Picking Your Targets in Low Water
At some point in time, low water conditions become a reality for all of us. We can decide to hang up our waders until the next rainfall, or we can embrace the challenge, and develop into better (more patient) anglers. Just as with other aspects of life, the best lessons arise from challenging circumstances. While I have learned numerous lessons fishing ideal water conditions, the most memorable lessons came when fishing was far from ideal. And recent conditions have created a steep learning curve for me.
For example, many of the normal prime spots in a stream become too low to hold larger trout, forcing a migration into the deeper pools. This is normal trout behavior anywhere, but I’m amazed to see how few anglers target these pools, knowing larger trout are present. And when they do fish these pools, they move fast and try to cover all the water. For years I took on the same behavior (i.e. move fast and target all the water) until I spent enough time getting skunked in slow moving water.
Trout holding in pools, during low water conditions, are on high alert and any disturbance is going to put these fish down for a while. Disturbances like getting your nymph stuck and trying to pop it off the bottom, a poorly presented cast, or hooking a smaller fish which causes commotion during the fight-sending a warning alarm to the larger resident trout.
Long story short, we’re going to make commotion no matter what we do, which means we’re going to spook fish no matter how careful we are. For example, we can make a great dry fly presentation to the bank (without spooking a fish). Our drift presentation goes unnoticed, then we attempt to quietly lift the line off the water - a small sound is made as the line rips off the water, and suddenly the fish of the day spooks into the depths. We only had one shot in that area, and now that portion of the stream is shot for the next hour. This is the point of this article-we often only get one shot before spooking the resident fish in low water, so we need to identify the most likely holding areas before making our presentation.
This is not a shotgun approach! Instead this is more like a sniper stalk, where you only have one shot. For example, there’s one pool I’ve recently been fishing that I’ve taken some of my largest trout from this summer. The pool is approximately 100 yards long but there’s only five spots along the bank that offers the cover/protection that larger trout need. For years I would just fish all the water in this pool (aka shotgun approach) whiling working small grids. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for working all the water, but I feel low water is not the time. I would catch some smaller to decent sized fish, but rarely would I land larger trout. That was until I decided to target only the handful of areas I’ve seen larger trout spook from, during my frothing of the water. Instead, I would walk along the banks of the pool and pick the top 4 or 5 targets.
Then I used a careful wading approach into the first target area. By “careful” I may mean taking 3-5 minutes. This is so important because you need to be in the best position to make a great first cast. Rarely are there second chances with these conditions, we need a similar mindset of sniper, who only has one chance to make the shot.
After getting into position, take an additional minute or two to let the water around you calm down. We’re going to make some commotion-no matter how careful we are, and trout will tense up when this happens. Take a few minutes to let the fish relax after you get into position, and then make your perfect presentation. If the fish doesn’t take on the first several casts, then I would advise moving to the next target. This may mean painstakingly taking another 3-5 minutes to move only 20 yards upstream. In this 100 yard long pool, it may take me 25-30 minutes to make only 10-12 casts (in the entire reach). When fishing slow pools in low water, I feel strongly that we need to spend more time getting into the perfect casting position than actually making casts. This requires patience-a trait that I’m only now slowing beginning to develop. This mindset also requires accepting the fact that our rate of success is small, despite the fact knowing we’re going to put a lot of effort into our approach. However, sometimes these risks we take pay off “big time.” Patience has yielded me some of my best low water trout, and I know it will do the same for you-choose your targets wisely. Good Fishing!