Whether your favorite trout river is a crowded park with a horn signaling the start of the day, a tailwater fishery, or a remote mountain stream, there are some rules for catching fish that remain constant. Old fly fishermen have passed these key guidelines on to young fly fishermen for generations.
Take time to study the river
More fish are caught before the first cast is made than can be imagined. Taking the time to study the river before approaching it can teach you more about how to fish it than a visit to the local fly shop. There are several things you should be observing before ever making a cast.
Firstly, watch the water for signs of feeding fish for a few minutes. Are they aggressively hitting the surface? Maybe they are just sipping at the top. Sipping fish can be picky, might want to use a lighter tippet. Do you see swirls just under the surface indicating fish are feeding on something just emerging? These indications give you a promising idea of where to start for the day. Of course, seeing feeding fish is just a first indicator.
The clues are all around. What kinds of bugs do you see? Can you hear cicadas in the trees? What kinds of insects are in the water? These signs are often good indicators of what kind of flies you should be using.
Even taking time to study the color of the water itself can yield clues of how to fish it. Extra clear water means the fish will see any imperfection in your presentation, not to mention you standing on the shore. Muddier water can be a wonderful time to throw streamers. Learning to look for all these clues and more will lead to more fish in your creel.
Once you’ve taken in all the clues to help you decide how to fish and what flies to try, it’s time to focus on identifying where to fish.
Find the hiding spots
Fish are lazy, they don’t want to fight the current all day waiting for a meal to come floating near. For that reason, fish will seek out breaks in the water where they can rest and let the current carry them something to eat. Even better if they can do it in the shade. Even a roaring stream will offer cover from the current for trout, if you know where to look. Therefore, learning to recognize these spots is an important skill for the fly fisherman.
The most easily recognizable of these spots are deep pools where the current slows way down from the rest of the river. Fish will laze about these pools waiting for the faster water coming into these pools to bring them food. Near the heads of these pools, where the fast water dumps in is a likely spot to find actively feeding fish.
Eddies, or small whirlpools in a river are another top spot to find fish. These can range in size from tens of feet to tiny pockets only a foot or two across. Eddy’s are formed where the shore of the river sticks out into the current a bit, causing a break to occur. If you study these whirlpools closely, you will see leaves, foam, and bugs get trapped in them, swirling around and around. Even though a large eddy is likely to hold fish anywhere, the most aggressively feeding ones will be close to the transition between the fast and slow water.
The last easily recognizable spot to find hiding fish is behind rocks or logs that form breaks in the current. Large boulder that stick up out of the water or a tree that has fallen into the water are the most obvious pockets, but submerged rocks and logs create these breaks as well. Small pockets formed by these are some of the best places to catch fish.
Not every potential hiding spot will be easily recognizable. Tiny eddies along the bank, rocks hidden from view, and even deep pockets in the stream bed can all offer shelter for fish. A good indicator is to look for seams in the water. Seams are a place where two different speed currents meet. Anytime a seam is found there is a good chance that something is creating a nice hiding spot for a hungry fish.
Once you’ve identified likely places to cast, its time to start fishing…just don’t make the mistake of blundering right down to the water’s edge.
Start close and work your way out
It’s easy to spot the perfect fishing hole on the other side of the river. After all, as you approach the river its perfectly natural to be looking at the other side. The near side is usually hidden from view because of brush and undergrowth. The problem with focusing on the far side is it will lead to missed opportunities right at your feet.
It’s easy to think the best spots are always on the other side of the river, sort of a grass is always greener on the other side of the street kind of deal. To be fair, both sides will have equal number of great spots to test your skill. It’s important that you inspect your side of the river closely for likely hiding spots: behind rocks, a little eddy, any seams in the water where two different speed currents interact. Always cast to the close spots first, even if the far ones look more promising. Focusing on the far holes will spook fish right under your feet.
Starting close also means working a large hole from near to far. It’s tempting to throw a fly right into the middle of a large pocket, but this is a mistake. While you might pull a fish out, it comes at the expense of spooking any fish that were on the edge closest to you. For this reason, always work a hole from near to far. A single bad cast into the middle of a hole can ruin it. Sure, you might catch a fish, but how many more could you have caught?
Always work upstream
A natural looking presentation is critical when fly fishing. Therefore, casting upstream whenever possible is important. It is difficult to keep a fly moving naturally in the current when casting downstream. Additionally, working your way upstream offers you several advantages.
Firstly, trout feed facing upstream. This means that when you are wading up a river you are essentially sneaking up behind them. Have you ever approached a hole filled with rising fish only to have them stop rising as you came closer? This means something spooked the fish, probably you. Even if they didn’t swim off, it is unlikely they will rise to your fly. Approaching from downstream helps limit spooking fish.
The final reason to work your way upstream is noise. Trout recognize anything out of place in a hurry. When a rock shifts under your feet or maybe you slip and catch yourself it makes noise. Sound travels differently in the water than it does in air. When you make a splash, roll a rock or catch a fish, you can bet everything downstream hears it, but the current will help carry the noise away from what’s upstream of you.
Now that you know how to study the river, identify spots and even go about fishing the river, there’s one more critical step to a successful fly fishing trip.
Fly fishing can be frustrating. Caught in trees, tangled line, and fish that just won’t bite are just some of the madness. But the fact of the matter is fly fishing is one of the most relaxing, peaceful times you will ever enjoy. Even when things aren’t going perfectly it’s important to step back, take a deep breath and relax. Enjoy the day and being part of nature. Fly fishing is an art form and everyday is a learning experience. See you on the river.