I reeled up and waded slowly to the river’s edge for a good bank sit. On my way, I stared downstream through water that I’d fished for the last few hours with meager results. I watched tight, v-shaped waves start at my legs and expand, before fading into the currents of the river below.
It was good water, full of wild trout that were mostly unseen and uncooperative. Years ago, I had my doubts in places like this, away from popular access and a little out of range for what most consider trout water. But I’ve learned that in Pennsylvania, wild trout are just about everywhere you think they should be. And if you trust that the water holds fish, you can get down to the business of figuring them out.
What’s that mean, really? What is there to figure out?
Trout like to do what their friends are doing. So if you fish hard and pay attention to the details, you’ll often catch, miss or turn enough trout to learn something.
Every response from a fish is a data point. And as we cast to the river and revel in the beauty of the places where trout live, it’s our job to place those data points into a larger puzzle. This mystery is what draws us to the river, season after season. And the daily search for clues keeps the steady angler in the game for a lifetime.
At the heart of the puzzle is an eternal question: What do the trout want?
Data and Determination
At the water’s edge, I took a seat on a fallen hemlock trunk. I thought about the tree for a moment. It had surely been lifted during the last flood and turned parallel with the river before settling into this final resting place. It would lay here to rot into streamside soil over the next few decades, providing habitat for so much life and a seat to this worn-out angler.
What had I learned this morning?
I thought about the data points — about the half-dozen trout I’d caught and the few that I’d missed.
I had changed flies many times, showing trout a variety of types, sizes and colors. They’d seen dead drifts, jigs and strips from dry flies, nymphs and streamers. But none of the flies or presentations was a clear favorite.
So, looking back downstream, I scanned across the water and noted the areas where I’d received a response from the trout. Most of those places were soft, bubbly seams along the edges of riffles and runs. And as I thought about it more specifically, many of the fish had been on the inside of those seams, in the setup water — the stuff I usually waded through to get to the juicier seams.
This realization excited me, so I made my streamside rest a short one. And when I waded upstream to the next inside bend, below the water that looked exactly like where I’d had success early, I began to catch one trout after another.
It’s true. Trout like to do what their friends are doing. Of course, not every trout in the river will feed in the soft edge or under a bubbly riffle line. But there are trends to be found, day to day. There is an answer to the question: What do the trout want?
Think of the flies and how you present them. Are they big, small, flashy or dull? Are you drifting or swinging, jigging or stripping? Are trout willing to chase? Do they respond most to a moving fly or a dead drifted one? Note what garners interest from the trout and what is ignored. Search for a pattern.
But think too about much more than the flies. Focus on questions around water type. Where in the water column are trout responding? What speed is the flow? How deep? Are they against shady structure or on sunny gravel when they hit? Are they in mixed-current pocket water or gliding tailouts?
Certainly, not all trout are doing the same thing. And eventually, finding fish in every section of water is a next-level approach. If you are skilled and stubborn enough, you can (sometimes) make trout eat from any water type and with many different flies. But the best days start by learning what most trout in the river are doing. Gather data toward those questions, and then branch off from there.
Trust what the trout tell you. And believe it — they like to do what their friends are doing.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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