How to Find Fish (Part 2): Pocket Water

16 mins read

This is the second post in our series on how to find fish in any type of water. To read all the posts in this series, click here

By Spencer Durrant

Pocket water is perhaps the most intimidating type of water to learn how to fish. It just looks insurmountable – sort of like a plate of 24 buffalo wings with a heaping serving of fries. How can I possibly eat all this? you wonder. Before you know it, the wings are gone, the fries decimated, and you’re feeling pretty proud (or bloated) of your accomplishment.

It’s the same thing with fishing pocket water. It looks tough, but once you understand where the fish hang out in this type of water, you’ll be able to pick them apart like…well, like buffalo wings. Once you learn how to navigate pocket water, you’ll be surprised at both how much more fish you can catch, and how much more water you’re able to fish on your local rivers.

So, settle in and get ready to learn the fundamentals of pocket water!

landscape shot of a river flowing through green juniper trees. The river is made up of pocket water at this juncture.

What is pocket water?

We’re going to learn how to find fish in pocket water, but before we do that, we first need to know what a pocket is.

Pockets are formed when water passes around a large obstruction. Typically, we associate pocket water with large boulders. As water passes around a rock, the regular current of the river is interrupted, and that interruption forms multiple pockets. Water in these pockets moves slower than water outside of the pockets, making them ideal places for trout to hang out.

So, pocket water refers to sections of a river or stream that are made up of primarily pockets, instead of the usual long runs and pools we associate with fly fishing.

image showing pocket water in a river with the pocket highlighted behind a rock

Why do fish hold here?

What are trout looking for in holding water?

Happiness? A warm hug? Cheap gas and winning lotto tickets?

Not quite. Trout are looking for a place to hang out that meets the following criteria:

  • Easy access to food
  • Reasonable cover from predators
  • Away from the main push of current

Thanks to the turbulent water surrounding them, most pockets offer great protection from predators. All that moving water delivers a steady stream of bugs to hungry fish, but the reduced speed of the current means trout don’t have to expend a ton of energy to hang out in a pocket. All things considered, pockets are some of the best habitat for trout you’ll find in any river.

Where do fish hold in pocket water?

Just because you’ve found a pocket doesn’t automatically mean you’ve found a hole that’s lousy with fish. Trout disperse throughout the pocket, looking for the best lies, just like they do in pools or riffles.

There are five main places to look for fish, as you can see in this graphic. We’ll go through all of them in greater detail below, so keep on reading!

Spot 1 – Front Side of Rock

The obvious place to find fish is in the slow water immediately behind the obstruction that created the pocket (most often a rock). But trout will hold elsewhere, too, as Devin Olsen excellently explains in his book Tactical Fly Fishing: 

 On the upstream face of the rock, the water current is temporarily halted before it divides around each side of the boulder. Because water cannot compress like a gas, the molecules colliding with the face of the rock momentarily exert force back upstream before sliding around one side of the rock or another. This momentary stall creates a pressure wave that acts as a cushion that trout can ride.

So, trout will hold in front of a rock, as well. The slower current allows for the fish to exert less energy, while simultaneously putting itself in good position to pick off food tossed by the strong main current of a river. These spots can be pretty tough to fish, but you’ll be surprised at how many fish you’ll pull from the small cushion right in front of a rock.

As you can see from this diagram, fish will hold right in front of the rock, chilling in that slower-moving water.

Spot 2 – Side Seams

If we move downstream from the front of the rock, the next holding lie is the side seams. Friction is created as water flows past the sides of the rock, which slows that water down. This slowdown of water creates a seam next to the water that’s moving faster in the main current.

The seam between fast and slow water is a perfect place for a predator, like trout, to set up shop because it provides an excellent blend of cover and food availability. The turbulent water offers cover from aerial predators and gives fish a consistent stream of food, too.

Spot 3 – The Pocket

The third spot to look for fish is in the pocket itself. It’s usually a spot of extremely calm water – relative to the water around it, of course. It sits immediately behind the rock.

Most pockets are moving too slow for fish to hang out exclusively in the pocket. Often, fish live on the seam between the pocket and any faster-moving water, as you can see in the graphic below.

As with most holding water, the speed is key here. Trout won’t hang out in the pocket unless it’s moving at their preferred holding or feeding speed (a half-foot per second for holding water, and 1.5 to 2.5 feet per second for feeding water). If the rock creating the pocket is smaller, there’s a high chance fish will hold in the pocket itself. The rock isn’t big enough to slow the water down beyond the ideal trout feeding or holding speed.

