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“Reading The Water” to Find Trout

Most fishermen have pet theories on what catches trout and what does not.

read water illustration

I am no different. I have lots of theories - some of them even based on a modicum of common sense.

One of my theories, some call it an obsession, is that it is not what you fish with, but where you fish, that is the prime factor in determining fishing success or failure.

Put a fly that is appropriate to the fish you are seeking, where fish are, and you stand a good to rough show of snagging one of the beasties. Fish where fish are not - even with the best gear, fly, bait or lure - and you will come up with nothing.

So if you seek out and find a piece of water that suits the fish you are targeting, you stand a greatly enhanced chance of catching a fish. The common name for this place is 'Spot X'. But there is a warning coming up - in the form of an old adage - 'familiarity breeds contempt'.

In saltwater, tide and season can turn a top spot into an also ran. So can subtle shifts in current patterns caused by higher or lower water temperatures, or a change in the predominant wind direction.

Anglers who best observe and understand these changes have the best chance of catching fish.

Other anglers slavishly return to Spot X to anchor in the same place, regardless of tides and such, and wonder why they come home fishless.

In freshwater finding water that holds trout can be a matter of keeping your eyes open, behind a pair of Polaroid's. But unless you are fishing the crystal clear streams of the South Island, NZ or the upper reaches of North Island rivers, and know roughly where to look, finding fish can still be a bit of a mission.

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But one of the nice things about trout fishing is the fact that very often once you have found a trout 'lie' (places where trout lie in a river, not the lies fishermen tell when they cannot find trout lies, and so do not catch fish), trout will often be found there, time after time.

In the Taupo area of New Zealand's North Island much of the fishing during winter (May - August) is done to trout in hard to find lies. Fish hidden by depth, coloured water, and surging frothy currents. "Chuck and chance" some call it.

And for many anglers this is true. But for others it is certainly not true. In fact some guides have got the lies down to centimetres. Put a cast where they tell you, get the drift right, and if there is a fish in the lie, most often it will feel the prick of your hook.

Easy work?

Would be if you knew how to find these lies; add the correctly weighted nymphs or swing the correct weight sinking line, and find lies that have not been fished-through recently. Would be too, if enough clients could cast the fly where it needed to be cast, and get the drift right.

How do guides find these lies? Second sight, a mystical bond with nature? Rubbish of course. Mostly it is down to observation.

Firstly by seeing where other anglers, and other guides and their clients actually hook up, then returning to analyze and record the lie.

Secondly by developing a deep knowledge of the sort of water likely to hold trout, applying that knowledge to the water to find probable lies and then testing the theory by running a fly or fifty through that water. Run enough flies through an area where a lie could or should be and pretty soon it becomes very clear where the fly must be to get hit.

brown trout underwater

Guides are not the only ones who can achieve this kind of knowledge of a river and where its trout lie.

Regular fishers, locals mostly but not exclusively, the observant ones, soon pick up the lies. Pretty soon they can just about catch a fish when they want, given they can get the lure into just the right place.

I think it is possible I had fished the Hinemaiaia River, just south of Taupo, often enough over the previous years to more than qualify as a local.

In fact I have seen a great deal more of me on the river than anyone else. I had reached the stage where if I could get my cast and drift right I could just about be sure of getting a fish, if a fish was in residence.

Mind you getting the cast and drift right during the same set more often than not proves a challenge that I fail to master.

In the kilometre or so stretch between the road-bridge and the lake my habit was to walk up-river fishing the 18 or so lies on the way. If there were fish in the river I could usually count on a fish.

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Arrogance, as well as ignorance, is bliss. Here is some proof.

The curse of trying to earn a living of sorts had confined me to Auckland for three weekends. I suffered a definite case of no-fish-itis. But relief was at hand - I was off for a made-long weekend - and it was raining in the Taupo area as I left Auckland for the 3.5 hour drive - perfect.

Well not quite perfect and 'raining' not a word that completely covered the level of precipitation evacuated by the heavens. For three days and nights it persisted down, great sheets of water. Locals, well those usually still sober before the six o'clock news, swore they saw a huge strange wooden-craft out on the lake, with a very old man in robes yelling out to see if he could offer assistance to get the animals off.

By Thursday evening when we arrived, the Hinemaiaia was in full flood, (as was every other river in the area).

I watched in utter fascination as this brown, surging mess of water thundered (literally) down through 'my' river. Trees and riverbank vegetation appeared and disappeared as unseen forces first thrust them up then pulled them down.

On Friday the rain stopped but the flood did not. All Friday it raged and pushed and shoved at the banks, spilling over and out.

Saturday saw a gradual decline in the ferocity, enough to wander the banks (in waders) to see what damage had been done. Even though the river was still high it was now contained by what used to be the banks. In places 10 to 12 metres of bank had been ripped away. Trees, their roots eroded by the flood had fallen to lie across the river. Others piled up in mid-stream.

Whole pools had simply disappeared or changed course radically. New pools had formed.

By Sunday the water (still chocolate brown) had subsided to the point where I could see what had happened to my favourite lies. Without exception all gone - or now unfishable due to fallen trees, new snags, or bank damage.

Now I faced a challenge - the challenge of change.

'My river' was no longer mine. Now I was back to square one. Now I could no longer find lies by wandering the banks observing guides and their clients, and other anglers. Now I would have to find the lies myself.

Good test for my banging on about where being more important than what.

"Reading the water" it is called in the fishing books. Wonder if the person who first penned the term 'reading the water' had also been reading Mark Twain:

"The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book - a book which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day."

cadillac nymph

Article written by Tony Bishop (Bish)

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