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Reading the Water

by Schmidt Outfitters Staff

Finding fish is always a challenge. Learning to understand the characteristics of a river, and likely spots for fish to be, is a skill called “reading the water.” In its most fundamental form, it is reading. Signs on the river are as obvious and direct as the signs we read and understand along the highway. Many good books have been written on the subject, but some fundamentals include the following guidelines:

  • With few exceptions, fish always sit, or “hold” facing the current. Because of interesting structure, the does not always mean they face upstream, however.
  • Fish are looking for food and protection from predators. Fish like to get both with the least amount of effort.
  • Fish will move depending on available food. For example, if insects suddenly begin hatching in a slower part of the current, fish will slide to such areas to take advantage of the new food source.
  • Changing structure, available food, water temperature, and the amount of sunlight or darkness also cause fish to change positions in the river.

With those basic guidelines in mind, let’s define some water reading terms.

  • Upstream: The direction of movement that is going against the current.
  • Downstream: The direction of movement that is going with the current.
  • Pool or Hole: A generally deeper, elongated structure in the river often marked by slower moving water. A pool has a head, tail, and heart.
  • Head: The front, or upstream end of a pool. This is where water is often coming over gravel or otherwise constricted before dumping into the deeper pool area.
  • Tail: The lower, or downstream end of a pool. Water is constricted here, too, and generally more shallow than the rest of the pool. Most often, the tail (or tailout) of a pool is the head of the next downstream pool.
  • Heart: The center or deepest area of a pool. This is often the slowest-moving water in the hole.
  • Riffle: A shallow, faster-moving section of river that is flowing over gravel or stone in most cases.
  • Pocket Water: A river structure characterized by many rocks, with deeper holes between them. Fish often hold in this kind of water.
  • Seam: The line between two currents. Seams are sometimes narrow and distinct and sometimes broad and less visible. Most often the currents are moving in the same direction.


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