Missing fish is an insult to the sport. Okay, I wouldn’t go that far but I would say it’s an insult to the hard work and effort you’ve put into getting on the water. By missing fish I’m not talking about missing a strike or turning a fish. I’m talking about not even casting to the fish or moving through an area without hitting all the fishy spots. It only takes one cast or an extra drift to make that day one to remember for a lifetime.
Rivers and Streams
Missing fish on moving water is extremely easy to do. Particularly if you’re floating the river in a canoe, kayak, or drift boat. Being one of the most common types of water fly fished it is important you know how to fish it well and thoroughly. Rivers and streams can be extremely rewarding for trout fisherman and bass fisherman alike. Though if not fished well and correctly it won’t be rewarding for anyone.
To start, and this may seem obvious, you need to know the kind of water you’ll be fishing. I’m not talking about the type of fish in the river, the name of the river, or even what to fish with. I’m talking about the flow rate, clarity, access, depth, and any other factors you deem important such as possible sections of rough rapids or fluctuating water levels (as seen in tailwaters). Understanding the water you’ll be fishing allows you to prepare correctly and set up a proper game plan. Some water is wadeable, some water most definitely isn’t. Other water you need a drift boat for. Maybe the water is two small for a drift boat but to big to wade, a canoe or kayak may be the best choice. Knowing how to fish the stream, whether it be wading or from some form of vessel, will allow for you to be a much more successful fisherman on any moving water.
From there it’s important to have the correct gear with you for whatever form of transportation you’re fishing from. Anchors are very important for river and stream fishing. Trolling motors may be useful on some water and on large deep rivers small motors such as 10 to 30 horsepower motors could be useful too. If you’re going to be wading rocky areas a walking stick may be not only helpful but more safe. Remember to always have the proper safety gear such as throwable boat cushions or life savers. Life jackets are a must, even if you don’t plan to get in the water. Safety must always be a priority when fishing any area, especially moving water, as it is often considered the most dangerous.
Researching and preparing for a specific area of fishing as outlined in the above paragraphs is very important for a successful trip. Once on the water you need to make the most of that time. Fishing every little stump, eddie, and run is how big fish and lots of them are caught.
I’ve fished many rivers and streams many different ways and the biggest mistake I’ve seen from fisherman is they move too fast and float or wade right past fish. There is nothing wrong with moving slow, taking your time, and fishing out every pool and riffle. Don’t be afraid to try different flies and depths. Sometimes it takes some time to figure out a new stream. Don’t let yourself be halfway down the river by the time you do figure it out.
Rivers, streams, and most moving water can be broken down into about four different types of water. First is the classic riffle or shoal. Second is what I call a run, a deep current or seam in the water. Third are eddies and fourth are the slow moving pools. Fish hold in all of these areas. Some may be more populated than others depending on flow, temperature, and time of year.
Fishing riffles, runs, and eddies is often the most effective places to fish on a river.
It is very important to fish these pinch points out thoroughly to truly get the most out of your time on the water. When fishing from a boat of some kind I recommend beaching it at the head of the shoal and wade fishing the water itself if possible. That way you won’t get pushed past catchable fish by the current. Don’t be shy about having multiple poles rigged with different flies to try different presentations. Often times poles rigged with different line types such as floating, intermediate, and sinking help catch and locate more fish.
I recommend fishing runs and riffles three different ways. The first is particularly common in coldwater fishing when an indicator is used to drift a fly, sometimes two, through the projected strike zone. Swinging wet flies of some kind is a popular alternative to indicator fishing. The third technique is to work the small pockets and seams within the main current with a dry fly or terrestrial of some kind. Griffith’s gnats, Adams, and Renegades are good all year patterns for this. In the late summer I recommend hoppers or chernobyl ants to provide fun fishing on top and easy visibility in the swift water. For smallmouth bass or white bass swing baitfish patterns, leaches, or crawdads into the deeper pools and runs at the back end of a shoal.
To fish eddies and back currents make sure your mending is on point. Correct mends and natural drifts will produce fish in eddies more often than not. I like using a dropper rig with a Big Ugly on top and a bead head midge of some kind below.
Unless you’re fishing a pure rapid or whitewater stream of some kind you’ll be encountering slow moving, deeper stretches, of river in between the riffles and shoals. These areas can hold fish just as well as swift water and are often times known to accommodate large fish in the deep, secluded pools. These underfished stretches can offer virgin ground as well as consistent, untouched fishing.
