Reading water. The novel.
Just kidding. No need to locate the reading glasses, unless they are polarized…
As I work with anglers of all skill levels, it seems that three on the water skills rise to the top in importance: Casting, Presentation, and reading water.
Of, these, reading water seems to be the most elusive. It seems that many anglers discover what kinds of water structure and flow hold fish by a method of hit and miss. This was my learning process as well, and a painful one full of lessons courtesy of the fish. The more time on the water spent pursuing a variety of fish with diverse tactics of presentation seems to lead to the greatest skill level and literacy in water.
The majority of fly-anglers are trout fishermen. Trout waters offer a variety of challenges, but in many cases, the river or stream requires no rosetta stone to help translate. Riffles are for the most part fairly simple things. Lunker structures are also obvious. Undercut banks may be slightly hidden, but an observant angler can spot them easily. Tailouts of pools or runs, which are great evening and morning feeding areas are also obvious. Deeper holding areas for nymphing are mostly self evident, and if one has a hatch, then there is no need to read water, other than gauging current speeds, directions, and variances that effect presentation.
The problems seem to occur when anglers are faced with a bewildering array of structures, water depth, current seams, spits or scallops, back eddies, bank formations, makeup of bottom, etc. Some seasoned trout anglers flounder in these situations.
So here is an interesting observation. Some of the most adept anglers at reading water that I have ever seen are those that not only fish upstream, but swing flies downstream, especially for smallmouth bass. It seems that the complete reversal of current and approach does something to open doors in the ability to pick apart the river, and optimize the presentation. Current seams and changes in stream flow and even tiny depth changes can hold fish where one would think illogical. The only way to discover this is with a fly in the water, and an intense curiosity.
Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing the same way over and over and expecting a different result. Yet, for many anglers, this is the norm. Repetition is safe, but departing from this and experimentation can be challenging.
The other anchor dragging down angler’s ability to learn to read water is the constant necessity to ‘see fish.’ I run into this all the time. Seeing fish and then fishing to them is a good problem to have, but it does nothing for our ability to read the water. If we cannot see the fish, then we must ask ourselves, “Why and where would the fish be?” Two anglers were out the other day before our local river was flooded, and as I took a nature walk, I could not help myself from watching them for a few minutes. There seemed to be a lot of aimless casting going on. One guy was standing in a nice run and casting to nearly dry land. The other guy waded through a nice current seam below some boulders, and then started to fish in water that was flowing too fast for any self-respecting fish to want to hang out in. When I greeted them as they exited the water, they told me that “The water was too off-color, and they could not see any fish.”
The greatest assets an angler can possess are patience and curiosity. When you catch a fish, ask yourself why it was there. What is it about the bottom structure or current that changed? Was there overhead cover, rock, or wood nearby? Then when one has progressed to a point that without having to spot the fish, one can consistently catch them, start experimenting. This is where the real learning begins. Sometimes fish do the craziest things, and can be caught in places that are downright mystifying. In several situations, it took me several years to figure it out. Reading through old fishing logs, I had tiny epiphanies. Aha! Now it makes sense… until the next time, when the fish is somewhere else, and I have to start thinking all over again.