January 27, 2022
This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Some of my biggest revelations have come from thinking outside the box. Many fly fishers are creatures of habit, returning to the same spot, trip after trip, based on previous success. Trapped in a rut, these anglers tend to rely on the same techniques and strategies to catch their trout, regardless of the conditions or the season. While this rationale may provide comfort, over time it can limit your productivity. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your tactics and the water you fish.
While most anglers tend to target the honey holes—textbook riffles and runs that get hammered by hordes of anglers—I prefer to work the little nooks and crannies that rarely get fished. I’ve caught countless trout (some in excess of 5 pounds) in the swift-flowing, highly oxygenated boulder gardens most fly fishers overlook.
Reading the Water
Pocketwater is best defined as a section of stream where boulders of all sizes (both protruding and submerged) are randomly sprinkled throughout a long riffle or run. The boulders divide the river into a series of cascades, producing deflections in the current commonly referred to as pockets. Think of each pocket as a miniature pool.
Some fly fishers avoid pocketwater because the difficult wading and repetitious casting required by the fast water is hard work. At the end of the day, the extra effort is worth it: In most cases, the more difficult the terrain, the better the fishing.
Reading the water is one of the greatest challenges to successful pocketwater fishing. Don’t let the faster currents and whitewater intimidate you. Simply break the river into small sections and cast to all the likely spots that provide a current break or offer seams between fast and slower moving water.
Typical holding areas are in front of, to the side of, and a couple of feet behind each boulder. Other candidates include the inside edges of either fast/slow or rock-created seams. Trout prefer these lies because seams channel a steady food supply.
I avoid fishing the swirling reverse current directly behind the boulders because it is too unpredictable for trout to hold in, and it’s difficult to get a good drift. To fish the water behind a boulder properly, cast 2 to 3 feet downstream to avoid getting trapped in the reverse current.
Trout often hold toward the end of the boulder pocket. These feeding lanes require less energy due to additional rocks slowing the pace of the current. These pockets also occur close to the bank, creating holding areas that are excellent for terrestrials and dry-dropper rigs.
Where several boulders gather to form a boulder garden, you’ll find a cosmic array of complex currents. Each seam becomes a tiny buffet line for trout, and these slots are excellent areas to find big fish with nymphs or large dry flies such as Stimulators, Parachute Adams, and Humpys.
Cover the water methodically by hopscotching upstream from pocket to pocket. Fish one pocket, then wade into it and fish the next pocket, repeating the process as you move upriver. With this strategy, you’re in the fast water only when moving between pockets, and often standing in the softer pocket you just finished fishing.
Between November and March, most anglers target traditional wintering holes, where transitional zones funnel into deep runs and pools. But there are still ample opportunities in pocketwater, especially if you tweak your tactics to match the winter conditions.
With diminished hatches and trout sustaining their lowest metabolism of the year, focus on deeper pockets, slower slots, tailouts, and plunge pools. Large trout still hold in pocketwater during the winter months due to the lack of fishing pressure there.
Tailwaters are your best pocketwater options through the winter months, as they rarely freeze in the first few miles below the dam. In Colorado, tailwaters such as the Frying Pan, Taylor, Blue, and South Platte rivers are reliable winter fisheries. The Green (Utah), North Platte (Wyoming), Bighorn (Montana), and others also remain free-flowing through the winter and have productive pocketwater sections.
Winter tailwater flies should include tiny midge patterns: #20-24 Mercury Black Beauties, Pure Midge Larvae, Mercury Midges, Mercury Blood Midges, Jujubee Midges, and Rojo Midges.
I have had surprisingly good success in pocketwater during the initial phases of spring runoff. Don’t let the high, roiling water intimidate you—there is still good fishing out there.
High spring flows push the fish toward the edges of the stream, where they seek shelter from the swift current near the center. The off-color water is often advantageous because the trout are less wary, and less critical of your fly pattern.
Under these conditions, fish large flies tight along shoreline pockets with 3X tippet. Chamois Leeches, chartreuse egg patterns, and pink San Juan Worms are good flies. Dark flies such as string leeches and Woolly Buggers present strong silhouettes in dirty water and are also top producers.
The most productive pocketwater fishing occurs during late spring and midsummer (after runoff), through autumn. Starting in mid-July, water temperatures begin escalating and when oxygen levels plummet in the slower runs and pools, trout concentrate in pocketwater areas where they find increased oxygen and better feeding opportunities.
Strong hatches of Blue-winged Olives, Pale Morning Duns, Green Drakes, caddis, stoneflies (Pteronarcys, Golden Stoneflies, and Yellow Sallies), Red Quills, and terrestrials provide steady food sources for opportunistic trout. Effective nymphs include #18-20 Beadhead Pheasant Tails, #16-20 Barr’s Emergers, #14-18 Beadhead Breadcrusts, and #10-14 Barr’s Tungstones.
During high summer spates, scouring flows dislodge larger food organisms such as aquatic worms, scuds, and crane flies. Use #14 San Juan Worms (tan and red), #12-16 UV Scuds (orange and olive), and #10 Barr’s Crane Fly Larvae.
Pocketwater trout also rise eagerly to drys during spring and summer hatches—sometimes even when nothing is hatching. Choice patterns include: #18 Barr’s Graphic Caddis, #16 Elk-hair Caddis, #14-16 Puterbaugh Caddis, #14-16 yellow Stimulators, #16 Red Quills, #10 Amy’s Ants, #10 BC Hoppers, #14 ants and beetles, and attractors such as Royal Wulffs, Renegades, and #12-16 Humpys.
