Why Pocket Water is the Coolest Spot to Catch Summer Trout

Why Pocket Water is the Coolest Spot to Catch Summer Trout

Here’s how to pick off trout in high-water streams with a simple nymphing rig. Also, be prepared to get soaked

From the bank, I pulled the knot tight on my dropper fly and looked out over the river, which sent a quick shiver of fear knifing through my excitement, like the feeling you have before you get on a carnival ride. The river was up, hurtling foam over the boulders after one of those long summer rainstorms that leaves wisps of steam spiraling above the fields—exactly how it looked when my grade-school buddy Jo and I first fished the spot, years ago.

Jo had a reputation as a tough kid. (Nobody pointed out to Jo, for example, that only girls spell that name without the e.) The river didn’t scare him. He hiked the worm box—filled with night crawlers we’d pinched in the rain the night before—from his waist to his armpits and cinched the belt across his chest. Then he dropped in and battled the current to a rock below a roaring plunge pool.

It was when he turned and motioned for me to wade in that his sneakers began to slide, and he started flailing in vain to catch his balance. The worm box popped open. Night crawlers sailed. And in the boiling slick below, where the fat morsels plopped and raced downstream, a yellow slab rose and parted the surface.

It was the biggest trout I’d ever seen.

After that, I wasn’t scared either. I jumped in and lobbed a crawler into the slot—and the brown crashed and bolted downstream. As I leaned into the fish, my sneakers shot in opposite directions, and I rode the current downstream, rod held high above the froth. But when I finally got my footing, the fish had broken off.

Upstream, Jo was laughing. Since we were both soaked, we spent that day wading or swimming to the river’s hardest-to-reach holes—and had one of the best days of summer fishing I can remember.

Make It Easy

In midsummer, I want to be waist-deep in heavy pocket water, when the river is up and the fishing turns on. I don’t lob crawlers much anymore—not because I think I’m above it. I just think flyfishing is more fun. And summer should be fun.

Summer should also be easy. It’s a nice coincidence that if there is good rainfall, pocket water can fish well through the hotter months. By then, I need a break from all the fussing that goes with slow-water dry-fly fishing, and pocket water is the perfect antidote. It’s one of the rare things in life where you can take the easy road and not give up any success.

Nice Grab: A solid brown trout comes to hand on the Upper Madison River. Brian Grossenbacher

The easy road, from a technical fishing standpoint, is to put a strike indicator above a subsurface fly or two on a 9-foot 5X leader and walk up the middle of the river, picking pockets left and right. You can make it more complicated. You can study the water as if reading it were a form of code-breaking. But why would you? The fish are in the slower spots next to the faster spots. And eager. Make a decent drift, and they’ll usually grab your fly.

Just about any pattern that looks like trout food (and plenty that don’t) will catch fish in pocket water now, but as a general rule, I think it’s tough to beat a weighted stonefly nymph with a Muddler Minnow dropper. If there are more rainbows than browns, I’ll swap the Muddler for a Woolly Bugger. It just seems to work better. Choose a pocket or seam, wade close, and cast above it with a little flick of your wrist to drive the flies under. High-stick them through the sweet spot, then let the Muddler swing down and across before you pick it up. If the trout don’t seem active enough to chase a streamer, switch to a small nymph or wet fly. That’s it. Work fast, and cover a lot of water.

And don’t be afraid to get soaked. Put on some wet-wading shorts and jump in. This might sound crazy, but after nearly 40 years of fishing pocket water, I’m convinced that when flows run high and fast, nothing increases the number and size of the fish you catch more than simply wading aggressively. I don’t say recklessly—you need to stay safe. And I don’t wear sneakers anymore. Studded wading boots help, and a collapsible wading staff is handy in the roughest patches. Just remember that in heavy water, it’s the hard-to-reach spots that hold the neglected, and often bigger, fish. And you can’t rely on long casts to reach them. With so many intervening currents, pocket water forces you to wade close, often real close, to get a decent drift.

