Reading Water

To best understand water, treat it like a mystery novel; expect a new revelation with every cast.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I've always been intrigued with the idea of "reading water." Few anglers are truly skilled in this most refined of the fishing arts, and that's perfectly understandable. After all, you're dealing with a "living fluid" that flows through and over terrain that changes constantly and requires an understanding of water color, temperature, oxygen content, opacity, and the other ingredients that combine to make vital trout or salmon lies.

I remember fishing a salmon river for the first time and being too stubborn to ask the guide exactly where the fish might hold. Finally I said something about this being a lovely stretch of water and he replied, "Indeed, unless you're a fish," and proceeded to move me about 20 yards and give me a lecture about the topography of the river bottom and how to identify the best lies. I've since learned a little about reading water and a lot about not being too hard-headed to ask about it.

I have a friend who is an expert at reading "pocket" water and fishing it with deadly little probing casts to this rock or that. But put him on big water and he's hopeless. I'm the opposite. I don't enjoy dropping a fly here and there like a seamstress doing embroidery. I prefer long sweeping casts, acting under the delusion that the farther away the fish are, the bigger and more plentiful they must be.

Even when you are "on," it's one thing to know that fish are under this bank or behind that rock, and another to do something about it. There are places where you can't properly put a fly and places where you have to be creative. But that's the fun, or frustration, of reading water, or trying to.

Occasionally something wonderful happens and there's a euphoria of brilliance until you try the same technique another time and nothing happens. I once fished a huge salmon pool with two friends. Fish were rolling out in the middle, but other than a couple of little pecking hits, nothing rose but our frustration. Finally I remembered a similar situation and changed (secretly, I now admit) from a long leader and floating line to a 3-foot leader and a sink-tip line. Immediately I was into fish. I hooked and released three fine salmon and modestly refused to discuss much about it except to credit my fly, a big Monro Killer. I could hardly wait for the next day, but I did sleep the restful sleep of the angler who has found the secret. Nothing calms the nerves like a sure thing!

The next morning the pool was again alive with salmon and I smoked my pipe while my companions fished fly after fly with no results. Finally it was my turn and I was almost embarrassed to start casting. But as we all know, there is nothing so sweet as succeeding where your friends fail. And how sweet it was for them to watch me do absolutely nothing with those fish except reflect on yet another of the mysteries of salmon fishing. To this day I can't figure it out, but something had changed. Maybe the fish were just a little less "fresh," or the size of the fly was wrong, but none of us took another fish from that pool. I did have the satisfaction of reading it right, until the page was turned.

I tend to be a bit careless when it comes to figuring out the secrets of a stream. Sometimes the good water is too hard to fish or too difficult to get at, and I can talk myself into "skipping pages" the way I might leaf through a book that I started but lost interest in.

Like most of us, I go fishing for different reasons at different times. But this doesn't detract from my belief that reading water is about the highest level of accomplishment a fisherman can aspire to. It requires a nice blend of science and wishful thinking, and an ability to marry what you can't see and what you can. The real reader of moving water is not a visitor who stands on the porch and shouts, "Is anybody home?" He's an habitu¿¿, one who peeks through the windows into the kitchen and the living room and kknows if anyone is there, even when the shades are drawn. He may not be a practitioner of the black arts, but he does catch more fish.