It was your typical August day in Colorado. Sunny, warm, a few thunderstorms off in the distance, but the weather on the river was perfect.
Jack was an experienced angler and good caster. Because he’d never fished on the Arkansas River, a mutual friend set him up to fish with me for the day.
Seeing a few hundred grasshoppers on the walk down to the river made fly selection obvious. He started making elegant casts over the run in front of us, and after several good but fishless drifts, he started moving upstream.
“Hold on a moment,” I said. “You need to cast upstream closer to the bank.”
He obliged by laying the line upstream, closer, but still a good 5 feet from the shoreline. Still nothing. When I suggested that he needed to get closer, he turned around, and as politely as he could muster, pointed out that the water looked to be 6 inches deep, and he could plainly see that there was nothing there.
“Humor me,” I replied. With a shake of his head, he landed his fly about a foot from the bank. As the hopper twisted in a tiny eddy, a nose materialized and gently closed on the fly. As he set the hook, a deep-bodied 18-inch brown bolted into deeper water, and the fight was on.
After releasing the fish and taking a moment to catch his breath, he shook his head and calmly exclaimed, “I would have never made that cast.”
I just smiled and suggested that we do it again. We proceeded to work up the river, and Jack probably landed another six or seven fish over the course of the afternoon, most more than 15 inches, and all but one coming right off the bank.
I can’t tell you how many times this story has repeated itself and not just during hopper season. Even in January, when everyone “knows” that the fish are holding in the deep slow holes, I find myself searching the shallows and finding fish. Regardless of time of year, if trout are holding in the shallows, or right up against the bank, you can be pretty certain that they’re feeding.
This is something that holds true in lakes and ponds as well as rivers and streams. I have watched large cutthroat trout in our high lakes moving slowly just inches from an overhanging grass bank. They know that in the brief summer season, overhanging grass and shrubs are a source of food (or at least the bugs that fall from them are) and most of the time will take a well-placed fly.
There is definitely something seductive about deeper water. The dark shadows give rise to our imagination and fantasies of giant fish just waiting to grab our fly.
We spend hundreds of dollars on high-quality waders, and it just feels right to be standing waist-deep in the water thinking we can reach those big fish. Reality, however, is a bit more complicated. Yes, there are fish in deep water, and some of those fish are big, and sometimes you will catch them there. But more often than not, deep water is a place for resting and for shelter. Much of the time there is more food available and less current to fight in shallow water, allowing trout to feed more efficiently.
It’s easy to see why people overlook shallow water. In Colorado, we have a lot of clean, clear water. When we can see details on the bottom (and no obvious fish), we generally make the assumption that the water is empty. In the excitement of getting our line out, most people fail to notice the subtle shadows of fish leaving feeding positions and slinking away to a safer location.
The truth is that most fish, but trout in particular, are well camouflaged. The only way they can survive the gauntlet of ospreys, eagles and herons is to be very good at not being seen.
Spotting fish takes a lot of practice, and even experienced guides will occasionally miss a large fish in clear shallow water. Because of this, I have learned to always put a few casts into the nearby shallow water even when I don’t see fish. It’s amazing how often someone will be home.
My advice: Always expect fish in the shallows. Approach the water cautiously with the expectation that the trophy of the day is just off the bank. When you expect to see something, you are actually more likely to find it.
Take your time. People have accused me of being painfully slow when I first get to the water. I spend a lot of time just watching before I tie on a fly. That time is often rewarded. Fish don’t stand out, but by watching the water and being patient, little movements or shadows start to appear. Rarely do I see the whole fish; more often it’s the movement of a tail or a hint of white as a fish opens its mouth to eat a nymph. Maybe it’s the dimple of a nose breaking the surface.
Even if all I see are small fish, by watching them I get clues to what they might be feeding on and where their larger friends might be hanging out. Take a deep breath, slow down and enjoy the moment. You never know what else you might see.
I’ve had beaver and mink swim past me while I was watching a stretch of water. Nothing says you have blended into the scenery better than wild animals moving by without concern. Those also seem to be the times when I find the very best fish.
I think back to another day I made a quick stop to look at a favorite stretch of water just to see what was going on. At a point where a shallow riffle dropped into slower water, three large trout were actively feeding below the surface. The water couldn’t have been more than 12 inches deep, but with the waves from the riffle, they weren’t all that easy to see.
Another angler walked up, stepped into the stream in front of me and started casting. He was standing right where those fish had been feeding and casting into the deeper water. Don’t be that guy.
I actually chuckled as I moved on. Those fish were in no danger at all. They would be there tomorrow, and I would be back with my fly rod.