Redemption Time

Back on the bank, I took one step into the drink and went in to my waist, then I fought my way to the slick below the roaring plunge pool where I’d lost that huge yellow slab years ago. Halfway into the drift, my indicator stopped. But this time the fish ran upstream instead of down, and I landed it in a shallow side eddy. My tape read 23 inches—the biggest brown trout I’d ever caught in a freestone stream, along with a nice dose of redemption. And I didn’t even have to go swimming. Summer fishing doesn’t get much easier—or more fun—than that.

Gear Tip: Take it to the Top

A big dry fly, such as a Stimulator, doubles as a strike indicator in pocket water. Orvis

Midsummer can have sporadic but good surface stonefly activity. So bring a handful of big, buoyant stone imitations, like Stimulators or Sofa Pillows. Grease them up and skitter them over the soft spots about an hour before dusk, or if you see big bugs popping. You won’t catch any more fish this way, but you’ll watch some big trout roll and slash. And as long as you remember to beef up your leader to at least 3X, you’ll land a few of them too.

Written by David Hurteau for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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A Father-Son Flyfishing Trip In Montana

A Father-Son Flyfishing Trip In Montana

I’m gonna ferry across the river,” my guide said. “Some pocket water I want you to hit.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

I gazed downstream. Montana’s Bighorn River is big water, but it was flowing higher than usual, and I hadn’t seen much of what I’d call “pocket water” yet. But I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut. It was too early in the float to question the guide. What I did see, however, was a dark gravel bar rising under the drift boat and a plume of water pouring over the ledge into a deep green hole the size of my front yard. I didn’t want to scuttle the guide’s float plan, but I wasn’t going to pass up a giant fishy-looking lair either.

I cast a white articulated fly my guide had handed me earlier, and dropped it into the billowing pillow of water above the gravel bar. The leechlike blob rode the flow like a kid on a pool slide—I could see why he called his creation the Wet Sock—but the second it sank to the green abyss below, a fish hit and bent the rod. Not bad when the first fish of the day is a Bighorn brown trout just a smidge over 16 inches.

“Heck yeah, man!” my guide hollered. “I’ve been thinking about that pocket ever since we put in.”

That’s when I nearly stuck my foot in my mouth. You call that pocket water? I thought. But the guide was my son, Jack, and we had gone a first hour without a fish—and to be honest, neither of us were sure how this day trip was going to pan out.

Jack had just spent a week at Sweet­water Guide School, a hands-on, dawn-to-dark boot camp for aspiring guides. It was his high-school graduation gift—learning how to row a drift boat and field-fix a jet outboard and calm down cranky anglers. Jack had fallen in love with flyfishing when he was 14 years old, wading Montana’s Gallatin River. Over the next few years, he pelted guides with relentless questioning from Maine to the Florida Keys. One June, on Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake River, he heard that college students worked Western rivers over their summer breaks, shuttling boats and guiding. That was the end of his future as a summer lawn-care consultant. With his Sweetwater course now over, he’d bummed a drift boat from an instructor, and I was his first real client.

“Thank you, Lord,” Jack said. “I’m not going to lie to you, Daddy. I was getting pretty nervous until you caught that fish.”

“You’re not the only one, son,” I said. “And we need to talk about your idea of pocket water.”

Wild West

When Jack walked out from under the tall Bighorn cottonwoods at the Sweetwater school base camp, I hadn’t seen him for a week, but I could tell from his loping gait that Montana had changed him—that a week on the river had given him passage of a sort that he could not yet understand but that I could not deny. He’d been bitten by the West, and wherever his river would run in the future, it would run far from home for at least a portion of his life. This is the cruel contract of parenthood: Give them roots and wings, then pray that the former hold as your child spreads the latter in relentless freedom.

With the monkey off our backs, we settled in for perhaps the finest afternoon of fishing I’ve ever had. Jack held me in the current seam as I worked the fly all the way down the gravel bar, cast by cast. We caught fish at Grey Cliffs and Suck Hole and Mike’s Cabin, and we whooped it up with every strike. Did you see that? Holy cow, man, did you see that?

Jack spoke of these places like he might describe the local parks up the street back home. He was fully immersed in the magic of Montana, the fish and the river and the wild country, as the wild dreams of a 14-year-old were coming true right in front of him.

