• The Ultimate Guide to Fly Fishing Gear (Part 2): The Fly Rod

    The Ultimate Guide to Fly Fishing Gear (Part 2): The Fly Rod

    This is the second post in our series on fly fishing gear, where we dissect all the gear you really need for a successful day on the water. To read all the posts in this series, click here

    By Spencer Durrant

    I’ve spent the past decade reviewing fly fishing gear, and by my count, I’ve reviewed close to 100 different fly rods. I’ve also worked as a guide during that time. I’ve learned a few key lessons about fly rods that I think all anglers – especially beginners – need to understand.

    • Fly rods are only as good as the angler. If your technique isn’t solid, no fly rod will make you a better angler.
    • The “best” fly rod is the one you like the most.
    • Cost has little to do with how well a fly rod fishes.

    If you take nothing else from this post, I hope you keep those three lessons in mind. But, you’re probably here to learn more about fly rods, so I reckon you’ll keep on reading.

    The goal with this post is to give you all the information you need to make an informed choice when buying a fly rod. And contrary to how it might appear, picking a great fly rod is pretty easy.

    three fly rods side by side on a rocky bakcground

    The Fly Rod

    So, there are three terms you need to know before we dive into fly rods: action, weight, and length. We use these words to describe how a fly rod feels (action), what line it casts (weight) and how long the rod is (length). That’s a simplified explanation, of course, so I’ve included an in-depth look at those terms below.


    Despite their high-dollar price tags – and matching aesthetics – fly rods are a simple piece of gear. They’re designed to cast a weight line (fly line). Conventional fishing gear is designed to cast a weighted lure, which is why spinning and baitcasting rods are so much stiffer than a fly rod.

    A fly rod has to bend under the weight of a fly line. That bending action is called “loading,” and that refers to the transfer of energy between the fly line and the rod itself. How quickly a rod loads and unloads energy is what defines a fly rod’s action.

    In simpler terms, think of it like this: a fast-action rod will load and unload quickly, which means your casting stroke takes less time than it would on a slow-action rod. So, if you’ve ever heard or seen fly rods classified by their actions – fast, slow, moderate, progressive, and a host of other adjectives – that’s what the action means.


    Some anglers love slow-action rods, like fiberglass and bamboo. Most fly rods sold, however, are on the faster end of the spectrum. You’ll quickly learn what action you prefer after casting a few rods. The action doesn’t impact what flies you can fish, what fish you can chase, or what conditions you can fish in.

    Line Weight

    What’s more confusing than action, though, is the line weight and length rating system used for fly rods. Most of the rods sold these days are 9′ 5-weights. The rod is obviously nine feet long, but what is a 5-weight line?

    I could really go into the weeds on this topic, but think of it like this: a fly rod is designed to cast a weighted fly line. So, fly lines come in a variety of weights to tackle different fishing situations. Just like you wouldn’t wear cowboy boots to a black-tie dinner, you wouldn’t take a 2-weight to Jurassic Lake (HUGE Rainbow Trout!).

    The smaller the number, the lighter that line is. A 1-weight is exponentially lighter than a 10-weight. A 1-weight is great for small trout or panfish, while 10-weights are regularly used to catch tarpon.

    So – lighter line weight directly impacts what size of flies you can effectively fish. 2 or 3-weight rods are designed to fish smaller flies, usually to smaller fish. Think of these rods as perfect for small, high-country trout fishing. As the line weight increases, the size of flies you can comfortably use increases, too. Bear in mind, though, that it’s not backwards-compatible. A 10-weight rod is great for tarpon, but it doesn’t have the delicacy you’d need to fish for trout on a Western tailwater.

    It’s also worth remembering that, as line weight increases, so does the size and stiffness of the fly rod itself. A 10-weight fly rod is beefier and stronger than a 5-weight. The rods are built to handle not only the heavier line, but the much larger fish.

    Rod Length

    Rod length is a topic that’s worth an entire blog post by itself, so I’ll try to keep things simple here.

    A 9-foot rod is almost always the perfect length for the majority of fly fishing situations. A 9-foot rod provides the best balance of reach and casting distance, while maintaining accuracy.

    Now, there are some circumstances where you’ll want a rod that’s longer or shorter than 9 feet. Some of those include:

    • Fishing very small water
    • Fishing smaller dry flies
    • Euro nymphing
    • Spey casting
    • Fishing stillwater
    • Fishing saltwater

    Different rod lengths work well in these situations for a variety of reasons, but usually, you’re picking the length of your rod based on the size of water you plan to fish. There’s no need for a 9-foot rod on a stream that’s 3 feet at its widest, for example. In this case, an 8-foot rod is plenty long enough to reach out and place your flies, while probably keeping you out of the trees and bushes better than a 9-foot rod would.

    If you’re Euro nymphing, though, you need that longer rod – usually around 11 feet – to provide extra reach as you manage the drift of your nymphs. That longer rod enables you to reach more water from one position than a shorter rod does, and longer rods are usually better at managing fly line, too. The longer the rod is, the more leverage you have to pick up and mend fly line across various currents. On more technical water, that’s a great advantage to have.

    Longer rods are also good on stillwater where accuracy isn’t a huge concern. Throwing streamers at ice-out with a 10-foot rod, for example, will be easier than doing that same task with a 9-footer. A 10-foot rod will cast just a bit farther – with less effort – than a 9-footer. The trade-off is that the 10-foot rod isn’t as accurate as the 9-foot rod, so it’s less ideal to use when fishing dry flies.

    To avoid getting further into the weeds, we can probably stop here. Just remember that, with rod length, you really only need to go longer or shorter than 9 feet if you’re doing something outside the “normal” realm of  trout fishing, which is loosely defined as casting up to 60 feet with dries, nymphs, or small streamers.

    What Fly Rod Does a Beginner Need?

    So, taking all that information into consideration, what fly rod should a beginner buy?

    It depends on what fishing you’re doing. If you primarily chase trout, panfish and smaller bass, a 9′ 5-weight rod is the go-to for beginners. A 5-weight is middle-of-the-road line weight that’s capable of casting a wide range of flies. From large size 4 streamers to small size 22 dry flies, the 5-weight is a versatile line weight.

    If you plan on chasing bigger bass or carp, you’ll probably want to bump up to a 9′ 6-weight rod.

    While some folks might argue with me on this, I think it’s generally easier to learn fly casting on a medium-fast action rod. This action is forgiving of mistakes, but still sensitive enough that beginners can easily feel when to move between the forward and back casts.

    The Fly Flinger rod here at VFC is a great medium-fast rod that’s excellent for beginners. It’s affordably priced, but what I enjoy the most about it is how well it fishes. It casts like a more expensive rod, and it does everything I need it to. What’s more is that this rod fits seamlessly into my casting stroke. As an example: on a recent trip with the VFC crew, we had a bunch of rods strung up in the drift boat. I switched from my 8’6″ 4-weight dry fly rig, over to a large hopper-dropper rig that was tied onto a Fly Flinger. I didn’t even realize I was casting a different rod because the Fly Flinger fits so well into my casting stroke. Chances are, you’ll have that same experience with this rod.

    What About the Reel?

    I promise I haven’t forgotten the fly reel. We’ll cover that in the next post in this series. In the meantime, use this guide to help you pick the best fly rod for you, then spend some time on the water.

  • The Ultimate Guide to Fly Fishing Gear (Part 1): Getting Started

    The Ultimate Guide to Fly Fishing Gear (Part 1): Getting Started

    This is the first post in our series on fly fishing gear, where we dissect all the gear you really need for a successful day on the water. To read all the posts in this series, click here

    By Spencer Durrant

    Have you ever been to a really good buffet? Like, one that left you legitimately paralyzed by the endless options? A buffet so fulfilling, so complete, so thoroughly satiating that you threw out any and all thoughts of being in shape?

