Our Man In Canada
March 18th, 2002

The Absolute Beginner
Streamcraft Part Two: Reading The Water


By Piscator

In the last issue, I dealt with the art of being sneaky-the art of approaching fish and getting into position to present the fly without the fish detecting you. In this issue, we'll take a look at how to find the fish-an art which is also known as reading the water. As in Part One in the last issue, the focus here is on resident trout in streams, although the general principles apply to some other species, such as smallmouth bass in rivers.

Casing the Joint

Just as with making the approach and presenting the fly, reading the water also involves being sneaky. It's always hard to resist the urge to rush down to the water as soon as you arrive-especially if it's a location which has a lot of fishing pressure and you have to scramble for the good spots. However, it's always best if you hang back and take in the general view of the river before you get your waders wet.

Check the water condition first. This can have a tremendous effect on fish activity. For instance, high, turbid water in spring and fall can put the fish down, while a freshet in the dog days of summer can have just the opposite effect. If you're on a familiar stream, it's easy to determine water level and flow from past experience. On an unfamiliar stream ,check for dried-out watermarks on rocks or on gravel banks as signs of a diminished flow, and for submerged watermarks or littoral vegetation as signs of high flow.

Next, check for hatch activity and for rising fish. The usual places for these are close to the heads and tails of pools and in runs close to cover, but it pays to scan as much of the water as possible. For obvious reasons, this is much easier on a small stream than on a big river.

If there are no rising fish, check for bird activity. Birds, especially kingbirds and waxwings here in the east, frequently anticipate hatches of flies, fluttering about in streamside shrubs and trees. You'll also often see them feeding on spinners high above the stream long before the spinners descend to the water.

Rising Fish

If you find a hatch on with fish rising to it, you don't really have to look any further. You've located the fish. What's important at this point is to identify what fly or flies are hatching and how the fish are taking them, so that you can match your artificial appropriately. Here's when you shift into your stealth mode for your approach and presentation (see this column in The Canadian Fly Fisher, Fall/Winter 2001).

No Rising Fish

Years ago, in some of the snootier fly fishing clubs across the Atlantic, the rules dictated that you could cast only to rising fish. Fishing the water, that is, casting to likely looking lies where you thought an unseen fish might be coaxed into rising to your fly, was fiercely frowned upon. Even today, you'll find vestiges of it.

But those old codgers just didn't know what they were missing, for fishing the water successfully has its own unique delights and presents the fly fisher with a whole new set of challenges which take no less skill than casting to rising fish.

The primary skill necessary for successfully fishing the water is to learn where the fish are most likely to be. Simply chucking out your fly to cover every bit of water is an unnecessary waste of energy-moreover, it can result in putting down fish-fish which you might otherwise have caught, had you determined where they were and made your approach and presentation specifically to them.

Finding the Fish

Trout have definite preferences in where they locate in a stream. These places frequently differ from when they're feeding on the surface, when they're feeding beneath the surface, and when they're not feeding at all. The following apply mainly to streams and smaller rivers; for while they generally also apply to larger rivers, these tend to have their own unique rules-especially in long, deep pools.

Current issue

Trout, when they're not rising, like to hold in places where they feel comfortable and safe and have to expend the minimum amount of energy. For comfort, they prefer a well-oxygenated flow over clean gravel which is sheltered from the full force of the current. For safety, they seek places where there is cover to one side and above. This can be provided by in-stream structures, by depth of water, or by surface turbulence. Locations close to major food production areas, such as riffles, are favoured.

Optimum lies can be found in and just below riffles alongside rocks, logs and branches, especially if there is a deeper pocket of water. Similarly, you'll find them just downstream of riffles as they deepen into pools. Undercut banks and overhanging bankside vegetation alongside runs are also prime locations, as are deeper pockets alongside and downstream from rocks in riffles. Concentrate on these, and you'll have the best chance of raising trout when they're not rising.

In the coming issues, we'll cover specific techniques of using the sneaky approach to present both floating and sinking flies to these hotspots. ~ Piscator

We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!

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