It was just one of those days that leaves you shaking your head and checking your heart. We all get them occasionally, moments in the field when you know that this is one you will carry to your grave. The fish were biting like crazy, yes, and their runs seemed stronger and their spots more finely chiseled than ever in the Bighorn light. But more than the fishing, it was the first day that we’d floated as equals, and the sadness that came with the loss of my little boy was baptized in the gratitude that from this day forward, I would fish and hunt with this man in the boat.

Big Finish

By midafternoon, we didn’t have much longer to fish. Soon Jack would have to hit the oars hard; we had a six-hour drive to Missoula still ahead of us. But then he slowed the boat one last time.

“I want you to hit that log,” he said. “See it?”

“I think so.” It was a giant sculpture of twisted driftwood, 8 feet tall, at least. Who could miss it? But as my mouth opened for a wisecrack, my guide tucked me into range. My first cast brought a ferocious slash from the largest trout we’d seen all day, but the heavy water carried the drift boat too swiftly for a second crack.

Jack slipped overboard and pulled the drift boat 30 feet upcurrent. “I’ll hold the boat,” he said. “You just catch the fish.”

We pulled two more fish from the hole, the second one running wild like a puppy in the yard. The water likely spent, Jack pulled himself back in the boat, rowed clear of the swift current, then stowed the oars and leaned back, soaking in the sun, the moment, the river, and his future, which unfurled just about as far as the next bend in the Bighorn. If there is a finer thing than to be 17 years old on a Montana river, I can only barely imagine what that might be.

“I don’t know, Daddy,” he said, kicking his Chaco-clad feet on the cooler. He grinned over a grimy sun buff and stroked a 15-day-old beard that I could actually make out in the right slant of sunlight. “I’m thinking of keeping the ’stache, at least. Think I can pull it off?”

I started to taste my foot again, but caught myself in time. I reckon if there’s anywhere in this world that a young man can still dream, it’s Montana.

Written by T. Edward Nickens for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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How Reading Trout Water Enhances Your Skillset In The Outdoors

How Reading Trout Water Enhances Your Skillset In The Outdoors

Because the intricacies of a stream can tell you more that just where the fish are

Clapotis. That is the word I’ve been trying to scrape off the tip of my tongue for an hour, and it comes back to me as I cast a Purple Haze dry fly along a rock-walled stretch of Montana’s Spotted Bear River. The wall gives out where a boulder squats on the shoreline, pushing a bulge of clear flow into the middle of the channel, and it’s about the troutiest-looking 20 feet of creek I’ve ever seen. The leader straightens, the fly drops, and I ready myself for what will surely be the jolting strike of a serious cutthroat trout. Only a big fish could manage life in the clapotis.

The word comes from a French phrase meaning “lapping of water,” and it describes a standing wave train that neither moves nor breaks, created by waves that bounce off a hard surface—like a rock face—and stack up against more incoming waves. I mend the fly line to keep it out of the tall whipped-frosting waves, giving the parachute fly a drag-free drift in the slick between the rock and the chop. When the big cutthroat slashes, I am so smug and proud of myself for sticking the fly in its face that I miss the strike entirely.

Which, of course, is not the point. The point is that I figured out ahead of time where a trout might live in this stretch of water, so I could drift a fly to its precise location in the current. Trout tend to feed in narrow lanes, unwilling to expend the energy to move out of their comfort zone no matter how tempting the fly. When you miss a fish in a tough lie like that one, you tell yourself that the important thing isn’t that you screwed up the strike. It’s that you were smart enough to read the water.

Like the act of fly-casting itself, reading trout water has taken on near-mystical associations. The practice of carefully studying the flow of water in a trout stream, and divining the most likely spots where trout hold, has been likened to some sort of performance art. But at its core, it’s nothing more than a studied understanding of how water reacts to stuff like gravel bottoms and weedlines and rocks—and how water that has reacted to that kind of stuff is going to affect the fish, fly line, and fly. You don’t need to know what a clapotis is to catch a trout. You just need to know that a fish is likely to be in the calm lane of water between the rock and the choppy place.