    If you haven’t been to that kind of buffet, let me offer my condolences. It’s truly wonderful. But if you’ve ever walked into a fly shop as a new angler, you’ve gone through a strikingly similar experience. Everywhere you look, there’s something new, shiny, and fancy, and it all looks important enough that you need it if you want to have a good day on the water.

    The trouble with fly fishing gear when compared to a buffet, though, is price. Even in today’s world of over-inflated food prices, a buffet doesn’t nickel-and-dime you out of your savings the way a fly shop can.

    Which brings us full circle to this series here at VFC. As you probably know, we’re all about helping anglers have a better experience on the water. Part of that experience comes from knowing what gear you need, and why you need it. This series will dive into every piece of fly fishing gear you actually need, and it’ll explain why you need that gear.

    In Part 1, we’re going to look at a high-level overview of the gear, before getting into the details on specific items.

    Essential Fly Fishing Gear

    I want to preface this list by saying that, while it looks like a lot, it doesn’t have to be terribly expensive. Other than a set of waders and boots, you can buy everything else on this list in one complete, high-quality package! Yes, we have an entire Starter Pack filled with everything we’re about to talk about.

    Anyways – let’s get down to business here. I’ll give a quick explanation as to why you need each piece of gear on this list. We’ll dive into a ton more detail on upcoming posts in this series.

    Rod, Reel, Line, and Backing

    You can’t go fly fishing without a fly rod, and a fly rod is specifically designed to cast fly line. You need a reel to hold the line, and backing on the reel itself. These are absolutely non-negotiable items if you’re headed out fly fishing.

    Leaders and Tippet

    You can’t attach a fly directly to your fly line. For that, you’ll need leader. This is a tapered (thick to thin) piece of fishing line that securely attaches to your fly line. Since it’s tapered, though, you’ll need spools of tippet (extra leader material) to replace the thinnest section of the leader as you cut and replace flies.

    Flies and Fly Box

    Flies are rather integral for fly fishing, and so is a place to keep those flies organized. This should be another really obvious need for anyone going fly fishing.

    close up of a box of flies that is part of a collection of fly fishing gear.


    Any sort of cutting tool will work here, but it’s common to use nippers. You need something to trim the tag ends of your knots, or to cut tangles out of your leader and tippet while on the water.

    Indicators, Split Shot, and Floatant

    For most beginning fly anglers, nymphing is one of the easiest ways to put fish in the net. Some sort of strike indicator, along with split shot, is necessary for constructing an effective nymphing rig. If you do end up fishing dry flies, though, you’ll need something to help those flies stay floating, which is what the floatant is for.

    Polarized Sunglasses

    I might catch some flak for this recommendation, but I believe in it wholeheartedly. Fishing without good eye protection can really damage your eyes. All those reflected UV rays bouncing off the water directly into your corneas can’t be good. Plus, polarized glasses help cut the glare so you can see fish more easily as they swim beneath the surface.

    Fishing Pack and Net

    You’ll need something to carry all of this gear in, so a pack of some sort is a must. Fishing vests were hugely popular when I got into fly fishing, but the tide has changed to favor sling or chest packs. Regardless, pick one that has an attachment to carry your net, because a net is a must-have piece of gear if you plan on practicing catch-and-release fly fishing.

    Waders and Wading Boots

    You’ll have an easier time getting into fish if you can wade through a river. While you can fly fish from shore, standing in the water usually gives you more room to cast, and puts you in a better position to present flies to fish. That’s why you’ll want a pair of waders and boots.

    close up of wading boots underwater with half the camera out of the water.

    Frequently Asked Fly Fishing Gear Questions

    To round out this first post in our series, I wanted to tackle some FAQs surrounding fly fishing gear. If you have any other questions for us, let me know in the comments!

    Q: I got some hand-me-down fishing gear. Can I still use it? Will it still work?

    So, this sort of depends, but largely, the answer is yes. For instance, if you get a hand-me-down reel from your grandpa, there’s no reason why you couldn’t use that reel, so long as it’s not broken. That eliminates the need to buy a reel, saving you some money in the long run. Most old fly fishing gear was well-made, so it should still be fishable. I use rods and reels that were built back in the ’70s and ’80s, with no problems. So long as the gear was well-kept, you definitely can use it.

    The only thing to be careful of here is hand-me-down flies, leader, and tippet. Hooks can rust over the years, and fly tying materials can fall apart if not properly stored. Check the condition of those items before using them. With line, leader, and tippet, the same rules apply. All those items can degrade over time, so you need to inspect them before using them on the water. If the leader, tippet, or fly line is brittle or cracking, you don’t want to use it.

    Q: I’m worried I might not like fly fishing. Do I really need to buy ALL of this gear to try it out?

    If fly fishing is your first time ever fishing, then it’s normal to be worried about whether you’ll enjoy it. And why spend $500 or so on something that you might not like?

    Well, we do have a 100% money-back guarantee on our Starter Packs. You can try out everything in the Starter Pack for 30 days, and if you don’t like it, you can return the items for a full refund. To further help out, you can often rent waders and boots from a local fly shop for a cheap price.

    Q: What rod should I buy?

    I hear this question more than any other, I think. Of course, the answer here depends, but I can’t recall one instance where I told someone to get something other than a 9′ 5wt rod. The 9′ 5wt is the .30-06 of fly fishing. It’s dependable, it can handle just about any fishing situation, and it’s versatile. As you explore different types of fly fishing, you’ll start looking for different rods, but virtually every trout or bass angler who’s just starting fly fishing should pick up a 9′ 5wt rod.

    Q: Do I really need a tapered leader?

    Early on in my fishing career, I used level pieces of monofilament fishing line for my leaders. Not surprisingly, I had problems with my casting. A tapered leader helps you present your flies in the most natural way possible, and aids in your casting. They’re a necessary piece of equipment.

    Q: What flies do I need?

    Again, this really depends on what part of the country you’re in, what river you’re fishing, and what fish you’re targeting. Generally, though, a good mix of trout flies (like our Essential Collection) usually has a good enough assortment of bugs to get you started.

    Hitting the water

    In the coming weeks, we’ll go in-depth on each piece of gear. We’ll discuss how to use it, why you need it, and what your best options are for outfitting yourself on an affordable budget. Make sure you stay tuned, and if you have any gear-related questions, drop them in the comments!

  • How to Find Fish (Part 5): Runs

    How to Find Fish (Part 5): Runs

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

    By Spencer Durrant

    If you’ve ever seen the cult classic The Big Lebowski by the Coen Brothers, you’re familiar The Dude’s obsession with getting his rug back from a pair of thieves. He wants the rug back because “it tied the room together!”

    Well, if we converted that story to talk about fly fishing, the rug would be a run. We’ve talked about pools, pocket water, and riffles, but what helps those singular stream features flow together?

    You probably guessed it from the title – runs.

    Runs are an important piece of fish habitat, but they’re also tough to cleanly define like riffles or pools. In this post, we’ll take our time walking through the features that separate runs from other water types.

    So, get comfortable and ready to learn!

    What is a run?

    Before we cover this, remember that runs are the link that join disparate water types together. Pools often flow into riffles, which turn into runs as they approach the next pool. Pocket water is often separated by runs. If you keep this picture in your mind, it’ll be a lot easier to understand what a run is.

    Runs are pieces of water that look similar to a riffle, but are different in major ways. First off, runs have a slower current speed than a riffle. Runs are also deeper than riffles, and since they’re deeper, there is often little, if any, of the classic surface disturbance we associate with riffles. Finally, runs appear relatively featureless on first glance, meaning there are few obvious seams or obstructions where trout might hang out to eat.

    Why do trout hold here?

    Alright, it’s time for a pop quiz:

    Why do fish hold in any given piece of water?

    via GIPHY

    Fish pick out holding water based on FCC – food, cover, and current.

