Identify a trout’s principal feeding locations in a river to target the trophies.
[by Jason Randall]
A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO, I spent four bits and a few hours on the bridge over Spring Creek in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. It’s a Currier and Ives setting with mothers pushing strollers through nearby Talleyrand Park and children feeding stale bread ends to ducks. It’s a good place for a picnic on a Sunday afternoon, where a couple of quarters buy you a heaping handful of pellets to feed the fish.
I parceled out my pellets one by one and watched the plump trout feed. Each time the largest trout vacated his feeding lie to rise and drift under a pellet, the next largest one took his place, which caused an upward shuffle of fish as each trout redistributed to a better feeding lie. When the larger fish returned to reclaim its site, the same shuffle of feeding lies occurred in reverse with each fish returning to its original position.
Trout live in a hierarchal society where dominance is determined largely by size, with little respect to gender. If a female is larger than a male, she will have a higher position in the pecking order. Feeding lies are allocated by dominance with each trout occupying the best feeding lie it can defend against challengers; and make no mistake, trout are very keen about defending their feeding lies, especially the upstream approach of their lies since that’s typically the direction food comes from.
From an angler’s perspective, the ability to identify potential feeding sites helps us catch fish, but if we want to catch the best fish, we need to evaluate feeding lies like a trout and pick the prime lie, that’s where the alpha trout will be, whether it be a pellet-trained rainbow, or a wild cutthroat or brown trout.
A trout seeks a feeding lie for one purpose; to feed. A good feeding lie offers proximity to food and a place where a fish can wait for the current to deliver their next meal. The current plays a large role in their feeding strategy; it dislodges prey species, like immature insects, crustaceans, and other residents of the streambed that make up the bulk of a trout’s diet, and carries them to trout, often waiting in a stationary location. In other words, the current is the conveyor belt of food and a steady flow means a steady supply of food.
But trout don’t want to fight the current while feeding. The energy expense would be too great compared to the energy consumed in the process. It’s more cost efficient to find a spot where they can hide from the current, plucking food particles that pass by. The best feeding lies have a considerable current differential; a spot where brisk current delivers food on one side, but allows a fish to hide from its energy wasting effect on the other. The current differential may be to one side or the other, or overhead.
It’s important to identify the main flow of current in each river section, called the thalweg. This is the deepest channel and is usually identifiable for every stretch of the river. The thalweg wanders back and forth in the river channel, but usually courses along the outer banks on river bends and then crosses over in the straightaway before the next bend. This is the main conveyor belt for food and the best feeding lies are close to it.
A narrow thalweg concentrates food in a tight funnel. In broad, flat sections of the river, like riffles that extend the full width of the river, the thalweg may be less defined. In those sections, the conveyor belt is more inclusive and distributes food over a wider area. This also spreads the feeding lies farther apart.
In broad riffles, look for areas that collect food. While the eddy downstream of any rock deflects the current and may hold a trout, the largest boulders create pocket water where food collects. Pocket water in riffles are trout magnets and often hold nice fish, not just behind the obstruction and along the trailing seams extending downstream, but also in front of the boulder where a cushion of quiet water forms from the rebound of current from the face of the rock.
Don’t overlook submerged boulders, which are usually easily identified by a boil of water rolling on the surface of the river. Submerged boulders also create pocket water, but are best fished a bit differently than you’d fish the pockets created when the top of the boulder breaks the water’s surface. Vertical eddies, similar to the horizontal ones seen from the surface, form in front of and behind submerged boulders. Food particles drop out of the current and recirculate in those pockets. Use weight to penetrate the swift current and get nymphs down and circulating in this kind of pocket water where they’ll constantly swirl and stay in front of holding fish. Otherwise your flies will whisk over the heads of the feeding trout.
The initial straight away after a river bend is also a good place to look for trout, but the food distribution and thus the feeding lies are affected by the helical manner in which water moves around bends. It rolls around the bend like a spiral barber pole, creating a cross current at the water’s surface from the inner bank to the outer band and another cross current at the streambed from the outer bank to the inner bank.
Anyone who has rowed a drift boat around a river bend is aware of the surface cross current. It tries to ground the boat against the outer bank if you don’t point the bow of the boat in that direction and row away from it. It also has the same effect on foam, leaves or other debris, including floating bits of food that collect along the outer bank, especially in the tailout of the bend. This food attracts trout looking to feed from the surface on crippled or dead emergers after a hatch or following a spinner fall.