Read the Damn Water!

I love to read water. It presents a challenge that a lot of anglers and guides fall short on because they do what I like to call spot hopping. They fish the spots…the spots they’ve always caught fish in. I’ll give you an example. I took a float with a pair of younger less experienced anglers and guides two years ago. I had finished a morning half day and was gonna go fish myself and they invited me along. So I joined and sat in the back of the boat. I’m a visual person, so I like the back seat and enjoy watching.

Right off the bat they started pushing the boat down river. Speeding to what one called a good spot. It was, a nice eddy with a seam along the bank with a slight overhang and a rock. A great spot for a fish. They threw a few casts, no love, and then proceeded to push down river…to the next ‘good spot’. This went in for three or so miles. I only cast a few times as we passed by tons of water and fish to get to these spots. Maybe half the spots in the first three miles produced a fish. Nothing to write home about, just a few trout. As we continued on down river I kept my eyes out for risers while we cruised by trouty water. It was later in the afternoon in the early summer, prime time for troots to be eating. The high flows of the Yak in the summer push a large percentage of the fish up into the bank where they jockey for the best feeding lines that have the most cover and easy access to food. That time of year it’s mostly caddis. And trout typically eat the majority of their caddis under the surface prior to the bloom of the hatch around dusk.

As we continued to slow down at these spots that kept being called out with sayings like, ‘This is a good spot, I got a nice one here yesterday.’ We’d come up empty more often than not and then the speed was put back on the sticks and we’d push to the next one, I kept thinking to myself…what about all the fish in between all these ‘spots’. It took me a few miles to realize what was happening. We were playing a memory game with the river and trout. We were only targeting the spots that these two fellow anglers had caught fish in previously. There wasn’t any actual reading of the water. Just slowing down to get three to six casts at these spots, then pushing down to the next without actually…well…without actually fishing.

Now I’ve got experience. Over 10 years, and I used to fish this way. I’ve never guided this way. And after about 6 miles my patience was starting to wane. I finally asked, ‘What about all the fish in between these spots?’ I didn’t get an answer, the intoxication level and gone up by this time and I don’t partake so I realized that this was more about wasting time and blowing off steam than fishing. Even on my days off or when I’m fishing for myself I read and breakdown water. There are over 1000 fish per mile in the section we were fishing during this float and I finally realized that the two anglers I was with didn’t have a lot of experience reading and searching out trout. We sped down river only stopping at areas where these two had caught fish previously and anything in between was passed by due to lack of confidence and never producing fish in the past. This is a mistake, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by clients and anglers that I’ve fished with, ‘ I’ve never fished the river the way you do Tamarack.’

This is because I take it slow, row the boat, and teach anglers how to read while we venture downriver. Fish are everywhere. Too many times I’ve had boats pass by and slide into a spot or hole, get a few casts in, maybe get a fish, then move on, meanwhile I’m still behind…fishing all the other water…typically coming up with fish. It’s not about being better, or trying to show off…it’s about fishing. Which means reading the water, searching out all the other areas besides what every other boat and angler targets. In the busy summer season on the Yak, but this also holds true at any time on the river, most boats are fishing the same spots one right after the other. That’s why you’ll see people constantly pushing to be in the front of the pack, because another boat may have already fished that spot and pressured the fish. When the trout have this type of spot hopping routine happen to them day after day it will put them down. But all those fish in between are left alone.

As a guide it can be wicked hard to watch, and if you’ve been in the boat with me on a busy day sometimes you’ll hear me call it out. I call it out for two reasons, to show clients that there is another way to do it, and to explain to anglers that this kind of behavior can mean the difference between a few fish and a lot of fish. Water reading is a crucial skill for an angler that wants to up their game and improve their skill. Sometimes that fish and all his friends are just another 20 yards up or down river of that ‘spot’. Fish move…constantly. The notion that fish sit in the same spots all the time is hogwash. Put on a pair of fins and a snorkel and you’ll see. Rainbow are more territorial but they still move around quite a bit typically staying in the same 100-300 yard stretch for a week or three. Cutthroat are different and move over a wider range up and down the river. Usually cuttys hang out for a day or three then move along.

