Trout Education: Learning How to Read Water

The biggest obstacle I had to overcome when I first started fly fishing was being able to successfully “read the water” – i.e. being able to predict the areas where trout hold in streams.  Years of bait fishing for catfish and largemouth, and tossing Texas-rigged watermelon Yamasenko worms into deep creek holes for smallmouth had created a pattern of mind-numbing repetition that left me clueless when it came to trout fishing.  My previous experience told me that fish held in deep pools (which is only partly true).  So for a long time, I would hop from one deep pool to the next, skipping all the water in between.  Needless to say, I passed up on a lot of fish in those early days.  It wasn’t until I ran into another fly fisherman nymphing a riffle, that I started to learn more about trout holding areas.

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Riffles are shallow, rocky sections of streams with fast/broken water.  This riffle on Tohickon Creek holds good numbers of trout during spring and early summer.  

As most trout bums know, trout behavior and survival is largely dependent on water temperature.  In water temps below 45 degrees, the trout become lethargic and don’t feed very often and usually hold in slow, deep pools.  As water temps rise in the spring, the metabolism of the trout increase.  In water temperature between 68 and 70 degrees, the fish will still actively feed, but they will generally hold in broken/fast water because of the higher oxygen content.  If the water stays between 50 and 65 degrees, and there is adequate food, trout can be found in all types of stream environments – pools, riffles, runs, and pocket water.  Water above 70 degrees is dangerous for trout, and trout struggling in these water temps should probably be left alone.  If the trout have any hope of surviving the high temps, they need all of their energy reserves and the added stress of being caught by a fisherman will likely be fatal.

In faster water, objects like large rocks or trees obstruct the current and slow it down via friction.  Where the current meets the object, an area of slow, slack water will form on all sides of the object, allowing a place for aquatic insects to gather without being knocked downstream by the current.  It also provides a place for a trout to rest out of the current, and close to a food source.  Pocket water, which is fast water with a lot of obstructions creating heavily broken surface water, can be extremely difficult to fish, but it can also hold a boat load of trout.

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Many small mountain streams, contain lots of pocket water.  They can be tricky to fish, but they are also usually full of brook trout.  

On the flip side, areas that appear to lack adequate cover, such as long, flat pools, can be very productive during a heavy hatch because it is easier for the fish to spot and intercept insects on the surface in slower water.

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Slow flats like this one, can be very productive during heavy hatches.  But sections like this will usually require long leaders, thin tippet, a stealthy approach and good presentation.  In flats like the one above, it is easier for trout to spot food on the surface, but it is also easier for them to spot an imperfection in your fly or presentation.

Don’t make the same mistake I did when I first transitioned to fly fishing for trout – don’t be a one dimensional fly fisherman.  Use your knowledge of trout survival (water temps), trout food sources (hatches/aquatic insects), and stream characteristics to make educated guesses on where you should target.  I think you will find an increase in the number of trout brought to net (coming from a guy who spent years throwing casts to the wrong areas!).  And remember, there is no substitute for time spent on the water.  Get out on your favorite stream and experiment!

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Deep runs like this can be fished effectively by tight-lining with a tandem nymph rig.  

fall-bow-1Robert Fravel grew up in Pennsylvania, where he started fishing local streams and lakes at a very young age. During his college years, Robert spent the summers working as a whitewater rafting guide in the Pocono Mountains of northeast Pennsylvania. As an avid fly fisherman and fly tier, he enjoys exploring backcountry streams in search of untouched wild trout waters. He currently works as a lawyer in Dublin, Pennsylvania.

 

 

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The Fly Fisherman’s Winter Trout Survival Guide

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The Fly Fisherman’s Winter Trout Survival Guide

By Robert Fravel

Here in the northeast, winters can be downright brutal.  With blizzards and sub-freezing temperatures lasting well into April.  Once the calendar changes from November to December, a lot of fly fisherman begin what they call “tying season” and don’t hit the water again until spring.  But for those of us willing (or crazy enough) to brave the cold, the rewards of winter fishing can be immensely satisfying.  Fly fishing in the winter presents a unique set of challenges, but following this advice will help you overcome those challenges.

Narrow your fly selection.

In winter, there really are no prolific hatches, so it is unnecessary to bring fly boxes containing 50-75 different patterns.  Keep it simple.  Do your homework on the waters you plan to fish. Find out what trout feed on during the colder months and limit your fly selection to those food sources.  Here in eastern Pennsylvania, I will typically use some combination of five different patterns during the winter.

Nymphs:

  • Zebra midge, size 18-22
  • BH pheasant tail, size 14-18
  • Scuds, size 12-18

Dries:

  • Griffith’s gnat, size 16-22
  • Parachute adams, size 14-20

Use fine tippet and keep a low profile.

During the winter, my initial setup on my home waters is typically a tandem nymph rig fished under an indicator.  Since water levels are generally low and the water clear, I will use 6x or 7x tippet on my setup.  I absolutely hate big bulky, football-looking indicators.  Sure you can adjust the depth of your flies with ease, but they also spook 90% of the trout in the stream.  I prefer to take a foam, pinch-on indicator, cut it in half with my pocket knife and then take that half and fold it around my tippet.  I find that this method spooks far less fish and is still buoyant enough to support my flies.

Be persistent and thorough.

Trout are sluggish during the colder months.  They are less likely to chase flies this time of year.  As a result, you literally have to put your fly on top of their nose.  In order to increase your chances of this, you need to thoroughly cover every area that looks like it holds fish.  This could mean making 15 to 20 drifts through an area.  Make the effort and you will be rewarded.

Apply cooking spray.

imag0167-1 Yes, you read that correctly.  If you are fishing in below freezing temps, ice will start to clog up the eyes on your fly rod.  In order to combat this, spray your rod eyes with cooking spray before rigging up.  This will prevent the ice from forming for at least an hour or two.  If you do not have any cooking spray handy, you can also try using WD-40.

Bring a thermos full of hot liquid and something to start a fire with.

Obviously, any time you are wading into a body of water there is some degree of risk involved.  That degree of risk is exacerbated when you are in a remote location and/or in low temperatures.  In my opinion, fishing in the winter time is more dangerous than any other time of year due to the risk of hypothermia.  If you slip and fall into the water, you are in serious trouble.  During the winter months here in Pennsylvania, temperatures can frequently fall into the teens and occasionally even single digits.  If I took a spill and managed to get the clothing underneath my waders wet, I could become hypothermic within minutes.  Carrying a thermos full of hot coffee or tea is a great way to help raise your core temp and having a lighter, matches or another way to start a fire could potentially save your life.

Lower your expectations.

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As I mentioned earlier, trout are sluggish during the winter months and there are no dazzling hatches like the spring and summer.  Don’t expect to see dozens of trout rising to pick bugs off the surface.  Set your expectations accordingly.  In the colder months, I approach a day of fly fishing with the expectation of catching one fish.  That way, if I manage to net three or four trout, I feel like a fly fishing guru.

Enjoy the serenity.

In my opinion, the best part about winter fly fishing is the lack of other people.  Fishing a mountain stream surrounded by a valley blanketed in freshly fallen snow, without another soul in sight is something that cannot be replicated through pictures or words.  Go out and experience what the great outdoors has to offer.  And while you are out there, take some time to absorb your surroundings and cherish the moment.  You just might find yourself searching for that wild sense of unbridled adventure, rather than fish.