Gerald Almy: Pocket water a great holding area for trout
Standing shin-deep in the tumbling trout stream, Bill Bonner flicked the #12 Royal Coachman into a small trout hideout under a laurel bough. Landing at the top of the pocket in the gurgling creek, the fly floated 12 inches and was instantly nailed by a sassy native rainbow. The fish sailed across the surface in a splashing leap and then battled hard until Bill could slip it into his net and carefully release it back into the stream.
Bonner had just given a classic demonstration of the value of probing pocket water for trout. The spot where he caught the brightly colored rainbow was as small as a bathtub. Many anglers would have walked right past it on their way to the first deep, long pool they could find.
But from years spent electroshocking streams as a fishery biologist and decades of fly fishing experience, Bill knew that such tiny holes, pockets, and back eddies are great holding areas for trout.
Traditionally, as trout fishermen we are drawn to classic pools and long, deep runs. We hurry to such spots and rush to cast our lines into these dark waters that seem to hold such promise. Meanwhile, miles of fish-filled pocket water go begging for anglers.
All too often, though, classic pools and runs yield little more than frustration. These pools receive much heavier fishing pressure, so trout in them get extra wary. The slow currents also allow the fish to carefully look over our offerings. Often as not, they find some flaw. Such finicky fish are notoriously hard to hook.
Fish the pockets and you’ll avoid all of these difficulties. They receive far less pressure. The water flows swiftly so the trout aren’t as picky and discriminating looking over your offering. And they know if they don’t grab the fly quickly it will be gone, washed downstream past them in a split second.
Typical pocket water includes broken water stretches between classic pools, eddies at the edge of a rapid, the lies behind and in front of boulders, and the mini-pools next to undercut banks in a riffle.
I first learned of the potential of fishing pocket water for trout on a 10-day backpack trip into the West Elk Wilderness of Colorado many years ago. I fished the pools of the mountain streams, as I’d been taught to do. And I caught trout. But the outfitter’s assistant was racking up incredible catches – 50 or more fish a day.
I watched him one morning and soon found out why. He didn’t even try the big pools, but instead concentrated on the tiny pockets, foamy eddies, and stone-strewn riffles. Almost every one of those hideouts yielded a trout.
The next day I put his tactics to work on Soap Creek. By ignoring the pools and dropping my bushy dry flies into every pocket of water I could find, I caught and released more trout that day than I ever had before in my life.
It was fitting that I learned this method in the West, since the technique of probing pockets is more widely known in the Rockies than anywhere else. But the technique has proved equally valuable for me in the East and especially in the streams of our own Shenandoah National Park and surrounding waters.
Pocket-water trout are especially appealing because you can approach close without spooking them. Whenever possible, it’s best to not even enter the stream. Try to do your fishing from the bank.
Fish the water close to you first, covering all possible holding lies. Then lengthen your casts out to 30 or 40 feet. Some pockets will look so small that you’ll doubt they hold fish. Don’t pass them up. You’ll be surprised how little water can harbor a trout.
Concentrate on the edges of the main current, slick dark areas in the mass of churning whitewater, and spots where eddies curl back upstream. Areas above and below boulders and logjams are also good.
Eight- to 9-foot fly rods are best since they let you keep more line off the water than shorter rods. This allows better fly control and gives the offering a longer natural float before drag sets in.
A floating weight-forward line is best for shallow rivers and creeks. For fishing nymphs and wet flies in deep pocket water on large rivers, go with a sinking tip line. Seven- to 10-foot leaders tapering to 4X, 5X or 6X tippets perform well for dry fly work. For wet flies and nymphs, use 5-6 foot leaders with 3X to 5X tippets.
The old-fashioned downstream wet fly approach is a great way to extract trout from pockets. Cast to the side and slightly upstream of the patch of water you want to probe. Then allow the fly to gain depth and drift into the lie. Let it swing down and hang below you briefly, and then begin a slow, hand-twist retrieve.
Nymphs are extremely effective when fished casting upstream with a dead drift presentation. Stonefly, caddis, and mayfly imitations in sizes 4-12 are all useful when the naturals are present. A small strike indicator on the end of your line will help you detect strikes in the bubbling water.
Dry flies offer an exciting way to catch choppy water trout. Buoyant flies tied with hollow deer or elk hair work best. I like the Wulffs, Humpys, and Elk Hair Caddis flies. These offerings look like a meaty, chunky morsel to trout and float well in the churning currents. Add a few beetles, ants, and grasshoppers during summer and fall when these land insects frequently tumble into streams.
Few fishermen will want to give up “pool” trout entirely. But when things get tough or crowded on heavily hammered pools, try the pocket water as an alternative. It’s action-packed and a fun and fast way to cover lots of water.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.