Structure is the ticket when fishing these slow stretches. Fish, like usual, will orientate around this cover looking for food or simply in search of shelter from larger predators. Logs, large boulders, and the occasional beavers nest make up the majority of the structure in a stream. Keep an eye out for these spots and fish them thoroughly. I see many people blow by slow water on a river to get to the fast stuff, not knowing what they’re leaving behind. 80% of this fishing will be done with some form of wet fly stripped through the target area. Different weights of lines and flies will help you reach all levels of the water column. On really hot days you can slay fish by casting dries and poppers into into shaded areas. Fish will naturally look to the surface in shaded spots and on blistering hot days fish will school in the shade to beat the heat. Dry fly tossing under trees and rock out crops has always been a favorite style of fishing for me.
Still Water (Lakes, Ponds, Strip-Pits)
Lakes, ponds, and strip-pits can be some of the most productive fishing opportunities you’ll ever see. On the other hand they can frustrate you beyond reconciliation. It’s a fine line between the two, some days you’ll be nailing fish. Other days your flies may be just a foot in the wrong direction or one size two big.
Much like moving water, make sure to learn the water first and prepare accordingly. Do your research so you’re ready for what you’ll be doing. If you know the water is clear then pack lighter colored flies with more flash on them. If the water is murky or flat out muddy dark colored flies are a must. If it’s a small body of water with limited access you may need a kayak or inflatable boat of some kind. Look at topographical maps to locate underwater humps and points you may want to fish. Know what the lake will look like when you get there. Don’t let your trip be ruined by high or low water, plan for both. Look for the hot bite and take it, particularly when fishing a new body of water.
To catch fish in still water situations you must first take into account a number of factors. First water temperature. Fish will suspend or move to certain water levels depending on the temperature of their environment. Second is flow, know where water flows into a lake or pond fish will congregate there. Lakes with dams will discharge water producing a slight current that can most definitely affect the fishing. Lake level is important too when fishing impoundments. Lakes rarely stay the same depth and certain areas are better at certain depths. Fishing before a cold front is a good idea too, fish feed up before weather like many other animals. Check wind predictions and weather forecasts to stay safe as well.
Because of the vast numbers of species of fish present in lakes, ponds, and strip-pits I can’t focus on all of them. Alsto this article is running a bit long so I’ll really only focus on one species, bass, but the techniques and ideals are relatable to a wide variety of game fish.
Bass can hold in almost any water, even suspended in deep water no where near the bottom or any structure. However most bass fishing is done to some form of structure (and most other fish too). Grass banks, weed beds, lily pads, flooded timber, rocky banks, points, and underwater shelfs are just a few of the places bass can be found.
Choosing the right structure to fish can be difficult and often times requires some trial and error. Fishing lily pads and grass beds is best done with some form of weedless frog or slow sinking baitfish pattern. Throw minnow patterns and large leech/worm flies into flooded timber such as hedges or the stumps of hardwoods. These patterns plus crawfish flies are are also great to work rocky banks with. Don’t be afraid to fish the tiniest of stobs and stumps they could be holding the biggest of fish. When fishing underwater humps or points set up parallel to the fishing and cast across the target area bringing your fly over the structure. Running banks and fishing up underneath docks can be stellar with slow sinking minnow patterns or top water flies such as sliders and poppers. Late evening right before dark is a great time to fish for any species and topwater bassin is no exception.
When fishing these different locations and types of cover in search of fish remember to vary your depths by using differently weighted flies and different line weights. Fish often times sit in different points on the water column depending on temperature and time of year. Try different retrieves as well. Some days a slow weak strip may entice a strike from a sluggish fish while on other days a quick, jerky, retrieve will produce an attack. Always change your retrieve before your fly and your fly before your line. Fish at a pace you’re comfortable with, make sure you’re covering plenty of ground to find and catch fish but not moving so fast you're missing fish. Never be afraid to re-fish an area, sometimes you just flat miss fish, possibly the big one, and sometimes it takes half a bank to figure out what they want. There’s nothing wrong with re-fishing the portion of the bank you fished incorrectly, you’ll only catch more fish that way. After all that’s why you're out there, don’t be a one-dimensional fisherman, be willing to adapt and work to catch the fish in many different situations.
Firstly never blow by fish, that is the biggest problem many people have when fishing any kind of water. They move too fast and are in to big of a hurry to get to that next fish that they miss a lot of fish along the way. Second, know about the water you plan to fish, and prepare your gear and your game plan based on that knowledge. Third, work all portions of the water column with different flies and line types. Fourth use different presentations to catch different fish, not all fish want to be fed the same way. And lastly don’t give up, keep working for the fish and for yourself, it only takes one cast to turn any day, week, month, or year into the best you’ve ever had.