Fly fishing a small clear river

A small, clear, river – with a good flow of cool water sparkling over a bed of gravel or rock – spells trout. But how do you find them?

In these waters the fish will not be the large trout that majestically cruise the safe waters of a reservoir. The trout in a small river spends its life fighting the current — food carried on that current must be examined and seized before it is swept on to the next waiting mouth.

Stealth is everything

For much of the time the fish is visible and vulnerable — it must survive on its wits — and this is the key to fishing for it success-fully.

Stealth is everything. On a small river the fish are often just a yard or so from the run. A suspicious trout may hold its position but it rarely rises to a fly – and if the fish does rise, it inspects the fly carefully before turning away. But an unsuspecting fish grabs the fly with gusto. Approach a trout with care and the pattern you choose to throw at it is almost unimportant; but let it become aware of you and the fish can become a very selective creature indeed.

Always work upstream if possible since fish lie facing upstream and therefore have less chance of spotting you if you approach from behind.

Small river trouting has a curious paradox – the best tactic is to fish as little as possible. If you are casting over these small pools, waving a rod about, plonking a fly on to the surface and then pulling it off again, the trout is going to think something is amiss.

The first cast

It is the first cast you make over a fish, or a likely lie, that has the best chance of success. Your chances become slimmer with every subsequent cast. If there is no response after half a dozen casts it is time to move on – the fish will still be there when you come back.

The experienced angler spends much of his time reading a small clear river – looking at the water ahead of him and working out where and how to place that vital first

Finding the fish on a small river is not difficult. With any luck the trout will be rising, taking insects near the surface and announcing its exact location, even its menu. But beware — the most obvious rises are usually the fish to avoid…

A trout rises in the middle of a long slow pool, sending unambiguous rings across the mirrored surface. It rises again; the temptation to bung flies at it is irresistible. But think — the middle of a slow pool is not the ideal position for a trout. The food is arriving very slowly so better or hungrier fish will be up near the neck of the pool, with first choice of whatever is on the menu.

The middle of a slow pool is also not the ideal place to catch a trout. The stillness that made the rise so obvious also makes obvious any imperfection in your cast and the leader. And a suspicious fish has a long time to study your offering in the slow, calm water. Up near the neck of the pool the fish must grab it or the food morsel will disappear on the current.

Calm surfaces make it all the easier for the fish to see your rod waving about as you cast. The faster, bouncing water at the neck of the pool gives the trout – and you – some cover. Of course, this bouncing water also makes the rise harder to spot—but trout are pleasingly predictable and by ‘reading’ the water the fisherman can pin-point the likely lies of the better fish: the fish that are feeding seriously.

If you know where to look even the subtlest surface feeding can be spotted. And if no trout are rising these are still the places to work a sunk fly.

A food conveyor belt

It is simpler to read a small clear river than a larger expanse of water. There is usually a single swifter-moving channel that carries the bulk of the water — and the food — in the river as it switches from side to side. This is often marked by a line of bubbles and other surface-borne debris that has been concentrated by the current into a conveyor belt of food.

Now, the trout will be watching this food channel even more closely than you – but it is not efficient for them to lie in the swifter water, burning more energy than they can collect. Wherever some respite from the current can be found close to the main food channel then trout will be found.

Such respite may be nothing more than the quieter water at either side of the swift inflow at the neck of the pool. Any obstruction into the food channel, such as a tree stump or rock, can form a patch of quieter water where a good fish can lie, just a tail-thrust from the passing food. In a steady flow such a quiet patch of water is more often upstream of the rock — where the trout can ride the pressure wave with scarcely a rocking of the tail fin and with an uninterrupted view of the food conveyor.

Why there?

Before long any angler who fishes small rivers will have a library of trout lies in his head with which to compare new pools or runs. Above all, whenever you see a rise or hook a fish – particularly a good fish – ask yourself: why there?

There must always be a reason; usually in that balance between energy burned fighting the current and energy gained by eating. But there can be other factors. Good trout lie beneath bushes, not only for the shade (they don’t like looking up into the sun any more than we do – a trout has no eyelids) but also for security and food.

It is an ever-absorbing chess game, beside a clear stream, with a speckled jewel of a fish as the reward for the thoughtful angler.

Small fisheries, big fish

Water craft is just as essential on small Stillwater fisheries as it is in any other angling situation. The area of water may only be small, but knowledge of a trout’s requirements and habits – coupled with the factors that can affect them – give the angler a much better chance of locating a fish and then catching it.

A trout’s needs

A trout requires comfort, security and food. To be comfortable it needs sufficient oxygen and cool water. To feel safe it needs the security of deep water, weed beds or overhanging vegetation. If these factors are met, the fish is prepared to feed.

