Posts Tagged ‘Pocket water’

The Natural Energy Equation.

September 29, 2011

Understanding Nature’s Energy Equation.

I have recently spent two very pleasant days on one of our better freestone streams, one fishing for my own account and the other guiding a very amicable, knowledgeable and competent angler. The waters hereabouts are currently still running quite full after the winter rains, in fact the season itself has only been open for a matter of weeks.

Despite the freestone nature of the waters however they rarely if ever actually get dirty with perhaps a little hint of tan colour from the peaty grounds at their source being as bad as things are going to get. That means that much of the time one can sight fish although in the high water that is still tricky it is on occasion possible.

Now the odd thing about that past couple of trips was that the fish weren’t exactly where I was expecting to find them. Generally speaking in higher water one would seek out the wider sections where laminar flows make for easy pickings. Water that as the levels drop into summer will be either devoid of fish or at least practically unfishable, too still and too shallow to allow anything like a sufficiently delicate presentation.

Perhaps it was a lack of insect life , there weren’t any real hatches on either trip, although there were a few midges and micro caddis knocking about. Not enough to bring the fish up really and we saw few rises on either day. Despite that I was still focusing my attentions on the flats, classical dry fly water with laminar flows, clearly defined current lanes and bubble lines that should have been heaving with trout. But they weren’t and without rising fish to assist it was a case of hunting them down and drumming them up, if that isn’t an oxymoron in the first place.

I have always felt that the best anglers are in tune with nature, one of the great levelers of fly fishing is that you have to deal with things the way they are on the day. The trout, the weather, the hatches (or lack of them) nor the water levels are going to give a jot about what you want. Nature is as you find it and although we as a species are so used to manipulating it to our own ends when you are out fishing a little humility goes a long way. So despite hoping, even expecting the fish to be on the flats and willing to come up through the shallow water to take a dry fly that just wasn’t the case.

Now one of the great lessons of nature is that everything and I really mean everything lives by certain rules. Not the sort of rules laid down by politicians, with hidden agendas and frequently a lack of pragmatic purpose, no, natural rules are always pragmatic. If you see a fish in a particular spot on the stream trust me that he (or she) is there for a reason, you may not know the reason but it isn’t random. Wild animals don’t have the luxury of random behavior and one of the greatest rules of all is that you have to take in more energy than you burn up. If you want to grow fat, produce eggs and sperm and have sufficient life left in you to enjoy mixing the two it behooves you to build up something of an energy credit over time.  The two obvious solutions to this are to either take in a lot of energy (that is food) or to be very careful with what you expend. Most animals actually take advantage of both depending on circumstances.

So anyway back to the fishing, there wasn’t anything much of a hatch on and the fish were going to be doing all they could to get what food they might manage at minimal cost and we found almost all of them in precisely that sort of spot. Right in the backs of the pockets.

At first glance the pocket water, and particularly this early season and rapidly flowing pocket water, didn’t look like a low energy place to hang out. But we only found fish right at the back of those pockets and on one occasion were able to sight fish to a trout that was clearly visible even in the undulating current.

He was doing exactly what nature intended him to do, sitting quietly in the midst of the maelstrom without so much as a flick of the tail until he decided to intercept a morsel from the drift.  I have watched this behavior over and over and it rarely fails to fascinate me. Despite the fact that so many angling books have neat little diagrams of cartoon like fish hiding from the flow behind the boulders that is actually something of a rarity in my experience. They might expend little energy in such a spot but they can’t see the food coming. So certainly in our waters they are far more likely to be balanced in front of the rocks, either submerged ones or not.

The trout have learned that they can balance on the pressure wave in front of the boulders in exactly the same manner that a dolphin will balance in front of a moving ship. The only difference being that in the trout’s case the water is moving and not the rock. In each instance there is a defined pressure wave where the water is unable to escape and is forced to “bounce” back providing a counter push of equal and opposite force. With its tail delicately on that boundary and with some pretty canny adjustments of balance a fish can sit in such a place all day and barely move a muscle.  He is in effect “body surfing” on the wave and holding station as a result.

The additional benefit is that the fish can see and intercept any food both surface or subsurface coming through the pocket, has maximum time to spot it and can measure if it is worth giving up the comfort of his aquatic cushion to grab it.  Particularly in the higher water conditions with which we found ourselves it was obvious that being at the head of the pocket, even if it could provide some protection from the current couldn’t give sufficient time to select food items from the drift.

