New water presents new challenges. Here’s how to take the guesswork out of fishing an unfamiliar river for the first time.
[by Phil Tereyla]
For many anglers, a trip to a new trout destination begins with a magazine or Web article that touts some hot spot somewhere on the globe. The article invariably includes information about hatches, flies, weather, and species. While such write-ups can inspire an angler to travel and do provide a solid foundation, conditions on the river may be different upon arrival than what the piece suggested. Still, there are some truths to trout fishing that are nearly universal. The following five strategies have served me well. They will help you adapt to current conditions and understand where trout will be feeding when you fly fish any stretch of water for the first time.
1 – Do Your Homework
Research is the fastest path to success on a new river. Such a statement sounds obvious, but anglers often fish the flies and methods they are comfortable with—not necessarily those that the water requires. And the advanced information you’ll need is easy to obtain on the Internet, from accurate hatch charts to water flows, fishing reports, weather forecasts, and access maps for almost any trout stream in the world.
However, there is no substitute for local knowledge, so before hitting the river be sure to consult fly shops or guide services that cater to the target water for up-to-date reports on fishing conditions. Hatch charts are a moving target, and at any given time fish may be keying in on specific insects or holding in certain types of water. Local shops and guides who get their information from the river have the best understanding of what is occurring at that moment and what will occur next.
Shop employees can also show an angler specific flies that fish are keying in on and often provide maps that highlight access points. Visiting a fly shop also gives an angler a chance to double-check gear and purchase anything that may have been forgotten. Even if you are fully supplied, it’s always a good idea to purchase something out of simple courtesy for tapping the shopkeeper’s knowledge.
Also be aware that regulations and public-access laws vary from state to state, and spending the time to research your destination and its regulations can make the difference between an unsuccessful venture and the trip of a lifetime.
2 – Learn Trout Behaviors by the Seasons
The first challenge on new water is locating fish. In general, most anglers know to look for areas where a trout can feed with minimal effort, such as soft foam lines or current seams. But specifically, a trout’s location and insect activity are determined by the season. During the winter, trout try to use very little energy. They won’t chase prey far, and spend most of their time in deep, slow-moving runs that have just enough current to carry food to them.
As spring arrives, water temperatures begin to rise. Bugs become increasingly active and more prevalent in the drift. Trout grow more active, too, with greater inclination to move out of winter depths. Spring is also when rainbows and cutthroats spawn, which makes them feed aggressively in order to maintain energy. Start by targeting the deeper runs or pools in the mornings and evenings. As the water warms throughout the day, bugs become increasingly active in faster riffles, and fish will abandon the deep runs where they spent the cold morning and night hours to find more food.
Summer offers anglers the opportunity to find fish in any type of water. As water temperatures climb, bugs become more active, and the fish move according to where the insects are hatching. Hatches, sometimes heavy, will occur throughout the day in almost every part of the river. Fish can be found in almost all riffles, swift runs, and deep pools at any time of day. However, much as in spring, it is good to concentrate on deeper runs in the morning and evenings, and fish the faster riffles during midday.
As fall approaches, brown and brook trout begin to spawn. While hatches remain prevalent, some hatches begin to taper off and disappear until next season. Anglers can use the same strategy as in the spring for finding trout, but also begin to focus on stucture. Rock gardens, submerged trees, or heavy vegetation are excellent places to look for brown trout ready to ambush a nymph or streamer.
3 – Be Mindful of Water Levels and River Types
When approaching a new stream, pay attention to water levels and the type of river you are fishing—freestone, spring creek, or tailwater. Water flow is an integral part of understanding life in a river. High flows push fish out of typical runs to the softer edges or pockets where little work is required for them to feed.
Low water provides a different challenge to anglers fishing an unfamiliar stream. If the edges of the main channel are dry, odds are that the river is at a low flow. Adopt a stealthy approach to avoid spooking fish while walking along the banks. Also, bear in mind that trout in skinny water will look for cover in the structure that exists in deeper riffles and runs. Rocks, logs, vegetation, or anywhere a fish can hide are great areas to probe during low-water periods.
If you’re fishing a tailwater, flows may fluctuate throughout the day. Any increase in water flow can be recognized by the sudden appearance of dirty water or water carrying a greater amount of debris. This is not specific only to large bumps in flow, as even the smallest increase in water will wash away anything loose from the river bottom. You can adjust by adding more weight to nymph rigs or presenting a larger fly. During even the smallest increase in flow, meaty morsels such as cranefly larvae, leeches, and aquatic worms are washed into the river and can provide aggressive takes.
