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Secrets of the Savvy Angler

by | Aug 15, 2022 | Fly Fishing

Guest post by Beau Beasley

Every day anglers head to local waterways in search of solitude and peace—and fish, of course.

They are more or less successful. Many will take a few fish home with them; many more will simply release their finned quarry back to the water. And more than a few will go home empty-handed and discouraged. 

Why? Why do some anglers strike it rich while others strike out? What do the fish whisperers do that the rest of us don’t?

Take Your Time

Nearly all novice anglers make the same rookie mistake: They fast-forward to the fishing. They’re stringing up their rods on the walk from the car and casting by the time their feet reach the riverbank.

Nearly all novice anglers make the same rookie mistake: They fast-forward to the fishing.

Nearly all novice anglers fast-forward to the fishing while the savvy angler paces himself at the water.

This is unwise. Instead, pace yourself at the water. Be present. On your approach, assess and observe. Can you spot rising fish? If yes, then slow down and observe that rise: Are the fish feverishly slurping flies on the surface? Do they seem to be rising in a particular lie? Are they rising at regular intervals? 

If fish are feeding actively, chances are they are keying in on a particular hatch. Do you see anything hatching? What is it?

When you’re ready to enter the water, for heaven’s sake, do so quietly. Sound travels four times faster in water than it does in air. Tread lightly and carefully.

Read the River

The successful angler reads the river before barging in. Look closely: Do you see anything that distinguishes one section of water from a different section? In particular, you’re looking for riffles, runs, and pools. 

Riffles and runs indicate fast (or at least faster) moving water—often a great place to nymph fish. Riffles are highly oxygenated waters and are prime lies for some species like trout and smallmouth bass. You’ll know them when you see them: The water is often white as a result of air mixing with water as it runs over rocks. Riffles can be a few feet long or stretch for a hundred yards. Runs are usually much deeper than riffles and can have a slicked-out surface running behind them—especially runs that begin in front of structures like a downed tree or large rock.

Riffles and runs indicate fast (or at least faster) moving water—often a great place to nymph fish.

Riffles and runs indicate fast (or at least faster) moving water—often a great place to nymph fish.

Pools are quite different, of course, but may also hold treasure. If possible, start at the bottom of a pool and work your way up, keeping in mind that the smaller the pool the more likely you’ll be able to land just one fish before you have to move on.  

In addition to riffles, runs, and pools, look out for shade. Tragically, fish have neither sunglasses nor air conditioning. So when the day is baking, savvy fish make for shade—or rather, the cooler water underneath it. Shady water is also a great place for fish to ambush their prey, with overhanging branches regularly offering up the insect du jour throughout the day. Get the jump on the predator by taking a page out of his playbook: Head for the shade.

Don’t Wade Over Good Water

One day, while fishing with a particularly good smallmouth guide, I followed my own first two guidelines and assessed the water. Sure enough, I spotted a likely looking spot, which I pointed out to the guide. He agreed with my assessment: I’d probably find fish there. That was enough for me: I took off like a shot, my gaze fixed on the target area. 

I stopped abruptly when my guide grabbed me by the elbow. “Where’re you off to in such an all-fired hurry?” he asked. Puzzled, I pointed with my rod tip to my destination.

“Beau,” he said, smiling, “Yes, that water looks great. It’s got serious potential. My question is, Why not fish your way there? Don’t ever cross good water just to fish great water.” 

"Don’t ever cross good water just to fish great water.”

Don’t ever cross good water just to fish great water.”

Obvious, right? And yet we so often blithely wade right through perfectly good water to get to the suspected jackpot. “Let the fish tell you where they are,” my guide reminded me. “Don’t tell them where they should be or shouldn’t be. They live here; we’re just visitors. They can hang out anywhere they darn well want to along this river.” 

We caught some very good fish that day, but landing that lesson was my real prize.

Beau Beasley is an investigative conservation writer whose work appears regularly in national magazines. His latest book Healing Waters: Veterans’ Stories of Recovery in Their Own Words will be out this autumn. He is also the Director of the Virginia Fly Fishing & Wine Festival and the Texas Fly Fishing & Brew Festival.


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