Are you bored of hitting the same waters on your trout fishing trips, or tired of bumping elbows with crowds of anglers chasing stocked trout? Maybe you still want to trout fish when the temps on your larger waters are pushing 70 degrees. The answer to your prayers of escaping the monotony of modern trout fishing is “Blue Line Angling”.
“What is blue line angling?” No, its not just some new catch phrase that hipsters are throwing around. I would define blue line angling as getting off of the beaten path, searching out unknown streams, and targeting wild fish. Now, blue line angling isn’t always a dream paradise of wild fish, waterfalls, and breathe taking scenery. I have went on a few adventures that took weeks of planning only to find my “Stream of Eden” to be nothing more than a small trickle in the middle of a fresh clear cut. The thing that you must realize about “blue lining” is that it is not a numbers or size game. You can’t go into this venture expecting screaming drags, and huge fish. Blue lining is all about the adventure and stepping out of your comfort zone to try something new. Once you give it a shot, you will find that blue lining is much more rewarding than looking at your states stocking schedule to find hatchery fish.
Serious blue liners like myself are a different breed of trout fisherman. No, we aren’t all hipsters and coining the phrase “blue liner” to feel like we are special. No, we don't think that we are better than anyone else. I see that common misconception on many social media outlets all the time. Serious blue liners are adventure seekers. We live for the unknown, and thrill of fishing brand new waters with every adventure. We rarely hit the same water twice in a given year. We live for the mystery of what a blue line on a map holds for us. We love to see the vivid color and tenacity of wild trout. When you become a blue liner your mind switches from going out to the stream to pound stockies, to scouring google maps, or topo maps to find blue lines to explore. You may put in a week of research to fish for half a day, on a stream that may or may not hold any trout at all. You may find yourself driving down the highway with your head on a swivel to look for new potential waters to research. I will admit that I am blessed to live in the Allegheny Mountains of South-Western Pennsylvania, so almost every small trickle that is not polluted from acid mine drainage has some sort of wild trout living within its banks, so I have much less research to be done than some of you reading this article.
Here are a few items that I feel the beginner blue liner must have. The first thing that you need to have is the blue line mindset. You have to go into this venture understanding that blue lining is more about the adventure than size or quantity of fish you can catch. You have to live for the thrill of the unknown. Without this mindset you are doomed to the confines of catching cookie cutter hatchery trout on the same old stream. The next thing that a new blue liner needs is a way to discover new streams. Check your local agency that regulates fishing, and see what outlets are available to you. My home state of Pennsylvania now offers an interactive maps where you can locate streams that are Class A wild trout waters, natural reproduction streams, wilderness trout streams, etc. You can also reach out to your states fisheries biologists for input on streams with breeding populations of wild trout. My favorite way though, is the old school map routine. Seeking out “Blue Lines” on a map is the most rewarding way to get the most out of this style of fishing. One of the biggest things I look for when picking a blue line stream would be topography. How steep the mountains are surrounding the stream can provide insight as to how the flow and size of the stream will be. The thickness of the line on the map can sometimes be misleading, so don’t always count on thicker lines to hold bigger waters. You must do your homework and figure out if your prospect stream is on private property, and then gain permission to access it. I find turning on overlays of game lands, national park, and other public areas to help quicken my search for accessing streams. Another thing to look at is potential stocked streams that the blue line may flow into. These streams have potential of larger fish swimming into them for thermal refuge in the summer, and you may end up with a blue line surprise. I had this happen this year when a random 22” rainbow took me for a ride with my hand made blue line set up.
Scouting is also another way I determine potential streams. I may stop at a small stream that crosses under a road. These are nice areas to perform a quick survey. I’ll stop and grab a trusted pattern like a mop fly, or a small streamer and quickly hit the hole that is on either side of the pipe running under the road. If you hook a fish there, the odds are in your favor that the stream will contain wild trout throughout. You can then add that stream to your hit list. The stream pictured below was scouted in the winter. I have caught quite a few little native brookies out of this hole, and lost one pushing 10".
