Fly Fishing Ledges and Edges
September 29, 2014
"Landon and I arrived at the river on a crystal-clear September day, hoping to spend some time together before the busy season. The flows were awful, and after landing a few juvenile trout in two hours, I decided that it was going to be one of those days where you just consider it a success that you didn't get skunked.
For the next 20 minutes I hit the far side of the run with a Fat Albert, but with no results. With the sun almost directly overhead, and a thin strip of shady water along about 120 feet of bank, I decided to systematically cover every inch of the edge with my hopper—just to know I did everything I could.
I began steeple casting high over the bank and walking upstream at the same time. Picking up and laying down, I entertained myself by hitting the edge within 2 inches of the bank, but because of the current seam, I could only get a perfect drift for a few inches before I had to pick up and cast again.
Toward the end of the run there is a log jammed into the bank that has been there since at least 2003. As I approached the spot, I remember thinking that if there was one decent fish in this run, this is where it would be. Before I could complete that thought, a huge brown trout appeared from under the ledge deep beneath the log, and delicately inhaled my hopper. Now I really love fishing hoppers along the edges during late summer!" – Michelle Mayer
If you play the stock market you are likely familiar with the term "hedge your bets," and all fishing is a gamble of sorts, because there are never guaranteed results. I teach fly fishers to "edge their bets" by concentrating on fly fishing ledges and edges that trout use for shelter and for feeding. It is possible, although rare, to find fish holding in open water, but you'll earn higher dividends fishing depressions in the river bottom, shadow lines, near undercut banks, and in current seams that create edges.
Flows also have a great deal to do with edgy holding water. When flows are low, the edges become critical for trout to avoid predators, so look for secure spots created by deep midstream gravel bars, shady banks, and any water with broken riffles overhead.
High water forces large trout into different edges as they seek refuge from the current, and easier spots to feed—normally along the broken edges and seams along the riverbank created by fallen logs, boulders, and sod clumps.
When you're fishing bankside structure, fly presentation is more important than fly selection. You need a great drift without a snag, and in terms of casting, you'll need to work on your short game and your long game.
Like a soldier learning how to crawl, hunting trout on the river's edge requires the discipline to perform from a crouched or kneeling position. If you have some room to work, and can deliver the fly from three or more rod lengths away, a crouched position is fine, but to get truly accurate you may have to drop to one knee.
I always encourage clients to remain on one knee, not two, because it's easier to move forward a few feet at a time, it's more comfortable, gives you a better base for casting, and it prevents you from losing your balance when you rise to a standing position.
The best way to cover ground on the river (usually) is to move upstream from one sheltered trout lie to the next. This keeps you in the trout's blind spot, and there are fewer line management headaches than when casting across the river.
There are two productive casts I use from a low, crouched or kneeling position. First is the curve cast, which I sometimes call a kickback cast.
The easiest version is for right-handed casters with the riverbank on the left. By simply tilting the rod toward the center of the river during the forward cast, and sweeping the rod in a sidearm motion, you can abruptly stop the forward stroke and curve the line tip and leader to the left to get your flies right in front of bankside trout.
This into-the-bank curve cast is very helpful when using light rigs like drys, or dry-dropper rigs, and the trout are in front of obstructions like sod clumps or logs.
I find myself using these lighter rigs on bankside trout because the water along the edge is often shallow, but in deep slots or short protected drifts, it can be important to get the flies down quickly.
With weighted rigs I often use a pick-up-and-lay-down cast. This simple technique prevents snags, tangles, and is fairly accurate with a minimum effort.
With the rod tip directly in front of you, lift the rod to 12 o'clock with smooth acceleration, and come to an abrupt stop. Pause briefly, and then accelerate the rod tip downward in a vertical plane with your elbow at your side.
I refer to this single-stroke delivery as "hammering the nail" and it helps you measure just the right amount of line without all the false casting that could result in tangles with weighted nymph rigs. The forceful downward motion drives the flies at the water so they aren't influenced by wind, and they sink quickly.
Without question the biggest headache associated with bank busting is shoreline snags. You can limit these with accurate casting and meticulous line control. Think short, and use only the line you are going to cast—the rest stays on the reel.
Another thing you can do is use a weedguard. Fly fishers use them all the time on bonefish flats and on bass poppers and divers, why not on trout flies as well? Yeager's Point Guard Hopper and Yeager's Point Guard Beetle both use a two-prong weedguard to prevent the hook from getting snagged on grass and branches if your cast is off by a few inches.