Reading trout water isn’t voodoo. It’s a skill. And like any skill, it takes a while to get really good at it. Like a lifetime.

Putting the Pieces Together

The Southern Appalachian streams of my native North Carolina have been my longtime trout-water-reading class, and there’s hardly a better laboratory. These creeks might be 3 feet wide or 30, but they’re rocky, steep, and twisty—and all small enough that the various sorts of trout water are right there at your feet: pools, glides, runs, riffles, pocket water, holding water, current seams, eddies. Clapotis galore.

The best anglers deconstruct the creeks for long, quiet moments before even thinking about a cast. They watch bubble lines to learn where swifts seam into calmer water. They push polarized glasses up to get a better sense of what stream glare suggests about surface flow. Before they ever look for fish, they look for the places where they should look for fish. You work the problem backward: If I think a fish is there, I’ll need to drop my fly to the right of the foam so the force from the riffles pushes the fly into the throat of the current seam. And more likely than not, the place where it seems simply impossible to put a fly is the place where I’d live if I were the boss trout of the pool. That brings on more study. More calculation. Can I sidearm skip a fly under the branches if I crawl out onto the gravel bar? Could I worm through the rhododendrons and dapple the fly along the undercut bank old-school style? Maybe the best cast is no cast at all.

All trout anglers have tied themselves up inside these Gordian knots of fishing strategy. It’s one of the things that makes trout fishing so much fun. But in untying these knots, water pulsing around my legs, fish just waiting to be caught, I’ve found a surprising benefit—one of the other reasons that make trout fishing such a surprising pleasure. I bet any trout angler—or every angler, for that matter—has experienced this. It’s often said that we fish to escape the real world, with its tangled webs of responsibility and challenge. But more often than forgetting about reality, this is what happens to me: I step into a stream with a head full of stress—what to do about two family cars with the CHECK ENGINE lights blinking, how to win the next round of Deadline Whack-A-Mole—and hours later, on the trail back to the truck, solutions begin to bubble up in my mind. By focusing so tightly, time and again, on the riddle of where a fish holds in a single seam of current, my brain seems to break free of all the torque that’s locked up the gears.

This might seem like dime-store philosophy, the sort of grist you’d pick up in a self-help book, but I guess I’ve been fishing—and living—long enough to look at the upstream reaches of my life and recognize that there’s just about always a way to float a solution down into the sweet spot.

But first you must ask yourself: What are the pieces? How do the parts fit together? Solve the little puzzle inside the larger one, and watch what happens. The sweetest moments of life aren’t necessarily void of turbulence. They’re just holding in the calm places on the edge of the riffles. The ones you can’t see until you step into the river.

Written by T. Edward Nickens for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

Fish & Fly

Fish & Fly

Want to take your fly-fishing to a new level?  How about hopping on a seaplane, flying down to the South Sound, and chasing sea run cutthroat?  Orvis offers monthly floatplane fly-fishing trips.  It’s a unique experience offering anglers a “trip of a lifetime in a single day.”  The plane can take them to areas that are too far to drive or totally inaccessible by car.

Orvis Bellevue Photos
Orvis Bellevue Photos

 Expert guide Leland Miyawaki says the plane reaches secluded beaches that contain fish that may never have seen an artificial fly.  “I am there to show anglers how to read and approach the water and present their fly correctly,” Miyawaki says.  “If they hook a fish, I help them land it quickly, take a photo and make sure we release it safely. I hope they come away with a deeper appreciation of one of our most beautiful wild native trout caught on our most beautiful beaches.”

Orvis Bellevue Photos
Orvis Bellevue Photos

On the last trip it poured rain but the anglers still had a blast.  “Three out of the eight people had never caught a sea run cutthroat. They were really excited,” says Miyawaki.  “It rained hard, in fact, the heavens opened up. But we laughed our way through it all including a shoreline lunch out in the open with no shelter.”

Orvis Bellevue Photos
Orvis Bellevue Photos

 It’s a relatively new program that’s had a great response.  Orvis’s Bellevue store manager Reggie Harris says, “You don’t have to go to Alaska for this experience, it’s literally right here in your back yard.  We have this beautiful pristine fishery right here.”

