Reach a better understanding of how trout feed by carefully reading a mountain stream.
- By: Harry Murray
The ability to read a river is one of the most important skills you can develop as an angler, and mountain streams are among the best places to learn how to do it. Their small size and classic pool-riffle-pool structure make mountain streams great classrooms, and whether you’re fishing for browns and rainbows in the mountains of Colorado or for brook trout in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains or points Northeast, you’ll find trout holding in the same or similar feeding stations described here. But best of all, once you master reading a mountain stream, you can apply the same skills to larger and grander bodies of water.
In my experience there are six possible feeding stations found in any mountain stream pool. Few pools contain all six of the feeding stations described here, but most will contain at least two or three.
Feeding Station 1: The Lip
The lip is the first feeding station you come to as you work your way upstream. It’s formed as a boulder or several large stones create a small dam over which the water flows as it exits the pool. Most insects that drift through the pool are funneled to the lip and trout can easily hold upstream of the damming boulders and pick them off.
This is such an outstanding feeding station that it usually holds the largest trout in the pool, deserving the title of the primary feeding station. The lip is best fished by staying in the pool below and casting or reaching your rod over the fast current that exits the pool.
Although a dragging fly can frequently spook trout in other sections of the pool, trout on the lip are accustomed to insects evading them by taking flight. If you don’t catch a trout stationed here on your first drift, just pause for a minute and try again and you’ll probably get him.
Feeding Station 2: The Tail
The tail is located immediately upstream of the lip. Here trout hold in the area around large rocks on the stream bed. Trout at this feeding station are difficult to spot at times, but you can find them through a process of elimination: Trout seldom hold over clean, sandy bottom sections or over flat rock ledges, so don’t bother fishing there. Instead, look for large rocks or sections with cobbled bottoms and search for trout there.
The best way to cover this section of the pool is with three or four casts fanned across the whole pool tail.
Feeding Station 3: The Mid-Pool
The mid-pool section is located upstream of the tail and covers the largest portion of the pool. In most cases, this is a poor feeding station and large trout seldom hold in the mid-pool. As a result, you can expect to find mostly smaller fish here.
There is an exception to this rule: If the lip and tail of the pool are very shallow and the head of the pool looks like a washboard, large trout will move to the mid-pool area to feed. They will station immediately upstream of rocks and boulders because the current is slowed on the stream bottom. Drifting insects slow momentarily in the buffer area upstream of these stones and are easy targets for feeding trout.
The mixed currents in the mid-pool area will often pull your leader and create drag, so a slack-line cast is a good way to solve this problem. Here’s what to do: Cast upstream at a 45-degree angle, and allow extra line to fall slack, or in a puddle, onto the water in front of your target. With a little practice you can easily get long natural drifts over complicated currents.
The Mr. Rapidan is an excellent searching pattern in mountain streams anywhere.
Try the fly in sizes 14 and 16.
Feeding Station 4: Back Eddies
Back eddies are located on the outside edges of pools, and usually begin near the middle of the pool and upstream toward the head of the pool. Back eddies can range from two to 20 feet across and for the trout they function as reservoirs that collect all types of insects.
For instance, in the spring when delicate mayflies are slow getting off the surface, trout hold here and take great numbers of duns. Later in the summer, when ants and beetles are abundant, trout will cruise the back eddies, picking them off as they go. Watch for rise forms here and then go one-on-one with each trout.
Feeding Station 5: The Head
The head of the pool is where the riffle of the previous pool empties into the next, and it is an excellent feeding station. In many mountain streams, high numbers of mayfly nymphs and caddis larvae are found in the riffles and trout feed just downstream in the head of the pool. Trout will hold in the buffer area where the fast current brushes by the slower water. Strive to drift your fly right along this seam.
If the riffle extends 10 feet or more into the pool, you may catch two or three nice trout on each side by fishing the lower sections first and then gradually making longer casts to reach all the way up to the riffle.
Feeding Station 6: The Corner
The corner is the final feeding station to fish, but it’s a good one. Not every pool contains a corner and because they may be as small as a dinner plate, the corner can be difficult to spot; however, taking the time to locate it can reward you with many large trout.
The corner is usually located to the side of the main riffle entering a pool. It is the farthest upstream piece of water you can see, and its current usually flows across the face of an upstream boulder and behaves something like a back eddy.
If the largest trout in the pool is not found on the lip, he’s in the corner for the simple reason that he can consume more food with less effort here than in any other stream location. Any trout in the corner is there to feed and he is easy to catch on a dry fly if you get a drag-free drift.
In order to effectively fish the corner, you must wade in close enough so that you can use your rod to bridge the fast currents swirling around it. Experience will enable you to narrow down the whereabouts of fish here to within a foot, so you will need only a short natural drift to catch him.
Mountain streams make beautiful classrooms in which to learn how to read rivers, and once you learn how to locate fish here, you’ll be able to find (and catch) them on any river across the country.
HARRY MURRAY is the owner/operator of Murray’s Fly Shop in Edinburg, Virginia. He’s written extensively on trout and warmwater fly-fishing.