Decreases in flow are often difficult to discern, but they can be detected by dropping water lines on rocks and other midriver features. Many times, fish develop lockjaw as water disappears from above them, but as they retreat to safe zones, they will once again begin to feed. Probing structure and deeper runs with smaller tippets and flies can lead to success. Lower flows also present opportunities to fish dry flies.
The type of water will also affect your approach. Freestones are always changing due to the lack of controlled flows, and water temperatures are critical. Freestones tend to have slightly less vegetation than most spring creeks and tailwaters, and tend to have larger populations of stoneflies due to the naturally rocky river bottom. Learning to locate fish by the season becomes greatly beneficial. Tailwaters are man-made fisheries that support a large variety of insects and remain generally ice free year-round. Small midges and mayfly nymphs will turn big fish in every season, while a large variety of hatches will occur as the water warms throughout the year.
When it comes to fishing spring creeks, scuds and sow bugs are the main food sources. Due to the relatively smaller sizes of many of these creeks, a stealthy approach becomes critical—keep a low profile, study the water and fish from the bank as often as you can.
4 – Fly Selection
Many anglers fishing new bodies of water get caught up in fly selection. But simple observation, such as looking under rocks, paying attention to the insects that are in the air, on a snowy bank, or swirling in a back eddy, will help narrow your selection. Try to match the size and color of the naturals. When fish key in on a specific bug, fly size becomes the most important factor.
In general, select patterns that you trust and that can pass for multiple insects. Some of the most versatile standards include Prince Nymphs, Pheasant Tails, and Hare’s Ear Nymphs tied in whatever variation the angler likes best. Also, almost every body of water has some sort of aquatic worm or leech. Fish these big flies as a point fly in a double- or triple-nymph rig. For drys, a Stimulator tied in different sizes or colors can imitate an adult caddis, stonefly, or even a grasshopper, while a Parachute Adams can imitate any mayfly and even tiny midges. The key, as with nymphs, is to match the sizes of the naturals and fish flies that the angler personally believes in.
5 – Grab the Right Gear
When fishing a new destination, there is nothing more frustrating than having the wrong gear for the job. Regardless of the time of year, breathable waders make your fishing experience much more comfortable. If you’re fishing in the winter and using breathable chest waders, it is important to bring adequate layers and check the weather for the trip. During the hot summer months many anglers choose to wet-wade in wading boots, neoprene socks, and quickdry pants. Anglers should approach new destinations prepared for changing weather. When you’re selecting wading boots, local laws are the first factor, then the type of river. Felt-sole wading boots are often the culprit in transporting invasive species and are outlawed in some states, but nothing grabs a wet rock better than felt. Rubber soles will give solid traction on almost any river bottom, and rubber soles with studs will help in slicker or weedy river bottoms. Regardless of the destination, it is important to wash and dry your waders and boots so as to not transfer invasive species to new bodies of water.
Rods, reels, and fly lines should match both the discipline and the water an angler is fishing. Anglers fishing nymphs in tailwaters or freestones, where larger fish and larger flows can be expected, should use anywhere from 4- to 6-weight outfits with floating lines. Some of the longer Euro-style rods will help you nymph with greater efficiency. In general, a 6-weight will fight a big fish or a big current as well as cast through wind, while a 4-weight will allow for a more delicate presentation if wind is nonexistent or dry flies become an option. On a spring creek, however, a 5- or even 6-weight outfit may be necessary depending on weather and the size of the fish. When fishing big streamers on any of these waters, it is usually best to fish with the heavier outfit suggested for each situation. In cases where very large fish and heavy wind can be expected, 7- or 8-weight rods may be necessary.
Fishing a new body of water for the first time can be intimidating. Conducting a little research before hitting the water, and learning to adapt to the dynamic conditions that exist on many of the country’s waterways, can make or break a trip to a new destination. Just remember, when fishing a body of water for the first time, don’t get sucked into doing only what worked during the conditions of years past or what you’ve read in a destination piece. Instead, be prepared to fish based on the conditions you encounter on that very first morning.
Phil Tereyla lives in Woodland Park, Colorado, and spends his free time chasing trout.