Understanding this all relates to the weather, water temp, flow, and what food is available…those things are the basis of reading water. They tell you where the food is, so now you know where the trout should be, the water temp and flow let’s you know how hungry they are. Higher flows and warmer temps mean trout are burning calories to battle the flow and their metabolism is up with water temp. It also lets you know where they are in the water column. The weather conditions also play a factor, as bright days will put fish lower, and overcast will entice them up higher in the water column meaning better dry action. The food plays a key role of course. When mayflies hatch en mass the overcast days produce a better hatch, it also allows the fish to move up into the top third of the water column, and the insects are in key places, like the riffles and tail outs of riffles. All these things give the angler the ability to find fish in all sorts of places. Stoneflies hatching? Look to the large boulder areas and the banks of the river, higher flows will push trout into cover for rest but also easy access to big high protein food sources. Add into the fact that trout will fight each other for the best lane for food and you’ve got the basis of how trout move about in the river. Any one of these factors change, higher flows, different bugs hatching, warmer or cooler water temps, and you have to adjust and read the water differently. Add where the seams, riffles, overhangs, boulder gardens, structure, and all that into the mix and boom…there’s a lot going on.

Understanding these aspects of how trout move around in their environment is what water reading is essentially. It can be overwhelming at first, and take time to learn how to decipher it all. It’s why I get paid for this gig. On my days off this is what I’m doing. Reading the water, checking the temps, the flows, the weather, anticipating the hatches, and breaking down how the day should go. It gives me a base to go off, which sets up the day to be more productive while also teaching clients how to do it so that when they venture riverside on their own they start to understand it too. This is an essential part of guiding, the fishy part of guiding. The other side of guiding is dealing with people and how to make all this information understandable to new and old anglers.

Getting back to this spot hopping bonanza. After about 10 miles of spot hopping with these two younger guides I had had enough and sat down and stopped fishing. Soon the bloom of caddis came as dusk settled in and when there were fish rising all over it was a drunken chaotic casting session for about 20 minutes and more missed fish than caught. I sat and watched the craziness ensure and laughed a lot. When it became too dark to see I heard, ‘Trout can’t see in the dark.’ And we pushed to the takeout…another mistake as trout can and do feed in the evening when it’s dark AF. Also at some point one will get too intoxicated to be very effective at fishing. A lot of anglers fish this way though drinking or not. It becomes a problem when it’s considered to be a professional level of fishing and being compensated for it. When I take guide trips myself I want a guide that is putting their time in when not working to raise the level of the experience beyond just spot hopping. I strive for that level every season and it has served me well.

I get it’s fun to just blow off some steam and fish this way especially for younger anglers who are still learning the ins and outs, but I just don’t do it anymore. When I do set aside a day to be more of a F’ing around kind of day…it almost always turns into anything but that. I like a challenge, that’s what is fun for me. I like figuring out a complex puzzle, breaking down the river and finding success, that age old battle of ‘conquering’ nature through understanding how it all works together and putting myself or clients into the thick of it. Watching it click with anglers is one of the great joys of guiding. When it all starts to make sense and is no longer overwhelming to those who fish with me. When I get texts or calls from clients about the success they find on their own due to learning from me. They come back out to learn more and discover the ins and outs of what makes a truly great trout fly angler. Water reading separates the novice from the experienced, gives the angler more success. There is always something new happening every few weeks. Trout moving around, new bugs hatching, the flows and weather change, the water temps fluctuate, all these factors are essential to reading water. Going over and above just fishing the fishy looking water, when you start to break it all down you realize that there is a lot more fishy water out there than you thought.

I’ll teach ya…come take a trip with me and find out.



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