    Luckily for us anglers, fish are simple critters. They want water that has an ample amount of food, not too much current, and plenty of cover from predators. Runs provide almost all of that.

    There’s an abundance of food in a run for the same reason it exists in riffles. If you’ll recall, riffles are the “food factory” of a river:

    Basically, riffles create the perfect environment for aquatic insects. The rocks and other detritus littering the riverbed that create a riffle create a good buffer from the main current where aquatic insects can hang out. Bugs like to live in the small gaps between rocks, of which there are tons in a riffle. These small gaps combine with the buffer from the current the rocks provide to form ideal aquatic insect habitat. On top of that, the fact that riffles are shallower than other spots in a river means they get more of an impact from sunlight. That means more aquatic vegetations grows, which is the food source for aquatic insects. All of these factors combine to make a riffle the ideal habitat for bugs – and bugs are the main food source of many trout.

    The streambed in runs and riffles is often similar, which means the food availability is high in both water types. Riffles still have more food than any other water type, though runs are likely a close second.

    The current speed in runs is much slower than in a riffle, which makes it ideal holding water. What runs lack, though, is a lot of extra cover. The depth of water in a run acts as cover from aerial predators, but there’s often fewer large obstructions in a run that offer cover from aquatic predators.

    Where do fish hold in runs?

    This is the toughest part to successfully figuring out runs. When looking at them, how do you know where to start fishing?

    I’d like to tackle this question by dissecting a run together.

    Photo: Bonnie Moreland/Flickr

    This is a picture-perfect run. Towards the left edge of the picture, the run terminates in a pool (and you can even see the slight riffles that are quintessentially part of a pool’s head). Below the pool, this is a classic run.

    On the side nearest the bank with trees, you can see a foam line. This foam line marks the seam between the main current, and the slower current nearest the bank. Most runs will feature a seam like this, usually on either bank. That seam is an obvious starting place to look for fish, because we know how much fish love seams.

    Moving away from the foam line and into the main part of the run, things get fuzzier. It’s a uniform-looking current, and we can’t see very many obvious obstructions that will hide fish. To fish this kind of water, your best bet is to cover all of it. The fish will disperse throughout the run in fairly random groupings, and unless they’re rising, it’s hard to know exactly where they’ll hold.

    Fish will congregate at the head and tail of a run, as well, so it’s worth covering those sections thoroughly. As you might have noticed throughout this series, we’re finding that fish really enjoy holding in places of transition – whether it’s from fast to slow currents, or shallow to deep water. If you can find any transitions in runs, fish them! Chances are high trout are holding there.

    How to fish a run

    The steps to successfully fish a run are twofold:

    • Cast to any rising trout, or trout you can see
    • Cover all the water

    Fishing through a run doesn’t require any special line management techniques (like high-sticking in pocket water). In fact, it’s a lot like fishing through a riffle. The main difference is that the water is moving slower in a run, so the takes can be easier to spot than the takes in a riffle.

    So, when you approach a run, try using the following plan to catch as many fish from it as possible.

    • Cast to risers first: If you see fish rising in a run, cast to them first. This holds true for just about any water type – if fish are rising, cast to them. 
    • Start at the tail: If there aren’t any fish rising, or you’ve cast to all of them, the next step is to set up shop at the tail of the run. Make your first casts quartering upstream, no further than you feel comfortable mending your line. Regardless if you’re fishing a dry-dropper or a nymph rig, you can cover water the same way. The key here is to cover all the water in the run between where you’re standing, and the opposite bank. You do that by making a series of drifts. For example, you make your quartering cast upstream and drift your flies through water maybe 10 feet away from you. Once you’ve drifted your flies through that water a few times and caught fish – or not moved any – you either take a step towards the opposite bank, or add distance to your cast, to cover water you haven’t yet drifted through.
    • Finish at the head: You want to slowly work your way up the run from the tail to the head. Unless the run is really short, you don’t want to cover the whole run with one cast. Break the run into smaller sections and work the water thoroughly to make sure you’re putting flies in front of all the fish.

    So, let’s see how those tactics apply in a real-life example of a run.

    The run we looked at earlier is the holy grail. It has foam lines, distinct transitions, and easy-to-identify holding water. Not all runs are as clean-cut as that. How would you go about fishing a run like this, for example?

    picture of an angler standing in the middle of a run in a river

    In runs like this, it’s helpful to break the water up into a grid pattern. In runs, your best bet to find fish is covering as much water as possible, with a variety of rigs.

    As you can see in this diagram, the fish are distributed randomly throughout the run.

    Start by covering the water closest to you first. If you ignore the water closest to you, there’s a chance you can spook any holding fish. Those spooked fish can, in turn, spook the rest of the run.

    One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need to remain stationary. Move up and down the riverbank to effectively cover all the water.

    Work each grid close to far, back to front. Then move onto the next grid.

    Breaking the water up into this kind of grid pattern is a helpful way to ensure that you’ve presented your flies to every fish in the run.

    Keep Running

    There’s a stretch of the creek near my house here in Wyoming that’s a picture-perfect run. It’s deep and crystal-clear, and I’ve seen some big brown trout laying on its bottom. I have yet to catch one of those fish, but I plan on harassing them come springtime.

    There’s probably a run just like that on your local river. Head out there as soon as you can and start identifying the runs that you’ve skipped over, or not thoroughly fished before. Make some plans to tackle them this spring, and get this knowledge into action.

  • How to Find Fish (Part 4): Pools

    How to Find Fish (Part 4): Pools

    This is the fourth post in our series on how to find fish in any location. To see the rest of the posts in this series, click here

    By Spencer Durrant

    One of the most amazing rivers I’ve ever fished flows through a slot canyon deep in the American West. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and it eventually merges with another, larger river, in some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet.

    As much as I love fishing there – casting a fly rod beneath sandstone cliffs creates a wonderful juxtaposition – I’m more enamored with a certain hole on the river, than I am with the incredible scenery.

    The hole in question is a long, crystal-clear pool that’s home to some of the river’s biggest fish. It’s unquestionably the toughest spot on the river to fish. The trout – mostly rainbows, though a few stray browns are often swimming around – are wary, as you’d expect from fish living in what amounts to a giant fishbowl.

    I caught a few fish from this pool on my first trips to the river, but never with any real rhyme or reason that made me feel like I knew how to fish a pool.

    That all changed after one of my buddies took some pity on me and showed me how to fish pools. Once I understood how to fish calm, deep water like this, the pool on the river yielded tons of great fish. The key, as with almost everything in fly fishing, was learning the why behind how pools work and why fish hang out in them.

    The goal of this post is to help you crush that learning curve, so you don’t spend as long as I did trying to figure out the best way to fish a pool. So, get comfortable, and get ready to learn!

    What is a pool?

    To make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s clearly define what a pool is.

    A pool is a deep, slow section of a river. It’s usually located before or after a set of riffles. Water moves quickly at the head of a pool, slowing down exponentially as you get closer to the middle. The water picks up the pace again at the tail of the pool.

    Here are a few examples of real life pools:

    Why do fish hold in pools?

    As with any type of holding water, pools have a few characteristics that make them attractive to trout. Let’s take a look at each of them in depth.

    Slow, easy current

    The biggest difference between a pool and most other holding water is the current speed. Other than the head or tail of a pool, most of the current is moving at a much slower rate than current in the rest of the river. This gives trout a nice place to hang out, sleep, and leisurely snack on whatever food drifts by.

    Protection from predators

    Pools – especially deep ones – offer great protection from predators in two ways. First off, the deeper water makes it tougher for predators to catch fish that are otherwise more vulnerable in shallow water. In addition, the color of deep water helps trout stay shielded from anything that might eat them.

    Decent food availability

    We know that trout exist to eat food. And we know trout want to expend the least amount of energy in exchange for the most amount of food. That’s why they love riffles so much – the energy expense to food received ratio is wonderfully high.