Short-Line Nymphing in Pocketwater
Although pocketwater trout eat dry flies and dead-drifted or short-twitch streamers, short-line nymphing is the most dependable strategy. Roll-cast your flies upstream at a 45-degree angle, and immediately lift all the fly line (and the butt end of the leader) off the water to prevent drag.
Carefully manage the fly line from behind your casting hand index finger by stripping the fly line with your opposite hand. With this approach, your strike indicator is doing the fishing, allowing your nymphs to drift like helpless naturals in the current.
It is important to have your strike indicator properly adjusted, keeping it at one and a half to two times the depth of the water. Faster water generally requires a longer leader.
Weight is another important consideration. Add enough split-shot, moldable tungsten putty, or other weight to make your nymphs occasionally tap the bottom. Make repeated casts, covering the water with a gridlike approach.
The first drift through each current break is often your best bet to hit a fish. I make about a dozen casts in each pocket before moving on.
Detecting Strikes in Pocketwater
A third of your strikes will go completely undetected if you rely solely on your strike indicator. There is a direct correlation between the speed of the river and how quickly you’ll detect the take. In fast currents, the leader tightens on the fish quickly, causing the strike indicator to sink abruptly. In slower currents, the process is delayed, and in many cases you’ll never know you had a strike.
Expert anglers watch both the strike indicator and what goes on under the strike indicator, looking for any movements, flashes, or opening mouths. If you see any of these, set the hook immediately. In pocketwater you can’t normally sight-fish in the traditional sense, but the fish sometimes give themselves away when they strike.
Toward the end of the drift, allow your flies to swing up in the current, imitating emerging mayflies and caddis. I use a “position set” and set the hook after each swing, just in case a trout has eaten my fly undetected. The hook-set should be a firm stroke, with a short range of motion. Set the hook back into the trout’s jaw (downriver) to ensure a good hook-up.
European Nymphing in Pocketwater
Czech or Polish nymphing, an offshoot of short-line or high-stick nymphing that is often called European nymphing (or simply euro nymphing), is rapidly gaining popularity in the U.S. as an effective method of catching trout in moderately paced riffled currents and pocketwater.
The main emphasis is to avoid using all forms of external weight such as split-shot and tungsten putty (the flies are the weight) and strike indicators, while at the same time imitating swimming bugs.
Czech nymphing uses scud and caddis nymphs with tungsten beads and lead-wrapped underbodies in a two- or three-fly nymphing rig. Czech nymphs are tied slim, and as heavy as possible, which helps the flies sink quickly in fast water. Flies with bushy hackle and other appendages such as rubber legs do not sink as fast. Polish nymphs are similar, but they have woven bodies with lead-wrapped shanks and tungsten beads. These flies usually imitate cased and free-living caddis, craneflies, stoneflies, and scuds.
The typical setup is 3 to 4 feet of 10- to 15-pound monofilament, joined with three 20-inch sections of 3X, 4X, and 5X connected together with double or triple surgeon’s knots. For flies smaller than #18, use 4X, 5X, and 6X tippet sections. The butt section is often red or chartreuse Amnesia to assist in strike detection.
You can also buy specialty leaders such as Andy Burk’s Czech Nymph Leader (Umpqua Feather Merchants) or Moffitt System Contact Leaders.
Cast upstream at a 45-degree angle, allow the flies to sink, and immediately lift all the fly line off the water. The rod should be an extension of your arm, holding the rod tip parallel to the surface. The biggest difference between short-line nymphing and the Czech or Polish approach is that you pull the fly line slightly faster than the current. You want to move the rod tip fast enough to keep a tight line, while also letting the flies roll or bounce along the stream bottom.
Create positive tension (a tight line) by pulling the flies downstream, allowing you to feel the strike, as opposed to seeing it with a strike indicator or watching for any type of hesitation where the leader enters the river. The hook-set should be quick and firm, with a short range of motion.
If you are constantly snagging bottom, your nymphs are too heavy, and you need to switch to flies. Carry flies with different sizes of beads and underbodies to achieve different sink rates.
Fishing Dry-Droppers in Pocketwater
As runoff subsides and low summer flows settle in, dry-dropper rigs become effective tools in places that are now too shallow for traditional nymphing techniques.
With this approach, your dry fly acts as the strike indicator, and your nymph is tied off the bend of the hook with 18 to 24 inches of tippet. Some anglers opt to fish two nymphs, but in many cases, the second fly is more trouble than it’s worth. This technique is possibly the most effective way to fish pocketwater, and positively the most entertaining.
Choose your dry/indicator fly based on the prevailing hatch. For instance, if Yellow Sallies are hatching, use a yellow Stimulator; if caddis are hatching, an Elk-hair Caddis. Use a similar approach for selecting your droppers.
Let’s face it, our days of complete solitude on Western tailwaters are over, but you can find quiet little runs and riffles you can have to yourself on almost any popular river by breaking out of your rut and finding less pressured pocketwater.
If you’re an aggressive wader, you might want to purchase a collapsible wading staff. This allows you to negotiate heavy currents and wade upstream with confidence. I also recommend wading shoes with Vibram rubber soles and tungsten-carbide studs to increase your stability and safety. Pocketwater fishing demands only short casts, but you often need to lift and hold line off the water. Longer rods (9 to 10 feet) help with this. A 5-weight is adequate on most Western rivers, and on smaller waters you can often get away with a 4-weight. Use 9-foot leaders with 2-foot fluorocarbon tippets terminating in 5X and 6X.
Pat Dorsey is the southwest field editor for Fly Fisherman and author of Fly Fishing Tailwaters (Stackpole Books, 2009).