Comparable to the ultimate man cave with beer and snacks, large trout love the safety of hiding and feeding inside undercut banks.
I always take the time to scan these hiding spots, attempting to see a trout feeding right on the edge of the undercut. Look for movement that might give the trout away, such as the fish's tail when it swings out to eat. Once you decide to deliver the mail, look at the composition of the bank. Rocks, sticks, and vegetation can all be potential snags, so make an imaginary drift along the river's current looking for the best presentation and snag-free drift.
I like using streamers to get at trout in undercuts, but it is almost impossible to use a conventional cast-and-strip retrieve—instead, you want to swing to success.
Start by casting upstream, above the undercut at a 45-degree angle with the imitation landing as close to the bank as possible. Add a downstream mend using slack line from your hands—this is the excess line that allows you to extend your swing into the undercut. If you get good at this, you can swing your flies 2 or 3 feet back into the undercut. Take a step down and repeat the cast to cover the length of the undercut.
When the sun is high and penetrating, trout seek shelter, either in deep water, under the shelter of bumpy riffles, or in and along the shadows.
And because the shadowy edge water is often shallower and slower, shadows are often your lifeline to dry-fly fishing on sunny, bluebird days.
By simply taking the time to investigate every shadow along the river's edge, you can find rising trout that other fly fishers miss.
Never take the size of the shadow for granted. The trout don't care how big the shadow is. Some of the largest trout I have seen feeding on the shadow edge, like my wife Michelle's brown at the beginning of the article, use the smallest shadows to camouflage their presence. Often, they aren't deep in the shadows; they prefer to hover near the shadow edge.
One of the biggest challenges of fishing along shadow lines is potentially missing the take. There's a reason trout hide there—it impairs the vision of potential predators like yourself. This means it's difficult to see the fish, and often difficult to see your fly, because your eyes have adjusted to bright sun while the fly is in relative darkness.
You can often see better if you stay in the shadows yourself, and use the shade to mask your movements. Sometimes, however, you just can't see your fly and you'll have to listen for the take.
When trout consume a meal from the surface they lift, open their gills, and suck water (and food) into their mouths. On large trout especially, you can often hear a suction sound that lets you know when to set the hook. It takes some luck and some practice, but sometimes it's all you've got.
The time of year and the weather can play huge roles in the importance of shadows. In the middle of summer when the sun is high, afternoon shadows are smaller yet potentially more important. In the spring and fall, both the weather and water are cooler, the sun is lower in the sky, and there is so much more shadow water it becomes less vital.
On cloudy, stormy days, the entire river may be in shadow as well, eliminating specific shadow edges. But dark, overcast days highlight the importance of lighting, as often every trout in the river becomes more aggressive, and less shy, with the security of dark clouds, wind, or rain.
Many people associate fly fishing ledges with a big drop-off below a riffle at the head of a run. These are great locations for trout to hold. They have access to food coming in from above, and the shelf gives protection from the current so they don't have to expend unnecessary energy.
The problem is that these features receive heavy angling pressure, and on busy rivers they are often occupied by other anglers. Even if you can take a turn, the fish are often wary and picked over.
I look for similar but smaller and less noticeable features whenever I move along a river. These scouting missions are particularly informative when the river levels are low.
Little depressions, pockets, or washed-out holes on the edges or out in the middle of the river provide inconspicuous feeding lies many other fly fishers walk past.
These in-between spots provide the same feeding opportunities for trout, even if the "drop" off the ledge is only 12 inches. More important, it's easier for you to get your flies to the trout than if the ledge is above a 12-foot-deep hole.
The easiest way to spot these smaller, subtle feeding zones is color change. Look for a darker shade of blue or green than the surrounding water. Again, I prefer to approach from below if the lay of the land permits it.
Trout feeding in gravel depressions are often nymphing, so I use a nymph rig with a Thingamabobber, one or two flies, and a variable number of split-shot. I use a translucent, glow-in-the-dark Thingamabobber because it's unobtrusive—it looks like a bubble or clump of foam floating downriver. It's also easy to quickly move the indicator up and down my leader, a key to fishing mini depressions and pockets, which are often only 2 or 3 feet deep (or less).
These are just a few ideas on where to look for trout along the edges, and how to catch them. Trout are constantly changing and adapting to environmental conditions, so there are no hard-and-fast rules. A walk along the river is just another opportunity to open new windows into the world of the trout we hunt.