Understanding How To Read the Water- Part II

by Josh Patterson on February 12, 2018

“I am not against golf, since I cannot but suspect it keeps armies of the unworthy from discovering trout.”- Paul O’Neil


Last month we discussed the different lies that trout will seek and what these lies are composed of.  This is just one step in learning how to read the water.  This month we will discuss the different types of water on any given river.  Understanding these different types of water will help you discover where the fish are holding and this will tie together with last month’s learning of the different lies.  Understanding how all rivers are the same in some ways will help you discover those subtle cues in your own river that makes your river unique.  These subtle differences in fisheries can make you an even more effective fly angler.  The ability to listen to the river is a tool you can use on any river.  The better you get at fishing your local river will only help you be a productive fisher on other lakes and streams.  Experience and time on the water are also keys to developing your skills.  At times, you might even wonder if you are starting to think like a fish!  I cannot stress awareness enough.  The more aware you are of the constantly changing conditions, the more you can cash-in when conditions start to change.  Fishing before a rain or snowstorm can be an effective way of hooking up. 


Riffles- These areas are generally shallow and usually will be found running over rocks and small boulders.  The riffles will provide oxygenated water that will offer food to the trout as well.  If you see a protruding boulder sticking out of the water, that would be a ‘prime lie.’  Make sure to take your time working your way to this prime lie.  There may be more fishy water on your way out to this lie.  Riffles that provide dispersed deeper sections are great lies as well.  Sometimes, the deeper water will be a different color and sometimes you will see the drop off.  These drop-offs are ‘trout 101’ types of water.  Your ability to identify these can greatly enhance your productivity. 


Runs- These are longer stretches of smoother water and will often be found in between sets of riffles.  Sometimes these will spill into a larger pool.  Likely, they will be shallower at the head and deeper through the length of the run.  Many runs will also have deep undercut banks; it is always a good idea to cast near these undercut banks because often a weary trout will be holding underneath the shadows of this undercut bank.  Another example of a prime lie are these undercut banks. The trout can feel safe and take a break from the current under these banks and also can swoop into the fast current to grab a bug and swiftly return back to the undercut bank using virtually no energy and taking advantage of the hydraulics of the water through the use of its fins.  Anytime you see downed trees or exposed brush or boulders near these undercut banks is also a great example of a prime lie and somewhere you should target as you are fishing. The small depressions in runs can offer trout a way to conserve its energy.  Water flowing through these small depressions will be slower than the rest of the water in the run.  The deeper spots of the runs offer the trout safety from predation, cooler water temperatures, and also a source of food for the trout.  These runs can hold some trophy fish.  The shallower runs can be fished with a dry or dry dropper when conditions permit and the deeper part of the runs that are swifter could be nymphed with an indicator and some weight.  A great way to fish these runs is from the bottom and work your way up.  If the run is big enough, often you can go down to the other side of the run after fishing one side and work  your way up the other side.  Sometimes one side or the other will be more productive so taking advantage of fishing both sides can be the key to success. 

Mid run- The deepest part of the run is called the mid-run.  A weighted nymph rig can be very effective fishing these types of runs.  If there are adults present on the surface or if you see fish actively feeding near the surface, a dry or dry dropper rig could work very well.  Some anglers would even fish this with a streamer.  Fishing a streamer on “the swing’ can be a very fun and challenging way to get fish to the net.  Spey rods are making a comeback as well.  A two-handed rod can be a great method to learn to catch fish.  A nice beaded fly with some added split shot can be a good way of getting those flies down.  Weight and depth is critical when fishing deep and swift water.  A good rule of thumb is to put weight on until you drag bottom and then take weight off until your rig is just tapping the bottom.  Catching some weeds a few times throughout your drift is better than not getting to the bottom at all. 


Tailout- The tailout of a run will be shallower and that means clearer water when conditions provide for it.  You will often find fish in this type of water but a key note is that a stealthy approach will be necessary.  When the sun is directly overhead and the fish are super spooky, it is a good idea to not take too much time trying to fool these fish.  Finding the type of water where the fish are eating but also water where you have an advantage, is key.  Often, on sunny days, targeting shady water that is also oxygenated will produce fish.  Deeper pools with some depth or those deeper pools in shady water.  Maybe a tree is allowing for some shade.  Targeting fishy water but also targeting fishy water at the right time is key.  A murky run can fool a fish easier than a low and clear run.  Fishing where muddy tributaries or inlets come in can be deadly.  The fish will often hold close to these places waiting for food and the muddy water offers a bit of protection to the fish by disguising them from predators.  Often the fish will even sit in the murky water that is next to the clear water waiting for food and then swoop into the clear water eating unsuspecting insects, baitfish, or other food sources. 


