Reading Water

Earl with a Rainbow

Earl with a Rainbow

When most people hear about reading water, the pools and tailouts of a river usually come to mind. However, reading water also applies to lakes. If you look closely, you will notice that a lake gives off a number of subtle clues that most people don't catch their first time out. (Unless, of course, they have read my article on reading water below.) Since most of the productive year round fly fishing in Western Washington occurs on lakes, that is where I will start. The river description follows.


Planning Your Lake Trip

Before leaving for a flyfishing trip on a lake, even if it is just down the road, do some research. Ask friends about the lake and call a local fly or tackle shop. Ask about the predominate food sources, the flies (Size and color) used to imitate them, and the gear and technique used to fish the flies. (Technique is most important, then fly size, then fly color.) Also ask about what works best on overcast days, and what works best when it is clear and sunny. You won't get answers to all your questions, but you will get an idea of what to expect.

Clues to Look for While on the Water

Before I even get on the water I take a mental note of the weater conditions. If it is cloudy there is a good chance the fish will be up cruising the weed lines for damsel nymphs. If it is clear and sunny, the fish will probably be near the bottom, keyed in on chironomids, scuds, leaches, or dragonfly nymphs. The first thing I do when I get out on the water is look down. It sounds obvious, but not many people take a good look at the surface of the water to see what is hatching or has hatched. If possible, I also try to look below to see what the bottom compostion is like.

Anatomy of a Lake

Lakes are composed of shallows, flats, drop-offs, underwater springs, and deep sections (Over 30 ft). Some lakes will only have one or two of these features, some will have more. Bottom composition is also important, such as rock, mud, and vegitation. Often you will find that the water you are fishing is too dark to see through. This is OK, and often a sign of a productive lake. Don't worry, there are other clues to look for such as emerging insects, nymphal shucks, rising fish, and bird activity.

Shallow Sections with a Rocky Bottom

The shallow rocky sections of a lake can be very productive water for fishing scuds, often called freshwater shrimp. To find out if they exist in your favorite lake, simply turn over some rocks and look for them. They will be 1/4 to 1 inch in length and will be white, olive, or brown. For the most part, they look like tiny shrimp. If you find scuds, try casting a floating or intermediate line with a long leader and a lightly weighted scud towards shore and slowly retrieving the line using a pinch retrieve. You may feel like you are wasting your time, but where there are scuds, there will be fish. You may be surprised at how productive this can be!

Flat Sections with a Mud Bottom

Lake bottoms that are flat and muddy are excellent places to fish chironomids. How do you know the bottom is flat? That is a good question! If the water isn't clear enough to see the bottom, then I often use a portable fish finder to map out the bottom contour. Prime chironomid fishing water can be anywhere from 2 to 20 ft in depth. Be aware that the latest regs (2001-2002) for fly only water only allow a 15ft monofilament leader which may limit the chironomid fishing depth using a floating line. (For more info on chironomid technique, go to the "Wet Fly Lake Technique for Trout" link on the "Flyfishing Technique" page.)

Drop-offs with Vegitation

Drop-offs with vegitation can be an excellent place to find trout searching for damsel and dragonfly nymphs. If I can see openings in the vegitation, I will cast a floating or intermediate line with a long leader between the openings and slowly retrieve the fly using the pinch retrieve. If I can't find openings, but I can find the edge of the weeds, I will cast parallel the edge using the same set-up and retrieve. However, if the wind is making a decent presentation difficult, I will just troll the edge of the weedline. This, however, is the least effective method as the fly is often traveling too fast.

Underwater Springs

Underwater springs can be an excellent place to find fish in the early spring or late fall and winter when the rest of the lake is too cold. It can also be every productive in the heat of summer when the rest of the lake is too warm as the spring will provide a fairly constant water temperature year round. To make effective use of an underwater spring your fly needs to be close to the source of the spring, which is down on the bottom. Fishing a chironomid a foot off the bottom can be an effective way to fish an underwater spring. Now you are probably thinking, "How do I find an underwater spring?". That is a good question. Sometimes the springs will give off bubbles, but in general, you have to find the fish to find the spring.

