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Reading Water


So, ya wanna catch more fish? Read! Water that is!

Of the three essential skills of a fly angler: casting; fly selection; and reading water, perhaps the most important is the last. Without the ability to determine where fish are more likely to be an angler may spend an inordinate amounts of time casting a perfectly selected fly, accurately, to a location where there is no fish. Deciding on where a fish should be, reading water, is a matter of determining those locations that best suit the life needs of the fish.

Fundamentally, there are 3 basic criteria a trout will seek out in its habitat.

1. Adequate food & oxygen: Think of a river as a conveyor belt. Food and O2 are usually present throughout- but tend to be concentrated at certain spots. Different fish species have different O2 requirements: Rainbows tend to like faster, more oxygenated water; browns can tolerate lower O2 concentrations, so are often found in slower areas of the river.

2. Protection from predators or perceived threats. This protection may come in the form of deep water, a fast choppy surface, undercut banks, overhanging branches, or brush, to name but a few.

3. Protection from current. This is probably the key to locating fish. Trout need to conserve energy to survive. They are less likely to persist if their energy intake equals or is lower than output. So, a fish is not nearly as likely to sit in the middle of a fast run, where it has to swim vigorously just to maintain it’s position. It may sit at the bottom, behind a rock, or at the edges of the current where it is not actually in the main current.

Our job, as fishermen, is to pinpoint areas that allow trout these 3 basic
requirements, as this is the most advantageous location to present a fly.

Trout hold in what are called lies- of which there are 3 basic types:

1. Sheltering Lie: where trout will go when frightened or threatened. It generally consists of deeper water with some form of overhead cover or physical barrier to visibility (riffled water, overhanging willows, undercut banks, logs, etc.). This is  where they feel the safest, and least vulnerable, and often where the biggest fish are found.

2. Feeding Lie: where a trout will move into to feed. These usually provide little protection or cover, but are areas with a high concentration of food organisms. Tail-outs or shallows downstream of riffles or runs are good bets for feeding lies. Anglers will often bypass these shallow lies, and good fish, as they don't identify these as prime feeding areas. Feeding lies are very often less than 2 feet in depth.

3. Prime Lie: where both protection and food are present; generally the largest trout in the stream are found in prime lies. These are simply areas where sheltering and feeding occur, without the trout needing to move very far. Undercut banks, and structure on the outside of bends are examples of prime lies. An angler's ability to locate prime lies is usually indicative of their catch success.

The 3 basic types of lies have one fundamental similarity, in that they offer a location where the fish expends little energy to maintain its position.

Fishermen seek out #2 & 3 above as the most likely spots for fish to be hanging out. Sheltering lies, though, give up reluctantly or opportunistically feeding trout as the fish may be sheltering itself from predators (birds, mink, etc.) and is still somewhat leery but hungry.

The nature of streams is that the water moves and the fish simply holds in place and feeds on the items that come their way. Trout will opportunistically move to those areas where it has the best chance to gain the greatest amount of food while expending the least amount of energy. The fish then chooses what it will eat. When conditions change, the hatch slows, or the trout is finished feeding, it moves back to its sheltering lie or sinks down in its prime lie.

Trout may only move into feeding lies in times of low light (evening, early am, cloudy days), because in bright conditions they feel much more vulnerable to predators.

Water will naturally seek to move in a straight line. Any obstacle causes water to deflect around it, creating an area of low pressure (reduced current) behind, or downstream of it. These are the hot spots and should not be missed. A meandering stream with a lot of physical barriers (logs, rocks, overhanging trees, bridges,  fences, tree roots, weeds, corners, drop-offs, slower water adjacent to faster), will almost certainly hold more trout than a long, straight, featureless section of stream.

Trout face into current in order to breathe (water carries oxygen molecules that flow over the gills).

Fishermen use this to their advantage when planning their approach and strategy. Fish facing upstream are looking upstream, thus allowing fishermen to get closer without spooking them. However, fishermen must be cognizant of back eddies, in which trout will still face into the current but the current will be opposite the flow of the main stream. Wading without noting small eddies will see you face to face with a fish, and the trout will quickly bolt for the cover of a prime or sheltering lie!

It is often amazing how little water a trout requires. Jim McLennan writes in Trout Streams of Alberta that a football sized rock in a stream provides enough current break for a 2 pound trout! Large trout can be caught in the smallest of lies.

Spring creeks offer the challenge of having to place flies in tight quarters to entice fish. Large rivers can be intimidating, but it really a matter of breaking the water down into smaller pieces and looking for the smaller, less obvious lies. Micro-lies in big rivers produce trout. Look for them by noting small current seams in the water's surface. A small seam on the surface will often reveal a good lie.

A final note here is to understand a bit of the ecology of your stream, know the insects and how productive the waters are. That way, you will
come to know if you might catch a 5 pound trout or 20, six-inchers.
There's a ton of fun in both, but knowing where to find either is important in setting your hope & expectation level for your trip and allow you to have fun.

One of the most important mistakes many anglers make upon arrival at the river is to rush right up the bank and prepare to cast. Take a few minutes to orient yourself, watch the water, the air, other anglers, birds, etc., and note any activity.

When seeking to fish the water you have been observing...

If there are trout rising, work your way to them by casting efficiently to the water between you and the fish. This way, you ensure you do not spook the unseen trout and you might catch a few along the way. This also allows you to slowly move into position to cast shorter, more manageable and accurate casts, and, to be in complete control of the line.

When the surface is quiet you might want to fish a nymph, a streamer, or a dropper (a dry fly with a nymph 12-24" below it) Work the water methodically. I like to call it the ‘shot gun’ approach. Casts are relatively short, maybe 30 or so feet. Each cast should be to a slightly different location. Accuracy is important, as you want each cast to be only afoot or so from the previous one. Work all the likely looking water from your position, then move upstream to a few feet downstream of where your previous casts were landing and repeat the process as you work all of the good lies. (**It is important to keep the same length of line that you are most comfortable casting and slowly move upstream rather than casting more & more line each time**)

ALWAYS, ALWAYS work the water carefully as you approach a prime lie. You will increase your chances of catching feeding fish in inches of water (feeding fish aren't always rising fish) and keep from spooking the smaller trout into the prime lie where the large one might be. The scattering of smaller trout into prime lies often will tip off danger to the big ones, and they in turn will be on guard until the danger (you) passes. This is critical on spring creeks and in low, clear water conditions. Scare one, scare them all.

While fly fishing etiquette on crowded water dictates that a pool should be worked quickly and then move on, don't mistake this for casting once or twice and moving on. Slow down, observe the insects, the risers (or lack), the seams, the back cast. Work the pool efficiently, but don't simply move through to cater to others. If you are on a section of stream, take the time to work it and try a few flies. However, that said, if there are others on the stream, don't camp out while changing your fly 20 times in efforts to land one trout. Let them have a crack after a spell and then move on. By working the pool and being observant, you will undoubtedly enhance your successes on the next trip or perhaps even on your way back downstream at the day's end.

Alpine Anglers
P.O. Box 2440, Banff, Alberta T1L 1C2
Phone: (403) 760-1133

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