** This post is from contributing author, Pat Burke. **
Twenty minutes after I posted the Take Five article, last week, I received this message from my friend, Pat Burke: “Just so you know, I strongly disagree with your post today.” He followed that with a smiley icon, but then he finished: “I can’t tell you how important I think relocation is when the fishing is slow.”
The post Take Five is about refocusing instead of relocating. It’s more of an on-stream story than a tactics article, but the larger point of the piece is to reevaluate when things are slow and not be overwhelmed by a difficult river. I’ve found that throwing in the towel at one spot and driving off to the next river rarely changes my luck. Instead, I end up driving, walking, and wishing instead of fishing. As I said in the post, “If you can’t catch fish where you are, then you probably can’t fish where you aren’t either.” I believe that. But I probably pushed some buttons when I said that “relocating is for irresolute quitters and hopeless dreamers.” That deserves its own smiley.
Burke is my most dedicated fishing buddy, and you simply cannot argue with his success. However, we approach things fundamentally different. I like to make the most of all the water in front of me, trying hard to solve the riddle presented by the next piece of river. Sure, I cover a lot of water in a day, but Burke is a true roamer. He’s the ultimate cherry picker, selecting the best spots for precise reasons, never through blind or random luck.
Burke and I battled back and forth through text messages a bit (friendly like), and I thought his opinions would make a great blog post, sort of a counterpoint to my own favorite approach. So here it is. Thanks, Pat!
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Relocation as a Productive Fishing Strategy
By Pat Burke
At the start of a day, if you ask five different anglers what their approach will be, you’re likely to get five different answers. When it comes to planning a day on the water, anglers draw from previous experiences and do what has worked well for them in the past. Some choose to stay in one location and work all the water ahead of them. Others relocate throughout the day as conditions change. Like everything else in fly fishing, there’s no right or wrong way, and just about everything can work at some point.
When it comes to spending a day on the water, I relocate regularly. Whether it is by car, bike, or boat, I move, and I move often. Relocation is more than just a last ditch effort when fishing is slow. It is a valid tactic that, with a bit of thought, can allow you to ride the wave of good fishing all day or turn a poor day of fishing around.
Moving with the conditions
A great deal has been written about brown trout feeding best in low light levels. My experience has also shown that fishing suffers with high sun directly over the water. So I often chase the shade throughout the day. I start in sections that receive sunlight first, then I move throughout the day to sections that hold shade longer. Sometimes the shade comes from a dense canopy, sometimes it’s a high mountaintop blocking the sun’s angle as the river winds through a canyon. I progress through locations, chasing the shade while keeping in mind which side of the river has the hillside, where the sun rises and where it sets. (More on this topic in the article “High Light — Low Light”.)
Another condition that warrants consideration is water temperature. This is especially true in the extremes of summer and winter, when the river is at its warmest and coolest points. At the peak of summer, I often start my day at the furthest point I plan on fishing, away from a cold water source. The fish in those sections need to feed, but they may only do so for a short period in the morning, before the water warms too much. Then I begin relocating as the day moves on, moving miles upriver towards sources of cold water: springs, cooler tributaries, or the icy waters from a bottom release dam. In the peak of winter I often do the opposite — start closer to the source of the stable water temperatures and relocate throughout the day, farther and farther from those sources as air temperatures warm other locations.
Have you ever been out on the water fishing a prime section of river and it seems like the fish are only feeding in one water type? I personally experience this phenomena quite often. Sometimes the action is in the shallow riffles. Other times it’s the glides or deep runs. Throughout any given day, patterns begin to develop. I then use this information to decide whether to stay in one location or pick up and relocate. If it seems like the only place I’m catching fish is shallow riffles, and the particular section of river I’m in doesn’t have much of that type of water, I drive to another location where riffles are plentiful.
Our waters in the Northeast are very busy. Pressure is a real obstacle that affects the behavior of fish. Pick the wrong section of river and you can find yourself behind a dozen other anglers. On most days I try my best to stay ahead of the crowds. It has to be a calculated approach though, or I begin to feel rushed, losing some of the enjoyment of being out on the water, and fishing in a hurry. I usually start with a game plan of arriving early and picking off the popular locations before the crowds roll in. There’s a reason these locations are popular — it’s usually because the fishing is so good. I like to cherry pick the best spots at first light, then pick up and relocate to lesser known locations as the day wears on. I work the remaining spots progressively, from most well known to least popular. This allows me to stay on fresh, untouched water but to still experience the popular spots.
On some rivers extreme boat traffic can also affect the fishing. Whether it’s a constant stream of drift boat fisherman, kayakers or white water rafters, the fish are often put off. This offers a distinct advantage to a wading angler, though. With limited launches and takeouts, you can predict the approximate times boat traffic move through a particular area. On rivers with intense boat traffic, I start early and a mile or two from the launch. I fish for an hour or so, then pick up and move a few miles downriver. After another hour, I move again. I move even if the fishing is good, because staying too long leaves me in the middle of a massive flotilla, and the fish eventually hunker down. Then I have trouble getting back out in front of the crowds again. Remember, you can cycle back to the top later in the afternoon, after the boaters have launched for the day — they don’t have enough sunlight left to put in again.
Lastly, sometimes we find ourselves fishing a section that was unknowingly beat up by another good angler earlier that day, or possibly the day before. There are days when we’re fishing a fine stretch of water, during prime conditions and not catching what we feel we should. We often joke that we must be fishing behind George Daniel. Despite the tongue-in-cheek comment, that may actually be the case. There may have been another good angler who thoroughly picked apart the water and already stung a great deal of the willing fish. So if I’m out there in ideal conditions, fishing well, but still not catching what I should, I relocate. Sometimes that’s all it takes, because you may, in fact, be fishing behind another good angler.
A New Hope
Nowadays the mop fly is all the craze in some fly fishing circles. I know many anglers who do very well with that fly. Me, not so much. And I think it boils down to one reason – confidence. When that fly is on the end of my line, I just don’t feel like I’m going to catch anything. That lack of confidence spills over to my fishing.
The same parallel can be drawn when you’re fishing a single location too long and not doing well. Sometimes all you need is to walk back to your car and relocate to a different section. It gives you a fresh start — a new hope. It can allow you to get some confidence back, which forces you to focus more on what you’re doing. One fish becomes two, two fish becomes three, and next thing you know, you’re back into fish regularly again.
It always amazes me how much better a confident angler fishes than one who’s gotten himself into a rut. Moving to a new section allows you to re-kindle your confidence, even if it’s only for a short time. Sometimes that’s all you need to get the momentum going.
Relocation is not a silver bullet for correcting every slow day of fishing. Just like changing flies, switching nymphing rigs, or adding more weight, it’s another tactic to be used when the fishing is tough. Coming into the day with a plan to relocate and follow favorable conditions can greatly increase your success on the water. It’s something you should consciously think about as you’re planning your day, then continually reevaluate while you’re on the water.
So relocation is not always for “irresolute quitters and hopeless dreamers.” When times get tough, sometimes it’s best to quit struggling with futility. No, the fishing isn’t always better somewhere else, but sometimes it is. Analyze your other options and move on.
T R O U T B I T T E N
** Editor’s note **
Well said, Burke. So what do you all think? What strategy do you usually choose when the fishing is slow? Do you pack it up and move on to greener pastures, or do you double down and dig in deeper? Leave a message in the comments section.