Understanding Trout Rise Forms
March 05, 2018
The part of each rise visible above the surface can be a swirl, a splash, a complete jump into the air, a gulp, a wink in the surface, or just a subtle head poking into the film. Nearly all of them operate by the same biological and physical properties—a trout opening its jaws with the resulting vacuum sucking in a bug, water, and often air.
Rise forms have been studied and characterized over the years, as chronicled in a book titled The Rise by my friend Paul Schullery, in my opinion fly fishing's leading historian. I'm reluctant to give all of these rises names, and I hope you don't try to memorize them or make them part of your lexicon. I just think separating trout rises out into different types will help you recognize what a trout is doing when it leaves a signature on the surface.
Watching rises is, I think, one of the compelling draws of fishing to hatches. By understanding what is going on, I think you'll have a greater appreciation for the amazing adaptation these creatures have for a form of predation that seems gentle but is just as deadly as an orca savaging a penguin.
Let's look more closely at each of these types of rises to see what kind of clues they offer—but I'll warn you they may not be what you expect.
The following is an excerpt from The Orvis Guide to Hatch Strategies by Tom Rosenbauer (Universe Publishing, 2017).
The Classic Rise
You can see this brown trout clearly taking an insect from the surface. As the fish submerges, you can see the bubble just released from its gill plates. The large bubble stays on the surface for a few moments. All of this sequence happens so quickly that your brain will usually register only the rise form and the bubble. Tom Rosenbauer photo
This is the rise you see most often depicted and talked about, with the trout's head poking above the surface, often followed by its dorsal fin and a wag of the tail. The rise form itself is followed up by one or more relatively large bubbles. You'll hear a lot about this type of rise as being a "large mayfly rise," as opposed to a "caddis rise," which is supposed to be more splashy and hurried. But I'm sorry to tell you this type of rise tells you absolutely nothing about what kind of food a trout has eaten. I have seen trout rising to large and tiny mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, grasshoppers, midges, ants, and cigarette butts using this kind of rise.
As a matter of fact, none of the rise forms I'm about to discuss will tell you much about what kind of food a fish has eaten. They will actually tell you more about where the fish is lying in between rises and how abundant the food supply is.
So what exactly does this kind of trout rise tell the fly angler? It tells you that the fish took a fly off the surface of the water, or a fly hanging in the surface film, because when a fish pokes its nose above the surface film, it takes in air that later gets expelled out behind the gill plates. It also tells you that the fish was either suspended a foot or so below the surface before it ate, or that it was lying close to the bottom in relatively shallow water.
If the fish had been deeper in the water, it would have produced a splashier or more violent rise. The fact that the fish was either in shallow water or suspended tells you it did not just come across a single insect by happenstance, rushing the insect from a position close to cover or in deep water. This fish is in position to feed regularly, has been there for a while, and will probably stay there until you spook it, hook it, or the food supply diminishes.
That's about all you can tell from this rise, but knowing that you have a feeding trout that is not disturbed is an opportunity not to be missed.
The Surface Swirl
In this rise, you will not see the head of the trout break the surface. Sometimes this kind of rise has no bubbles at all associated with it, but I have also seen trout rising to subsurface food where the rise did produce bubbles, which are caused by a relatively violent rise where the waves caused by the fish moving subsurface actually form a tiny wave that breaks at the surface. The key here is that those bubbles are typically smaller than the bigger bubbles formed by a trout expelling air behind its gills.
This kind of rise happens when a trout eats an insect anywhere from a half inch to almost two feet below the surface. It is deceptive, because trout sometimes concentrate on subsurface insects and are totally uninterested in food at the surface. You can pound a dry fly over this kind of rise and have either no strikes, some refusals, or occasionally hook a trout. But the best plan is fishing an unweighted nymph, a soft hackle, or an emerger that has not been treated with any fly floatant. Any fly that sits in the surface film or rides on top of it plays against the odds.
Even when sitting directly on top of feeding fish, as I have often done when shooting photos of risers from a blind, it is almost impossible to observe what a trout is eating. So most of my clues to the swirling rise have actually been when fishing nymphs close to the surface or swinging wet flies.
For instance, once I was fishing over a pod of trout on a small tailwater in Colorado and I was having problems catching trout with my dries and emergers, even though I thought I had a pretty good match to the small olive mayflies they were eating. I had tried different patterns, a lighter tippet, changing positions—all with no luck. I had a small Pheasant Tail nymph on my fly patch so I decided to try that out of desperation.
