An eye for the Water – A Study of Trout and Where to Find Them

Monty Wright with rainbow trout. An eye for the water.
Monty Wright with rainbow trout.

By Monty Wright

The habits of various kinds of trout differ considerably. Even though transplanted to new surroundings they still maintain their individual ways. The majority fish which we angle for in the South Island are now in their own individual right a wild strain. These fish were introduced originally by the old Acclimatisation Societies to many types of water. We as anglers have to develop what has been aptly terms as an “eye for the water” when searching for fish. That is easily said but difficult to learn in some cases. Enthusiasm, spending time on the water and using your initiative will slowly but surely build up the experience you need to assist you in your angling endeavours.

An Eye for the Water – Brown trout have a roving disposition

All river trout seem to dislike moving home so unless they, are captured, destroyed or driven away by drought, they often haunt the same spot year after year – this could be on the edge of a run or eddy or even in some quiet water, as long as there is some cover available nearby. Almost at any time in summer when walking along the banks of the Mataura or Pomahaka one may see brown trout swimming slowly round and round the side eddies, or up and down under the banks and willows of a quiet stretch. Brown trout have a roving disposition in quieter water, especially where there is no flow to bring food to them.

Using one object as cover, generally a bank or sunken log or willow, they will continue to roam the beat either feeding on midge pupae off the bottom or waterboatmen flashing to the surface to take in air, or even snails which often break off from the river floor and float to the surface. During early summer in willow-lined areas, they will also feed on terrestrials which drop onto the water. One of these, a small willow grub, is commonly taken by brown trout in this situation. If you want to catch these fish you have to be patient. Often it is difficult to get your tempting morsel out onto the water.

The angler has to observe several things, firstly his own personal camouflage, the steadiness, slowness and agility in which he moves so as not to scare the fish before he gets the opportunity to catch it. These fish are always a great challenge that gives the angler extreme pleasure when hookups take place. Unfortunately often fish in these difficult positions are lost amongst the willows and banks where they feed.

An Eye for the Water – Scum Lines

On lakes or large still pools, one sometimes sees lines of scum and refuse slowly moving under the varying airs. Fish food gathers there and I have often seen trout rising in such places with no evidence of fish elsewhere feeding. I recall explicitly an afternoon a few years ago on Mahinerangi Dam where a scum line was running off a point. I could see fish backs appearing in the foam. Not being too sure initially what they were feeding on, I was unsure what to use. I tied on an unweighted Hares Ear Nymph and dropped it into the foam and this instantly brought success and a very pleasant day angling was enjoyed by all.

A similar experience occurred at Lake Hawea when I was fishing on a very windy day at the southern end of the Highburn fan where the willows are in the water. Both rainbows and brown trout came to feed on the edge of the eddy caused by the trees. Again, being unsure what they were initially feeding on, I cast a black Deer Hair Blowfly onto the edge of the ruffled section and again had instant success. Trout come up to feed in breezy, ruffled water because they expect to find insects beaten down onto the surface.

There are only three things that govern a trout’s position – cover, feeding and spawning. Therefore, one should observe the likeliest places in which the food is to be found, whether worms, nymphs, spiders, hoppers, beetles, small fish, flies – whatever lands on or lives within the water. Sandy open stretches with low and bare banks are always barren of fish and so as a rule are long beaches of even running rapid water where the bottom stones are small and much the same size. But where the river flows deep and curling on one side and shallow on the other, one may find fish on either side, according to the weather conditions.

Trout, having their haunts in the deep, may venture out into the shallows when flies or nymphs are on the move. Where you see trees, shrubs, thistles or weeds on the river bank there will always be insect life and trout waiting for a chance of a titbit falling into the water. When exploring the margins of high country streams, always look for the sections where the bank has fallen into the water. This often provides cover for fish to rest under the sod or alongside a sod where they can drift out and take a nymph or quickly rise to the surface to sip in a fly as they pass. The bank, of course, gives the angler an added advantage of being a little higher and giving a better view of the river and possibly the fish waiting.

Watch a stream where it converges towards a narrow channel, then below the channel where it broadens out into the pool. Look for the eddying water at the side. You should find fish in the narrowest part of the side eddy close to the strong water as it enters the run or pool. Now look again at the centre of the run of the water and follow it down the pool. After a little experience, you will detect a place – it may be a few metres down according to the size of the pool – where there is a sub-eddy and a change of flow often caused by a gravel bar, boulders or rocks. You may always expect to touch a rainbow as your fly reaches this particular location – providing of course that this is rainbow water. Below this, the stream takes up its course again in a quiet and more even run and the fish food being distributed over a wider area there.

Frequently I have seen novices walking into the side of an eddy then casting out into the water where the fish do not lie – all the time the fish being at their feet. Twice in one day, I saw this happen on the Upper Clutha early in the New Year. I tried to give both novices some advice and I hope it has improved their fishing.

Where the water is broken up by obstacles trout often lie in the shelter of a big boulder, in what appears to be a full strength of the current, but which is really a pocket. A favourite habitat of trout is among small boulders over which a steady stream runs covering the stones with about 30-40 cm of water. Carefully fish these sections and keep well back from the stream edge. I often fish these areas with a dry fly first and then change to a small nymph, especially in the middle of summer. Some anglers think this is a lot of bother changing flies every 10 minutes, but personally I go fishing to catch trout – not to just cast a fly.

An Eye for the Water – Floods

When in flood the course of the water changes and brings in a new range of feeding grounds. Therefore, providing the water is at all fishable, cast very close to the banks and if there are backwaters or incoming streams, some of which may carry clear water, approach these very cautiously and cast a long line. Trout always seem to be more cautious when out of their usual beats.

Casting and speculation on long still river pools is uninteresting work. Sometimes however one may see fish rising in such places. If so, they are generally roving. Try and find which way they are travelling – remembering that most fish feed going upstream into the current and then quickly return to the bottom of the beat to carry out the same process. Cast a little ahead of them, remembering they seldom move more than a metre out of their way to pick up food, so that in this case you must be fairly accurate.

An Eye for the Water – Don’t “Line” the Fish

Try and cast from the side so that you don’t “line” the fish – that is cast directly over them as they travel upstream. Often in these cases, it is difficult to know what fly to use. If in doubt in this type of water I always use a small size 16 Adams as it imitates the majority of species found in the quieter water from midges to duns.

One last thing about an eye for the water – keep your fly and nymph in or on the water as you can’t catch fish false casting.