Relocation as a Productive Fishing Strategy

by | Jun 13, 2017 | 20 comments

** 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!

— — — — — —

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.

Photo by Pat Burke

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.

Identifying Patterns

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.

Photo by Pat Burke

Combating Pressure

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.

Photo by Pat Burke

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.

Photo by Pat Burke

Pat Burke

** 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.

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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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  1. You both make valid points. We just gotta remember there are no absolutes in fly fishing and fishing in general. It’s just like the old saying, “You should have been here yesterday, I was killin’ them.”

  2. Put me in the Pat Burke camp. I believe that fishing pressure in the Northeast in particular has a huge impact on fishing success or lack of success. Many times you are better off fishing the B or C water if you can thereby avoid the crowds. And fishing behind George Daniel or some “comp” guy- forget it. Better to move and groove and find some virgin water and happy fish.If your fly is the first one he has seen that day or week, then your chances are good-if it is the 10th fly his has seen that afternoon, not so good.

  3. Great article as always. I’m 100% in the Burke camp here. When it’s slow I like to hit and run to cover as many good lies as possible rather than spend valuable time trying to figure out a run rotating patterns over the same picky fish. The exception is in the winter when access is a problem….that’s when I’ll anchor down and figure it out.

  4. I began a new strategy during the winter and all of spring. Being new to the tight line game I started with an indicator on slower and medium fast moving water and stuck with one confidence pattern. The Sexy Walt’s Worm in various sizes and colors. Not only did I get very good at tying this pattern due to it’s enormous success….My reaction time improved immensely and I tripled my hookup rate vs. the previous year. The Walt’s works great in all types of water. Especially ponds! There is very limited water to fish here in SE Connecticut and very few fly fisher people in general. It’s pretty much a ‘fish where they are stocked’ game but relocation has been a game changer for me primarily due to water temps and I have learned well following all of these posts. A stream thermometer is a vital tool. But the best tool isn’t a tool at all! Learning rocks and I’ve learned more here than reading books and watching videos. Start smart and grow in small intervals. Get really good at lesson one and move on to lesson two…..removing the indy. The biggest benefit I’ve gotten from TROUTBITTEN is to get really good at one aspect of all of this, build confidence….and move on to the next stage.

  5. I think both methods work very well. It depends on the time of year for me.

    In the Spring time fish are more active and will eat most times on the first few good drift. If i am not doing well i will move until i find the right water or right sections to fish. Most times using a lot of the same things Burke explains ( shade and people avoidance) . The fish are more predictable because of the hatches.

    In the winter , i thing the methods you explain work best. The fish are less active and will not move to take some flys. It often take a few extra dozen drifts to hit the right spot. In the winter the fish can be less predictable and will sit in many different types of water. In my mind, it pays to fish the runs and the pools.

  6. I wish I could jump on the winter bored. I haven’t given it enough of a try to make a valid conclusion. My limited winter fishing has mainly resulted in numb feet.

  7. Funny story on the George Daniels comment…. One day I was on Spring Creek fishing water I normally do very well at. I fished up the creek for about 100 yards and didn’t even get a bump. Sure enough I round the next bend and GD was right in front of me!

  8. Another good article or I should say two. Twenty years ago I would’ve been in the Pat Burke camp but now with mobility not what it used to be I’m definitely in the Dominick camp. Reading the comments makes me realize how much my perspective has changed over the years. Now it’s good just to be on my favorite class A trout stream, catching a trout or two, enjoying a good cigar with a good fishing buddy and a “keeper” is now a decent image I capture on my iPhone. Keep the articles coming!

    • Both good camps. I definitely have my days where I like to relocate a lot too.

  9. Definitely in the same camp as Mr. Garman above, although I still practice both scenarios depending on energy levels that day. If I’m on old familiar waters I’ll slow down and work them from the perspective of Mr. Swentosky; it’s calming and cathartic. On the other hand if I’m fishing new waters I find my excitement about seeing what’s around the next bend in the river will win out. I tend to hunt deer the same way; I know I should be doing the death crawl but I’ll see some interesting geological feature up ahead and I just have to go check it out. Explains the tag soup lately. Catching fish and shooting deer are almost secondary at times. Perhaps most times.

  10. The trout are still there so it’s about refining the drift. The greater attn to detail and focus will not only catch more fish but also helps the angler in noticing the subtle seams, hidden structure and prime lies he didn’t notice before…especially on those wide, flat rivers

  11. Well said on both parts. Much can be said about both focus AND movement. Both have saved the day for me on different occasions, and on some days I tried to do one when I should have done the other. I do very much agree with you Dom, that if you are not focused, moving somewhere else will not fix the problem. Had too many of those days. Enjoyed the open mindedness and willingness to portray seemingly opposed opinions.

  12. tell me true guys. In all these blogs, videos etc, no one rarely catches a trout under 10″ Me…always under 10″. Also, I can fish most of the time and catch nothing in a 2 hour stretch.


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