You stop by your local fly shop on your way out of the city and they tell you which river is hot this week. The flows and water color is perfect for this time of year.
They give you the fly that hammered the fish yesterday and you are fired up to get on the water. They give you a few additional fly fishing tips on presenting the fly, and you are on your way.
As you finish up the last minute preparations for the gear, you can feel that hot fish on the line. You finally arrive at the river later that day with enough time to get 2 hours of fishing in before dark.
But, when you look out at the large uniform stream, you have no idea where to find the fish.
Your mind quickly goes back to what one of your friends mentioned about reading water. Something about….water speed or was it depth? Crap – I guess this is going to be another learning experience.
Trust me, you will have more of these days.
I will save you some time next time you are on the river by helping you understand the basics of reading water. Read all the way through to see the Top 10 helpful tips below.
A Steelhead’s Life
You’ve probably heard all about the life of a steelhead. If you haven’t, take a look at this link for a summary.
As we target them in rivers, these fish are nearing the end of one major stage of their lives. They’ve been out travelling, feeding and growing in the big water and have come home to spawn. We are trying to get these migrating and holding fish to take a fly.
They’ve just spent the last few years battling the mighty sea. Remember that steelhead are not looking to struggle any more than they have to. We have to make it easy for them to take a fly.
They are looking for easy HOLDING WATER!
You need to identify and find this holding water. You need to spend your time finding the best holding waters and the smaller pockets within the larger runs you fish. If you can find these, you will find the steelhead.
3 Keys to Good Steelhead Water
Speed is the key. Look for water that is the pace of a normal walk up a brisk walk – But think average. That’s why glides and tailouts are the preferred water types to find fish – The speed is perfect – Not to fast and not to slow. Pocket water, given the right speed, can also be effective, especially for nymphing.
Open areas and sandy bottom runs on the other hand, are bad. Sand is a good indicator of slow water speeds. Sand shows us where slow water is because only sand will deposit in slow water velocities. In Good steelhead flows, sand is too light to deposit.
Fish need protection to feel safe just as any terrestrial animal would. This is why you won’t find steelhead holding in shallow water very often. It might be the right speed, but doesn’t offer cover. Look instead, for depths of between 3 to 7 feet. This usually offers just the right amount of protection and flow structure in depth.
Flow…..check – Depth…..check – Cover……??
Ah, yes, the big question – Cover? Flows and depths can be figured out from visual and physical cues in many cases. Fish cover on the other hand is more difficult. Steelhead, like most animals, need to feel protected. So, ledges, boulders and other areas where the water is broken are the best habitats to look for fish.
If you can find these, you will find the fish.
Whenever you arrive at a new steelhead run, pool, or pocket, be thinking about these three variables and how you might find fish. Follow the tips below for some additional insight and tips on reading water.
Top 10 fly fishing tips on Reading Water
1) Polarized Glasses
I had to start off with some of the obvious stuff first. Polarized glasses and a hat with a brim is helpful. Even in the winter, and a dark stormy day – Always wear polarized glasses. Yellow lenses work great during the grey blustery days when the sun never peeks out.
These glasses will cut the surface glare and allow you to peek below the waters surface.
2) Get Elevated
Find a spot that is elevated above the water (without spooking fish). Viewing the river from this perspective will open up a knowledge bomb. Oh, there is a ledge or boulder right there? – Maybe I’ll spend more time there. Sounds like a good plan to me.
3) Move to the opposite bank
It can be helpful to get a different perspective from the opposite bank. You may also be able to fish the slots differently by moving to the other side, even on small rivers. It’s all about finding those buckets- so take your time and cover the water.
4) Spotting fish
Steelhead are not always the easiest fish to find. They are spooky, and as noted earlier, like cover. But, you can spot fish if you work on this technique. Use tips 1 and 2 to get you into position, then take your time and scan the run. Be on the look out for the shadow of the fish which is typically the first thing you’ll see. You can even go to extremes like using binoculars in some situations.
5) Seems, Breaks and Eddy Swirls
Keep looking for breaks in the run. If you are fishing a typical steelhead run, there may be signs on the surface of bottom structures. These can be manifested as seems, break lines or mini swirls on the surface of the water. Look for spots where the water drops deeper at these locations.
If you are fishing pocket water, there will be more of these breaks. Fish your butt off. And then keep fishing until you hook one. You will hook one – Then you will be on your way to hooking another.
6) More Flow is good
Look for the side of the river with more flow. Steelhead will typically follow the thalweg (deepest slot) since this will provide the most cover and easiest path upstream.
7) Fish the Entire Run
There’s nothing that replaces the dedication to fish every square foot of water. As you are fishing, look for those seems and breaks. You will see things differently once you are in the water. As you are fishing, keep a feel for little tips or taps. Spend more time on this FISH. See tip # 1 here to help clarify how to do this right.
8) Low Flows
This doesn’t always work in the winter, but going back to the run during low flow will give you a huge advantage. Those boulders, ledges and covered areas, may be visible during low flows. Go through your run and make notes or take pictures of the spots that offer cover.
Adrian Cortes noted this tip in a podcast episode we at #169. Adrian talked about how to ready winter steelhead water and noted that finding cover in the low season is key.
Bill Herzog notes the importance of flats in this article. He lays out a way to identify those flat areas on the bottom of the river as the best spots to find fish. You essentially follow the water line along the bank until you see a flat or almost positive slope going down river.
10) Snorkel your stream
Yes, snorkeling your stream is awesome. It might sound a little extreme, but with a snorkel and mask you blow your mind. Getting your head below the surface of the water will change how you look at streams forever. Go back during the summer time if needed, but jump in and find all of the cover areas. If you’re lucky, you’ll see steelhead holding.
Here’s a link to a video of people snorkeling
You’ve got to get on the river – So what are you waiting for? Grab your gear and head to the nearest steelhead run. Grab a few of the fly fishing tips above to start with. See if you can narrow down the larger run to 6 key spots to focus on. As you are working the run, put extra effort in at these buckets. Click on the link below to get additional fly fishing tips on catching fish.
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