How to read trout waters
Most of my angling has been in northern New Mexico streams and I primarily fly fish. My grandson Michael told me one day that he thought I was a great fly fisherman because I always know where to find trout. And one of the many questions I'm asked by people visiting my fly-fishing web site is how to learn to read trout water. "Michael's comment was very nice buy my response was, "It's simple, it just takes experience." This may seem like a simple task for us seasoned anglers. My answer has always seemed to me to be the appropriate one, then I remembered it took me a long time to learn how to read water searching for fish.
Four things trout instinctively need to survive in a stream a source of food, current flow, a place to hide and opportunity. Trout lie near deep runs, deep pocket water and large pools with moderate current flows while occasionally cruising in open water. The colorful hues of all species of trout create a natural camouflage in the riffles and in the reflective movement of the water, even in the clearest water. However, in slower moving clear water and pools the fish tend to seek cover such as large rocks, downed trees, dark freestone stream bottoms and other debris in the water including the depth of the water.
Trout feed on the bottom, middle and on the top film of the water primarily based on the temperature, locations of food and the clarity of the water. The bottom will carry nymphs, larvae and worms. The middle will be productive with baitfish imitations such as streamers, spinning lures or emerging insects. And the top will, of course, carry the adult insects that have hatched or about to hatch. A natural drift of your artificial fly is essential in all cases.
Feeding is triggered by lunar activity, water temperature and most of all; opportunity. The best time of the day to fish for trout is generally early in the mornings and in the evenings until darkness. During the warmest part of the day trout are often inactive. That is why we all have lunch at noon and take a nap until 2 o'clock. You will note that in the late afternoons and in the evenings trout may be feeding from the top because insects have hatched after an afternoon of warmer water temperatures. I look at it this way, if the water temperatures raise so do the fish.
My experience has been that rainbows are most active in water temperatures between 45 and 52 degrees with German browns being most active in water temperatures between 48 and 60 degrees. Above and below these ranges trout appear somewhat disinterested. I have found in many streams browns tend to take a hiatus as soon as the sun covers the water in the late morning and come back in the evenings when the sun moves off the water. However, don't forget trout ARE opportunistic.
Very slow wide shallow pools or shallow flats of water and very fast water are not the best water to fish for trout and I generally pass them over. However, at the tail end of these pools and flats where the water narrows I just can not resist a cast. The best trout water is deep current, which will carry aquatic insects, worms and bait-fish in a natural movement through the current. Look for narrow to wide deep runs of water. The fish will be near the center facing upstream, generally slightly angled to the left or right of the center awaiting an opportunity for their next meal.
Pocket water is another resource that holds trout. Rocks or debris are usually present to form small to medium pockets of water. The fish lie at the head near the rocks or other cover and at the tail of these pools where the current is stronger.
Deep pools with moderate current are also a good location for trout. Rocks and debris also create this type of water, which will form larger pools usually with eddies or effervescent water on one or both sides and usually in the middle for cover. The fish will lie in slower water just below the rocks and at the tail of the pool.
I have come to realize that pools, pocket water and deep runs tend to repeat with very similar structures many times as you travel up or down a stream which helps in reading the stream. Explore when you fish; such as picking up rocks from the stream bottom to see what bugs are present and look for bugs in the air or on the stream banks. Be observant with the activity of the trout you do see and the structure of the cover where they might hide and you will become a more successful angler. Finally, these are guidelines and you should always experiment when you fish and perhaps you will come to some of your own conclusions about fishing for trout.
I wrote this for Fishing and Hunting News in July 2004.
San Juan River Tips
These tips are used with permission from Mike Mora from his San Juan River web site...the most comprehensive web site for the San Juan River on the internet. Mike has many more tips on his web site for the San Juan. The tips listed below can apply to most medium sized trout streams. Thanks Mike.
San Juan Style Nymph Rig
Increase your chances of hooking up by fishing with two flies instead of one:
1.Tie onto your fly line a 9 foot tapered leader ending in 5X.
2. Attach another 12 inches of 5X to the leader with a double surgeon's knot or your favorite leader-to-tippet knot.
3. Attach the first fly (I like to use the San Juan Worm or another attractor type pattern) to the end of the 5X.
4. Tie an 18 inch section of 5X or 6X to the bend or eye of the first fly (I prefer tying to the bend of the first fly with a simple clinch or improved clinch knot.
5. Now pick your favorite fly for the conditions you will be fishing in and attach it to the end.
6. Attach any weight needed 12 inches above the top fly and above the knot you created when you tied the first piece of 5X on (this prevents the weight from slipping).
7. Smash the barbs down on both flies.
8. Attach your indicator about 1.5 times the depth of the water you will be fishing and go fish!
Strike Indicator Selection, Placement and Usage
Many fisherman place little emphasis on strike indicators. However, the placement, size, color, and type are all extremely important factors. I prefer the polypropylene yarn (Macrame' yarn from craft store) type of indicator greased up real well with floatant (usually floats most of the day with Gink floatant worked into it). I feel the poly yarn indicator is the easiest to see and are the best for detecting the often very slight takes of the San Juan trout. Of course, brighter yarn is easier to see, but sometimes the fish shy away from it. Bright yarn is good under murky water conditions or when fishing fast/heavy water, but I most often prefer using white or black as these two colors don't seem to spook fish as easily. I typically mix white and black and try and put the black piece towards the bottom. Using these two colors helps me see the indicator under all conditions of glare and ambient light.
You also may want to use a much smaller indicator when fishing slack water situations and spooky trout. The yarn indicator should be cut to the desired length and teased out with a brush to fluff up before adding floatant (I use the velcro on my chest pack to fluff the yarn). I use a simple slip knot to secure the indicator on my leader. Using a slip knot allows fast and easy repositioning of the indicator (which is a must for the serious fly fisherman). I usually place the indicator about 1.5 times the depth of the water for a typical nymphing situation. There are even times when I use the indicator suspend the flies at a certain depth to ensure proper presentation to the fish. Having watched literally hundreds of fish over the years spit out my fly without ever seeing the indicator move, I can say without a doubt that indicator placement is critical to your success. Too much slack line between the fish and the indicator and you will rarely see your takes unless the fish hooks itself. Too little line between the fish and your indicator can lead to too much drag or unnatural movements. Experimenting is fun though! Just as critical is you ability to detect a strike indication. San Juan fish are very good a taking your fly and spitting it out very quickly so watch for even the slightest twitch or hesitation. I watch my indicator very carefully and strike at practically any pause, twitch, or even a strange feeling. Mike Mora
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