Reading River Water
BY: JOHN COOK
It wasn’t so long ago that a friend of mine and I were fishing the upper Bitterroot, the West Fork to be exact, and I was reminded of how reading water is something a lot of folks have a difficult time doing. It was during the summertime, bugs had been emerging fairly consistently all day, and fishing had been decent… if not down right excellent. We were float fishing out of my boat, and had just gone down the outside edge of a run, in preparation for pulling ashore and enjoying some lunch. Since I get a lot more opportunity to fish than probably 99% of the population, I invited my friend to fish the inside curl of the run while I anchored the boat and prepared lunch.
To my amazement, I’d barely anchored the boat and snuck a peek in his direction, when I discovered he was standing in the middle of the water I wanted him to fish (of course I’d fished this particular curl probably 20 times already that year and knew there were in excess of a dozen nice fish lurking in that curl).
Still, to completely comprehend the height of my frustration, you must understand that my friend is a pretty good fisherman in his own right, and had been fishing with me for 5 or 6 years. Therefore, with as much tact as I was able to display on this occasion, I crossed the log jam separating the two of us and declared something like, “What are you doing? Don’t you realize your standing in the middle of all the fish?”
The look of consternation on my friends face told me he did not! He was standing in perhaps 8 inches of water, in that transitional zone where the water is barely moving; an area located between the dead water along the bank and the heavy current flowing down the run… this transitional zone is one of the best locations to find trout any time of year and especially prime during the summer months as the water starts to warm and oxygen is at a premium.
With my same tact on that day, I asked my buddy to get out of the water, come on over and have some lunch, and calmly explained we’d try it again after the fish had an opportunity to relax. Of course, when we went back in a half hour, the fish had taken up their normal feeding lanes, and we managed to hook and land a dozen nice rainbows and cutthroat (ranging in size from 14 to 19 inches). For me, this was a perfect example of how not being able to read water can cost the average angler many fish over the course of a day… and even more over the years.
There are actually two lessons to be learned from this example. The first… and perhaps most obvious… would be to not go traipsing into any water without first taking a few moments to study that water you are about to fish. In this particular case, my friend merely looked at the water and decided the area he wanted to fish was that line that runs down the edge of the fast water and just outside the transitional water. Normally, this might have been a pretty good decision, only in this case, these particular fish preferred the transitional water over the heavier water. And, if my friend had stopped to look at the water, he would have observed all the dorsal fins displayed in that slower water, and never walked into that area.
The second lesson to be learned in this situation would be TROUT THAT LIVE IN WESTERN RIVERS LOVE TRANSITIONAL WATERS. Any water that is slower than the rest, that still has movement to it, and provides enough cover to give them a sense of security is water worth fishing. You can find this water in many different locations: along the edges of rocks and the vee below the rock; as we’ve already seen, on the inside curls of corners; behind, and downstream of trees in the river (it is always with great pain that I am forced to pass a tree in the river, as behind them is some of my favorite spots to fish); along rip rapped banks (though I do fish rip rapped banks and I must admit they do hold fish, it still offends me every time I encounter a rip rapped bank for reasons that anyone who knows me understands); and back eddies… to name a few of the more obvious locations for transitional water. Of course, once you find these waters and learn how to recognize them, you still must figure out how to fish them.
If you are fishing from the bank, the best advice I can give you is to study the water for at least a couple minutes prior to fishing it. In this time you can ascertain several things. What bugs are hatching, where the fish are staging, how they are feeding, and what the currents are doing, are but a few of the things a couple of minutes spent observing, prior to casting your line, will provide. Of course another is the opportunity to observe that bald eagle that has been watching you for the last 10 minutes… that is perched in the overhanging limbs directly above your head, or the moose that is standing just downstream feeding on the willows near the bank are both equally justifiable reasons to spend a moment or two observing. Once you¹ve figured out what is going on around you, then just select the best fly in your box that matches the hatch the closest, and feed it onto the water. In most instances, even the most schooled trout will ultimately succumb to the lure of a well placed offering.
If you are fishing from a boat, there are a couple things you should try to remember. First, and perhaps the most important is to try and get your fly to these feeding locations well in advance of the time the boat gets to them. Although you can turn many fish directly across from a boat, or even behind it, your best opportunity still exists if your fly is slightly forward of the boat. The, second thing is, when you hit that spot, try to keep the fly in the zone as long as possible. By this I mean a couple of things. First, keep it where it lands as long as possible; then along the seam its riding for as long as possible. Or, said another way, try to let it run the current line that it’s on for as long as possible. All too often I see folks have a particular spot in mind… where they think the fish is going to be. Then, rather than let the fly stay on the water past that spot, they pick their fly up and send it back to the same location… rather than let the fly follow the current it’s on. It has been my experience that often times this is counterproductive for several reasons; not the least of which is… often this practice disturbs the water either while picking up, or returning, and puts down any fish that might have been there.
So, the next time you’re on the water spend a few moments seeking out those transitional zones. Get to know what those obvious ones look like, and pretty soon the whole river will look like a multitude of transitional zones. Once this happens, it’s merely a matter of selecting the zone that your experience has shown should be the best, then cast your fly in these locations. Of course, you’ll probably start turning a lot more fish, and you’ll be forced to spend more time enjoying some of the other things taking place around you… like that eagle in the tree. As Brer Rabbit once said, “Please Brer Bear, Please don’t throw me in that briar patch.”
Good fishing, and may your fly always match the hatch.