Japanese stiltgrass blankets the floodplain surface, obscuring a veneer of fine sediments deposited from recent floods. A thin layer of silt is nearly as slippery as a sheet of ice, slowing my pace along the trail and slowing my descent down the stream bank to the edge of the channel. With each step, my foot slides whenever my weight is off balance. When you need to be deliberate, you become more observant, but also more impatient.
Fishing after work in the fall only allows a few hours before it’s too dark to see, and I wanted to spend some time on the river. In my mind, I had a specific spot I wanted to fish. Along one of the reaches I commonly fish, a strong riffle crosses the channel boundary as a deep run forcing its way into a deep pool. It checks all the boxes for a prime fishing location. It has structure, flow, food, the bubble line, and oxygenated water. When I see this section of the river, I think to myself, “There has to be one in there.” I have that specific thought often in high quality fisheries. Some of those ideal spots are the size of a bathtub behind a large rock, and some are a larger pool like I described above.
“There has to be one in there” has held me in one spot for longer than I should linger without catching fish. That thought has caused me to stay later than I told my wife I would fish. That thought has caused me to walk back to the car in the dark. But that thought has also caught me some big fish.
I have tried to use my professional experience as an accelerator for learning to read the water. Experience builds a reasonable vision for finding good spots where fish may be holding. But my experience and confidence in reading the water can lead to a lack of discipline and moments of unfulfilled hope.
My tactical approach and response to breaking down water differs based on the size of the feature and my relative success in fishing the spot. Smaller spots take less time to cover. Three to five casts can fully survey a potential holding area that is in the bathtub category. Larger features, such as my larger run-pool scenario, provide a lot more variables to investigate.
- What location along the profile would fish hold at that given time?
- What depth are they holding at?
- What’s the speed of the water at that depth?
- What obstructions exist that may provide structure but catch my flies?
- What are the fish feeding on in this location?
- Are they feeding?
My brain spins. As I tie on multiple rigs and I don’t catch fish, I dig in. In a small feature there may be a handful or less of fish; larger features may hold many and larger fish.
Figure 1 shows the multiple holding locations along the profile of a pool feature. The head of the pool is indicated in location 1. Deeper areas of the pool, particularly near log jams or other structures, provide habitat as shown in location 2. The tailout of a pool, shown as location 3, is advantageous as food sources pushed through the pool accumulate and are consolidated as the pool shallows and transitions to a downstream riffle. Each of these conditions should be fished slightly differently.
Artwork by Kayla Smith
Faster flow requires a combination of thinner tippets (they have less drag force applied) and heavier weight flies to reach the bottom feeding areas. Deeper pools need to be fished low and slow, with longer tippets, but the heavy weights may not be needed. Of course, anglers will fish with dry flies when fish are rising and can throw streamers to try and entice larger predatory trout. There are lots of problems to solve and experiments to undertake to find fish in a larger feature. Sometimes the solution is to move along and find new water, where there are fewer variables. Also when you have proof of concept from other water types, you can find those water types and fish them.
There are moments when it is good to follow your instinct and experience “that there has to be one in there,” and sometimes you need to use your time differently. In life and in my career, I have stuck to things longer than have benefited me. I was stuck to my idea that I knew better or could find a way through a challenge when I was going nowhere. Commitment and recommitment are themes of other blogs I have written and concepts I have explored. I have found that the points when I needed to make a decision to either work through the struggle or move on to a new challenge have been critical moments in my life, allowing me to free my mind or heart.
In fishing, some decisions are just about catching fish or walking somewhere different, but in life decisions can be affordable college choices, meaningful new jobs, different and better relationships, and how to have a voice and make a difference. The choices we make should be based on how we want to live and what we want to stand for…and it’s ok for there not to be one in there and to move on.