Sure enough, in a couple casts I had a couple fish. No big surprise there, except that when those trout ate my nymph six inches below the surface, they made exactly the same kind of rise form I had observed. And when I finally came to my senses and stopped seeing what I wanted to see (trout eating dry flies), I took a close look at those rises and realized they produced few bubbles and all of them were about the size you'd find in a bottle of carbonated water—not bubble-blowing-sized bubbles.
Thus, when you see this kind of rise, you can try throwing your dries and floating emergers and you might interest a fish. But if all of the rises look like this, you'll be much better off with an unweighted or lightly weighted nymph, or swinging a wet fly or soft hackle over them. Some hatching insects will drift in midwater or close to the surface for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour before most of them attempt to pierce the surface film. So typically after an hour or less the insects start to actually break the surface and fish rise in a more surface-oriented manner.
Sipping Rises and Head Pokes
Sipping rises and head pokes are often found together, with one fish making a sipping rise and the one next to it doing a head poke, or the same fish actually rising with both types in a given feeding period. A sipping rise is a concentric, unhurried rise with no splash and often no bubbles. Even in flat water a sipping rise can be hard to spot, and in poor light conditions or in riffled water you often need to be within 30 feet of the fish to even know it is there. This kind of rise typically indicates insects size 18 and smaller and happens when a trout barely pokes the tip of its snout into the surface film, just enough to induce a tiny bit of cavitation to draw a small insect into its mouth. The head poke is merely a variation of this behavior where you actually see the snout break the surface.There are times when glare is your friend. In flat light, you can sometimes spot rises easier when you take off your polarized sunglasses and let glare create some contrast on the surface. Tom Rosenbauer photo
I think trout can make a sipping rise to an insect on the surface, pinned in the surface film, or just below the surface. I don't think you can tell what kind of an insect it is or even its position in relation to the surface film. These insects are so small in comparison to a trout's snout that a trout could take a midge adult on the surface, a tiny caddis pupa in the surface film, and an emerging mayfly just below the surface in the same gulp. It seems that even if a trout takes an insect on the surface with this type of rise, so little air goes into a trout's mouth cavity that bubbles are nonexistent or hard to discern. In my experience, it's not possible to figure out if a sipping rise is to an emerging mayfly, a fully emerged mayfly dun, a mayfly spinner, a spent caddis, an ant or beetle, or a midge pupa. They all look the same. What you can determine from this kind of rise is:
- The prey item is probably a size 18 or smaller. With bigger insects, more of the head pokes above the surface and there is usually a bubble or two behind the rise.
- The trout is either lying in shallow water or is suspended just below the surface in deeper water. Trout can't rise through two feet of water and sip. They have to be already lying in place very close to the surface.
- The fish will continue to rise until the food is gone or you spook it. Trout don't position themselves just under the surface unless food is abundant. They waste too much energy for no gain if no food is present, and they also expose themselves to predators, which is only worth the risk to them if food is readily available.
How to Spot Sipping Rises
Finding a bunch of trout rising in a sipping manner is one of the greatest discoveries on a trout stream. Fish eating small insects must eat a lot of them to be satisfied, so rises are often steady and frequent. A casual stroll along the bank often misses this kind of rise without the aid of binoculars or extremely careful observation. Drift boats often twirl right down the bank without giving a second glance, as the occupants are too busy watching strike indicators or pounding streamers to the bank. Because these rises don't move much water and very little disturbance happens above the surface, seeing sipping rises on the far bank of a 75-foot-wide pool is difficult. You really have to get into the water and get close to the fish to see them.
The most common place to find sipping rises is slower water at the edge of fast current, or in back eddies where fast water swirls back around and slows. Fish will also sip in riffled water, though, where spotting them is even more difficult. But it is well worth the effort; fish in riffled water feed more often because the faster current brings them insects with increased velocity, and fish are less spooky when the surface of the water is broken. Here are some tips for spotting sipping trout:
- Look for dark triangular shapes that pop up and disappear, especially in riffles. The rings these risers make are completely concealed by the broken water, and about all you can see is a brief glimpse of a trout's head. Often you think you just imagined seeing a head pop up. Trust your instincts. If you think you see a head, stay put and stare at the same area for five minutes or more. The fish may show again, and waiting and watching may also confirm the existence of other trout even closer to your position, trout you would have spooked if you had gone right to the first fish you saw.