    Pools don’t have quite the availability of food that riffles do, but there’s still enough in a pool to keep trout well-fed. The low current speeds also help, since trout don’t have to spend a ton of energy to eat their food.

    Perfect for low-temp situations

    As water warms up, the amount of oxygen in water tends to decrease. Trout make up for this by migrating to faster-moving water – like riffles – where oxygen content remains high, even during the warmest months of the year.

    When winter rolls around, though, pools are the ideal place to be since they offer high amounts of oxygen, and little major current to contend with. This is one reason that you focus on fishing pools and slow, deep runs during the winter.

    How to fish pools

    If you look for information on how to fish pools, you’re going to come across the same general theory: you need to work through a pool in sections. The terminology might be different from writer to writer, but the idea remains the same.

    To help give you the most actionable information possible, I’m relying on tactics provided by folks like Tom Rosenbauer, Devin Olsen, and Ted Leeson, in addition to my own experience.

    So, with all that in mind, let’s walk through how to fish a pool together.



    Start at the tail

    It’s best to start fishing a pool from the tailout – where the pool becomes shallow and the water speeds up – up to the head. This gives your flies the most natural drift, and will usually help you avoid spooking fish.

    side diagram of what a pool in a river looks like with the head, middle, and tail clearly marked

    This is a side-view diagram of what a pool looks like, and it should help you understand why we start at the tail first. Pools have a U-shape, with the deepest part of the pool usually in the middle. The head and tail of the pool are the shallowest, and where the current is moving the quickest. Starting at the tail helps you break the pool down into manageable chunks, ensuring you cover all the water and spook as few fish as possible.

    overhead view of a pool with the head, middle, and tail clearly marked.

    This is an overhead view of the same diagram, to help give you some more context as to how pools are broken down.

    Start with the risers

    On any section of a pool, you want to target the rising fish first. So, if you see fish rising in the tailout, tie on a dry fly and get to work!

    If fish are rising in the middle or head of the pool, don’t worry – we’ll get to them soon enough! What you don’t want is to try a longer cast to the middle of the pool, only to spook fish that were holding in the tail.

    You want to cover every part of the tailout. I usually fish from left to right, but how you approach it doesn’t matter. It can be helpful to visualize a grid over the water, and you want to present your flies in each square of that grid. Speaking of flies – a dry-dropper rig is perfect for the tail of a pool because it lets you cover two parts of the water column at once. It’s also fairly easy to adjust the depth of your dropper to ensure that nymph is getting down deep enough.

    As you can see in this graphic, the dry-dropper rig is covering the holding depths for the trout in the tail of the pool. This is the coverage you’re aiming for.

    graphic of a dry dropper fly fishing rig being fished to a rainbow trout at the tail of a pool

    Finally, make sure you’re paying attention to line management. With the current picking up speed in the tailout, there can often be a few different currents moving simultaneously. That means you have to watch your drift to eliminate drag. Usually, casting across the current and making small mends to your drift is a good way to manage the multiple currents you might encounter in the tail.

    Move to the middle

    Once you’ve covered the tail, it’s time to move to the middle of the pool. Again, if there are fish rising, tie on a dry fly and make some casts to them. If the fish aren’t rising, then it’s time to get to work.

    Devin Olsen, in his book Tactical Fly Fishing, articulates beautifully how to think about fishing the middle of a pool:

    The center of a pool is a location where fish are prone to suspending in the column. Therefore, I will usually start with a dry-and-dropper rig to work from shallow to deep. Sometimes there can be several layers of fish willing to eat in a pool, and more fish will materialize as presentations work progressively deeper.

    Pay attention to what Olsen says at the end – as presentations work progressively deeper. That’s key to fishing the middle of a pool. With such a slow, leisurely current, trout can hang out almost anywhere in the water column and still have easy access to food. Your first drifts through the center of the pool should focus on the higher parts of the water column, which is why Olsen recommends a dry-dropper rig.

    As you can see in this diagram, we have fish holding all over the water column in the middle of this pool. The dry-dropper presents the opportunity to catch the trout highest in the water column without spooking fish holding beneath them.

    Once you’ve covered that water – again, using a grid pattern is helpful to ensure you get your flies everywhere fish might be hanging out – then it’s time to go deeper. Fish can, and will, hold throughout the entirety of the water column, so you want to be thorough in the depths at which you drift your nymphs. A two-nymph rig beneath an indicator is great here, as is a Euro rig. Both allow you to easily adjust the depth of your flies and target specific areas.

    a graphic showing a two nymph rig presenting flies to trout holding at the bottom of a pool

    After you’ve covered all the different depths, you’re ready to move on.

    Stop at the top

    The head of a pool usually presents the most complex currents. It’s also where you’re likely to find very active trout, since the fish here have first dibs on any food drifting down through the current.

    The currents at the head of a pool are faster, as well, as you can see in this diagram:

    A dry-dropper rig is what I usually stick with when fishing the head of a pool. This rig gives me better management of my drift than an indicator rig.

    The head will be shallower, and this is where you’ll often see a shelf, too. Shelves are great places for trout to hide, so you want to get your flies dropping over the lip of the shelf and into the main part of the pool, to effectively mimic the real thing. That’s what this diagram illustrates:

    Jump in!

    Pools are some of the most quintessential fly fishing water, but also some of the most complex. I ruined many a good pool in my early years of fly fishing because I just didn’t know how to effectively cover all the water.

    By taking a more methodical approach, you’ll be able to get your flies in front of almost every fish in a pool – and who knows? Maybe you’ll finally catch that really big trout we all know lives there.

  • How to Find Fish (Part 3): Riffles

    How to Find Fish (Part 3): Riffles

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

    By Spencer Durrant

    My wife and I used to live in a suburb of Salt Lake City. On the drive home from work or fishing, I’d head down a four-lane thoroughfare stacked with fast-food restaurants. With all the traffic during evening rush hour – and a grumbling stomach – I usually pulled into the first place with a short drive-through line to grab dinner. I didn’t much care where it was, so long as I didn’t have to wait too long.

    That experience – crammed into traffic, surrounded by other hungry motorists, all of whom seemingly don’t know how to drive – is fairly similar to what trout experience when feeding in a riffle. The river moves quicker, and trout are more willing to compromise on a good drift if it means they have a chance at a large meal – kind of like the time I pulled into a Subway, even though I swore off their food years ago.

    A riffle is moving quicker than other typical holding water, but fish hang out there because the opportunity for food is so high. The extra energy of swimming against the current is worth it if they get a steady stream of caddis tacos. Because riffles flow quicker than traditional holding water, I know many anglers who skip them entirely. These anglers are skipping some of the best opportunities to catch fish, especially if there’s a hatch on.

    I don’t want you to miss out on the chance at some great fishing! In the rest of this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about locating fish in riffles, and the best ways to present flies in this specific water type.

    What is a riffle?

    First off, we need to define what a riffle is.

    Riffles occur when water flows over a high-gradient streambed that’s littered with smaller rocks and gravel. As the water flows over this steeper section of streambed, it hits the rocks and gravel. The water is forced to either side of the rocks, and sometimes even back upstream, if the water hits the front of a rock with enough force. All this extra movement creates the telltale signs of a riffle that us anglers are familiar with.

    Here are a few examples:

    Riffles can be short or long. The Madison River in Montana (last picture) is often referred to as “a long riffle” because the entire river is seemingly that same water type.

    Often, you’ll find riffles occur between pools or deeper runs.

    Why do fish hold in riffles?

    I need to give a tip of the hat to Devin Olsen for his excellent work on riffles in his book Tactical Fly Fishing. Much of what I’ll share here can be found in fantastic detail in that book.

