The new fly fisherman can get overwhelmed from all the information available on the sport from casting to entomology to how to read a stream. These elements can be broken down into simple and easy parts that will make your time on the water an enjoyable journey into the world of the trout.
One skill over another doesn’t take precedence to be a successful angler . Each in their own way is an important part of the process of fly fishing. Skills learned in casting are as important as knowing what fly to use. The same is true of the techniques used to fish different types and styles of flies. But the question is; where are the fish?
It’s said that 10% of fishermen catch 90% of the fish. I don’t know where this statistic comes from, or even if it’s really true, but I do know fishermen who fish in the right place will do much better than those that don’t. So let’s take a look on how to identify these secret locations.
First, think like a fish. You’ll quickly recognize two of the most important needs for survival are food and shelter. When you have both of these occurring in the same place, you're in the right water. These areas all have names that anglers use to help in identification and in description when talking with each other. I don’t mean specific location names like Trout Pool or Rainbow Riffle, but names descriptive of the type of water you’re faced with. The location names do exist, but to get other fishermen to give up that information can be like trying to get the Coke recipe, only harder.
The names I’m referring to are riffles, runs, pools and pocket water. Let’s start with riffles. These are areas in the stream that have more of a down hill gradient that cause the water to flow quicker. A broken surface and somewhat of a gurgley appearance characterize it. A small rapid might give you the picture. These areas are higher in oxygen content and often more fertile with aquatic insect life. The broken surface makes seeing into the water difficult. It also makes it hard for trout and other fish to see out. To a fish, that equals cover. This cover and higher amount of food give two important elements that fish need; food and cover. The techniques you’ll use will vary with the behavior of the fish. When there are insects hatching and trout noticeably feeding from the surface a dry fly technique can be the most exciting method. At other times, nymphs, wet flies, and streamers will also be effective.
Riffles run into pools. Pools are deeper, sometimes wider parts of the river or stream that act to slow the current. Their depth is where fish seek cover. Feeding fish can often be found near the top, or head, of the pool where current speed still provides the cover of a broken surface or at the shallow end, or tail of the pool where feeding on surface flies is easier but still the refuge of deeper water is just a tail flip away. Approach these areas carefully. Fish can easily see your approach and will hide in the deep water before you ever saw them.
As a riffles extends down stream it can create a run. This is usually the area just upriver of a pool. Runs can have a swift current, but usually a smoother surface than a riffle and a deeper and more defined main channel. Fish like runs because again, they provide food and cover. Are you catching the theme, food and cover? Find it and you’ll find the fish.
Pocket water is the kind of water that has more velocity like a riffle, but also has many exposed rocks or boulders. These rocks and boulders form pockets behind and alongside them that provide hiding places for fish but also lets them easily feed on what the current brings to them. The pockets also give smaller baitfish places to hide, and big fish do eat little fish. Some waters have lots of pocket water while others hardly have any.
Now that you have a visual picture of the looks and character of a stream or river it might seem that the entire place will be harboring trout. Well, not really. In each of these stream sections there will be parts that are simply more productive, parts that are more favored by trout and other fish. Identifying these sections isn’t too difficult if you remember that food and cover are what fish are always seeking.
Break each river section down into components. What part of the riffle has the most or best cover? Are there deeper sections or sections with a more broken bottom, maybe larger stones? Keep in mind that fish are essentially lazy. They look to the current to bring them food. Current breaks, also called current seams, where two different currents meet allow the fish to hold in the slower current while watching the faster current for an easy meal. Where you see foam lines form you’ll usually find hungry fish. The same water dynamics that congregate the foam and other bits of debris also congregate aquatic insects.
In pools you might find a large rock or a dead tree. Trout will use these as hiding places, lurking in the shadows with a watchful eye for an easy meal. Deeper and larger pockets in pocket water sections act as personal mini pools to trout. Runs frequently will have undercut banks, giving trout a safe haven and a protected lookout to snatch up anything that happens by.
Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching. On stream observation is the best way to hone your water reading skills. Lessons learned first hand are the ones most often remembered and used to your advantage. When you approach a river or stream don’t instantly jump in. Take some time to look around; watch the water for feeding fish. Sitting on the bank can be productive fishing time as long as you stay alert and enjoy the wonderful surroundings you’ve chose to be in, a place of wonder and discovery.