Al Campbell, Field Editor

April 21st, 2003

2nd Pass Trout
By Al Campbell

"This looks like a good spot, let's take a break."

My students didn't realize it, but I was setting them up for a show. I had been watching a group of six fishermen working their way upstream toward our location. This was the perfect opportunity to show my group what the last couple of hours were all about.

As the fly fishing manager for the largest sporting goods store in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I get a lot of requests to teach fly fishing skills to new flyfishers. In addition to the usual casting instruction and insect identification, I try to point out primary and secondary trout habitat. I also point out the things other fishermen usually miss; things that can be useful if they are fishing behind other fishermen. I call it "second pass" fishing. Several hours of instruction were about to be demonstrated by six unknowing fishermen.

"Joe, did you notice what that first fisherman did?" I asked.

"Yea, he walked right past several rising fish and cast to the center of that nice looking pool. I don't even think he saw them."

We watched a few more minutes. Fisherman #1 moved on to the next pool and fisherman #2 took his place. The show was getting better.

"Hey!" Mark whispered, "That guy's doing the same thing. He walked right past that rising trout, and now he's casting to the same place the first guy fished."

One by one, each fisherman stepped up to the plate and struck out. They each cast to the same area of the pool, and they each walked past feeding fish to reach the next nice looking hole.

Jerry sat there quietly watching the show. When the last fisherman left the pool and walked upstream, he shook his head and said, "Wow! I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself. Just like you said; each one of those guys completely ignored feeding fish and concentrated on the pretty water in that hole. There were three fish feeding within casting distance of that first guy and I don't think he saw any of them."

"Now" I said with a grin, "You guys go down there and catch the fish they missed." With that, they went down the hill and caught eleven trout the other fishermen hadn't seen. In fact, they followed the same fishermen all afternoon and caught dozens of fish the other guys ignored.

You can do it too; here's how.

The numbered spots all had feeding fish, but 9 out of 10 fishermen just fished the spot marked with the X.

Fish the edges.

When you look at a fishing hole, your eyes naturally gravitate to the center of the hole, and so do your casts. If you sit in one place and watch fishermen working over a hole, you'll notice that they all cast to the same places and they all leave other places alone. There are edges in every hole that rarely see a cast, but fish still hold there.

Just like the fishermen we watched, most fishermen focus on the "pretty water" in the center of a pool and ignore the edges. We observed several trout feeding in a narrow slot of slack water on the bottom edge of the pool behind the fishermen who each cast to the center of the pool. They struck out, and you will too, if you ignore the edges.

Look for seams in the current.

Any place in a river or stream where the water changes direction or speed relative to the rest of the water is called a seam. Seams provide a perfect feeding lane for hungry fish. Trout can rest in the slow water of a seam and dart out into the faster water to pick off any tidbits of food that drift past. The slow water allows them to conserve energy while they wait for their next meal.

Some seams are easy to see, but others aren't as visible. Less visible seams often hold the largest fish. The narrower the seam, the less energy required for the fish to dart out and grab an insect; and the amount of food drifting past a small seam is often greater than the amount of food available in a larger hole. Visibility in a small seam is usually better too.

Submerged rocks and weed beds break up the current creating a seam where fish can wait for their next meal. Sometimes the only clue you'll see is a slight change in water speed to indicate that something under the water is disturbing the speed of the current.

Points of land jutting into the water create seams. Most fishermen notice the big holes created by large points of land or big rocks, but small seams created by a bunch of grass, a small rock or an old tree trunk are often ignored by everyone but the fish.

In streams with rocky bottoms, the friction of water flowing past the rocks often creates a thin seam near the bank. Look for a thin band of slack water where fish can find some relief from the current. Remember; a seam only has to be a little wider than the fish to provide a break from the current and a place for them to feed.

The point of an island will often create a seam that has concentrated quantities of food. Most people look in the slack water below islands for fish, but the seam created by water splitting around the front of an island has all the food flowing past it while the water below the island only has the leftovers.

Less visible are small drop-offs on the bottom of a stream. Drop-offs provide a break from the current where fish can watch for food passing overhead. Polarized glasses help you locate bottom structure.

Fish riffles and shallow water

Aquatic insects frequently work their way to the surface in shallow water. To the insects, it's a shorter trip that requires less effort. To the trout, it's an opportunity for an easy meal. If a fish can consume more calories than he expends, he'll be there with his bib on.

The same rule applies to heavy riffles and light rapids. Disturbances in the water serve to thin the surface tension of the water making it easier for insects to emerge. Most aquatic insects work their way through the surface tension in riffles, shallow water or light rapids where the surface tension has been reduced. If you see signs of an insect hatch, you can count on fish feeding in riffles.

Riffles and rapids also cool the water and increase the oxygen content significantly. On hot days, fish will often move into the faster water of riffles and rapids to enjoy increased oxygen levels and cooler water. Fortunately, most fishermen ignore fast or thin water leaving it for you and me to enjoy while they fish the same holes everyone else fishes.

Fish the inside of a bend.

Everyone knows about overhanging ledges on the outside of a bend. In streams that don't receive much fishing pressure, this is a great place to find big fish waiting for a meal. But, in heavily fished streams, this is where everyone else fishes. In fact, we watched the other fishermen concentrate on the outside of each bend and ignore the inside where several nice trout were feeding in visible seams in the current. If fish feel pressured by fishermen on the outside of a bend, they'll move to the inside where they can feed in peace.