Deep Sections

The most effective way to fish the deep sections of a lake is to use a full sinking line. I use a 9ft 6wt rod with a Cortland Uniform Sinking Type II full sinking line. Now you may think that all lines are made equal, but believe me, they are not. A cheap full sinking line will form a big belly while sinking leaving the fly closer to the surface while the middle sections sinks deeper. This is bad for two reasons. First, the fly isn't sinking as deep as it should. Second, when a fish takes the fly and there is a belly in the line, when you set the hook you are really just pulling the belly out of the line. Enough said about lines! When fishing the depths with a full sinking line, you really need to know how deep the water is. This can be done with an anchor or a portable fish finder. Once you know the depth, you can pick a line to match it. A type II full sinking line will sink to 12 to 15 feet, depending on the trolling speed or the speed of the retrieve. In general, the fly should be right above the bottom, so if the bottom is deeper than 15 ft, use a heavier line, or add a section of heavier sink tip. You get the idea. There are a couple different techniques for fishing a sinking line in deep water. For more on this, go to the "Wet Fly Lake Technique for Trout" link on the "Flyfishing Technique" page.)


Lee With a Sauk River Steelhead

Lee With a Sauk River Steelhead

Anatomy of a River

A river can be divided into three sections, a head where water flows around a corner or over a gravel bar, a mid section, throat, or main run, and a tailout where the depth of the run generally decreases and the speed of the water increases. Usually, the tailout will feed into another head. In the lower streches of most rivers in western washington, you will not notice these different sections because the elevation change is very small, dikes have been built up along the banks to keep the water from flooding pastures and farmland, and water level is fairly deep. For the most part, you can ignore this part of the river because it doesn't contain a lot of fly water. (The exception is flyfishing for Sea Run Cutthrout, but we won't get into that here.) When you get into the upper two thirds of these rivers, however, you will definately notice these different sections.

In general, the most productive sections of the river are the head and the main run. The tail-out is usually too shallow and too fast to provide good holding water. (There are always exceptions!)

Where to Fish - Using a Sink Tip Line for Steelhead

Wade out into the riffle at the head of the run. Be careful to start high enough and shallow enough in the run so that you don't wade right out into the holding fish. You want to start wading high enough so that when your line swings across in the current, it brings your fly right in front of the holding fish. If you are fishing a piece of river that is new to you, start a little higher and a little shallower than you think you should. This can really pay off at first light and last light as steelhead will hold in the soft water close to shore.

You are standing at the head of the run in shallow water. Make your first cast with a short line, make a mend if necessary, and let it swing downstream. (If you haven't read my article on sink tip techinque, go to the technique page andclick on the link for sink tip technique, then come back and continue reading here.) While standing in the same spot, strip out a couple more feet of line, make another cast, and let the line swing. Continue doing this without moving your feet until your fly is crossing the current seam (See below), or you have reached your maximum comfortable casting distance. At this point, start wading out into the deeper water and stepping downstream before each new cast.

You want to end up in a position so that when the fly is at the end of itís drift, it is in the seam between the faster water and the slower water. You wonít necessarily see anything that distinguishes the faster water from the slower water, but when the fly is in the faster water, it will rarely hang-up on the bottom if you are useing the right tip. However, when the fly is in the slower water, it will occasionally hang up on the bottom when it reaches the end of the drift. When the fly is ending it's swing in the current seam, or you can not comfortably wade or cast in deeper water, stop stepping out and just step downstream before every cast.

Note: If the fly is frequently hanging up on the bottom while in the faster water, you are using a sink tip that is too heavy (Doesn't happen often). If the fly never hangs up on the bottom while in the slower water, you are using a sink tip that is too light (Happens alot). Often you will have to change sink tips when starting a new run, or even part way through a run. This is the reason I use an interchangable head system. If you don't change lines, your fly won't get down, and you will not catch many fish. If you are going to spend the time and money to get out on the water, take the time to change lines. You will be rewarded!

Continue casting, letting the line swing downstream, and stepping downstream until you feel you have reached the tail-out and are no longer in productive holding water. i.e. too fast and/or too shallow.
Saul on The Skagit River

Saul on The Skagit River

The Seam

Somewhere in the head or main run there will be a current seam. The "seam " is the section in the river where the faster current, usually towards the middle of the river, meets the slower current. When your fly is in the faster current, it will never hook bottom unless you are fishing with a heavily weighted sink tip, such as a Type V with a section of lead core added to the end. When you are in the slower current, your fly will always hook the bottom unless you are fishing a very light sink tip such as a Type II, III, or a floating line. The picture above gives a good example of a very distinct current seam. In this example, the current change is so drastic, that once the fly enters the slower water, it literally drops to the bottom due to a lack of current flow. This is not the most productive water, and you should look for current seams much less drastic, but it does give you a good idea of what I am talking about.

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