How to Read A Stream

I’ll bet you are wondering; how in the heck do you READ a stream?  It sounds a little crazy, but once you know that this is a fishing expression that simply means observing and studying the water to determine where the fish are hanging out,  it makes sense.

I’m sure you will agree that it’s not a good idea to approach the water where you plan to fish and blindly start casting your fly. Before making that first cast, you should take the time to study the various characteristics of the running water of a stream or river to ascertain the most likely hangouts for fish.

Here’s a drawing showing the different characteristics of a trout stream and where the trout will be found that I will discuss in detail to illustrate this ‘reading the stream’ process:

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Stream showing locations of trout

            Flat Water

Let’s start at the top where I’ve indicated flat water. Flat water is just what its name implies. It’s slow moving without much, if any, structure. Often trout will take advantage of that calmer water to rest. It doesn’t take a lot of effort on their part to hold in one place since the current is not moving fast. Flat water  warrants a few casts before moving to more productive type water.

                           Large Rocks

Next you’ll notice a group of large rocks. As the water passes around such structure it creates a back swirl on the downstream side of the rocks. This is a good place for fish to take advantage of the back swirl where they will be out of the fast current and enjoy the food that is washed around the rocks and into the swirl. You can cast upstream of the rocks and allow the fly to be taken around the rocks or you can cast from below right into the back swirl.


The waterfall is the next area to explore. If you can wade out into the stream above the falls, drop your fly over them into the white water at the base and work it back a forth through that water. The force of the water carves out a deep trough and there are often good fish there.   The only disadvantage to this is that you will have to go back to shore to get below the falls to play and bring to net any fish you hook. Make sure that this is possible before trying above the falls. As an alternative, you can position yourself below the falls and cast either from the side or upstream into the white water at the base of the falls.

        Overhanging Trees

Overhanging foliage that provides shaded areas on the water is a good place for fish to move into on a sunny day. Also, this is a good location to use an ant pattern dry fly or an inchworm (green weenie) wet fly to imitate those insects that could have fallen from the tree. Here’s where a sidearm cast is necessary if you want to keep your fly out of the branches.

Another cast that can be made under overhanging foliage is what I call the bow cast. Hold the fly in your free hand with the leader at rod’s length and pull it to make the end of the rod bow. Then with the rod pointed toward your target, let go of the fly. It should shoot forward under the branches. This will only work if you can get within two rod lengths of the target area.

   Deep Water

Deep water or pockets that have been gouged out of the stream bottom are without doubt the best places to find good fish.  Fish will position themselves at the upstream beginning, in the deep water throughout, and at the low end of the hole.  In fishing for steelhead for example, drifting a pair of egg pattern wet flies with split shot to keep them down and a strike indicator to detect a strike though deep holes is a great way to catch fish.  Look for my page and video on fishing for steelhead to learn about this exciting way to fly fish.

    Undercut Bank

Look for places along the stream banks where the rushing water has undercut the bank edge and gouged out stretches of deeper water. Fish like to hold in such places and accurate casts in those spots will often be successful. Drift a dry fly through these spots or from upstream allow a streamer fly to swing into the deeper water. Retrieving  the streamer with short jerks through the undercut bank will often entice a trout to hit.

   Fallen Tree

Large trout will hide out under fallen tree trunks or other logs in the water where they feel protected from flying predators such as Great Blue Herons. A dry fly cast just on the edge of such structures will often entice that big guy from his hiding place. I have taken some real nice trout from just such places on many an occasion.


Always fish the area of the stream at and below the mouth of a spring especially in the summer. Trout love that infusion of colder water when the stream temperature rises even slightly in the warmer months so they often gather there in bunches.


Finally, don’t dismiss shallow water running over stones that form what is known as riffles. You would be surprised at the number of good size fish that you can find there. Fish both the beginning area, all through, and at the end of the riffles. The main reasons you will find fish there are food and oxygen. The fast water cascading over rocks and stones will have both in good quantity.  Cast your fly at the beginning of the riffles and let it drift all the way through; and be prepared for a strike. In that kind of water you’ll have no trouble recognizing it when it happens.

I hope these explanations of reading water are helpful, and result in you having greater success at catching fish.




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