Learn how to read the water and catch more trout

Making note of a few simple clues can make a world of difference to your catch

TAKING time to interpret what Nature is telling us can make a huge difference to our catch rate of trout. There have been many occasions in my trout match fishing career when noticing these natural ‘hints’ has brought me more trout than my rivals. A good flyfisher is always searching the water for clues, and using good watercraft, as to which tactics to choose and, most importantly, where the trout are.

WIND DIRECTION

This provides vital clues as to where the food is, and therefore, the fish. During early season, it pays to cast with the wind blowing towards you, either directly or at an angle, because this is where the warmer water is blown. Trout will naturally seek out warmer areas during very early spring.

During the cool early season, trout prefer depths of around 8 to 10 feet, but not more than 12 feet. And these areas often have non-stony, silty beds which house a lot of insects such as buzzers.

Resident fish often frequent warm water during early season but freshly-stocked trout tend to remain where they were introduced for around two or three days before travelling with the wind and settling in a shore with the wind blowing in.

In the height of summer, it pays to cast with the wind at your back, over water as deep as you can find. This is where the more favourable cooler water will be.

But it’s interesting to note that, on a cool summer’s day, cooler water will also be in the top few inches near the surface, as well as very deep down.

But generally, on really hot days, the warmer surface water gets blown away, leaving the much-preferred cooler water right in front of you and many trout patrol this area. Search for water temperatures of between 9 and 11 degrees C, as this is the optimum temperature for trout activity.

SHELVES AND POINTS

Prevailing winds tend to deposit silt off the end of land points and, when boat fishing, it’s best to drift parallel to the direction of the shelf, casting over it (see diagram).

One of my favourite drifts of this type is along Flamingo Bay at Foremark reservoir in Derbyshire, where I’ve enjoyed tremendous success. The silt builds a natural shelf and offers good feeding grounds and safety in the shape of deeper water either side.

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INSECT LIFE

Try to be vigilant the moment you enter the fishery car park. Vital clues as to which insects are hatching are on cobwebs and in the insect shucks on the water near the windward bank. Pay attention to insect colour and size – but especially colour.

BIRDS

Look out for swifts, swans, seagulls and cormorants. Swifts often skim the water’s surface scooping up any newly-hatched insects, therefore they’re a sure sign there’s a hatch in progress. Make sure you exploit these areas and try to discover what insects they’re feeding on. You can be sure that the fish have also noticed.

With their long necks, swans dig up weeds, dislodging all kinds of food items for the fish. Make sure you cast as close to these swans as possible in the shallows – but not too close – the trout will soon take advantage of the available food.

Cormorants obviously feed on fish, so when you see them actively feeding, you know the trout aren’t far away. Many times, when competition fishing, I’ve used cormorants as a means of finding the fish.

WIND LANES

These can form the entire length of large waters and to pass one by without casting a fly over it is criminal during the warmer months. The foamy edges of wind lanes trap all kinds of food items for trout, so position the boat in a parallel drift and cast over the lane’s edges, where you should get takes.

You’ll often see the fish moving up and down the lanes, sipping in those trapped insects and food stuffs. For obvious reasons, try to avoid motoring through the wind lane.

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STRUCTURE/FEATURES

Pontoons, boat moorings, tree roots or anything positioned in the water offer food and shelter. Towers in large reservoirs are a haven for fry and, often, big trout are caught around them. Pontoons also provide trout with cover from anglers and birds. Buoy chains on the larger reservoirs are one of my favourite haunts, as the chains gather weeds which, in turn, attract trout.

OTHER ANGLERS

One of the most obvious clues to fish location and fly choice is to watch other anglers. If there’s a gathering of anglers, then they’re usually there for a reason – trout!

Please, always avoid anchoring where boats are obviously drifting. Watching anglers closely can tell you all you need to know – the retrieves, lines, areas and if you get close enough, the flies as well. If you see a successful angler pulling, he’s probably using lures. If he’s using a slow figure-of-eight, he’s probably nymphing.

This feature is one of many within our extensive trout fishing watercraft area. Click here to see what else we have on this fascinating subject.

How to fly fish for trout from a boat

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If the move from trout fishing small waters to boat fishing large reservoirs is a daunting prospect, here’s our introduction to the basics. It's sure to help make you a much better boat angler...

