Reading the Water: A Life Spent Fishing

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A season for everything

View cookies policy. Or do only liars fish? You put that line in the water and you don't know what's on the other end. Your imagination is under there. He was using a dotted line. He caught every other fish. But teach a man how to fish, and he'll be dead of mercury poisoning inside of three years. It is quite clear that the good Lord intended us to spend triple the amount of time fishing as taking care of the lawn. The more expert ones are called crack pot-fishermen. All other fishermen are called crackpot fishermen.

Where most of the trout will be found depends on current speed. The outside may even be completely sterile. I once coveted a spot on a favorite trout stream where the current plowed up against the far bank, carving a dark undercut. One steamy August day when even bobbing away in an inner tube looked inviting, I put on a diving mask and poked around.


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I was disappointed. Not only were there no trout in a place I had paid much attention to over the years, the bottom was as smooth as a beach pebble and offered not one place for a trout to get out of the current. In a slow bend trout will be where the food flow is concentrated — on the outside of the bend. In streams with poor to average fertility you would expect to find trout where there is at least some current to bring them food, but in a rich river trout can be anywhere, including those neglected backwaters.

Turbulence is what makes the head of a pool easier to fish. At the tail of a pool, and usually in the middle, the water velocity is stratified: faster water is at the top, where your fly enters, and much slower water is near the bottom, where the trout lie. When you cast a dry fly upstream in the tail of a pool, the water closest to you is accelerating before it dumps over into the next pool or riffle, so drag sets in almost as soon as your fly lands, making it move unnaturally.

At the head of a pool water velocity is more uniform in a vertical cross section; it stratifies in the middle and tail. When you cast a nymph upstream, it starts to sink, but the leader and line on top of the water are moving faster, so they begin to pull the fly upward, keeping it out of the productive water below and, again, dragging unnaturally.

Your choices include dumping a lot of slack into the cast when fishing a dry or nymph upstream, using a technique that is independent of the current, such as a streamer, or using a technique that uses current to your advantage, like a swung wet fly or a skating caddis. The downstream progress of the water is impeded, making it easier to slip a nymph through the currents or to get a drag-free float with a dry fly. And you can still swing a streamer or wet fly through these currents, so your options are doubled.

Plain, boring old riffles are some of the easiest and most productive places to blind-fish, because the way the water moves conspires against the trout. Current speeds seem uniform both vertically and horizontally: the many cells of turbulence are so small that they produce, for practical purposes, a uniform body of water, lessening drag on a dry fly or a nymph. Contrast a riffle, with its many tiny goose bumps of turbulence showing on the surface, to a boiling slick, where the turbulence cells are larger, big enough to grab your leader and wrench your fly.

In a boiling slick the turbulence may even be strong enough to push a trout out of position constantly. A plain, boring — and easy — riffle on the Bighorn. Every stream I fish has some soft spots, which I have found through experience, and I use them for special guests, children, and impatient or discouraged fishing buddies.

All of the soft spots I know are in gentle riffles, lacking either strong whorls of current or the rooster tails of standing waves. A wide expanse of riffle, whether at the head of a pool or in a transition between pools, seems at first to have no features. Look harder.

ORVIS - Fly Fishing Lessons - How To Read A Trout Stream Pt.2

Out in the middle of the riffle, look for slicks — areas that look as though someone polished and flattened the bumps on the surface. Slicks are formed either when the water is too deep for the turbulence formed by contact with the bottom to reach the surface, or when the water is slowed by a plateau in the streambed or an object on the bottom. If there is enough water, all of these places will hold trout. Depth is a limiting factor for trout abundance only when the water is so shallow that trout feel insecure about holding in it.

Reading The Water: A Life Spent Fishing pdf document

In a riffle the water may be too shallow to hold adult trout, because as a rule they need to have a foot of water over their backs and a nearby refuge. So look for the places where the water is too deep for you to see the stones on the bottom clearly; when looking at slicks, make sure they are big enough or deep enough that a trout can find a place to hide when you stumble up through the currents.

If you can find a slick the size of a bathtub with secure cover nearby, you may find a trout that everyone else has missed. I remember one place in a shallow riffle I must have walked through fifty times without a cast. There was an old dead tree trailing in the riffle, and at the downstream end was a tiny pocket, barely deep enough to cover my ankles.

Why Trout Need Special Places

A brown shape formed seemingly out of the gravel, rose to meet the fly, moved without apparent haste to the tangle of branches, and broke my leader. I have been back to the same place another fifty times and have not seen that trout again. The middle of a pool also often looks featureless, without the obvious seams between fast and slow water that guide you to trout at the head. If there is nothing else to guide me, I can find the best fish in the middle of a pool by tracing the main threads of current down through it. The featureless middle of a pool. Note the bubble line in the right foreground.

Look on the bottom for lines of color that show a dramatic change in depth. If the depth suddenly changes from eight feet to two feet, all the food being carried by the current is forced into a narrow vertical choke point, and a trout here can see all the food that the current carries. In the bottom of a hole he can see only a fraction of it. Look too for rubble on the bottom, as opposed to sand or gravel. The rougher the bottom, the greater the number of nooks and crannies that offer places to hide and pockets of slower water, energy-efficient places for a trout to live and feed.

In the early and late season a spring or small tributary entering a pool will concentrate the fish. Springs reflect the average mean temperature of a given latitude, and because of the insulating effect of the ground they hold a constant temperature year-round, just as your basement does. So in early spring, when the river water is 45 degrees, the temperature of an entering spring could be closer to 50, a more comfortable temperature that will encourage more feeding. In August, when the temperature of the river is 72 degrees with a corresponding decrease of oxygen, the spring will be around 55 degrees, and it may often be a question of survival rather than mere comfort that keeps trout with their noses stuck into the cold water.

The Firehole in Yellowstone Park is a river that suffers from high summer water temperatures because of the hundreds of geysers, mud pots, and boiling water pools that flow into it. One August day I found a cold spring flowing into the Firehole opposite the famous Ojo Caliente hot spring.

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It was the first time I had fished the Firehole, and had I not wanted desperately to catch a trout there, I would have left them alone, as they were vulnerable and stressed by living in this crowded, exposed environment. Since that day I have avoided cool springs in extremely hot weather, preferring to fish near them only when a couple of trout have moved in for comfort, not when an entire pool has migrated there out of desperation. Great bank water, with a cobbled bottom as well. Reading the water by looking at the banks is often ignored, but the banks in many streams not just meadow streams with undercuts are the most important fish-holding features.


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Generally one bank is better than the other. With standing waves like these on the Madison you can bet most trout will be close to the banks. If the river is so fast in the middle that it is difficult for you to wade, there is nothing to break the current, and there are no twists to make current seams, you can be certain that any decent trout around will be near one or both banks. Which one should you choose?