Orvis Bellevue Photos
Orvis Bellevue Photos

Participants get remote enough to encounter wildlife fascinated by their presence.  “As we were fishing one of these very remote beaches that you can only access by plane, a seal popped up and looked at me, down at my fly and just stared at me for 3-4 minutes or so.  Then he went down the beach and did the same thing with another angler, just seeing what the hell we were doing there in the first place because he probably had never seen anyone.  We also had a couple of eagles fly around us watching to see if we caught anything,” says Harris.

Orvis Bellevue Photos
Orvis Bellevue Photos

The anglers practice catch and release and a keen respect for nature. “We have to practice good conservation because otherwise there wouldn’t be any fish,” says Harris.  “Were’ struggling to get our populations back. If there are no fish, there’s no fly-fishing.  It’s such a gift of nature to have the fish in the water and be able to go out and enjoy them.”

Rainbow trout
Rainbow trout wplynn

Orvis will be offering approximately one floatplane trip per month.  Find out more on their Facebook Page , and call 425-452-9138 to register.  Call early because there is often a waiting list.  In June, they are offering a new option with a bass fishing trip to Eastern Washington to fish the Pot Holes.

Bring waders, fly rod, and reel.  Orvis provides the flies and a box lunch that includes a sandwich, chips and fresh fruit.

Written by Leah DeAngelis for RootsRated and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Double Fly Rigs for Winter Trout

Double Fly Rigs for Winter Trout

To land more late-season trout, make it a double

Lots of trout fly anglers hang up their gear in winter, which is exactly why a lot of other fly guys love the cold season. While most bugs are gone, so are the crowds. The trade-off for having the water all to yourself, of course, is that winter trout aren’t typically as eager to pounce on a fly as they were back in spring. This time of year it’s a game of patience, persistence, and ­finesse, above all. Whether you’re after a post-­Christmas holdover or New Year’s Day wild brown, these double fly rigs will keep rods bent despite those iced-up guides.

The Breakfast Sampler Rig

Let’s be honest, stocked trout can be lazy even during warmer times. Drop the water temperature below 40 degrees in a freestone stream, and they can become practically comatose. To expend as little energy as possible, fall’s leftover stockers will move to deep, slow runs. When you find good water, pound it with this rig, because it can take a while for a frozen fish to make a move. Dead drifting scores, but impart twitches on occasion to try triggering a reaction bite.

  • Short Work: A short 3-inch dropper helps you detect subtle hits on the egg faster.

  • Single serving: A single egg fly ahead of the leech gives trout a smaller—yet highly visible—meal choice. Make sure it’s a different color than the leech’s egg to provide the fish with more options.

  • Suck it Up: A weighted egg-sucking leech gets this rig down fast, provides some wiggle and flutter, and creates an easy target for sluggish trout.

Bottom dwelling trout Mike Sudal
Trout fishing tract Mike Sudal

The Two-Tone Rig

Trout Fishing two-toned rig Mike Sudal

Little black stoneflies hatch all winter across the country, providing reliable forage for wild fish. Slower riffles and tailouts are prime fish posting locations when these bugs are present, but even if they’re not, a little black stone rarely gets snubbed. To up the ante, a Green Weenie rigged above a stone provides a second target with a different color. If a trout doesn’t see one, it may see the other and take the shot. While this rig works in freestone rivers, it’s extra-potent on limestoners and in tailwaters.

  • Measured Out: A 12-inch dropper between flies is ideal, as this length keeps the natural-looking black stone close to the bottom, while the Weenie wiggles away up higher, coaxing a reaction strike.

  • Light Weight: Add just enough split shot between the flies to get the stonefly ticking bottom. If you’re hanging up too often, try one shot lighter or ditch the weight entirely.

  • Mini Mite: Though you may be tempted to fish a large fly, winter stones are tiny. Opt for a size 18 or 20 to match the hatch.

Trout fishing slow lane Mike Sudal
trout fishing cold swing Mike Sudal

Written by Joe Cermele for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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