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November 25, 2014
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Reading the Upper Delaware River; Fish where the Fish are

Upstream and on the right is the tail of a pool where it begins its descent into the next run, seen at bottom left.
Photo by David B. Soete


The beginning fly fisherman can sometimes become overwhelmed with all the information available on the sport from casting, to entomology, to how to read a stream. All of these elements can be broken down into simple and easy-to-learn parts that will make your days on the water enjoyable and productive.

A successful angler will, over time, learn many things and each skill is an important part of the process of fly fishing. Effective casting is as important as knowing what fly to use in order to be consistently successful. The same is true of fly presentation and the techniques used to fish different types and styles of flies. Now the question becomes, where are the fish?

It’s often been said that 10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish. I know that fishermen who fish in the right place will do much better than those that don’t. So let’s take a look at how to identify those secret locations.

First, start thinking like a fish. You’ll quickly recognize two of the most important needs for survival are food and shelter. When both of these occur together, you’re better than on the right track, you’re there.

In addition to geographic names fisherman share to identify location, such as “Trout Pool,” each location has a variety of types of water such as riffles, runs, pools and pocket water.

Let’s start with riffles. These areas are parts of streams that have more of a downhill gradient that causes the water to have more velocity. A broken surface and somewhat of a gurgley appearance characterize a riffle. A small rapid might give you the picture. Riffles are higher in oxygen content and tend to be fertile with aquatic insect life. The broken surface makes seeing through the water difficult. It also makes it harder for trout and other fish to see out and, to a fish, that equals cover.

The techniques you’ll use in riffles vary with the behavior of the fish. When there are insects hatching and trout noticeably feeding from the surface, a dry fly technique can be the most exciting method. At other times, nymphs, wet flies and streamers will also be effective.

Riffles run into pools. Pools are deeper, sometimes wider parts of the stream that act to slow the current and provide depth for fish to seek cover. Feeding fish are usually near the top, or head, of the pool where current speed still provides the cover of a broken surface, or at the shallow end, or tail of the pool, where feeding on surface flies is easier but the refuge of deeper water is just a tail flip away. Approach these areas carefully. Fish can easily see your approach and will hide in the deep water before you ever see them.

As a pool spills downstream, it creates a run. This is the area just upriver of where the water forms the next riffle, and runs provide food and cover. Are you catching the theme, food and cover? Find it and you’ll find the fish.

Pocket water is the type of water that has more velocity like a riffle, but also has many exposed rocks or boulders. These rocks and boulders provide hiding places for fish but also afford them ease in feeding on what the current brings to them. The pockets also give smaller baitfish places to hide, and big fish do eat little fish. Some Upper Delaware River waters have lots of pocket water, while others hardly have any.

Now that you have a visual picture of the looks and character of a river, it might seem that the entire place will be harboring trout. Well, not really. In each of these stream sections, there will be parts that are simply more productive and are more favored by trout and other fish. Identifying these sections isn’t too difficult if you remember that food and cover are what fish are always seeking.

Break each river section down into components. What part of the riffle has the most or best cover? Are there deeper sections of a pool or sections with a more broken bottom, maybe larger stones?

Keep in mind that fish are essentially lazy. Current breaks, also called seams, where two different currents meet, allow the fish to hold in the slower current while watching the faster current for an easy meal. Where you see foam lines form, you’ll usually find hungry fish. The same water dynamics that congregate the foam and other bits of debris, also congregate aquatic insects.

You might find a large rock or a dead tree in the river and trout will use these as hiding places, lurking in the shadows with a watchful eye for an easy meal.

In all water types, look to the banks. The deeper bank and those undercut by the current are also hiding places that trout frequent.

Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching. On-stream observation is the best way to hone your water reading skills. When you approach a river or stream don’t instantly jump in. Take some time and look around; watch the water for feeding fish. Sitting on the bank can be productive fishing time as long as you stay alert and enjoy the wonderful surroundings you’ve chosen, a place of wonder and discovery.

[Capt. Joe Demalderis is a partner in Cross Current Guide Service & Outfitters, with offices in Milford, PA & Hancock, NY. In 2010, he was the 2010 Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide of the Year.]