Seams- Some of the best trout water there is comes in the form of a seam.  A seam is the parallel line of water where two current lanes of different speeds come together.  A few ways that seams are created are as follows: At the location where the inlet stream comes into the main water, a large boulder or other obstruction, the edges of eddies always have seams, and there are many other ways a stream can produce a seam.  The fish will sit in the slower water in these seams next to the swifter water.  When the trout see food coming their way, they will move out into the current to swoop up the food and swiftly return to the slower water of the seam.  As the weather gets colder, the fish will conserve their energy more and more.  This is why you will hear guys talking about having to “put the fly on the fish’s mouth” to get a bite.  In the colder months, a stealthy approach is necessary but also being able to put your fly where you need it is critical.  A 45 degree upstream cast works great.  You want your flies to lay out away from your indicator above the fish far enough not to spook them.  Having the correct amount of weight on, you want the flies to be near the bottom and in the target zone when they drift past the fish.  It is not a good idea to rip your flies out of the water mid drift.  This can spook the fish and the hole altogether.  Being methodical and aware of what you are doing at all times is the name of the game. 

Pocket Water- This type of water can be so much fun to fish, especially in the warmer months.  This type of water will be found more in some rivers than others.  Certain conditions create great pocket water.  Usually good pocket water is found in a fishery that has dispersed boulders and other obstructions.  High water run-off in the Spring helps create pocket water as well.  The high and fast Spring conditions can erode holes near boulders and other obstructions and this creates holding water for the trout and some prime lies and great feeding lies.  Insects gets trapped in the pocket water and the fish take advantage of this.  Pocket water creates relief from swift current and seams to enhance the fish’s ability to feed, rest, and also take shelter depending on the way the pocket water is.  A fallen tree or weeds or vegetation in pocket water can create an environment perfect for the trout.  Often this type of water is shallow.  That said, two dry flies or a dry dropper can be deadly in this type of water.  This type of water can be very challenging but very rewarding at the same time.  Learning to fish pocket water will help you learn to spot fish and become a stealthier angler.  Hiding behind boulders and being aware of your body movement and shadow can help when fishing this water.  Also, keeping a low profile and staying behind the fish as you work your way upriver will be of great benefit.  Short casts work better.  The least amount of flyline on the water is the goal.  It is a good habit to get into when fishing pocket water to only leave about a foot of flyline out of the end of your rod.  This will help you learn to keep only your leader on the water.  It will help you learn to fish with a drag free presentation and will also help the current from taking your fly. Drop your fly onto eddies and seams and just watch it do its thing.  Any water that will hold your fly up without taking it in the current is usually a good spot to fish pocket water.  Lighter tippet can be helpful.  If you aren’t getting any bites but getting refusals, drop down a size or two of tippet and try a different bug combination.  If you aren’t getting bites in shady and oxygenated water, you probably have the wrong size tippet and/or flies on. 


Observing fish behavior will help you understand how to be a better angler.  Take time observing the fish and how they react to different stimuli.  How they react to you, how they react to the environment around them, and how they act when they are feeding.  Listening to the river in this way will help you become the trout whisperer you’ve always wanted to be.  Trout have lateral lines running along their body, these are parallel lines.  These lines allow the fish to feel movement.  The trout, when at close enough distance, can feel your movement in the water or from the bank like when you are walking.  The fish can’t see directly behind them but are always looking upriver and this is why in most cases you will fish upstream as not to spook the fish.  When streamer fishing, tight-lining, fishing in murky conditions, and for other reasons that may come up, you will generally fish upstream.  Fishing downstream can seriously spook the fish, especially when wading in clear water.  Potentially, you can spook a hole before you even get to it.  Learning a safe distance but a close distance to the fish is key.  As you gain experience you will learn what the fish like and don’t like.  In choppy or off colored water, you will be able to get closer to the fish.  These are all necessary tools to becoming a successful fly angler. 


Source: Flyfishing First Cast to First Fish by Joseph F. Petralia