Articles in the Category Reading Water

Nobody Home | Nobody Hungry

Nobody home means there’s no trout in the slot you were fishing. And sometimes that’s true. Nobody hungry suggests that a trout might be in the slot but he either isn’t eating, isn’t buying what you’re selling, or he doesn’t like the way you are selling it.

Does it matter? It sure does!

New Structure | Old Structure

One of my favorite places in the world is a deeply shaded valley that runs north and south between two towering mountains of mixed hardwoods. The forest floor has enough conifers mixed in to block much of the sunlight, even in the winter. The ferns of spring grow tall, and thick moss is spread throughout. The ground remains soft enough here that all large trees eventually surrender to the valley. When they can no longer support their weight in the soft spongy ground, they fall over, leaving a broken forest of deep greens and the dark-chocolate browns of wet, dead bark. It’s gorgeous.

Fallen timber also dictates the course of this cold water stream. The fresh tree falls force the creek to bend away from the hillside. Rolling water carves away the earth and lays bare the rocks — these stones of time, as Maclean puts it. And when water cuts into a neighboring channel, previously dry for centuries, new river banks are undercut and fresh roots exposed . . .

What Lies Beneath

There’s a world unseen below the surface. The riverbed weaves a course and directs the currents, giving shape to its valley. Water swirls behind rocks. It moves north and south against submerged logs. The stream blends and separates, merges and divides again as vertical columns rise and fall — and all of this in three dimensions. . . . Eventually, knowing and admiring what lies beneath is as easy as seeing what flows above.

The Water Column — And the All-Important Strike Zone

Seeing into the river is a learned skill. It takes a lot of time on the water to judge the three dimensional flow of a river. Reading the surface is easy. Even without bubbles on the top, most anglers quickly learn to gauge the speed of the top current in relation to their fly or indicator. But what lies beneath can be unpredictable and deceiving. Eventually, with the help of polarized lenses and some serious thought, experienced anglers become proficient (enough) in reading the currents below.

But where does it begin?

Understanding a little about the water column and the correlating habits of trout goes a long way toward better fishing. So let’s do it . . .

New Structure | Old Structure

New Structure | Old Structure

One of my favorite places in the world is a deeply shaded valley that runs north and south between two towering mountains of mixed hardwoods. The forest floor has enough conifers mixed in to block much of the sunlight, even in the winter. The ferns of spring grow tall, and thick moss is spread throughout. The ground remains soft enough here that all large trees eventually surrender to the valley. When they can no longer support their weight in the soft spongy ground, they fall over, leaving a broken forest of deep greens and the dark-chocolate browns of wet, dead bark. It’s gorgeous.

Fallen timber also dictates the course of this cold water stream. The fresh tree falls force the creek to bend away from the hillside. Rolling water carves away the earth and lays bare the rocks — these stones of time, as Maclean puts it. And when water cuts into a neighboring channel, previously dry for centuries, new river banks are undercut and fresh roots exposed . . .

What Lies Beneath

What Lies Beneath

There’s a world unseen below the surface. The riverbed weaves a course and directs the currents, giving shape to its valley. Water swirls behind rocks. It moves north and south against submerged logs. The stream blends and separates, merges and divides again as vertical columns rise and fall — and all of this in three dimensions. . . . Eventually, knowing and admiring what lies beneath is as easy as seeing what flows above.

The Water Column — And the All-Important Strike Zone

The Water Column — And the All-Important Strike Zone

Seeing into the river is a learned skill. It takes a lot of time on the water to judge the three dimensional flow of a river. Reading the surface is easy. Even without bubbles on the top, most anglers quickly learn to gauge the speed of the top current in relation to their fly or indicator. But what lies beneath can be unpredictable and deceiving. Eventually, with the help of polarized lenses and some serious thought, experienced anglers become proficient (enough) in reading the currents below.

But where does it begin?

Understanding a little about the water column and the correlating habits of trout goes a long way toward better fishing. So let’s do it . . .

Pocket and the V

Pocket and the V

The river’s flowing at three times the average. So the merge point at the lower tip of the braid is indistinct, washed away in a mix of watery lines and lanes that blend together. It’s tough water to read at the surface. And yet, a close look with a trained eye — from someone who’s walked and cast through this slice of river countless times — reveals all that is needed. Imagination and memory does the rest.

Can I reach the middle break and fish to the pocket as usual? Let’s see . . .

At the front door of every rock

At the front door of every rock

Before I could even offer the challenge, Smith had already accepted it. He shifted his pack high onto his shoulders and stripped out line, wading deftly through the first thirty feet of water. Now stationed in the hard and swift side seam of the pocket, Smith’s six foot frame towered over the same rock that had challenged me.