- Watch the foam lines. Foam lines carry food, and a subtle rise is often spotted when the drifting foam parts for no apparent reason. Depending on your angle in relation to the fish, you might not even see its head break the surface, but you may see it push foam aside.
- If you are looking downstream, look for white winks in the water. When a trout sips, you may see the white of its mouth as it opens up to inhale an insect.
- Try looking at the suspected position of a trout with and without your polarized sunglasses on. Sometimes glare helps you spot a wrinkle in the surface made by a sipping trout. Glare is especially helpful in spotting rising trout on dark gloomy days or in the evening as light fades, so don't just blindly keep those sunglasses on when conditions don't call for them.
- In riffles, I often spot trout by a subtle wink of color in the water. Browns and cutthroats show a flash of brown, yellow, or tan in the water when their heads break the surface. Rainbows and brook trout are typically a green or blue or gray shade.
- If you see a place where you suspect fish are feeding, spend time watching the water and looking for irregularities in the current flow. It's truly amazing how close you can be to a big trout making a sipping rise; sometimes trusting your instincts when you see something just a bit different will point it out. But this takes patience because in order to pick up an irregularity you need to spend time developing an image for what is regular.
Sideways and Backward Rises
When a trout rises in what we envision as the classic manner—where it tips up and inhales an insect, eating only those that drift directly above its head—the rise form takes on an elliptical shape that is relatively symmetrical. With smaller insects like midges or tiny mayflies, if the current is uniform that rise form becomes more circular. Unlike the classic rise—where the trout's head, dorsal fin, and sometimes tail break the surface—when only the trout's snout breaks the surface the rise is more circular, especially in slower water.
Sometimes you'll see a rise form—it can be any of the above types—where there is a strong push to one side. This indicates a trout that has moved to one side or the other to take an insect, one not directly in its feeding lane. You often see it when a trout is steadily feeding on one type of insect, perhaps a small mayfly, but suddenly spots something that induces it to move out of its lane to feed. It might be a mayfly that flutters more than others and catches the trout's attention, or it could be bigger prey that it recognizes, like a larger mayfly, grasshopper, large stonefly, or beetle.
You may also see a rise with a dominant downstream push. I find that rainbows in fast water often don't have time to intercept a fly and only spot it when it is directly overhead, thus they turn around and take the fly by rising in a downstream direction. Observing trout for hours in the stream in my backyard, I've come to realize that turning around and rising downstream is more common than we suspect.
There is not much strategy to glean from observing this type of rise because it's often combined with traditional upstream rises, but if you do see a fish rising like this, you should be cautious if approaching it from downstream. The other day I found a large brown trout rising in slow water at the tail of a pool. It was the largest trout I had seen rising in this small stream all year. I carefully approached the tail of the pool from below, really the only option in this narrow stream, and had just prepared to cast when the fish decided to chase an insect downstream. I found myself busted, eye to eye with the fish, which of course bolted for deep water because it had me right in its sights.
The clue you get from this kind of rise is that this fish may be inclined to take something other than the dominant food form, which comes in handy when you can't seem to imitate whatever the trout is eating. For instance, a trout might be feeding steadily on tiny mayfly spinners like Tricos, but you don't have a fly that is small enough. Or perhaps there are so many natural insects that you can't get a trout to notice your fly.
If you see a rise form that pushes hard to one side, this could be a tip that an ant or beetle imitation plopped off to one side of the trout might get a strike when your standard imitations aren't working. In fact, this is often a trick I use whenever trout are making me crazy, refusing my flies or pushing my flies with their noses without inhaling. An ant or beetle or even a big foam dry fly can sometimes do the trick. It's only worth a couple casts though. The fish will absolutely notice the bigger fly and will either ignore it or rush to eat it. The strategy also has the advantage of allowing you to cast off to one side of the fish so you avoid spooking it.
A fish rising to one side or backward can also mean it is interested in what is hatching but there just aren't enough flies in its feeding lane to satisfy it. The advantage here is the same—you can cast off to one side without putting your leader directly over the fish with the chance that you'll spook it. And it can mean that the fish is cruising, which we'll examine next.