Look for less conspicuous holes.

A favorite technique I use to teach new fishermen how to read water is to have them sit near a great looking hole and watch other fishermen fish. I usually pick a place where several less conspicuous holes are near a real beauty of a hole. Like Joe, Mark and Jerry observed, one fisherman after another will fish the pretty pools and ignore other, less conspicuous holes nearby. It's predictable to a fault.

Fish hard-to-reach places.

Most fishermen only fish places they can get to without a struggle. If reaching a hole involves climbing down a steep hill or crawling through a patch of brush, you can bank on the fact that most fishermen will pass up that spot and look for easier water to fish.

Dead trees in or over the water are great places for fish to hide, but they are also great places to lose a fly. If it looks like a fly trap, most fishermen will pass it up and look for easier water to fish. I don't understand why fishermen will spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to go on a fishing trip, but cringe at the thought of losing a two-dollar fly to a great fish-holding spot. The biggest fish of your trip may be holding under that tree, and he probably hasn't seen many artificial flies lately.

Switch to a less popular fly

If a trout has ignored a hundred Adams dry flies in a day, number 101 isn't likely to change his mind. Using the same fly the rest of the crowd is using is a common flaw in most fishermen's strategy. Sometimes the blame for this problem can be laid on the doorstep of a local fly shop, but more often than not it's the result of one fisherman asking another fisherman what he's using.

If that fisherman wasn't doing well with his fly, why would you want to use the same thing? It doesn't make any sense, but most fishermen will tie on the same fly the last luckless fisherman was using just because he was using it. You can better your chances by switching tactics entirely.

If everyone else is fishing a dry fly, switch to a wet fly or a woolly bugger and fish it with a swing. Movement often indicates life to a fish, so a wet fly swinging through a hole will often trigger more strikes than a standard dry fly. Fly fishermen seem to be possessed by dry fly and nymph tactics. If everything the others tried on a trout was merely drifted past him, a timely twitch or swing is often enough to catch that fish's attention. Break the mold! Most "modern" fishermen ignore wet flies, but you don't have to follow their lead.

Face the wrong direction

"Upstream and dry" is the motto of many fly fishermen these days. Dead-drifting nymphs is also very popular. Sure, these tactics catch fish, but if everyone else is using them, changing to another tactic is likely to produce more fish.

Fishing a dry fly or nymph downstream allows you to alter the float or drift of the fly to reach your desired target. A little pressure from the rod tip in the right places can maneuver a fly into the perfect float over a hard to reach hole or seam. If you follow the drift with your rod tip, you can pick the fly up and gently set it in another drift without a lot of back casting. Since fish don't often see this tactic, it might be the key to changing your luck.

Like Joe, Mark and Jerry observed earlier, the other fishermen zeroed in on the center of the hole and didn't or couldn't observe the bottom of the hole from where they were standing. If you fish a hole from the upstream position, you can target fish others miss. You'll be pleased by the size and number of fish you can catch that other fishermen never see.

Move beyond the crowd

Many walk-in fisheries have waters that rarely see a fisherman. Most fishermen seem to have a tether attached to their car and the cooler it holds. If you don't mind walking a little before you wet a line, you might discover better fishing than the other guys will find.

A good example is Castle Creek in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The mile-long walk-in fishery above the parking lot is a popular place to fish, but most fishermen only see the first quarter mile of this fine stream. It's even more unlikely to see fishermen in the three plus miles of walk-in water below the parking area. Folks who are willing to walk a quarter mile on a good trail (actually, a closed road) are treated to fishing most other fishermen never reach.

Fish small side channels.

Many rivers that receive heavy fishing pressure have small channels of water that rarely see a fisherman. This is especially true in rivers that are traditionally fished by floating in a boat or some other craft from one point to another.

The Bighorn River near Fort Smith, Montana is a classic example of a heavily fished river. The traditional way to fish this river is to climb into a boat and float from one access point to another, stopping at popular holes and islands along the way. If you're a little late getting to the river, you might find all the popular places full as you drift past them.

One feature of the Bighorn and most other rivers is side channels. These are small channels of water that aren't big enough to float a boat, but still hold a sizable number of trout. Most fishermen are hesitant to leave the comfort of their boat and the cooler it holds to explore a side channel. This leaves many seldom-fished runs to fishermen who are willing to explore them. You might be surprised by the size of some trout that hold in currents so small they won't float a boat. Even better, you'll rarely have to share the water with other fishermen.

These tactics work great on trout in streams and rivers, but they also work on smallmouth bass, pike, or any other fish that can be found in moving water. Fish in moving water all require the same things to feed and survive. Fishermen in moving water all seem to have the same bad habits. You can cash in on those bad habits if you learn a few new tricks.

If you manage to beat the crowd to your favorite stream, enjoy fishing the main holes; you've earned that privilege. While you're at it, try some of these tactics too. It may improve your success. If you find yourself fishing behind the crowd, don't give up and go home. In every river or stream there are places and tactics other fishermen ignore. If you learn how to fish the second pass, you won't be disappointed. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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