Why Are Summer Trout Harder to Catch?

by | Aug 30, 2020 | 11 comments

Many anglers hang up the fly rod when the days grow long. As spring surrenders its sweetheart days, summer signals the conclusion of trout fishing season, and new interests take over. The streams are fished out, the water is too warm and trout are off the feed. It’s not worth the effort, they say. Summer water surely presents a challenge. But good trout fishing can be had all summer long by accepting the difficulties and understanding the roots of the problems faced.

First, let me acknowledge that in some parts of the world, August is prime time. There are watersheds in the Rocky Mountains that round into perfect shape this time of year. And Appalachian brook trout fishing can be at its best when the summer is wet and the fish are active. But every trout river that I fish goes through periods of low water and high sun. That’s summer fishing, for most of us.

Here’s a look at the challenges. (The last one may surprise you . . .)

More Heat

Let’s deal with the weather.

If you can get over the discomfort of steaming and sweating in ninety-plus degrees while swatting bugs and slathering sunscreen, then you might notice that warming water seems to put trout down.

(None of us fish for trout in water that reaches 69 degrees. That’s my cut-off number, and it’s proven from both experience and science.)

READ: Troutbitten | PSA — It’s Hot Out There

In many regions across the country, there’s plenty of cold water all summer long. These areas of constant seasonal flow are the result of limestone springs, tailwaters or an abundance of shade. And they are some of our prime trout fishing destinations, worldwide. But most of these rivers remain tough in the summer. Spring creeks still warm up. And climbing temps put trout down, compressing the productive fishing time into a few hours in the morning, perhaps a half-hour at dusk and, sometimes, good night fishing.

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Night Fishing

I call it the summer rhythm. And once it locks in, a trout’s prime feeding happens in these narrow windows.

Photo by Bill Dell

Fewer Bugs

For much of the spring and early summer, trout watch emerging insects rise through the water column, providing an easy target and a quick meal. And in these times of abundance, fish fall into the habit of chasing bugs.

But when the main hatches are through, things change. For a few weeks, fishing can be faster, and trout seem to find our flies easier, without competition from thousands of naturals in the flow. But soon enough, that summer rhythm locks in, and trout stop expecting the easy meal. Then, if we don’t change tactics to meet the trout in their new places and learn their new habits, the net is empty.

More Light

I believe light is the condition that is most overlooked by the average angler. Better fishing happens when selecting river locations and the times of day that keep direct sunlight out of the trout’s vision.

Are you comfortable driving east toward a low horizon early in the morning? Not likely. And the trout aren’t either.

READ: Troutbitten | Angles, Angles, Angles

Likewise, the high sun of summer, the bright ball of fire that arcs higher in the sky for longer durations, is tough to escape. The summer season comes with more light directly overhead. As the sun sits high in the sky, its light casts fewer shadows, and trout have less space in a river to feel safe. Trout are on edge and skittish in direct light.

Shade and shadows become more important than ever in the summer, because it’s harder to find.

Less Water

Combine the high sun with lower water, and trout are more spooky than ever. Skinny flows expose trout in a riffle that once offered protection, until that same riffle is far too dangerous for all but the smallest fish to feed.

Trout are wary and cautious creatures. And they look for places to eat without exposing themselves to predators. Under thin summer flows, these feeding zones are compressed into smaller and fewer areas.

While successful fishing may be found across most of the river throughout the spring, the flow and the rhythm of summer turns once-productive expanses of our favorite creeks into water that simply isn’t suitable for trout feeding.

Less water means fewer opportunities. It also means there’s less room for angler error.

Photo by Bill Dell

Fewer Currents

So why are trout more selective in the summer? Put aside all of the other elements discussed above for a moment, and consider this:

Summer flows are often at the river’s minimum. What was once rolling pocket water with whitecaps, becomes a flat, trickling glide broken up by scattered stones and meager seams.

Lower water has fewer currents.

Now imagine a single trout hanging in the strike zone near a chunk of limestone. It’s belly rests inches from the river bottom while it’s looking upstream for food. And with fewer currents — not as many lanes and seams — our trout has a short-list of drifts that it’s accustom to seeing beside that chunk of rock.

In the spring, when the river carries three times the amount of water down the valley, there are more currents approaching that same trout in the same spot. So the trout is conditioned to seeing more options — more paths — for natural food to travel around the rock. There are more lanes, more seams, more depths, to watch for food in bigger flows.

But the low flow of summer offers fewer options. And our trout starts looking for just one thing — one path — beside that rock. So when our fly doesn’t match that one look, the trout rejects the presentation.

This is why summer trout are more selective.

Fish hard, friends.

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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11 Comments

  1. Aaaaah yes so very true, summer trouting, a challenge but i accept it each season has its own face n hurdles, rewarding when you get that window and connect, i love the 4 seasons of trout fishing, and the transistion into fall now is my favorite,always learn from each time on the water,it never gets old. .. great read dom

    keep em coming!!

    Reply
  2. Agreed! Your point about the light is something I’ve not thought about. Thanks. High water temps a factor for sure! Some states and streams will even enforce “hoot owl” laws to manage pressure in very warm temps. This can cut your time on the water in half or not at all. Appreciate another good article that makes me think.

    Reply
  3. Very informative article Dom. According to some, your cutoff temperature could even be lowered a few degrees. As far as light effecting trout, I had a guy in Idaho tell me that he won’t fish when the sun is angled toward an upstream facing trout regardless of water temp. He will search for a section of water where the sun comes in beside or behind them. His reasoning was that the trout are blinded by the light and won’t take your fly.

    Reply
    • This is so interesting. I have never heard of considering light like this.

      Reply
  4. When flows are low and slow, it’s a good time to see all of the structure while fishing.

    Reply
  5. You’re right, the last one was a doozy!

    Reply
  6. Hi Dom,
    Your right about the way sunlight effects the behavior of trout. I’ll walk up stream around the bend to fish water without sun on it. I also concentrate on the shady side of rocks and boulders when drifting nymphs. The shaded side always gets more drifts. Just remember that trout do not have eye lashes, they can’t close their eyes to block out light so they move to shade. Another great article! Tight Lines.
    John

    Reply
  7. A great, informative, and timely topic. This is the main reason I don’t look forward to summer’s arrival. Water temps in my home river are getting close to 69°. Ive see a few trout in shallow water; however, no matter how stealthy I approach the river’s edge, they quickly swim to cover. I try to fish as early as possible, without a whole lot of trout success. But, on another note, it seems that places where I’ve often caught trout in the past, are now occupied by smallmouth bass, and even though they are not trout, they are still fun to catch, while continuing to practice good presentation.

    Reply
  8. I will say thatIMO, summer can take the pressure off “matching the hatch.” This is the time of year that so many terrestrial patterns will work. From ants, to hoppers, stimulators, you name it. Trout see protein floating, and they will oblige. Great write up Dom

    Reply
    • Personally, I find summer (July-Sept) the prime time. I use nymphs, dress in camo, check water temp and fish it in the best range, moving upstream as necessary. I cast more into the whitewater at the base of falls, and seek pockets where trout rest. As the water temp rises, fish feed MORE due to higher metabolism. Contrary to standard thought, troohy browns can be caught at noon on summer months.

      Jim Parks
      TailsOfTheSmokies

      Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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