This brown trout, lying deep in the water, captures a small mayfly using cavitation. Because of its momentum, the rise produces a small peak instead of a classic circular rise. Someone looking at this would call it a "caddis rise" with its explosive nature, but there are no caddisflies in this spring creek. The rise form evolved in this way merely because the fish was deeper in the water column. Tom Rosenbauer photo
In the middle of an extremely heavy hatch, where a half-dozen insects cover every square inch of the water, some trout begin what is known as gulping, which is exactly what the name sounds like. In fact, that is often the aural manifestation of the behavior as well. Fish keep their heads above water and gulp from two to a half-dozen insects without ever submerging their heads. This usually happens with tiny mayfly spinners or midges. On the Missouri River in Montana at the height of a heavy fall of Trico mayfly spinners, a pod of gulping rainbow trout looks just like a riffle from a distance until you realize there is no wind and it is happening in completely smooth water. As you get closer, the heads continuously bobbing up and down make the fish look like they are bouncing on miniature trampolines just under the surface.
If you keep your eye on a single fish, you'll see there is a pause between each series of gulps, as trout have what biologists call "handling time" when the insects are forced from a trout's throat into its esophagus. A trout does this by opening its jaws and opercula (gill covers) and can't eat something at the same time. Rather than blindly "flock shooting" a pod of gulping trout, it's best to observe an individual trout, determine when it has paused, and then either cast your fly right before you suspect it will feed again, or wait until it rises once and then quickly pitch your fly right in front of the fish.
Jumping rises are the ones often portrayed on old gas station calendars and tacky trout art. They are not very common and are often more frustrating than valuable. A single jumping rise, with no follow-up activity of any kind, is one that is typically ignored by experienced anglers, who admire the spectacle but then shake their heads wondering what possessed that fish to clear the water. Sometimes I believe it may be a trout chasing a baitfish or perhaps even a jet-propelled larva like a damselfly or dragonfly nymph. Over the years I've been so frustrated by the single jumping rise that I don't even bother to fish to them.
Shawn Combs and I were floating the Delaware River once with our friend Joe Kraus, who had never fished that river. In fact, he's a small-stream expert and nearly all of his fishing has been in the mountain streams of New England. We were floating in Shawn's drift boat and had approached a pod of sipping trout when a fish about 60 feet upstream made a leaping rise. "Should I fish for that one?" Joe asked. Neither Shawn nor I had even considered worrying about that fish. He's had similar luck with them.
When you see a trout repeatedly jumping and clearing the water, or more than one fish exhibiting the same behavior, you have a better opportunity. Fish doing this are either trying to catch insects hovering just above the surface or dashing after insects skating across the surface. Fish trying to catch insects out of the air take the flies on their way up; fish tracking an insect buzzing across the surface usually take their prey on the way down, after they've cleared the water.
It's usually small trout that exhibit this behavior. They're more eager and less efficient than older, wiser fish. A 20-inch trout seems to have learned over time that trying to catch a caddisfly hovering six inches above the surface is not worth the energy. But occasionally, especially when large stoneflies scuttle across the surface, you'll see a much larger trout clear the water in pursuit. It's quite a spectacle.
When you see this type of rise, it's often caddisflies, as those bugs are very active on the surface. But I've also seen trout leaping for adult stoneflies, craneflies, damselflies, and even midges. Why a trout would spend the energy to clear the water and catch a size 22 adult midge puzzles me, but I've seen it often enough not to question it too much.
Sometimes It's All Mixed Up
During most hatches you'll see different types of rises in the same group of fish. Fish do have distinct personalities. They're not clones eating with the same degree of enthusiasm or body language or strategy. To further complicate the matter, each fish lies in a distinct set of currents that may cause its rise form to look different than a fish just a few feet away. You may even see the same fish rising with different rise forms during the hatch. This could mean that the fish has changed its preference, it is eating a variety of insects, it has moved into a slightly different set of currents, or even that it is just not particular at all about what insect or what stage of the insect it eats.
Mark Raisler, legendary fly shop owner and guide on the Missouri River, advises his clients with about the most succinct statement on fishing hatches I have ever heard: "Treat each feeding fish like you would a small-business plan." It's sometimes effective to use the same fly and technique throughout a hatch, fishing without adjustment to each trout you spot feeding. But your success rate will increase if you stop, observe, and strategize before making a single presentation to each fish you see feeding.
Tom Rosenbauer is a lifelong fly fisher and is the author of more than a dozen books on fly fishing and fly tying, including The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide, The Orvis Fly-Tying Guide, and The Orvis Guide to Small Stream Fly Fishing. His Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide Podcast is one of the most popular outdoor titles on iTunes.