Boats offer a huge advantage to the reservoir fly fisher. They allow the angler to cover more areas of water far quicker than roaming the banks. And when using a drogue - long, slow drifts over fertile fishing areas leads to impressive catches.

To the small water angler boat fishing can sometimes appear too much like hard work. Howdoes one tackle the boats, the engines, oars, drogues, anchors and all the safety elements? Well it’s not as complicated as it might first seem.

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POINTS

These areas provide an excellent food source. Two currents meet concentrating insects and other trout food.

SEAGULLS

Seagulls and other fish-eating birds betray the presence of coarse fish fry. It’s a safe bet that the trout won’t be far way.

WINDLANES

On breezy days these can reach across the reservoir. Insects and other food items can accumulate in the edges.

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OTHERBOATS

Watch for other boats repeating drifts. They’re most likely catching fish but don’t offend by getting too close.

SWALLOWS

When these birds skim the water’s surface it’s certain that there’s an insect hatch going on. Trout won’t be far away!

SHALLOWS

These warm water areas can provide excellent buzzer beds with overwintered fish often patrolling through the weed for pupae.

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SUNKENTREES

Underwater structures make good habitat for trout food and therefore a large trout is always close by.

DROP-OFFS

Find these areas and you’ll catch fish. All kinds of trout food gather here for cover. Trout patrol the edge in search of a meal.

8-12FT RULE

Early season trout prefer a depth of 8-12ft. The water’s starting to warm now and insects begin to hatch. Trout move in.

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DEEPWATER

On bright sunny days the trout may descend to deeper, cooler water for comfort. It’s now that fast sinking lines are used.

DAPHNIA

Tiny protein-rich crustaceans, water fleas, gather in huge numbers at certain depths and the trout hoover them up.

BUOYS

Coarse fish fry and insects gather around the weed

attached to the chain. Cast nearby as both attract the trout.

SAFETY

Always wear a lifejacket. Most waters insist on this and enforce it vigorously. Eye protection, sunglasses, are a must because when sharing a boat, a strong gust of wind can send a team of flies, some weighted or with double hooks, very close to your head. So, obviously, a hat is also advisable.

And another thing, always remain seated as standing up in a boat leaves the angler off balance with the inevitable dangers of falling in.

STARTING OFF

Your first session should always be with an experienced boat angler as they will operate the engine confidently leaving you able to get used to being afloat. But engines aren’t something to be avoided. Ask one of the fishery wardens for a crash course and you’ll soon be on your way with confidence.

Now for one of the most common mistakes made by first time boat anglers – broken rod tips. Make sure all rod tips are inside the boat and not protruding over the edge - especially when leaving the boat dock. It only takes one bump with another boat in a crowded boat jetty to bust your expensive Sage or Loomis.

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Engine instructions and guidance from wardens is available.

VITAL SIGNS

SHALLOW BEDS – These areas are prime buzzer beds with many an overwintered specimen fish casually sipping in fat, juicy chironomids. Don’t get so close to the shore that you end up grounded on the bottom. Stay far enough away to allow easy casting into these areas.

Look at the contours of the bank to assist you with estimating the depth of the water. A steep bank may mean deep water and a flat bank may indicate shallower water. Look for ‘turned up’ swans feeding as this indicates a good depth of about four feet, the swan’s reach. This is a prime shallow depth for good-sized fish feeding on larvae. A feeding swan also disperses larvae in the weeds making it a larder for the trout. Use a large reeled tape measure with a weight on the end to find the exact depths. From a few feet to eight feet is a shallow bay.

Try fishing small nymphs like the Buzzer, Cruncher and Diawl Bach and fish them static or with the slowest of retrieves on a floating line. Fish a short line (don’t cast too far) to avoid spooking any fish in the shallow water. These shallow bays are excellent for dry fly fishing to keep the flies off the bottom and free of any weed. Try small shuttlecock dries in size 12/14 in red, black and hare’s ear.

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Shuttlecock CDC

DROP-OFFS – Occasionally the underwater bank suddenly slopes off from shallow to deep. These are natural holding areas for trout.