If threatened, a trout stops feeding and hides. And if the surroundings become too hot or too cold or change quickly in either direction, it again stops feeding. Sudden changes in atmospheric pressure and in light intensity can also affect feeding.

Careful management and planning of a small fishery can ensure that all the requirements of the trout are met. Landscaping can also make the venue appealing to anglers too. There is little pleasure in fishing a featureless pond where the fish are aimlessly milling around.

Finding the fish

It is rarely the case that the trout are evenly distributed throughout the lake. The factors affecting the location of fish are related to the weather and to the time of day. Favourable conditions, for example, may occur in spring or autumn – when the water is fresh and cool with an air temperature of around 13°C (55°F). There is normally plenty of insect life for the fish to feed on -especially in the shallow areas and around the weed beds. Here trout can find freshwater shrimp, corixa, mayfly nymphs, damsels and many other aquatic insects. Terrestrial insects such as daddy-long-legs, ants, hawthorn flies and beetles may fall from trees or be blown on to the water. Trout also take fry and small minnows when available.

Hatches of chironomids (a type of midge -known as the buzzer) occur almost every day on stillwaters – usually from the deeper areas. The pupae sometimes find it difficult to hatch through the surface tension of the water and accumulate on the downwind shore. Whether insects are hatching or are blown on to the water, hungry trout are never too far away.

A ripple on the surface of the water caused by the breeze can offer a secure spot for the fish because it diffuses light rays, and reduces visibility. The trout may then be encouraged to move to shallow areas. This can also help the angler since the trout cannot see you as well as in clear, calm conditions. Trout can be found surprisingly near the shore on such occasions.

Search and discover

With ideal weather conditions, you may find fish almost anywhere on the fishery lake. If you’re new to the water, look among the weeds for feeding fish; try the downwind shore where insects gather; and search the shallow margins. Although you can sometimes see trout milling aimlessly around as though they are unsure how to behave, you can catch them by fishing a small, natural pattern such as a Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear, Damsel Nymph, Corixa or Freshwater Shrimp as slowly as possible. If all this fails, fish over the deep water areas, scraping the bottom with the fly.

Quite often the trout seek the sanctuary of deeper water when they are disturbed or if there are too many people fishing.

It’s a good idea to put yourself in the trout’s position – try to imagine how the fish will react to the conditions. Think of a wild creature that must feed to survive, yet avoid predators as well, and you are on your way to locating trout.

Try not to cast at random. Put on polarized sunglasses; walk slowly and carefully along the bank, stalking your prey. If you can’t see anything, then go to known or likely hotspots (ask other anglers – or at the fishery office if there is one – if you don’t know where they are).

Recently stocked trout may swim in a shoal, covering a large area of the fishery, or they may hang around just under the surface over deep water. It may be hours or even days before they disperse. Train yourself to be observant – experience gained from close observation is the key to finding the fish and that is half the battle.

Poor fishing conditions

Adverse conditions can drastically affect the behaviour and location of fish. Very hot weather In the summers of 1989 and 1990 conditions were possibly at their worst. Low water levels and extreme heat for long periods of time caused the trout great distress in many fisheries, and some trout even died — very warm water (over 70°F/21°C) is fatal to trout. Generally, it’s a poor time to fish.

During the day most of the oxygenated water is near the surface. When the weather is extremely hot for long periods of time, trout are in trouble. They are caught between the need for cool water (deep down) and oxygen, more of which is in the bright light. As a result the fish may well shoal up tightly and stop feeding until con ditions improve.

Bright light usually makes the fish retreat to cover, but as the light intensit} decreases and insect activity increases trout appear again in the evening. This phe nomenon is known as the ‘evening rise’ Trout make a similar rise early in the morn ing. They may feed only during the coolei conditions of morning and evening.

Sometimes the fish hole up in the verj deepest areas, and you can catch them witr flies fished directly along the bottom, usin a fast-sinking line. Trout may also gathei where springs enter the lake or where there is a trickle of water from an inflowing stream – the water here has more oxyger and is cooler.

Very cold weather Cold wintry weathei makes the fish lethargic and less inclined t( feed. Nevertheless there is usually a perioc around noon on even the worst days wher it’s possible to catch a trout or two. Providec the water is not iced over, it is possible tc catch fish—even if you yourself are freezing

Under these conditions it’s worth looking for places where water enters the lake, or ii the deepest areas where the fish, sus pended a few feet off the bottom, are stil willing to take a small fly.

The glory

With so many variables, you might thin! that it’s impossible to work out how to locate and catch trout – but that’s half the fun of fly fishing. Provided you don’t spook a feeding trout by clumsy casting or by showing yourself to the fish, you have every chance of fooling trout into taking your artificia offering. Small fisheries offer anglers gooc sport at a reasonable price.