A long time ago I read an article by Doug Swisher about “reading the water”. I’ve put that information to good use over the years and added to it with my own experiences. In this tip I’d like to impart some of that learned and hard won wisdom.
Looking at a stream or river and trying to determine where the fish are is called “reading the water”. Doing so is not an exact science because there are so many things to take into consideration. What we can do is look at it from a logical standpoint. We can then put that logic to the test and learn from experience.
First fish, like most living things, need shelter and food. This is a two-fold problem for the fish. It must find a spot that provides protection from enemies as well as refuge from the fast currents of the stream or river. The trout must also find a location where it can have access to food that might come drifting by.
Lots of creatures prey on trout. Birds, water animals, and larger fish are all constant threats to it’s survival. Therefore the trout’s first concern is to find cover from predators. A trout will search out the best protection available. In order of preference, a trout will first seek overhead cover; then if overhead cover is not available, it will seek side cover; and finally if neither is available will go to deep water for cover. So with this in mind the first place you should be looking for the big guys is in the overhead cover area. This can be in the form of things hanging over the stream bank such as trees, bushes, docks, or bridges. Most beginners make the mistake of always fishing the midstream area. This is usually because it is easier to cast out there where there are no obstructions. Casting into the shore sometimes requires pinpoint accuracy that can only come from practice and experience.
If overhead cover is not available a trout will look for side cover such as a protruding log or rock in the stream. This offers the fish protection from the swift currents and predators and access to food source that drifts by. Stream banks with tall grass provide some of the best side cover of all.
In the absence of both overhead and side cover trout will seek out the deep water for protection. Sometimes in the deep pools there may be rocks, ledges, or deep depressions that also offer refuge from the current so that the fish’s strength isn’t sapped by swimming against the current all the time.
Now trout are cautious creatures. If they find a great sheltering lie, with overhead or side cover they will spend most of their day there in relative safety. Sometimes though they throw caution to the wind and will move onto some seemingly unexplainable places to feed. The explanation is obvious if the food isn’t coming to the trout, it must go to the food. But most of the time, stream and river fish do not have to wander in search of their food. Most of them find it floating by and passing directly overhead. The key for the fly fisherman is to look for the places where the trout’s food is likely to funnel or collect in an area. It’s a pretty safe bet that there are some fish staking out that area. Once such area that provides this high concentration of drifting food is where currents converge to form a riffle. An even better funneling system – the one where you’ll find the biggest fish – is the area where currents converge along the bank. Such a situation is usually found along the deep side of pools or the bend in the stream or river. The force of the current over time usually creates deep cuts in the bank and produces the trout’s favorite hangout in overhead cover and pushes any drifting food directly to them. If you’re a trout what more could you want. Large boulders or logs along the stream bank can also produce this effect.
Now that you have an idea of what to look for in reading the water the next step is to take this information and put it to use on your local stream or river. Every body of water has it’s own peculiarities. All the logic and science in the world can’t beat experience when it comes to fishing your “neck of the woods”. Here’s hoping your reading is both fun and rewarding.