Drop-offs are usually found on points where silt has been able to build up causing the ‘ledge’. These are usually found by visually seeing them. You need to look for the bottom then it suddenly darkens as it drops away. You’ll see them easier on brighter days as you’ll see the shallow bottom protruding out with the darker parts down the side. This is ideal hunting ground for trout. They’re usually near dam walls too where quick depth is necessary.

Try fishing sinking lines on the drop-offs with Boobies being a favourite. Cast over the drop-off and fish the Booby slowly over the ledge onto the shallow water and wait for that take! Also try nymphs fished over the ledge as trout move over the ledge into the shallows to feed on them.

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POINTS – The beauty of these areas is that two currents meet and therefore food items congregate for waiting trout. Look for a natural point on the land. Approach the point from about 80 yards so you don’t disturb fish feeding on the point. Try to avoid drifting straight onto the point but drift across it. This means you will fish both ledges as you approach and as you drift across to the other side, so doubling your chances. Boobies are a good choice but fish are here to feed along the shallow points on nymph larvae so try nymphs. Use a team of Crunchers, Buzzers and Diawl Bachs fished extremely slow.

WIND LANES – These lanes can form across the whole length of a water on blustery days. And they are a hotbed for surface feeding fish. Insects are clogged at the edges of the lane and trout cruise along mopping them up. Don’t drift down the middle of the lane as you’ll spook fish. Instead, drift parallel to the lane and cast in the edges to intercept fish.

Fish are feeding on food trapped in the tight surface of the wind lane. Dries are always excellent fished here. Match the colour to those on the surface and place your dries across the lane with one on the edge and the others across it. Using a Booby stroked across the lane can be devastating but try a wet fly like a Claret Bumble behind it to turn follows into takes. Continually cast across the lane stroking the flies back for best results. Casting straight down the lane will only spook fish cruising up it.

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DEEP WATER – On bright summer days the fish will go deep to escape the sun’s glare, as they have no eyelids, and to reach cooler water. It’s now that the sinking line comes into its own. Fast sinking lines like the Di-7 are essential now. The Booby allows you to cast out and let it sink for long periods without snagging bottom. Best Boobies are orange, Cat’s Whisker or Sparkler for this time of year. Cast out and allow to sink for up to 40 seconds or so on the hottest of days and slowly figure-of-eight back. This keeps your fly in the cool zone for as long as possible. Many trout take on the curve when the fly is at its deepest, just before the line becomes vertical and lifts off the bottom. Stop retrieving here for a few seconds then slowly lift.

EARLY SEASON – Fish will lay in 8-12ft of water – usually April to mid May. Fish on to windward banks about 50 yards out. You need to be fishing slow now so a sinking line with Booby is ideal. Orange, Black or Coral Boobies are best. As you are fishing 8-12 feet of water the Booby won’t snag bottom, but conventional lures will. With the wind blowing in, the warmer water is likely to be found here so nymphs may emerge off the bottom. As the day warms up try a floating or midge tip line with a small heavy Black Buzzer on the point with a Cruncher and Diawl Bach on droppers. Fish extremely slow or try fishing them under an indicator.

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MID-TO-LATE SEASON – Fish start to move to deeper water as they search for food and long drifts across middle of lakes can be very rewarding. The fish move out with the food, especially the daphnia. On a cloudy day try using Orange Blobs (pictured below) pulled fast on medium sink lines and if it’s sunny use a faster sinker. You may also try a Booby on the point with a Blob on the dropper and pull the Booby fast across the top causing a disturbance to attract the fish. They also follow the adult fly across the middle as it drifts with the wind so dry flies may well be worth a go, but try to fish in wind lanes where possible. Doing this will really increase your chances of coming across much more fish.

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WIND DIRECTION – The daphnia or water fleas form a high-protein diet for trout and these tiny crustaceans are blown downwind. The wind direction is arguably one of the most important factors in flyfishing. It dictates so much, like where the food is being blown; where the warmer water is being blown in the cooler months; where the cooler water will be (off bank with wind coming off); which direction surface feeding fish are heading and where insects are likely to be blown off banks and trees etc.

Daphnia will rise to the surface in cloudy weather and is rushed downwind in the rolling waves - so, predominantly, fishing for daphnia feeding fish is often best downwind. Watch the wind direction for several days before fishing, to see where the water fleas are likely to be gathered. Best flies are Orange Blobs and Boobies for daphnia feeders or the Cat’s Whisker fished fast on sinking lines. The rate of the sinking line is dictated by the cloud or sun predominance.