So was it that virtually ever fish taken on both days, well over 60 of them, was taken from the very back of the pocket water. The fish coming up to a dry or intercepting a nymph at the very lastmoment when you have convinced yourself that the drift is already over. For the angler it can be problematic, not least because unless you know about this little trick of the trout you will continuously lift the fly off just as it is getting into the right place and if you are fortunate you will hook more than one by accident as you lift up for the back cast.

There is a further trick to fishing like this though, you have to cast short with a long leader and you have to get close. Any line or leader touching the water at the very back of the pocket were the current speeds up will drag the fly immediately. This is “high sticking” as we call it around here, virtually dapping I suppose.

Any amount of actual fly line beyond the minimum will sag as you hold the rod up and equally drag the fly. These trout in the pockets are no less aware of drag than their smooth water counterparts and we never had a single fish take a dragging fly. Presentation is the business here, presentation and a knowledge of where to look for the fish.

There are numerous other examples of the energy equation. EI-EO=Growth, (where EI is energy input and EO is energy output). If you want to become a better angler it will do you a lot of good to spend some time considering that equation each time you head out onto the water.

It is probably the same equation that causes fish to feed at times when the hatches are at their heaviest and perhaps even focus on only one insect at a time for that matter. Mad rushing about isn’t going to pay dividends in the long haul and the fish know it. . It is infuriatingly the same equation that says to the fish, don’t bother to feed at all if there isn’t a lot of food about. On very fertile streams that actually becomes something of a problem because if the fish have decided not to feed , well you simply can’t catch them. On my slightly acidic home waters the fish can rarely afford to be quite so choosey and although they will make the most of things when there is food in abundance they can’t really afford to miss out on a meal, even a small mouthful when it presents itself. So they will usually be very careful not to burn energy unnecessarily whilst at the same time giving themselves the chance of a meal should one come along.

It is fascinating stuff, but as with all things in nature, eminently logical when you take a good look at it. It is one of the reasons why I do so love to watch fish when the situation presents itself, you can learn a lot by watching the behavior, particularly if you keep a mind on that equation. There is a purpose to everything and understanding that can’t fail but help you to become a better angler.

Mind you I am being a bit smug, as I said, we got it wrong to start with. Which brings up another great law , this time of fishing “if what you are doing ain’t working, do something different”.

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Pocket Water

March 15, 2010

Pocket water can be productive even when levels are low.

On the streams  outside of Cape Town where I fish and guide mostly there is one aspect, perhaps even a “trick of the trade” that frequently distinguishes the men from the boys, the winners from the also rans and to be honest those who go home with feelings of smug satisfaction compared to those who don’t.

It isn’t so much that everyone doesn’t know about it, more that they fail to believe it or simply don’t bother to try the type of fishing, casting and presentation required. The name of the game is to focus most of your attention on the pocket water and that brings with it at first a host of problems for the average angler.

I say average not implying any lack of skill, more that the average angler watched Brad Pitt casting in
“A River Runs Through It” got really excited and ever since has been in some way dissatisfied if he can’t watch his line snaking out in yards in front of him. Secondly the average angler has a problem believing that there could be decent fish in amongst those foamy little pockets in the boulders, I mean all the lunkers must be in that deep weir pool on the corner surely?

Pocket water offers both advantages and problems in equal measure:

Firstly even in low water the pockets generally have a little bit of current and at least some riffle to the surface that makes your presentation a tad easier than on the still slow glides.

Secondly fish in pockets have a pretty limited view of the world making them easier to sneak up on and for the most part sit still in the current looking upstream waiting to intercept the next food item to appear. They don’t have a lot of time either so they need to make a relatively hasty decision about the true nature of your presentation. Conversely those fish in the still pools of summer, and there are plenty of them, have the entire millennium to count the tails on your mayfly, to look at the knots on your leader and generally swim about in all directions being for want of a better description “particularly difficult”.

Thirdly because for the most part they are loners if you spook one he will duck under a rock and not race about scaring his brethren and generally mucking up the fishing for yards ahead, a frustrating reality on the glides in low water.

Fish in pockets just seem to be happier with their lives in general, snug amongst the boulders they display a relative calmness lacking in their open water cousins and all that is good if you are an angler.