    Basically, riffles create the perfect environment for aquatic insects. The rocks and other detritus littering the riverbed that create a riffle create a good buffer from the main current where aquatic insects can hang out. Bugs like to live in the small gaps between rocks, of which there are tons in a riffle. These small gaps combine with the buffer from the current the rocks provide to form ideal aquatic insect habitat. On top of that, the fact that riffles are shallower than other spots in a river means they get more of an impact from sunlight. That means more aquatic vegetations grows, which is the food source for aquatic insects. All of these factors combine to make a riffle the ideal habitat for bugs – and bugs are the main food source of many trout.

    This is why you’ll sometimes hear riffles referred to as “the food factory” of a river – much like the four-lane thoroughfare example I gave earlier. It’s easy to understand why trout spend so much time in riffles, when you realize just how much food is available.

    Trout also hold and feed in riffles thanks to the nature of riffles themselves. As water hits and moves around rocks – thereby creating the riffle – the water slows down just enough in spots that fish don’t have to expend a ton of energy to hold there. Even though there’s not an obvious seam on the surface of the water, the current is slower enough near the river bed for fish to hold comfortably.

    Since riffles are moving quickly, they tend to have higher concentrations of dissolved oxygen. As water temps rise during the summer months, the amount of dissolved oxygen in slower-moving water decreases. Fish will automatically seek out riffles during the warmer part of the year not just for the food, but for the increased amounts of dissolved oxygen, as well. During the winter, that trend reverses. With colder temps and less sunlight, aquatic insects aren’t as abundant in riffles, so fish aren’t getting as big a return on their expenditure of energy to stay there. Fish will usually leave riffles to hang out in pools during the coldest parts of the year.

    Finally, it’s worth noting that fish hold in riffles because the choppy service offers some protection from overhead predators. If you’ve ever tried to spot fish holding in a riffle ,you know how hard it can be to find them amidst all the bouncing water. Trout like feeling safe and protected, and riffles offer that.

    Where do fish hold in riffles?

    Generally speaking, fish will hold just about anywhere in a riffle. That’s why, if you look for any information about where to find fish in riffles, you’ll usually come away with a bunch of tips on how to fish a riffle. With riffles, it’s usually a good idea to thoroughly fish them, because it’s hard to predict exactly where the fish will be holding. It’s not like pocket water, where you know trout will hold in the seams.

    That being said, you still need to give the riffle a thorough inspection before you start blindly casting. For example, you might find a submerged log, or a rock, behind which – as we know from the article on pocket water – there will be a cushion of softer water. These are excellent spots to cast to first, as it’s highly likely trout are holding there. Since riffles cause so much surface disturbance, an obstruction might not make the same surface waves we’re used to seeing, especially if they’re small. But as we know, trout will seek out any bit of calmer, slower water to hold in while waiting for food to drift by. If you see anything that looks like is might offer trout some shelter from the current in the riffle, cast there! You’re probably right.

    How to fish a riffle

    Now that you know fish are likely dispersed throughout a riffle – unless you see some obvious obstruction they might be hanging out around – it’s time to talk about how to fish this type of water.

    You should have a couple of goals when fishing a riffle:

    • Cover all the water
    • Cover all the depths

    Fish might be right on the bottom, munching on worms, scuds, and mayfly nymphs. Or perhaps they’re suspended in the middle of the column, eating both nymphs and emergers. Or, if you’re lucky, they’re looking up and willing to eat just about any dry fly with a decent drift. The fact that fish can be just about anywhere underscores the importance of covering as much water as possible.

    Just like that old saying, about eating an elephant one bite at a time – don’t try to fish the whole riffle all at once. Follow these simple tips to help make it easier:

    • Break it into sections: Focus on the head, middle, and tail of the riffle. Cover all the water in the tail, then move onto the middle, then the head. This approach works whether you’re fishing facing upstream, or if you’re standing to either side of the riffle.
    • Adjust your depth: I like to fish riffles with a dry-dropper rig. Fish are more forgiving of bad drifts in a riffle, and they’re more likely to eat dry flies, too. I typically have a big dry fly, followed by two nymphs. I space my nymphs out so one is riding close to the bottom, and the other is somewhere in the middle of the water column. If you just fish a single dropper, play around with the depth until you start hooking into fish. If you’re fishing with two nymphs under an indicator, adjusting your depth is as simple as moving your indicator.
    • Be thorough: Yes, fish feeding in riffles are forgiving of less-than-perfect drifts, but that doesn’t mean you’ll hook into one on every cast. Give every spot at least a half-dozen drifts to make sure all the trout have had a chance to look at your fly.
    • Stay tight: Don’t let a ton of slack line come between you and your flies. Takes in riffles can be very subtle, and you’ll miss them if you have a ton of slack in your drift. Keep the drifts tight and close enough that you can easily set the hook on the smallest indication that a fish has eaten your fly.

    2wt fly rod

    Riffles in action

    Back when I lived in Utah, I frequently fished a little stream that was well off the beaten path. I loved a particular section that was only accessible via a long walk on a steep dirt road. The road ended right where the stream flowed from tight pocket water into a large, broad riffle.

    Within that riffle I could routinely catch 5-10 fish, depending on the day. The fish held in different spots each time, but they were consistently there, willing to eat my flies.

    The tragedy is that I skipped over these riffles for years, focusing instead on the pools. Once I started fishing riffles more frequently, though, I wondered how I’d ever let such a great piece of water literally pass me by.

    Chances are, your local fishery has a few riffles that go unfished. Pay them a bit of attention next time. Thoroughly cover the water, and who knows what you might catch.

  • How to Find Fish (Part 2): Pocket Water

    How to Find Fish (Part 2): Pocket Water

    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.

  • How to Find Fish (Part 1): Reading Water

    How to Find Fish (Part 1): Reading Water

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

    By Spencer Durrant

    Knowing how to look at a river, dissect it, and identify where fish are likely to be holding is as much a skill as sniffing out the best wing joint or pizza place in any small town.

    I’m the kind of guy who can find great pizza and wings anywhere.  Earlier this summer, me and the rest of the VFC crew stopped for lunch while fishing in Wyoming. Everyone wanted pizza and wings (mostly me) and after a quick look through the local restaurant options, I picked a place that had the best wings I’ve ever had in Wyoming.

    Alex – the guy in a lot of our weekly tips and tying videos – has a different skill set. That morning, before stopping for wings and pizza, we were on a stream that was still high with runoff. I was ready to give up on fishing, but Alex stuck it out. He found a neat little run where the water flew over a shelf and dropped into a deep pool. Alex caught a half-dozen fish from a spot I’d passed up.

    Needless to say, one of us has a more useful skill than the other.

    The point here, of course, is that if you struggle with finding fish in a river, you can easily get better at it. Alex didn’t wake up one morning, waltz to a stream, and immediately identify a perfect lie in the lee of a boulder. At least, I don’t think he did.

    This series of posts is designed to help you cultivate that skill. By the time we’re done, you’ll be able to identify where trout should be holding in just about any river you come across.

    But before we get into recognizing specific water types, we first need to know how to read water.

    close up of a river with water running over moss

    What is ‘reading water?’

    Reading water is a term you’ve probably heard before, but do you know what it means?

    In simplest terms, reading water means that you’re able to look at a piece of water and identify certain features, like seams, currents, eddies, pools, and riffles. These features tell you where fish are likely hanging out, eagerly awaiting the chance to eat your fly (or refuse it entirely, if you’re fishing in Colorado…).

    Comprehension strategies

    I’m an English teacher by day, so let me put this into scholastic terms for everyone. As a beginning angler, you probably have something like a 1st-grade reading level when it comes to reading water. You can sound out some words on your own, but you need help getting through books without pictures.

    And that’s fine! We’ve all been there before. Just like we’ve all been in 1st grade.

    And just like your teachers did back in grade school, we’ll go over some comprehension strategies to help decipher what the river is telling you (and we’ll even throw in some pictures too!). You’ll need to have a firm grasp of these basics before we move onto locating fish in specific water types. And just like with reading, the more you practice, the better you’ll become at comprehending what rivers have to tell you.