Spot 4 – The Y

Sort of like the pocket, The “Y” isn’t an ideal spot for trout to hold, but you might catch some there from time to time. The “Y” is formed where the two side seams join beneath the pocket, as you can see in the graphic below.

With two seams coming back together, there’s a ton of turbulence at the “Y”. Water is getting pushed in all sorts of directions, which makes feeding a tough proposition. It’s also probably moving quicker than what trout prefer from their feeding water, too. However, the “Y” isn’t all bad. It creates arguably the most productive part of pocket water – the tailout.

Spot 5 – The Tailout

Where the two arms of the “Y” join and begin to flow back downstream is called the tailout. Thanks to all the turbulence at the “Y” junction, the tailout is moving substantially slower than water surrounding it, as you can see in this graphic.

The tailout is a slight seam, and as we’re now aware, seams are a fantastic place to look for fish. The tailout beneath a pocket is usually home to a few good fish, and it’s always worth fishing.

So, to recap – when fishing pocket water, you should look for trout in:

  • Front of the rock, in the small cushion of slow water
  • The side seams coming off either side of the rock
  • The tailout below the pocket

We put this graphic together for you to help illustrate exactly where fish hold in pockets. It’s worth saving to your phone so you can reference it while on the water.

How to fish pocket water

Now that we know what pockets are, and where fish hold in them, we’re ready to start fishing them!

The thing I love about fishing pocket water is that it’s fast. Pockets are small, so drifts are short. Usually, fish pounce on flies in pockets a bit quicker than in a riffle or a pool. All the turbulent water means food gets tossed around quite a bit, and I’ve found most trout in pockets are very opportunistic feeders.

The trick is, of course, properly presenting your flies in a pocket.

close up of a fly angler fishing in pocket water

Tip #1 – Get Close (without spooking them), Reduce Drag. High Sticking is great!

The first tip for fishing pocket water is to make sure you’re able to get close enough that you can drift your flies without getting any extra drag.

Drag is one of the biggest potential problems you’ll face when fishing pocket water. You’re dealing with so many currents in such a small space, so drag is tough to avoid. The best way to avoid it, in my experience, is by high-sticking as much as possible. Keep as much of your fly line, and even your leader, off the water. This increases the sensitivity of your rig, but also extends your drifts since you have less line out to start creating drag on your flies.

Now, I want to make sure this point is really driven home, so consider this: there’s no real sense of personal space when it comes to fishing pocket water. Get up and close with that pocket! Confront it like it took your place in line at the DMV! You wouldn’t just let that slide, right? You’d get right in that person’s face and give them a piece of your mind!

That’s what you’ve got to do when fishing pocket water. You need to be close. Like, you only really need maybe two feet of fly line out the tip of your rod, along with a 9-foot leader, to fish that pocket. Since pockets are so turbulent, you can get really close without spooking fish. The closer you get, the better you can control the drag and drift of your flies. If you try to control it from too far away, you’ll just end up making things worse. Keep the fly line use to a minimum, and get as close as you can without spooking fish. I like to get right up on a pocket so that I can fish them without any fly line out of my rod – just the leader and my flies.

Tip #2 – Keep your fly(ies) in one current

Tip #2 ties directly to tip #1. With all the different currents moving at different speeds in pocket water, it’s tough to manage your drift. A great way to do that is to ensure that you land your flies in the same current. If you’re fishing with an indicator or a dry-dropper rig, make sure those are in the same current as your flies, as well.

Look at the graphic below to get an idea of what I mean.

a three-part graphic that depicts where to cast your flies in pocket water to reduce or eliminate drag

If I make a cast like you see in the second photo, my flies and indicator are all in different currents. I’ll have maybe a second of good drift before all those currents start dragging my flies and indicator out of place.

If I make a cast like you see in the last photo, though, my flies and indicator line up nicely, eliminating most of the potential for drag.

Tip #3 – Have an Open Mind

Something that’ll surprise you with fishing pocket water is just how many tiny pockets hold fish. The cutthroat in this photo came from a TINY pocket of calm water in an otherwise high, off-color river.

close up shot of an angler holding a cutthroat trout just above the surface of the river

Don’t be afraid to fish every little piece of water within a pocket. You never know where trout are going to hold, and if they’re willing to eat.

Hit that pocket

Phew. That was a lot! But fishing pocket water is something I personally love. Most anglers skip over pockets, especially the not-so-obvious ones. Runs and riffles are usually easier to wade and fish than a pocket. Chances are the stretches of pocket water on your local fishery receive far less pressure than the good-looking runs and pools.

The best way to learn how to fish a pocket is by doing it. Hopefully this article serves as a jumping-off point for you to start hitting the water that most other anglers pass up.

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