Written and photographed by Dave HughesMy favorite wife and I split up to explore a long and beautiful flat on Idaho’s Selway River. The water was an excellent depth, with a bouldered bottom, and had plenty of current to deliver food for its entire 100-yard length. It looked like trout might be anywhere out there. None were rising, so we had no choice but to find them with our flies.
I took the upper end, where the current entered the flat from a riffle, and began working down it with a pair of swung wet flies. Masako started in at the lower end, and covered the water with a dryfly-and-dropper combination fished on upstream casts. About half the time trout in such situations are scattered. You catch one here and one there as you move along to cover the water. The other half they’re bunched up in a pod, and you don’t catch any until you suddenly get into a flock of them. Unfortunately for me, my wets went unattended, while excited shouting began to erupt from the lower end of the pool, and I was forced to reel up and trot down there. Masako was willing to share the pod, and soon we were both into almost constant action.
When you locate a pod of trout, it’s wise to focus your fishing on that area. When they’re gathered rather than scattered, all you’ll catch in the expanse of water surrounding the pod is a lot of frustration. The problem, more often than not, is to find the pod in the first place.
The first skill to hone, because it takes the least time and can be constantly employed even while you’re engaged in fishing, is your ability to spot rising trout. Always pause before wading in, scan the surface, look for obvious risers. If you see them, you’ve located the pod instantly; you also know that you need to get a look at whatever they’re eating, match it as closely as you can, then move into the right position before you begin casting and catching them. It’s nice when it’s as simple as that, but your fishing improves greatly when you learn to give the water more than that casual glance.
Watch for sipping rises on somewhat smooth water. Sometimes even big trout feed with such subtlety that they’re difficult to detect. Watch for less-delicate rises concealed by water that is wrinkled in a riffle or fast run. Look for rises hidden by conflicting currents bouncing through boulder gardens. I’ll confess to cheating with small binoculars. They’re handy for watching birds and other wildlife, but their main function is to reveal the sorts of rises that I might not notice with my naked eyes.
In the absence of rising trout, the second best way to locate pods is by developing your skills at reading trout water, figuring out the most likely water to hold fish. Since trout gang up in accordance with their needs, you begin to take note of water that has enough current to deliver food, has some rocks on the bottom big enough to provide shelter from that same current, and has enough depth for protection from overhead predators, including you and me.
When you approach a riffle, run, flat or pool, examine the way it’s shaped to meet those needs for food, shelter from current and protection from predators. The most likely location for a pod will be where the current is strong, the bottom bouldered, and the water deep in relation to the water surrounding it. If it’s a riffle, look for slicks on top that reveal trenches below. If it’s a run, look for protruding boulders, or boils on top that indicate the presence of boulders on the bottom. If it’s a flat, look for areas of darker water that reveal a bit of extra depth. If it’s a pool, fish first where the entering current tongue loses its urgency and begins to slow down. It will deliver the most food right at that point, and high winter flows will have eroded the greatest depths in that precise spot. Trout might be scattered in other parts of a pool, but if they pod up, that lower end of the current tongue is where they’re most likely to be.
In water that lacks rising trout and is also relatively featureless, you have no choice but to search for the pod with your flies, as Masako and I did on that Selway River flat. Choose a method that allows you to cover water thoroughly, then set up a pace that moves you through it somewhat quickly. Don’t get careless and cover the water haphazardly, but be sure to avoid what entomologist and angling author Rick Hafele has termed “rootitis.” If you stand and cast over and over in the same spot, and the trout are podded up elsewhere, you’re only out there for exercise.
To locate trout in promising but featureless water, rig with a brace of wet flies, a couple of nymphs, or a combo of nymph and small streamer that have caught a lot of trout in your past, and that therefore lend you a great deal of confidence. Step in at the upper end of the water you want to explore, then cover all of it with slow swings. Depending on the shape and speed of the currents, you might benefit from almost constant mends to put the brakes on those sunken flies. Give trout plenty of time to make up their minds that here comes something beneficial to eat. Once you’ve got the swing down, take a step before making the next cast. If the water you want to cover is long, take a long step, or even two of them. If it’s compact, shorten up your step. But never stop moving unless your flies get whacked by trout. Then you’ve found the pod, and ought to loiter around and fish over it.
You can also cover the water, searching for that pod, with dry flies, or with the standard shot-and-indicator nymph rig. If the weather is somewhat warm, the water fairly shallow and clear, and some insects are out and about, you should suspect that trout will accept dries, and try them. If the air and water are cool to cold, the water deeper and perhaps less than clear, nymphs are more likely to locate a pod of trout. A dry-and-dropper setup is excellent for searching when you’re not sure what trout might want. It lets you offer flies at two depths, giving trout a choice between them.
Whether you choose dries on the surface, nymphs on the bottom or a combination of the two, begin your fishing at the lower end of whatever water type you’re on. Cover the water with casts that start short, then reach out, eventually covering what you can comfortably from side to side. Then shift your position upstream and show your fly or flies to a new cross-section of water, a drift lane at a time. This sort of coverage, whether you start at the top end and fish down, or start at the bottom end and fish up, is not just good for finding a pod of trout. If the fish are scattered instead of podded, by covering all of the water in a disciplined fashion you’ll bump into them as you go along—and have just as satisfying a time.
If you cover the entire reach of a riffle, run, flat or pool without finding a pod of trout, don’t give up. Trout often prefer one water type at a given time and avoid others. Keep moving, but make your next exploration in a water type different from the first you fished. If you tried a riffle and failed to find enough trout to make you happy, move to a nearby run and cover it all. If you fished a flat and it seemed empty of willing fish, move upstream or down to a riffle, run or pool rather than fishing another flat.
One last note: While you search different water types, consider covering as much as you can of the vertical water column at the same time. One way (as I described earlier) is with the dry-and-dropper. In water four feet deep, use a tippet four or five feet long, and your nymph will get at least deep enough to tempt trout up to take it. You’ll be fishing the two main feeding zones: the surface and the bottom. In similar fashion, you can rig one heavy nymph and one light one, and fish them on that slow swing. One rides high, the other gets two or three feet down, showing the flies at two levels. With wets, you can rig with a point fly tied sparsely on a heavy-wire hook, and a light dropper four to six feet up the leader. Fish them upstream. Let the one sink, then lift the other to dangle near the surface. Cover the water. You’ll find trout.
When you set out to find a pod of trout and succeed, it might seem to somebody else that you’ve stumbled onto them. Finding that pod does wonders for your luck—and for theirs, too, if you choose to share—but it’s far from just being lucky.