    There are two strategies that you need to learn before you’re ready to check out that chapter book with dragons on it from the local library all by yourself.

    diagram of current moving through a river with an arrow pointing to the left to show the direction of the current

    Strategy #1 – Identify the Current

    Currents are the building blocks of the river. Just like you need to know the alphabet to read a book (or this wonderfully helpful blog post 😜), you need to be able to recognize the current that trout will most likely call home.

    Different currents form when water moves over the river bed. If a river has a uniform riverbed and banks, then the current will be almost the same across its entire width. However, most rivers have a great deal of rocks and other debris littered on the banks and on their beds. As water moves over and around the rocks and debris, that causes friction (like you might experience at dinner with your mother-in-law…) which slows down the water. It’s this friction that causes different current speeds within a river, and it’s inside those different currents that trout take up residence.

    diagram of current moving in a river with arrows showing its direction, to the left, and other arrows illustrating the friction this movement causes.

    Since that friction occurs on the bottom of the river, that means water is always moving slower closer to the bottom of the river than the top. There’s less resistance up top, so the water speed isn’t as impacted by debris on the river bottom.

    That same concept holds true for water near the river banks, too. Banks cause a ton of friction, slowing down the water to a leisurely pace. Out in the middle of the river, though – all bets are off! The water is flowing free and quick because the banks aren’t there to impact it’s momentum.

    diagram showing river current speeds as they impact the bottom and banks of the river

    Remember – all these different current speeds create good and bad trout habitat. Understanding how these currents change speed is the first step to identifying great trout water where other people just see a river.

    Riffles – The Perfect Example

    So, what currents should you be looking for, and which ones should you try to avoid?

    To help answer that, let’s look at a water type that anglers and fish both love – riffles. A riffle is formed when water flows over a collection of small rocks and gravel. The water is forced to flow to either side of the rocks, or back upstream if it hits the front of a rock. All that movement creates turbulence on the surface of the river, which us anglers see as a “riffle.”

    close up shot showing riffles in a river with mountains in the background

    Now, does that look like water where you’d expect to find a fish? Most new anglers would probably respond “no.” We’re all conditioned to expect fish to live in deep, slow pools. They do – but that’s not where they all live! They spend a ton of time in riffles and other fast-moving currents for one reason: food!

    To quote Tom Rosenbauer’s book on reading water, “Studies have shown that trout prefer to lie in water that runs about one-quarter to one-half foot per second, and feed in water that runs about two feet per second.”

    A good riffle runs about at about two feet per second, which is exactly the water speed trout are most comfortable feeding in. Riffles are also chock-full of little pockets that are perfect for trout to hang out in, because they don’t have to spend as much energy to hold there as they would in faster water. We’ll dive into holding water and riffles in greater detail in upcoming posts, but keep these facts in mind.

    That’s why learning to identify currents – before we get into any of the particulars about places where trout hold – is so important. If you spend all your time fishing in water that’s too fast or too slow, you’re not likely to catch many fish.

    Speed Matters

    Trout want to expend the least amount of energy in return for the most amount of food (sounds like a lot of my students…). As Rosenbauer noted, trout like to feed in water that moves about two feet per second. Obviously they’ll feed in slightly slower, or slightly faster, water, but that’s the sweet spot you should be looking for.

    So, what does all this mean? If fish prefer to live in water moving about a half-food per second, but like to feed in water moving at two feet per second, then we need to be looking for a current of slower water surrounded by slightly quicker water. The junction of these two currents is where trout are most likely to hang out for the majority of their time.

    Strategy #2 – Recognize a Seam

    Once you’ve identified water moving at about the right speed, you’re ready to learn about seams. As I alluded to at the end of the last section, the junction of slower and slightly quicker water is a place where trout are likely to spend a lot of their time. This junction is called a seam.

    Seams can occur all throughout a river – next to the bank, behind a rock, or where a pool and a riffle meet. Seams provide trout with just about everything they need to be happy, like cover and easy access to food. Most importantly, water isn’t moving too quickly in a seam, so trout can hang out there without burning through too much energy.

    When you start to look at a river as a collection of currents and seams, it becomes easier to know where fish are probably holding. Even big rivers – which are intimidating – are easily broken down into collections of seams.

    Of course fish hold in other places, too. Pools, eddies, riffles, and pockets are just some examples of the water types we’ll cover in this series. For today, though, make sure you’re solid in your ability to identify the right kind of current for trout, as well as current seams.

    I know that was a ton of information, so I’d recommend bookmarking this page and coming back to it often. In the meantime, go tie some flies while you get ready for the next post in this series – all about pocket water!

  • How to Pick the Right Fly (BONUS): Streamers

    How to Pick the Right Fly (BONUS): Streamers

    This is the final article in our series on how to pick the right fly for any fishing situation. To see all the posts in this series, click here.

    By Spencer Durrant

    Streamers are like every caricature of a reluctant hero in a summer action flick. They’re effective in certain situations, but they’re moody and often misunderstood.

    They even have superhero-type names. The Meat Whistle. The Sculpzilla.

    I’d read those comic books.

    Today, we’ll peel away the mysticism around streamers. We’ll expose their secret identities, to continue with the comic book metaphor. As with all the posts in this series, the goal is to help you feel comfortable with streamers. We’ll also share some of the go-to streamers you should always have in your box.

    What do streamers imitate?

    In the broadest sense, streamers imitate baitfish. Whether that’s a sculpin, shiner, chub, or even other small trout, these flies are often designed to look like a food option.

    Often, though, streamers are effective because they trigger a predatory response in fish. As Tom Rosenbauer says in a video on fishing streamers, “Perhaps trout just take streamers out of reflex because they look like a big juicy bite trying to get away – in other words, a lure. Streamers are effective on trout for the same reason they eat spinning lures.”

    So, to recap – streamers can, and often do, imitate specific baitfish. Often, though, they’re tied with the goal of provoking a predatory strike from the trout willing to take a bite.

    Are streamers really irresistible to big fish?

    It’s often said in fly fishing circles that you’ll catch bigger fish by using streamers. After all, only the biggest, meanest trout have the appetite to eat other small fish, right?

    That’s not 100% true. Just like anything else in fly fishing, there are no absolutes when it comes to fishing streamers. Your chance of catching a truly big fish certainly increase when fishing streamers, but it’s not the only way to catch giants. And it’s not a guarantee that you’ll only hook into big fish either.

    As an example – my good friend Mysis Mike Kingsbury once caught a 26-inch brown on an egg pattern (no, he wasn’t fishing over a redd). Conventional fly fishing wisdom tells us a fish that big should only eat other fish.

    close up of a large brown trout in an angler's hands.

    The problem with that line of thought is that it ignores the fundamental truth about trout (and other fish): they’re opportunistic predators. Present a food item close enough to them, and there’s a good chance they’ll eat. Trout want to eat by expending the least amount of energy possible in return for food. Sometimes that means eating another fish. Sometimes it’s eating an egg as it drifts by.

    Now, this brings up another point we need to discuss. I’m going to let my friend Domenick Swentosky, from Troutbitten, explain the concept:

    “Rarely does a population of trout fall all over themselves to eat a streamer, no matter how well it’s presented. And I think it’s unfair to advance the notion that fish are out there waiting to pounce on your streamer if you can just get the presentation right.”

    Dom’s article about streamer fishing myths is worth reading in its entirety (find it here), but the point above is something you need to remember as you go down the rabbit hole of streamer fishing.

    Yes, your chances at catching big fish increase if you’re fishing streamers. But there’s no magic-bullet presentation that forces fish to fall over themselves to eat your streamer.

    When to use streamers

    You can fish streamers year-round, but there are certain times and conditions that make them more effective.

