Try to imagine an engineer that can’t read blueprints, or a truck driver who can't read a road map. It seems like a silly idea doesn’t it? But every day anglers head off to the river with no idea how to read water. Just like the engineer with his blueprints, the serious stream and river angler needs to know how to “read” the water. While this may sound difficult – it’s not! Read on to learn how you can quickly read the messages your stream or river is telling you, and how you can translate that knowledge into more fish at the end of the day.
Knowing What the Fish Needs
Before we begin with the basics of reading water we need to have a solid understanding of what type of water fish tend to hold in. All fish have three primary concerns. Number one is safety. They need water that is deep enough and colored enough to allow them to remain invisible to predators like shore birds, other fish and anglers. The next thing all fish must have is food, because fish must take in more calories than they expend or they will starve. The third need all fish have is comfort, which usually relates to current speed and sometimes water temperature. If a fish is nervous because it is in water too shallow or clear to provide protection, that fish will not bite. The same is true if water is too hot, too cold, too fast or too slow for comfort. Therefore, what to look for when reading water are those portions of a river or stream that provide adequate depth that affords protection for the fish, an ample supply of food and comfortable temperature and water flow.
Finding the “10 Percent”
It has often been said that 10 percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish. This is undoubtedly true, and in part because 90 percent of the fish use only about 10 percent of the river. As you approach any section of river or stream, look for water deep enough to provide safety and security for the fish. With some exceptions, that automatically eliminates very shallow riffles, clear shallow flats and any part of the river where you can easily see the bottom. Conversely, with the exception of catfish, most river fish avoid the deepest pools. Many novice anglers flock to the deepest pools in the river, but those deep, slow runs often hold no fish or hold only fish that are not actively feeding.
As a general rule of thumb, focus your search on water that runs between 2 and 10 feet deep. It may take a bit of experimentation, but you can soon learn to gauge the depth of the water by its color. In clear, clean streams, bottom can be seen clearly down to about 4 feet deep. In the intermediate depths – 5 to 10 feet – where most fish will be found, the bottom isn’t visible and the water will appear transparent green or blue. Water deeper than 10 feet will generally be deep blue or green.
Once you have found a section of river deep enough to keep your quarry feeling safe, try to locate areas that offer feeding opportunities. Almost all river and stream fish wait for food to come to them. Typically, top areas for delivering aquatic food include riffles, current seams where fast and slow currents meet, and the mouth of small feeder streams. Often, if the fish are feeding on the surface you will see their rise forms. But even if there are no overt signs of feeding, you can be certain that any riffle, seam or stream mouth that offers adequate depth and speed will hold feeding fish.
The last factor of importance to river fish is comfort. Most river fish are comfortable in currents from 2 to 8 miles per hour. A fast-walking man moves at about 5 miles per hour. So look for water that flows at roughly the speed of a fast walk. Also watch for small pockets of slower water surrounded by fast currents. Feeding fish will hold in the slower water and wait for food passing by in the faster currents.
Fish will temporarily leave comfortable lies to flee predators or to feed, but whenever possible they will be found where current speed and water temperature best meet their needs. To understand how river fish use in-river structure such as rocks and root wads, think about a man trying to cross a field in a windstorm. Our hypothetical man will duck behind trees, buildings or anything he can find to get out of the wind. To fish, river currents are like much like that imaginary windstorm. They will actively seek boulders, snags, protruding points or any other in-the-water structure that provides shelter from strong currents.
Pinpointing Sure-Fire Spots
Many of the fishes’ comfort zones are obvious to even the untrained eye. Rocks protruding above the water are a dead giveaway. (Many folks don’t know that there is a soft spot of current in front of large rocks as well as behind them.) Snags protruding into the stream and points of land are obvious, but there are often many other structures below the water that are a bit harder to see.
Have you ever noticed a bulge in the surface of the stream or a boil in the current? Those are caused by boulders or other obstructions that are lodged on the bottom and do not protrude above the surface. Look for anything that seems to disrupt the natural flow of the river. Most of those disruptions signal a fish holding spot.
When you find a seam where fast and slow currents converge, with large visible boulders or swirls and boils announcing underwater structure, you are in the sweet spot. It is worth noting that trout, salmon, steelhead and almost every other river fish establish a definite pecking order. The largest fish will be found in the very best lies. Big fish are protective of these perfect holding areas and will run off smaller fish that try to trespass. That makes it even more important to recognize these big fish holding spots.
Of course nothing always works in a sport as demanding as fishing, but by learning to read the signals the river or stream gives you, the odds of success go up rapidly. Once you have presented your bait or lure to a sweet spot several times, move on. Look for another place that fulfills all three of the fish’s needs and start over again. By constantly moving from one sweet spot to another, you will have more fun, catch more fish and quickly learn to read the story the river tells.