Tuesday Tips: The Basics of “Reading the Water”

The author casts to a spot that provides deep water, near cover, on the edge of good current.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Conventional wisdom says that 10 percent of fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish. Most people assume that these elite “10 percenters” enjoy so much success because of their superior angling skills, but that’s really only half the story. While knowing how to fish is certainly vital, it’s equally important to know where to fish in a given body of water. You can be a brilliant caster, know just what kind of flies to use, and be a master of the retrieve, but none of this makes a difference if the fish simply aren’t there. And to find the fish, you have to be able to read the water.

Whole books have been written on this subject, but there are some basic tenets that you should always heed.

What Do Fish Need?
“Reading the water” means being able to determine the most likely places you will find holding or cruising fish, and there are a few basic rules that apply whether you’re fishing a lake, a river, or the ocean. First, be a stealthy observer: as you approach the water, stop well back from the edge until you can be sure that you won’t spook any fish before you get a chance to cast to them. It’s a terrible feeling to watch a big fish swim away and realize that you’ve missed your chance to catch it. Seeing the fish in the water—whether it’s a bass on a bed, a rising trout, or a school of stripers crashing bait—lets you know exactly where to start fishing, so you don’t waste any time prospecting. So take a moment to read the water before you approach it, and you’ll end up catching more fish.

This brown trout was hiding in the fallen logs in the background, feeding in the current going by.
Photo by Phil Monahan

As you survey the water, look for the three things that fish crave: cover, food, and margins. Cover—such as weedbeds, fallen trees, overhanging vegetation, or rocks—offers a safe haven for prey species and a place to hide for ambush predators. Food can be in the form of schools of bait or insects on the water or along the banks. And fish simply love margins: the edges between deep water and shallow water, fast water and slow water, or cover and open water. Wherever there is current, in a river or the ocean, fish will seek places where they can hold in slower water, while allowing faster currents to deliver food to them.

Let’s look at three specific angling situations to see how reading the water can help you plan your angling approach.

Because fish in moving water must expend energy to fight the current, they don’t usually live right in the fast water. Instead, they inhabit lies where they can hold in slower water but have access to the food conveyor belt that the faster water represents. Therefore, anything that offers cover and breaks the current—rocks, woody debris, a bend in the river—offers a potential fish lie. Concentrate your attention on the “seams” between the faster water and slower water, which you can often identify by looking for the line of bubbles on the surface. Since the current near the surface is faster than that on the bottom, deep slots and pools are also good places to fish, and big rocks on the bottom of these deeper spots can hold big fish.

This bass ate a topwater bug fished on the margin between the weedbed and open water.
Photo by Phil Monahan

Lakes and Ponds
When you’re fishing still water from the bank, you don’t have the luxury of cruising from spot to spot find the fish, the way anglers in a boat can, so you want to choose your spot wisely and then wring the most opportunities out of it. Avoid featureless areas with little cover and uniform depth; instead look for weeds and rocks and places where depth changes quickly. If there’s any wind, fish the downwind side of the lake, because wind and waves concentrate food against the shoreline and attract predators, such as bass or trout.

Your first order of business is to identify the best cover, in form of weedbeds, a fallen tree, or rocks. Bass, especially, will hold tight to cover. Next, look for places where shallow water meets deeper water—a sharp drop-off, a submerged point, or a deep channel. The best places to fish are those places that offer both cover and depth change. Cast your flies along the outside edge of a weedbed or the deeper side of a fallen tree to attract the larger fish holding there. When you’re fishing a submerged point, the most productive approach is to fan-cast around the tip of the structure.

Guide Aron Cascone casts his striper fly into a deep channel with a fast-moving current.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Salt Water
Although the ocean can seem featureless at first glance, upon closer inspection you’ll find that all the advice above holds true for salt water, as well. Focus on those places where you find cover, depth change, and tidal currents. A rocky jetty at the mouth of a bay provides all three, for instance. Because species such as striped bass, false albacore, and bonita often chase schools of baitfish, scan the surface for “nervous water,” a sign of bait schooling just below, and watch for birds flocking over a specific spot. Where you find diving birds, you’ll also find fish below.

By spending a few moments reading the water and figuring out where to focus your attention before you start casting, you can become a much more efficient, productive angler.

9 thoughts on “Tuesday Tips: The Basics of “Reading the Water””

  1. I’m glad that you talked about most fish not living in the fast water in rivers, so focusing on fishing there wouldn’t be as effective. I’ve been trying to get into fly fishing, so I’ve been trying to find all the tips I can get, and being able to find some slower water would be good for me! I’m going to have to see where I can find some slow patches for fly fishing near the fast water of the river and see what my luck brings me! Thanks for the tips! https://www.puertoricomagictarpon.com/fly-fishing.html

    1. Even rocks that stick up and break up the current are worth a cast or two. I started fly-fishing in spring of 2017 and have learned by trial and error…lots of error! But I watched this old timer catch 3 trout one of which was pushing 20 plus inches in 2 different little “pockets.” One of which I would have walked right by. I would not spend too much time at each little area but always worth a couple casts. Swinging streamers or wetflies allows you to cover alot of water and Is very relaxing and enjoyable. Good luck!

    2. This is where a guide really shines. not to take you fishing as much as to school you on many things. If you tell them that they would probably love a day like that. Zero stress about finding fish.

  2. This has been very helpful. I have just gotten into fly fishing and this will help me select area’s that I will most likely catch a fish or two.

  3. i am a pro at 11 years old and this is rely good but more about the lewers to use and less al/bout ware to put the lewer because uoy could get lucey i fiaf

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