    Some of the instances where you’ll want to fish streamers include:

    • High, off-color water (not during peak runoff, but before or after can be good streamer fishing)
    • Late fall, as fish pack on weight for winter
    • Early spring, as fish wake up from a long winter
    • When dry flies aren’t hatching

    Again, that’s not a comprehensive list of when to use streamers. In fact, it’d be impossible to come up with one, since you can have success with them year-round, provided water temperatures stay high enough that fish are active and moving.

    Another tip from Tom Rosenbauer about using streamers is to use them after a rainstorm. He says that “The very best time to fish a streamer is when a sudden rainstorm raises the water level, because in the increased turbidity, predator fish like trout have an advantage over the more maneuverable bait fish because the bait fish get pushed out of their shallow water havens.”

    Where to use streamers

    Just like with any other fly, there are certain areas where you should concentrate on when fishing with streamers. Wills Donaldson put together a good piece on this topic for Fly Lords, where he said that, “The best places to target streamers are protected places such as under banks, behind large rocks, and around submerged logs or trees; as well as in the seams of the currents, and in deep pockets of water.”

    The big thing to remember here is to look for cover. You want to toss streamers to places where trout can ambush – or quickly chase down – their next meal. Anything from submerged logs and trees, to big boulders, pools, or seams, counts as cover. Quick transitions from shallow to deep water – like shelves – are also a great spot to target with streamers.

    One of the tips you’ll hear most often about streamers is the need to get them deep. No matter where you’re fishing – tight to the bank, against a sunken log, or in a seam – you need to get that fly down deep.

    So, to recap – look for cover, and get your streamers down deep.

    Picking the right streamer

    Since there’s not a “streamer hatch,” how do you know what streamer you should tie on?

    Well, there’s an old adage that still holds fairly true – if it’s a brighter day, use bright flies. If it’s a darker, cloudy day, use a dark fly.

    Using that as a guide, I’ve found it’s helpful to look for streamers that have the following characteristics:

    • Size: You want the streamer to be a reasonable size for the fish you’re chasing. For example, a 2/0 Sex Dungeon is a bit big for a stream that’s home to mostly 13-inch brown trout. They’ll still probably attack the fly, but they can’t get their mouths around something that large. That fly is great if you’re in a big river where 20-inch or larger trout are a possibility.
    • Movement: The streamers I do best with are the ones that have a lot of movement. Whether they’re articulated (have more than one segment/hook) or just packed with a lot of materials that move freely in the water, you want something that’ll catch the attention of fish.
    • Weight: As mentioned above, you need your streamers to get down to the bottom. Big, heavy coneheads, and lots of material are great ways to weight a fly down so it sinks quickly. Unless I’m in exceptionally shallow water, I’m always fishing heavy streamers.

    With those criteria in mind, let’s take a look at some streamer patterns you should have in your box.

    That’s by no means a complete, comprehensive list, but it’s a good place to start if you’re looking to stock up your box with go-to streamer patterns.

    Start Swinging

    Catching fish on streamers is one of the unique experiences in fly fishing, because you’ll often get to see fish chase your streamer. I know anglers who say they only want to see the chase, and they don’t care about hooking up with trout. I’m not quite at that level of zen, but watching the chase is a ton of fun.

    Load up on some streamers that are the right size for your local fishery and start swinging these flies. You’ll quickly learn for yourself why so many anglers are streamer junkies.

    Do you have a favorite streamer pattern? Share it with us in the comments.

  • How to Pick the Right Fly (Part 6): Scuds, Sowbugs, and Terrestrials 101

    How to Pick the Right Fly (Part 6): Scuds, Sowbugs, and Terrestrials 101

    This is the sixth article in our series on how to pick the right fly for any fishing situation. To see all the posts in this series, click here.

    By Spencer Durrant

    Imagine you’re on the high school basketball team. You get to travel to all the road games, you bask in the general adoration the school showers on you, and you enjoy the time away from class. But there’s just one problem – you ride the bench. You’re not a starter. You only get garbage time minutes, when the coach decides you can’t do anything to mess up the game’s outcome.

    If scuds and sowbugs had feelings, they might feel that way. They’re aquatic insects, but they don’t get the same love mayflies and caddisflies do. We all probably have a scud and sowbug pattern in our boxes, but we don’t call on them nearly often enough.

    Terrestrials, on the other hand – they’re like football players. Great at what they do, but they’re only effective a few short weeks out of the year.

    All kidding aside, I do think we tend to overlook the value of scuds, sowbugs, and terrestrials as anglers. Today, we’ll take a look at different situations when you want to use these bugs, as well as some go-to patterns that you can fish with confidence.

    Scuds and sowbugs – what are they?

    While you may hear these bugs referred to interchangeably, they’re not. A scud is a different insect from a sowbug, although they’re incredibly similar. The folks over at The Missoulian Angler put it best: “A scud is oval in shape while the sowbug has a flat profile. Both behave the same in the water, as both are basically freshwater shrimp.”

    That’s the best way to think of these aquatic insects – they’re freshwater crustaceans. According to guide – and noted bug expert – Pat Dorsey, scuds are commonly found in tailwaters and spring creeks. That’s because they prefer rivers with relatively stable flows and temperatures, which you’ll find in both those water types.

    How to fish them

    There’s no trick to fishing a scud or sowbug pattern. These are nymphs, so you’ll fish them as part of a nymph rig. Both of these bugs work best when fished as a bottom fly, or very close to the river bottom. Scuds and sowbugs generally don’t move far up the water column.

    When to use them

    If you’re ever on a tailwater or spring creek, you’ll want some scuds and sowbugs in your box. Scuds are also must-have patterns for fishing lakes. Some of the best brook trout I’ve ever caught came on a scud.

    There is no “hatch” of scuds or sowbugs, since these aquatic insects don’t ever leave the water. They’re a fairly abundant food source in tailwaters and spring creeks, so you can fish them year-round and see some success.

    Must-have patterns

    Most of these patterns are just rehashing the same basic shape, but there are a few that are absolute must-haves. Get them in sizes 14 – 18.

    • Standard Scud – get this pattern in pink, grey, and brown. These are some of the most common colors because they’re just flat-out effective.
    • Ninch’s Cotton Candy – this was developed on the Missouri River, but patterns in this style work well just about anywhere.
    • Ray Charles – the OG scud pattern.

    You can always look through our Baker’s Dozen pack of nymphs that include scuds and sowbugs, as well.

    Now that we’ve wrapped up these small nymphs, let’s move on to some bigger, meatier dry flies.

    Terrestrials – what are they?

    Terrestrials – they’re wonderfully fun to fish, but they’re not available year-round. They’re like our annual fall pumpkin spice craze. When they show up, they’re everywhere, and that’s all anyone wants. Once December rolls around, though, we’ve dumped pumpkin spice for peppermint.

    That’s how it is with terrestrials. The window to fish these bugs is shorter than most other insects, but it provides some of the best fishing you’ll have all year.

    In short, terrestrials are insects that live on land, but sometimes end up in the water, where trout readily eat them. Grasshoppers, cicadas, and ants are the most well-known terrestrials.

    How to fish them

    Fishing terrestrials is just like fishing any other dry fly. You need a good drift in front of places where trout are likely to hold. In the case of grasshoppers, ants, beetles, or other insects, trout are most likely to take them closer to the bank. These bugs tend to fall off, or get tossed around by the wind, from their perch on trees and grass near the water’s edge. When they fall in the water, they make more of a splash than a dainty mayfly does when it lands on the water. So, the big difference in fishing terrestrials and other dry flies is that you’ll usually want to slap the water a bit with these patterns to make them look realistic.

    Try doing something like this:

    That’s easier said than done, but it’s a wildly effective tactic.