Not that it is all plain sailing this pocket fishing lark:

The downsides are that pockets have tremendously varied currents and pocket water fish whilst they may well be relaxed are not immune to the effects of drag on your fly. It all happens fast too so you can’t solve the problems by mending the line, most of the time that will be too little too late, even if you could work out which way to mend in the first place.

Secondly the pockets are small and some degree of accuracy in the casting department is essential if you aren’t going to spend your time fishing on the tops of dry boulders. If you have spent your casting practice (you do practice don’t you?), on distance you are going to struggle in the pockets, short accurate casting is what’s called for and it is a heap more tricky than it looks, especially if there is a breeze.

Thirdly to control your drift you will need to get close, closer than you might imagine and that brings with it the issue of at least some measure of stealth. Tapping wading staffs and boulder rolling are unlikely to enamour you to the fish and despite the previous comments they can become more than a little skittish if you don’t approach the pockets carefully.

Also in the faster little nooks and crannies it isn’t as easy to see the fish, sometimes you can,  but if you can’t see a fish you should cover the water anyway,  you neglect to cast at your peril , even should no fish be apparent , many an incautious extra step has seen a trout bolt for cover just as your boot descends.

Finally perhaps the real inner battle for the angler is that pocket water fishing is of necessity bordering on inelegant, in fact on occasion some of the best presentations really are rather ugly which is why you never see the angler in advertisements battling away in amongst the stones. Art directors, like most anglers prefer the “shadow casting” format, even if it results in less fish in the net.

So how to go about it?

Pockets as I would define them can vary from the size of a shoebox, just big enough to hold a decent trout to a few square metres in area, they generally have more than one current lane in them flowing from different angles and the fish could be watching one or more of them for food.

The best pockets offer relative depth, that isn’t to say they are deep but there will be a divot in there somewhere to provide a sense of security and to allow the fish to keep under the current and save energy. Plus very many have a distinct lip which forms a pressure wave at the back of the pocket, the ideal place for a trout to balance on its tail whilst waiting for dinner. The best pocket water anglers always make a cast just above the lip before they head for the obvious water a bit higher up, the fish are often so close to the back that on hooking them they wash over the lip..

Softer Action Rods are better for fishing pocket water.

The best rods for fishing pockets are soft in action because you will be casting a lot of leader and very little fly line. Cane probably is the optimum but then pocket water streams are dangerous places for expensive cane rods and most anglers will have a light #2 or #3 graphite rod, often an older model that has avoided the marketing department’s rush to make every blank a stick. Despite the close proximity and tight spaces on many pocket water streams you don’t want a rod that is too short. Being able to reach is a distinct advantage and for me a rod between 7’9” and 8’9” is about right.

(I am not sure why but I can’t think of rods in terms of metres and I don’t care what the international standard unit of length is, fishing demands its own rules, rods in feet and inches, trout like babies should be measured in pounds and ounces).

The ideal tactic for most pockets is to fish a fly a tad larger than you would on the flat water and one that you can see , fish in pockets tend to be pretty cosmopolitan in their tastes and as said they will make their minds up fast. That isn’t to say a size twelve Royal Wulff is the way to go, but visibility is important you have seconds to pick up the fly or you are likely to miss the take.

It also pays to cast aggressively to gain accuracy but at such close range that could lead to poor presentation so a long leader is also an advantage. Even in tight pockets I rarely use a leader under fourteen feet. The long leader also allows you to “High Stick” that is lift the line off the water the moment the fly lands avoiding drag for the most part by near “dapping” the fly. The leader allows you to do so without dragging the pattern unnaturally on the water and in all but the worst gales you can gain near perfect drifts at close quarters doing this.

I simply adore fishing pocket water, it is all so close, you see the fish, the mouth open, the take all right in front of your feet, there is an intimacy to it lacking on the bigger water which I simply adore. It also happens to be deadly effective and because so many anglers walk past these tiny little apparently shallow pockets the fish are often less disturbed than in the pools..

I was once asked for some advice from a novice about where to fish on our streams and my, perhaps slightly terse response was this: “if it’s damp fish it”, you can get some surprises in pocket water and not all the fish are small and not all the best holes are deep. Given some practice you will get some pleasant surprises if you focus on the pockets, especially when the water is a bit low and the pools and glides are simply too still to offer you much of a chance.