Fifty Tips Tips/Tactics

Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #40 — The Trout is Upstream of the Rise

April 29, 2018

Anglers love to talk about trout rise forms. There’s the subtle sip and the tail tip, the splashy swirl and the sideways swipe. Surely, all the various ways trout rise to the surface indicates something about what they’re actually feeding on. But regardless of the rise form, one primary rule (usually) applies: The trout is holding upstream of where it rises.

Let’s imagine a trout holding in two feet of water with a medium current — a speed that matches a comfortable and casual walking pace. The trout lies on the bottom, with its nose in the flow, watching for available food drifting downstream toward it. Perhaps the trout is keying on Sulfur mayfly duns, and it’s rising confidently to most of the half-inch, yellowish insects that drift into view of its seam.

Here comes the next dun . . .

As a mayfly approaches, the trout tilts its head and body upward, allowing the current to push against its belly and lift the trout to the surface. It takes our trout two seconds to travel upward and reach the surface. And within those two seconds, the trout drifts downstream, let’s say three feet.

The trout eats the mayfly dun, and we see the rise.

Next, the trout angles its head and body downward, allowing the current to push against its back, returning the trout to the bottom of the river. With a flick of the tail, our trout returns three feet upstream to its original position where it scans for the next mayfly dun.

Importantly, there’s not a lot of swimming going on here. Our trout does not propel itself upstream to capture the fly.

Trout are amazingly efficient because they have to be. They cannot expend more energy capturing the mayfly than the calories they gain by eating it. So they let the current do the work.

Watching a trout feed during a hatch, watching the way it moves and flows with  the currents (as if part of the water itself) is remarkably and economically beautiful.

Sure, trout also swim and chase after surface bugs. And sometimes they travel far outside their lane to capture a meal. But those moments are an exception to the rule. More often, we find trout holding a position and waiting for food to come within range. The trout works with the current, ultimately taking the fly downstream of its original position.

With cooperative light conditions and enough patience, you can stand bank side and watch this happen over and over.

And here comes the next rise . . .

Visually mark the rise. But understand, the surface circle of the rise is not our primary target. Our trout is holding on the bottom of the river, three feet upstream of the rise form. And it’s looking upstream, scanning the drift for its next meal. The place to cast, then, is six or ten feet upstream of the rise form and in the same seam.

Get everything just right, and with a dash of good luck, your fly becomes the trout’s next target.

It’s all variable

Rules like these come with a caveat — it’s fishing; it’s a river and these are trout, so anything can and will change.

Sometimes trout hold right under the surface. Or during emergences of larger insects, trout may expand their range and track down a bigger meal. Likewise, quickly emerging caddis may inspire trout to give chase and swim and little more.

Nothing is constant, but some things on a trout stream are predictable within a reasonable range. And it’s fair to assume that most rising trout are actually positioned a bit ahead of the surface rise form.

It’s a good starting point, anyway.

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

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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