    When to use them

    Terrestrials don’t “hatch” in the way aquatic insects do. Cicadas will emerge from their subterranean hidey-holes, but grasshoppers and ants end up in the river largely by chance or get blown in by a gust of wind.

    With that said, we do have some “hatch charts” that depict when the best time is to fish certain terrestrial insects.


    Fish these from late June through the first big freeze in your area – anywhere from late September to November.


    Cicadas have a short window that varies from river to river. In general, though, June through August is the prime time for cicadas.


    Their season is similar to hoppers. Late June through the first big freeze.

    Must-have patterns

    If I could only pick one terrestrial pattern to fish the rest of my life, it’d be a Chubby Chernobyl. It’s a do-all foam fly that imitates hoppers exceptionally well, but it can work as a cicada, ant, or stonefly if you’re in a bind.

    Aside from the Chubby Chernobyl, there are a few other terrestrial patterns that you should have in your fly box:

    • Dave’s Hopper – this is a classic hopper pattern that’s been great ever since it was invented. Sizes 10-12 are great for this fly.
    • Foam Cicada – this is the basic pattern for imitating cicadas. You’ll want it in sizes 10 – 12.
    • Black Ant – another classic that’s proven its worth over decades. Sizes 12-16 are perfect for this fly.

    Hit the water

    With a box full of scuds, sowbugs, and terrestrials, you’re ready to hit the water just about any time of year. Scuds and sowbugs, in particular, work well year-round. They’re not quite as dependable as midges, but you better believe I have a few dozen scuds in my box at any given moment. They’re a versatile bug that works in both rivers and lakes.

    I always have some hoppers in the box, too. They work great as the top fly in a dry-dropper rig, even in the winter. I prefer to use a dry fly as my indicator when nymphing because it’s more sensitive than most indicators.

    Regardless of how you use them, these flies are a valuable addition to any fly box. Grab a few, tie some up, and get those boxes stocked up!

  • How to Pick the Right Fly (Part 5): Stoneflies 101

    How to Pick the Right Fly (Part 5): Stoneflies 101

    This is the fifth post in our series on how to pick the right fly. To see all the posts in this series, click here

    By Spencer Durrant

    Stoneflies are the Corvette of the bug world. Fast, nimble, and unquestionably attractive, in a mechanical sort of way. You’ll stare whenever you see one, but spotting them isn’t completely uncommon.

    Trout treat stoneflies in a similar fashion. Usually, trout at least look at a stonefly as it drifts by. Unlike Corvettes, though, stoneflies garner attention from almost all trout.

    These big bugs are a high-protein food source that most any trout will go out of their way to eat. When stoneflies are hatching in good numbers, trout tend to behave without their trademark skittishness.

    That’s part of what makes fishing stoneflies so much fun. You get to throw big bugs – which are easy to see on the water – and often enough, you’ll catch big fish. That’s also why you need a well-rounded knowledge of stoneflies, so you can join in on the fun of fishing with them.

    By the end of this post, you’ll have read all the need-to-know information about these big ol’ bugs.

    What is a stonefly?

    A stonefly is one of the largest aquatic insects commonly found in trout rivers.

    Like most other aquatic insects, there are a few thousand different stonefly species in existence. For this post, we’re only focused on recognizing stoneflies by sight and matching them with common fly patterns.

    Identifying a stonefly is really easy. They have a unique shape and silhouette that few other bugs share. They also have a simple life cycle, making it easy to match stonefly nymphs to patterns in your fly box.

    So, that’s where we’ll start – identifying stoneflies by their shape and silhouette, and learning their life cycle. 

    Stonefly Life Cycle

    The stonefly life cycle is deadly simple: they start life as an egg, hatch into a nymph, then emerge into an adult.

    Stonefly nymphs look an awful lot like mayfly nymphs, but there are a few differences to note.

    First, a stonefly nymph only has two tails, compared to the three or more of a mayfly.

    Second, stonefly nymphs have long, thick antennas.

    Stoneflies spend one to three years as a nymph, growing larger all the time. When they grow, they push through their old exoskeleton, leaving behind a “husk” that you’ve probably seen on rocks, branches, and streamside vegetation.

    As an adult, stoneflies look a lot like their nymph selves. They have a long, thick segmented body, two tails, long antennas, and two pairs of wings that fold over its back when not in flight.

    Stoneflies return to the river to lay their eggs, but unlike other aquatic insects, they’ll do this multiple times before dying.

    While stoneflies can hatch from February through August in some rivers, the hatches tend to get the most intense from April through August.

    Identifying Stonefly Hatches

    Unlike caddis or mayflies, most emerging stoneflies don’t get stuck in the surface film. When a stonefly nymph is finally ready to become an adult, it migrates towards land and sheds its old exoskeleton, leaving behind that classic stonefly husk. That movement towards land is a behavior trout will key in on, and that’s the closest to mayfly-like emergence behavior that most stoneflies demonstrate.

    Once on land, stoneflies shed their exoskeleton and start taking flight. At this point, they’ll really only return to the water if they fall off a log, tree, or branch near the river, or to lay their eggs.

    This is important to review, since “matching the hatch” in the sense of using the right emergers, cripples, spinners, or duns, doesn’t really matter when fishing stoneflies. What matters is recognizing a stonefly when it hatches, then identifying a good patterns to imitate that bug.

    Now, stonefly hatches are very much time-dependent. Certain stoneflies only hatch during a specific time of the year, and often those hatches vary from river to river. Spending time researching the stonefly hatches in your area will always pay off.

    For example – salmonflies hatch on the Henry’s Fork from May 20 through June 10. They hatch on the South Fork – not too far from the Henry’s – June 20 through July 5.

    Knowing what stoneflies are hatching, and when, is key to getting in on the great fishing these bugs provide.

    So, with that in mind, let’s take a quick look at some of the major stoneflies that hatch, some of their characteristics, and patterns to match them.


    When it hatches: March – April/May

    The skwala is the first stonefly of the year to hatch, and can come off in late February given the right conditions. Usually, the hatch kicks off in earnest in March, and it’ll last until runoff hits in most areas.

    Skwalas are smaller than other stoneflies, and are usually dark brown in color.

    Skwalas don’t hatch on every trout river. They’re common in Montana, Oregon, and Washington.

    Yellow Sally

    When it hatches: May – June/July

    Yellow Sallies are another small stonefly, and start hatching in May. They’ll last through June and July, depending on where you’re fishing.

    Yellow Sallies are super easy to identify – they have thin, yellow bodies with bright red spots near their tails.


    When it hatches: May – June/July

    Salmonflies are probably the most famous of all the stoneflies that hatch. These giant, orange bugs draw anglers – and trout – from across the country to fish their emergence throughout Montana and Idaho, specifically.

    These are among the biggest stoneflies you’ll fish, and they’re easy to identify thanks to their bright orange color.

    Golden Stonefly

    When it hatches: June – July

    Golden stones are more commonly found than salmonflies. They’re not as large, but they can be just as fun to fish. I’ve had some truly excellent days fishing golden stones in late June, after runoff subsides on many of the streams here in the Rockies.

    The Flies You Need

    Matching a stonefly to one in your box really only requires that you know what stoneflies are commonly hatching in a given river, at a certain time of year. Early on in the year, I have some extra skwalas in my box. As I get into May, I have Yellow Sallies, salmonflies, and golden stones on hand. I usually put my stoneflies away in favor of hoppers come mid-July. I will, however, keep stonefly nymphs in my box year-round.

    With that in mind, these are some of the flies you absolutely need to have to get in on the action that a good stonefly hatch offers.

    Getting Out There

    Getting into great stonefly fishing is really about timing. These hatches can be quick and fierce, but they offer some of the best fishing you’ll have all year. Spend some time researching when stoneflies hatch on your local rivers, and make plans to be on the water during that time. Even if the water is high or off-color from runoff, fish will eat stoneflies.

    When you catch some fish on stoneflies, be sure to let us know!