A FRIEND ONCE TOOK ME TO A GOOD PLACE to find gargantuan trout, but after two days of frenetic fishing I'd found none. The creek ran from springs in a broad meadow in southwestern Montana, picked up a thousand other upwellings, and then zigzagged through a field, making 50 U-turns, sometimes 20 feet across, sometimes a hundred, full of riffles and bends and big pools, the water always crystalline, the trout so shy I thought them paranoid, though (like most of us) they just didn't want to lose their skins.
When the huge trout in Spring Creek were feeding on surface insects, I found them smack in the center of that magic spreading circle that fish make when they rise. After a while, I learned how to imitate the dish du jour: Sneak close without spooking the fish, choose a number 18 dry fly, and catch a gullible specimen or two. But when the trout weren't rising, I had to find them somewhere in the inner architecture of the river, and in the beginning I felt as bewildered as I had been when I first tried to read the hieroglyphs of modern poetry.
The fish were rarely in open water; their predators could see them there and no trout wanted to be conspicuous to its enemies any more than we want to be conspicuous to the IRS. They took chances only when mayflies were hatching and they had an irresistible sweet tooth for a Pale Morning Dun.
By trial and many errors, I soon realized that there were some simple truths hidden in the pages of a river. A trout wants what we all want: comfort, protection, and an easy meal now and then. I began to look for fish in places where the current slackened and they didn't have to work so hard to hold their positions, places where their principal predators—birds and me—couldn't see them, places where the current was strong enough to bring food directly to their table. This meant behind rocks and other obstructions; beneath undercut banks; in or near the riffles, where the surface is ruffled and opaque; at the inside corners of those meanders; or in the shade of overhanging sagebrush or willows.
All of these places, at various times, held fish and I soon began to catch a few. But the best place in Spring Creek—or any other river—proved to be that narrow foam line skirting the far bank. The trout were just beyond it and had the comfort of reduced current, the protection of something above them, and a pretty parade of waiters bearing trays of aquatic insects, moths, ants, beetles, jassids, leaf rollers, grasshoppers, crippled minnows, a crayfish or hellgrammite, even a stray mouse.
When I figured that out, I made the bright resolution always to fish where there were trout. On a dozen rivers, that has made all the difference.
Gear | Eastern Streams
The Rod: Winston five-piece LT, three-weight ($615; 800-237-8763). The diminutive LT (which stands for "light trout") lets you finesse every problem of the region's tight waterways: rhododendrons, wary brookies, and elbow-to-elbow anglers. Its shrimpy six-foot, nine-inch length is ideal for flicking casts under shrubbery. Better yet, it's stealthy: Winston's hallmark soft action gives even uptight fishermen a shot at a smooth presentation, and when the LT is stashed in its 18-inch case it travels to your favorite hole undetected.
The Reel: Ross Colorado-0 ($115; 970-249-1212). A stout, machined-aluminum reel with a simple, nonadjustable drag—fine for eight-inch trout.
The Line: Scientific Anglers XPS Double Taper ($55; 800-525-6290). The only line befitting the LT, this floating double taper unfolds in a delicate loop that won't cause a stir.