If the lake has a tree line you may want to fish near this bank as insects and terrestrials will be blown on to the water and the fish won’t be far away.

Rising fish will usually travel up against the wind so, if you cover a rising fish, cast several yards upwind of the initial rise. Don’t cast where the fish first rose, it’ll be long gone. If fish have been feeding on adults off the surface then the bank with the wind coming off it is likely to hold more trout as fish travel up there in search of food.

FEATURES – Buoys, towers, moored yachts, submerged trees all offer a food source as insects gather on ropes and around trees for safety.

All sorts or morsels hang around these features with fry and corixa some of the favourites. Cast close to the feature and retrieve past it.

If fish are on fry then try a Minkie on a sinking line and slowly fish it past the feature. Crunchers or Diawl Bachs are great corixa patterns so fish these slowly on a floating line beside the feature. Reservoir anglers catch so many fish consistently fishing around all the buoys across the middle of Grafham Water and the like. Keep moving around them all and eventually you’ll find fish, however, most underwater features will hold at least some fish. During later season, look for moored yachts, jetties and submerged trees for fry feeders. Remember to use strong leader line as the fish know the snags just as well as you do!

SLOW DOWN YOUR DRIFT WITH A DROGUE

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1. Having attached the drogue to the boat, open it out before releasing.

2. Throw it in and let the boat open it out like a parachute as it drifts along

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3. The open drogue slows the boat’s drift allowing more time to fish an area.

4. Pull in the drogue before motoring around ready for the next drift.

USING AN ANCHOR

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YOU may well prefer to anchor the boat in a likely hotspot. Most boats come with an anchor already on board. Lower the anchor quietly. A noisy chain grating against the side of the boat will scare fish. Similarly, when retrieving the anchor don’t drop it in the bottom of the boat as every fish close by will be spooked.

Trout fishing the middle of a pool, part I

Compared to the drama of rushing water at the tail or head, the deep middle (belly or body) of a pool can look barren and uninviting, but it is a sanctuary for fish. Often big fish. The middle’s calm surface can be intimidating – a clumsy wader can send ripples far and wide, while the depth of the water can be uncertain – but this depth and stillness hides riches, if you have the patience to observe its character. Take the time to understand the currents, the effect of features such as boulders, overhanging trees and changes in depth, and then carefully consider your tactics and approach. Observation is the key: the more time you can devote to scrutiny, the greater will be your reward…

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Resting lies and feeding lies

Trout are seldom faithful to one lie. There are occasions when a prime lie is found, providing enough food and shelter for a fish to take up residence, but it’s rare. More often, a fish has several lies, each serving a purpose. For example, on hot summer days a trout will hold in the deep, shady water, but at twilight it may move to the shallows to feed. Sometimes fish will move to a feeding lie and stay there for the duration of  a hatch, before ghosting back to the comfort of a resting lie.

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Back eddies

The most difficult places hold the best fish and none is more testing than a back eddy, where the current swings around and heads back upstream into slack water. Foam swirling in an elongated circle is a telltale sign. Take the time to study these areas to determine the speed and direction of the flow.

Sometimes you may have to face directly downstream and cast into a back eddy that is moving towards you. Because the flow is moving towards you (in an upstream direction) the flies will fish back to you in a natural manner.

Difficult wading or access may mean that you have to fish opposite your intended target, ie across the flow. It also depends on the nature of the back eddy. Here, a slack-line cast (see Fishing Downstream, below) will buy your flies a little more time before they drag.

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Fishing downstream

A downstream cast may not be a dry-fly enthusiast’s first choice but faced with difficult access and meandering flows, it’s a useful tactic. You can get a longer drag-free drift by adapting your forward cast: rather than follow through by gently lowering the tip, maintain an elevated rod; the slack line created can be fed out by flicking the rod-tip downwards while simultaneously releasing line; this will create loose coils, which will lead to longer drifts and ensure that the first thing a fish sees is your fly.

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Be prepared

When trout are on patrol, the best ploy is to “watch and wait”. You could rest on the bank or, perhaps, try wading into position and waiting for the fish to settle and regain confidence. Be prepared by having enough fly-line stripped from the reel and outside the rod-tip while holding the leader or fly in your non-casting hand.

