Fishing for Trout: Reading the Water – Part 3


by Bryant J. Cochran, Jr.


Now that you have learned the how and why of trout behavior, lets get on with learning where they like to live in a stream. “Practice seeing fish and you will catch more of them”. This was told to me by the wisest fisherman I have ever met and I have found it to be true. I would like to add some more wisdom to it…”If, however you do not know where to look, you will never learn to see them”. If you haven’t yet printed copies of the first two articles in this series, now would be a good time to do so. It will help you follow some of the terms I will be using from now on.

Let’s take a trip to your favorite stream. You pack your gear, load up the vehicle, drive (however far it is) to the car park, get out and suited up, and head to a favorite hole with that special rod in hand. Question.. what do you do next? Do you start wading? do you start creeping up to the bank to cast and hope you get a take? do you find a high spot and observe the water noting any rock,log,gravel bar,bend,deep flat,mossbeds,or other structure that is in or touching the water? do you then stare intently at each little piece of structure to see if you can pick up the slightest hint of movement or shadow that is not part of the structure? If you answer yes to the first two questions then I can assuredly tell you that you will miss the largest fish and even if you catch a few or many, you could have caught more and bigger fish if you had answered yes to the last two. When I go fishing I am amazed at the number of fishermen fishing blind. True, some times you have to live with not knowing where the fish are, but most of the time you can see them if you stop and take the time to locate them. The fish you can see you can cast to and know that you have a good chance of getting them to take your offering. Now you are thinking, sure but where do I look and what am I supposed to see? Let us proceed to dissect a stream and find the answers.

All streams or rivers have some basic sections. Fast water can be broken down into;

rapids, riffles, and pocket water. Slow water can be broken down into; pools, slicks, and eddies. Additionally we can break each of these into their basic parts, for example a pool has a head, a tail, possibly a shelf, and an eye. To look at the water as a whole is to create a confusion of details. What we will do, therefore is to look at the individual parts that make up the whole, hopefully this will bring order to chaos.

Slower current is what fish want to be in most of the time – remember the energy expenditure vrs food from the previous articles? Even in the fastest of current flows slower water can be found. The banks of the stream and the bottom carry an increased drag factor thereby causing the current to flow slower than the main body of water. Bends in a stream also create slow water on the inside of the bend. Boulders and smaller stones in the current flow create two pockets of slower water. Let’s start finding the slower water in each of the sections, remember that every bit of this slower water is a potential fish home, by finding all of the homes on a section you know where all the fish live. Then all you have to do is eliminate the sleeping houses and you are left with the homes of the catchable fish. We will start with the fast water.

Rapids are the fastest water on any stream. They are deeper than riffles and have larger structure features simply because the smaller features have been moved away by the current flow, or they are buried by the volume of water flowing over them. The features that will create slower water here are; 1. Boulders, either sticking through the surface or covered by the surface of the water. Boulders protruding from the waters surface create two pockets of slower water. They are both feeding lies. The front pocket is formed by the damming effect on the current, this causes the water to stack up and create a bulge of slower water. You will see this bulge and sometimes there is a breaking wave just in front of the bulge. A feeding fish or two live(s) in this house. The lee pocket is usually farther from the boulder than you think. the feeding lies of this house are just up stream from the point where the disrupted current flow comes back together. The food conveyor belt will show you this point. Boulders under the waters surface create the same two lies but they are harder to see because they are sub-surface. Look for the bulge in the surface that gives away the boulders position and then use the information you glean from an exposed boulder to find the feeding houses. Also when exploring boulders be sure not to forget the sides of the boulder, fish will sometimes hold here too. 2. The Banks of the stream including the bottom. Look for fish right up against the bank walls. They will be down stream from any bump or other protrusion you can see. If the bank has a definite protruding feature; i.e.. big bump out, series of rocks connecting or almost connecting them to the bank, be sure to check for a slack current behind these. If you see one or not, there will be fish holding in a feeding pattern down stream of these obstructions. You must be able to determine if they are big enough to create a back water eddy or not. If there is a back water situation the fish will probably be looking in the normal currents down stream position. This calls for extra caution when approaching. 3. Any trees that have fallen into the rapid and are either still attached by roots or lodged against the bank or some structure. These do not go clear to the bottom, but they do create a slack current so distance from the obstruction. There will be a feeding fish or more holding in the spot where the slack current forms (look for a slick water area or at least a less disturbed water area). Most important of all is to get as high view as possible and don’t forget to wear polarized glasses. If you can get to point where shade is on the water you want to see through all the better.

At the end of the rapid or riffle (a riffle is just a shallow rapid) there will be a transition area we call the HEAD of the pool The water rushes down the rapid area and hits a deepening stream bottom that might also widen and slows down. The previously tumbling water becomes smoother and quieter in its movement. the feeding lanes (where the food conveyor travels is quite easy to see now, with all its bubbles and whitish foam. There may well be areas in this transition that match the boulder or log descriptions above. If there are they will hold feeding fish in the same manner. You will also find feeding fish on the stream bed in this area, digging nymphs and catching the drowned insects and other morsels the conveyor belt carries. Just down stream from the head of the pool is an area that may be shallow on one bank this is the SHELF. The shelf may be a gravel bar or a sandy bar or a mud bar, it mostly depends on the type of sediment the stream carries and how narrow the main channel becomes at this point. There will be a very distinct line between the fast flowing channel current and the shelf’s current. This is the place to look for feeding fish in the shelf area. When the stream makes a bend I tend to get excited and usually have to back off and regroup my objective. Where there is a bend in a pool area there is usually a small, really flat, area of water from the inner bank to the straight bank on the inside edge of the channel current. This is the EYE of the pool and if you develop the ability to find these special places on the streams pools you will find that half of the fish you catch come from these places. The eye of the pool has fish in a feeding frenzy whether they are feeding on the surface, sub surface or on the bottom. These guys mean business. I was on my home waters just last week and caught 12 nice trout from one eye of the pool area. These are the places I take clients when they want a lot of action on nice sized trout. That should give you an indication on just how productive the “eyes” are. Learn to find them, you will become the fishmiester in your stream over night. Where the pool empties into the next rapid/riffle is called the TAIL of the pool. The Tail of the pool is not so good during day light hours, but go there in the waning hours and stay till dark and you can catch some of the “biguns”. The trout that hide and sulk all day are the sharks of the stream. They are some of the trout that have “world record” name plates. If you have the ability to fish at night then you have the ability to catch some really monster trout. The tail has holding areas like we have been talking about but the water becomes shallower and spills into the next rapids area of the stream.

Now you have the information necessary to start the location of catchable fish homes on the stream. I would like to encourage you to; print this article and re-read it until you think you can go to your stream(s) and practice locating these houses with you eyes. You might even want to draw a map of each portion of your stream(s) showing these house locations. If you do this then you will have as much information about the stream as the gillies. The next installment we will learn how to spot individual fish. Then you will have become a good water reader and the only excuses you will have for not catching fish will be your choice of fly or your presentation. But that is for another series. Practice reading water every time you go fishing and remember the time you spend looking for fish is time well spent. If you see them, you can catch them!

May god smile on you in you endeavors.

Continue on to Part 4 of Reading the Water >>