty -- midges, for example. There are also some scuds swimming about, and most of them are pretty small as well. You don't need to match the hatch, though. Just get down into that #16-20 size range to pick up those passively feeding fish.
Last thought: there are also some opportunistically feeding fish out there right now, and that may call for a tandem rig. Lead with the big goofy fly to tempt those fish willing to taste something new, and trail something itty bitty behind it. That's it! If it's not working, it's a technique issue (no offense).
Head Trout Honcho in Charge
Walt Fulps. RETIRED fly fishing guide and instructor, published author and columnist, and public speakr. My past career life was in the fields of Therapeutic Recreation and Adventure Therapy.