Fishing on the Frontier – Part 6: Reading Waters

When I’m out there, assessing a section of water on river or lake, I’m always looking for signs, indicators, nuances of flow, features; anything that will help me determine the potential for fish, of whatever species, that might be hidden. I am obsessive about this, and always have been. My fishing starts with this process. It is omnipresent; continuously guiding me in my choice of angle and, finally, presentation.

I am talking about reading the water, watercraft, of course; being able to analyse a position on and beneath the water’s surface from the often subtle information we can recognise. It is what every good fisherman does, often subconsciously. It is always a guiding influence, and it is also the most important influence, in my view.

Subtle changes in surface flow and pattern all help the fly fisher 'read' the water

People I guide have often remarked to me that they feel they need to progress from lakes to rivers, thinking that the latter are more demanding. Some very good river fishermen I know seem to encourage this view, but I feel that it is a myth. In several ways, particularly in terms of reading the water, a river is usually easier than a stillwater, and much, much easier than a very big lake. And if you accept that watercraft is at least one of the most important aspects of our sport, then I reason that a lake can often give us greater challenge. In the same way that a big river will always be more testing than a little hill beck, so the expanse of a grand lake will need a lot more analysis than a still water you can almost cast across. Again, it is a matter of scale.

After a while, we do it automatically, moving to the right position from which to cast even as we’re analysing. On a given short length of river, this can be mere moments to the experienced eye, taking in darker patches of water among, bright riffles, or the fingering limbs of weed beds, perhaps a scatter of boulders. Come to the lake shore, the big lake shore, and the scale makes the reading incredibly more complex, more daunting, though the result can be even more pleasurable, when we get it right.

It strikes me that so much of what British fly fishers have learnt on the frontier of the river craft has stemmed from our experiences of European rivers, of various sizes, and we have gradually translated this to develop our skills on the rivers of home. So far as the still water sport is concerned, however, I feel that the practice of fly fishing, from both bank and boat, on the larger lakes of the British Isles has been definitive, certainly since the late 1960s. Parochial instincts left aside, many Europeans have led the way with the river craft, particularly some of the Eastern Europeans, the French and the Italians, though when it comes to fly fishing on lakes, the British have dominated, and continue to do so even though the field is becoming more level all the time as our international experiences cascade.

Being able to identify the fish holding water is crucial to success!

And when I look objectively into the differences, historic and contemporary, I see that it is the waters themselves that have defined the fishing styles that have been practiced on them, with a consequent development of particular skills. The Eastern Europeans, for instance, have enjoyed outstanding (though often challenging) fly fishing for river trout and grayling, and continue to do so, while they have had far less experience of fly fishing on lakes, particularly for rainbow trout. Consider it like this, before British river fishers travelled extensively to world class European destinations we had very little precedent by which to ‘measure’ or come to terms with the large rivers such as San and Dunajec in Poland, the Vltava in Czech or the Sava in Slovenia; just four from an enormous list of river venues that only ten years ago most British fly fishers would have found daunting in the extreme. Today, in common with destination fly fishers all over the world, we have an order of magnitude more skills in terms of watercraft and presentation. We have learnt to read the waters; big, clear flows, rifling streams, dry fly glides a kilometre in length, to add to our tremendous knowledge of the open lakes where daphnia bloom over the deeps and chironomids hatch from silty shallows.

Recognition of fish-holding water is the crux of the issue. To an extent it is instinctive, but it is more something which is learnt by experience. Many of the older books on fly fishing technique contain a lot of specifics about watercraft, and our contemporary magazines cover the subject almost exhaustively, even repetitively – it is that important, after all. Yet there is absolutely nothing to match the individual gaining his or her own experience. Making mistakes, many mistakes, mis-translating the signs, is fine. It all leads to a more fluent treatment of the language of fish-holding waters.

The reward for the educated fly fisher is more fish such as this fine Grayling on the end of your line

Today the all-rounder is as happy on one of Grafham’s mile-long drifts as wading up to the waist in the winter waters of the Tweed, working double nymph on the San or casting upstream dry on Eden. There is one common strand running though all branches of our sport, and it is an ability to read waters. Without this, we can never hope to achieve adequately on any water. The natural extrapolation of skills from watercraft is the ability to achieve good presentation, most of which means good and well-chosen casting technique. I will write more about this in the next article.


If you are interested in fly-fishing expeditions with Jeremy to the San River in Poland please visit Pioneer Flyfishing and don’t forget to mention you saw this on Fish & Fly! Or closer to home he also guides in the Eden area up in the lakes – details at Wilderness Flyfishing

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