He ignored the stall behind the rock. He cast no flies to the edges of each lane, because I’d already covered them. His first shot was a measure of distance. His second cast was a gauge of depth. On the third cast he had all the information he needed, and he tucked the stonefly into the flow — five feet above the limestone boulder — and let it drift . . .

Quick Tips: Fish what you can, and leave the rest

Quick Tips: Fish what you can, and leave the rest

We’re in an extended high water period in Central Pennsylvania. Honestly, I love it. When the creek are full the trout are happy, and so am I. I’ve heard the lament of so many anglers across the region about unfishable conditions and poor results. But that’s not the reality I’m in. And if the water clarity is decent — if the trout can see the flies — I’ll take high water over low water every time. Success in such conditions just takes some discipline to fish what you can, and leave the rest.

Sure, blown out water is a bust, and there’s really not much you can do about that. But I’m not talking about muddy water and flood conditions. So far this fall season, we’ve averaged flows that are two or three times the norm for this time of year. But consider that our fall water is usually pretty low, and you might suddenly become thankful for the opportunity to fish a creek with some decent water coming through.

No matter the river or the flows, good fishing happens by staying within your effective reach. Fish within your means. If you are only comfortable in water that’s knee-deep, then find water below your knees and fish only what you can reach from there. Try hard not to fall into the grass-is-greener-on-the-other side trap.

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Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #48 — Fish the Other Stuff — Fish the Weird Stuff

Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #48 — Fish the Other Stuff — Fish the Weird Stuff

There’s a canyon stretch on my home stream with a gated, gravel access road used by dog walkers, runners, hikers, bird watchers and crazed fishermen. It’s a wonderful three-mile walk up into the canyon or down from the other side. In some sections the path bumps up against the towering limestone walls, and you can feel crisp cool air pushing aside the heavy heated blanket of summer.

There are huge chunks of those same rocks that have broken off through time. They remind you how many centuries this place was here before you were, and how long it will remain after we’ve all turned to dust. The eternal boulders were separated from the crest of the cliff through the earthly power of spreading hemlock roots that infiltrated every available crack, until eventually an enormous boulder fell to the forest floor and rolled into the river, providing a landmark and a constant reminder of how small your space in time really is.

So it’s a good walk up in there. And lots of anglers make the trek. But here’s the funny thing: people stop and fish the same places, day after day, year after year. All of us do it.

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Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #42 — Work into the Prime Spots

Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #42 — Work into the Prime Spots

The trout were on. They started with nymphs, but as soon as the emerging tan caddis popped to the surface, a green summer morning turned into something special.

Steve was the first to switch to dry flies. Around 9:30 a.m. I leapfrogged his position again and stopped to visit for a moment. Steve spoke as I approached.

“Man, these are the days you dream about,” he said while casting.

Standing in the creek, not far off the bank, he glanced over his left shoulder in my direction, judging the length of his fly line against the back casting space I’d left him. And I continued wading closer to my friend in the ankle-deep water.

“You switched to dries?” I used the statement as a question . . .

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Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #41 — Face Upstream

Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #41 — Face Upstream

I’m not sure why, but it seems to be part of an angler’s DNA to face the stream sideways. Some guy with a rod walks up to the creek, faces the opposite bank and watches the water flow from left to right. He casts up and across and drifts the fly / bait / lure until it’s down and across from his position. Everyone does it. Repeat ad infinitum and catch a fish once in a while. To catch more trout, face upstream.

Most of this applies to dead drifting things to a fish, which if you’re fishing for trout, is arguably the most effective and consistent way to put fish in the bag. Dries and nymphs (and often wet flies and streamers) are most useful when delivered upstream and allowed to drift along with the current, without much influence from the line and leader that carries it. The dead drift is the first and most basic lesson of Fly Fishing 101.

And the easiest way to get that dead drift happening is to face upstream.

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

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

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 you saw it rise.

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 . . .

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Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #39 — Look Upstream to Find the Seams

Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #39 — Look Upstream to Find the Seams

The river is in motion. It carves a path that erodes its rocky bottom and gnaws at its bordering banks. It cuts lanes and moves channels, constantly shaping the valley into something new. And within the river’s path is structure — all the things that give a river character: logs, tree parts, rocks, boulders, gravel bars and rootsy banks. That structure forms seams where trout live. (Find the seams and you’ll find fish.) And the best way to see them . . . is to look way upstream.

The structure in your favorite large river or small brookie stream creates seams extending well beyond what is obvious. The two distinct lanes running along each side of a midstream boulder create a third zone, a stall, right in the middle. It’s easy to see those three water features up close to the rock, but the further downstream the water travels, the more those features fade and blend into each other. And such is the beauty of a trout stream.

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