Fly gear and flies for blue lining is pretty simple. Scaling down your typical trout equipment is an easy way to look at it. I prefer to fly fish so my ideal blue line fly rod is a 7 or 8 foot fly rod in 2 or 3 weight. These rods are very nice for blue lining streams with tight canopies. You won't have many issues landing trout. You can feel the subtle takes of the smaller fish as well, and can actually feel the trout once it is on your line. Some blue liners opt for 10’ rods in the same weight or less to be able to keep back from holes, and increase their stealth. Casting these rods can be tricky on blue lines, but landing the fish is why I personally opt for the shorter rods. The canopy of the stream I fish dictates the length of rod for me.
I have lost too many fish because of my tip hitting off of the canopy. Wild fish are extremely feisty when bringing them to hand, and often a flailing native brookie pops right off of barbless hooks when the rod makes contact with the canopy. Now don't get me wrong, I do fish some streams with a more open canopy with my 10' nymphing rod. In the picture above I am hooking up with a nice wild brown on the 2018 opening day of trout in Pennsylvania with my custom 10' 3wt rod. This was from a video I was part of put together by a great group of guys from Allegheny Native. You can watch the video here. Just a great group of guys that share the same passion for wild fish that I do. I highly recommend subscribing to their channel. They really go above and beyond to capture the essence of Blue Line Angling. Be sure to watch the video until the end to witness the caliber of fly fisherman that is bringing you these post, it is a classis that for sure.
Now, me being the blue line enthusiast that I am, I built my own set up that I call a “Brookie Stick.” I need something shorter than most Tenkara rods available for the micro streams I fish. I took a 6’-6” 1 weight fly rod, created a custom Parachord grip handle, and use a fixed line fly fishing approach. This is a fun way to approach blue lining. With that road though, I have a limited casting distance of around 12', so I must rely on stealth to not spook the fish. This gives you a Zen like feeling, and you have to be in heron mode to have success. Catching a native brookie or wild brown on a rod you built yourself with a fly you tied yourself is an amazing feeling, but that is a whole other blog post in itself.
I use very simple fly patterns to catch blue line trout. In most of these streams there isn't a lot of food choices, so Ifind small streamers and mop flies to be very effective. I would suggest using brighter colors so the fish can see them in the fast flowing water. Below is an example of my blue line fly box at the beginning of the season. I don't spend a lot of time on my blue line flies and most are very fast and simple flies. I know these flies are ugly, and not what you are used to seeing posted from me, but native brookies and a lot of wild browns are that picky on blue line streams. Most of these flies are two minute or less ties. A lot of my flies are also rejects, that I would not sell to customers, but they will still work. I don't do a lot of dry fly fishing, but hoppers and any dry fly that will float high like a stimulator, humpy, or caddis will be effective.
Other gear that all blue liners should have are a set of breathable waders, or hip boots. Most of the streams you will be fishing are tiny, so even a pair water proof hunting boots can work. I would suggest having a backup battery source for your phone as well. Depending on how far off the beaten path you are going to go, it would be a great idea to have simple survival items like, small first aid kit, fire starter, compass, etc. It is important to let someone know where you will be fishing in case of emergency. You should at least give them the general area you plan to target. This can pay dividends if you happen to injure yourself and need medical assistance. Also a blue liner should have an insect repellant of some sort. Permethrin, like Sawyers Premium insect replant, is a great idea to spray on your clothes to deter ticks and reduce your risk of lime disease. OFF is a good idea to spray on any exposed skin as well.
Blue lining is not for everyone. It takes a different type of trout fisherman to roll the dice and take a chance on adventure. It may seem crazy to some to hike 3-4 miles to an unknown stream only to catch six trout that are less than 7”, but to me it is my heaven. You most likely won’t see anyone else on the stream. The scenery is beautiful and the trout are way more colorful than those found stocked streams. So I challenge you, the reader, to take a step out of your typical trout fishing trip, and give blue lining a chance. Accept the possibility that your trip may result in zero fish and dig deep inside and reignite your spirit of adventure.