I feel fortunate that I grew up fishing small streams. I learned to read trout water on wooded creeks that roughly paralleled dirt roads or meandered away from them. Access was more often at a dusty pull-off rather than a paved lot.
But these weren’t tiny brooks either. Some waters were fifty or a hundred feet wide in places. However, the streams of my youth all shared a key feature — they had character. They were high-gradient waters that had river-bends, islands and undercuts mixed in, enough to offer endless new beginnings, simply by walking upstream. And for a new angler — for any angler — the chance to reset the table, to start anew in fresh water over undisturbed trout, was priceless.
These natural breaks in the river are what I call level changes. And there’s a chance for a new beginning, anywhere the rocks of the riverbed create a separation between one section and the next.
Imagine where the tailout of a pool meets the riffle before the next downstream run. The lip is the level change. So as you work upstream through the run and into the riffle, you eye the tailout as an entirely new level than the one you are standing in.
While fishing pocket water around a long bend of three-hundred yards, there may be countless level changes. Pocket water is perfect for offering new opportunities at every rock. But even within those hundreds of yards, there are clear breaking points that separate one level from the next.
These levels are nothing more than a section of river to fish, and the divider usually runs from bank to bank.
Experience teaches us that fish can be easily disturbed as we work these sections. Catching one trout often alerts the others. A hooked fish that jumps and splashes among a group of risers can put those feeding fish down for some time — maybe for good. Likewise, wading through a level pushes trout away from us. And in the wrong situation, their fleeting forms seem to alert every other trout to imminent danger — like Paul Revere yelling that the fishermen are coming.
But in the next level upstream, trout are entirely undisturbed. Just wade a few yards, and a new game begins. This is the wonderful thing about small and medium sized rivers — the levels are short and plentiful.
The Big Stuff
Many anglers admit that large rivers are intimidating. And they are. For me, big waters were a locked door for many seasons. And I still require some stern mental discipline to keep me in line and fish big waters the right way.
Large expanses of river are best broken down into smaller sections that we can fish effectively. Put aside any notion that the best trout must be against the far bank — because you cannot reach it with a decent cast. Instead, target only the water that you can fish well.
That’s good advice. But it doesn’t fully acknowledge the challenge. Big water just doesn’t have as many level breaks. So the chances to reset and start fresh are far less frequent.
On my home waters, I might fish twenty different levels in just a few hours of fishing. And at each level, the table is reset. The Etch A Sketch is shaken and my mistakes are cleared. Then again, on the big waters that I frequent, I might fish one or two levels in a full morning of fishing.
That’s not to say that big waters don’t have their chances to reach fresh, undisturbed trout. Of course they do. There are structures and natural breaks like rock shelves, gravel bars, boulder lines and more. But none of these are as distinct — as delineating — as a good level change.
This frequent chance for a purely new beginning is one of the joys of small to medium sized rivers. It keeps us hopeful. Forgiveness comes at the next level — across the next lip. This is the time for a deep breath and renewed determination. Because in the next level, over fresh trout that are unwise to our presence, all of our plans will come together. This we believe.
The fisherman is eternally hopeful. Levels and resets are the perfect opportunity to strengthen that hope.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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