Be patient

While the bulk of visible activity may be in the middle of a pool, it doesn’t mean you should race there for your first cast. Whether you intend to cast upstream, or downstream, always fish your way to your intended target. For example, if rises are seen in the pool’s middle and you’re aiming to target them with a dry-fly upstream, quietly enter the water below them (even at the tail of the pool tail) before extending a short length of fly-line. Casts should be aimed where you plan to wade – as if clearing the way. It is imperative to approach calmly, to avoid creating a bow-wave.

If possible, avoid entering the water via steep banks, particularly if wearing felt soles. Although they provide superior grip on the riverbed, on mud or wet grass they can act like skis and could send you hurtling into the water.

Which leader?

I use copolymer leader and tippet because it is extremely supple and has significant stretch. Suppleness allows the flies a freedom of movement while riding the currents and stretch helps to protect against breakages or violent takes when fishing at close range. Forget about refractive index: the important thing about leader/tippet selection is matching it to fly size and circumstances. The finer the tippet’s diameter, the more natural it will behave on surface currents. Obviously, small flies benefit from finer tippets, but casting a dry Mayfly pattern into a niggling breeze on the same delicate leader may result in tangles, in which case think about beefing up the leader.

Longer leaders

Increasing your leader length to 14-16 ft will vastly improve your chance of success with dry-flies. A long leader means less fly-line rests on the water and its thin diameter is less affected by the current and so a more natural presentation can be achieved  over a greater distance.

Tapered leaders

Manufactured or home-built tapered leaders are infinitely better than a level section of monofilament in helping to transfer the energy of the cast to a weightless dry-fly. The knots in a tapered leader actually provide a little more impetus, which improves turnover during gusty conditions, or when using ultra-small flies. However, several knots along a leader can easily snag on surface debris, such as weed or leaves, spoiling the fly’s drift.

Nymphs are generally heavy enough to straighten a leader, in which case a slender, level length of mono’ can be used. It will have less surface area than a tapered leader, which has bulkier butt sections, and so will sink more readily and keep you in closer contact with your flies.

To grease or not to grease?

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In the turmoil of a pool neck it can be worth greasing the leader to prevent it being grabbed by currents and dragged under when presenting flies close to the surface. But on the smooth surface of a pool belly, a greased leader becomes conspicuous; it leaves an indentation. In which case I think the last 3 ft of leader or tippet is best de-greased so that it sits a fraction beneath the film and is less detectable.

Spiders and wet-flies

Wet-flies or Spiders are not only for fast runs – they are worth trying in slower sections, too. Fish them down-and-across where the water is too deep for wading.

Pitch the flies across the flow with the cast angled slightly downstream. Once executed put either a wet or aerial mend in the line.  Whichever you choose, the rod should remain angled upstream so that it can then be used to track the line’s progress downstream, allowing the flies to drift unfettered. Once the initial drift has reached its conclusion, either lift off and re-cast, or let the flies swing round. For longer drifts, pay out a little more line with a vertical rod sweep, which should generate enough slack for the flies to continue their drift. Throughout the process, an elevated rod and slightly tensioned line will help you to detect takes by watching the fly-line. 

Paul’s favourite team

While a team of three wet-flies/Spiders is normal, a small weighted nymph occupying the point will help with turn-over and depth. My standard set-up is a William’s Favourite (top dropper), Orange Partridge (middle dropper) and a small beadhead nymph (point fly). Although a little unorthodox this method has proved itself many times with fish hooked at incredible distances that would otherwise have gone unmolested.

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Stalking tactics

If the water’s surface is still and there is sufficient light (the sun behind you), fish can be located and stalked by sight. Trout naturally feel secure close to the bank and under trees, but armed with polaroids and a little stealth, it is possible to approach them on land before dropping a nymph or dry-fly in front of their noses. A little imagination may be needed when it comes to presenting a fly: you might try the catapult cast.

Big fish

Deep water is often favoured by larger fish which, though dormant for long periods, can be surprisingly active in short spells, even in the middle of the day, when they may be seen rising in quick succession to several insects before sinking to the depths. It may be 15 minutes or even an hour before they show again, but the wait is worthwhile.

Click here to go to the second part of trout fishing the middle of a pool