Written by: William G. Tapply
Here the river surges over and around boulders the size of Volkswagens. The churning whitewater roars in your ears. It buckles your knees. It wants to knock you over.
Around the bend, the water flattens into a long smooth glide. Here you can hear warblers chirp in the alders and see trout dimple the surface. Now this, you think, is classic.
So does everyone else. Even a novice angler can “read” the quiet run and the flat pool. Almost anyone can locate feeding fish here. And there are plenty of fishermen capable of achieving long, drag-free floats on gentle, smooth-flowing currents.
Of course, everyone who comes to the river finds this pool. Someone’s always fishing here, and its trout are well-educated. That’s why, on heavily-fished trout streams, the angler who seeks solitude and eager trout gives that rock-studded fast water a second look.
Identifying Fishy Pockets
Pocket-water rivers come in all sizes and shapes. Many classic trout streams alternate long, slow pools and rushing pocket water. Hallowed eastern rivers such as the Battenkill, the Beaverkill, and the Willowemoc—rivers whose every pool has a name and a parking area and a well-beaten path leading to the water’s edge—feature delicious stretches of pocket water loaded with trout that rarely see a fly. Big rumbling western rivers, such as the Madison, offer pocket-water fishing on a larger scale. Little streams that tumble off the spines of the Appalachians and the Rockies are characterized by pocket water, too. You can even find lightly-fished sections of pocket water in many crowded tailwaters and spring creeks.
Pocket water is characterized by surging currents that swirl around and over gravel, rocks, and boulders. In places, there might be standing whitewater. There are eddies and slicks, deep holes and riffles. At first glance, such stretches may appear hostile to fish and angler alike, but if you know how to read it, you’ll find pocket water loaded with trout eager to eat your fly.
There are soft spots behind each of those boulders, cushions in front of them, and smooth, food-carrying runs where the currents funnel between the rocks. The prime pocket behind a boulder is the “eye,” where the divided currents converge. Every slick patch on the surface mirrors a likely trout-holding bump or depression on the riverbottom. A foot-long trout can lie comfortably in a shallow bowl no bigger than a grown man’s footprint. The plunge pool under a miniature waterfall creates a trout-holding pocket. Any edge—often betrayed by a foam line—where quickwater rubs against a slower current is a prime spot. On many brawling rivers, the shaded cushion of slower water that flows next to the bank is the choicest pocket of all and the place where the river’s biggest trout lurk.
These soft little pockets give trout everything they want: Comfortable places to rest, protection from predators, cool, well-oxygenated water, and a continuous supply of food. The angler who knows how to identify trout-holding pockets and drift a fly through them can catch a lot of fish.
Flies For Pocket Water
Unlike their pool-dwelling counterparts, pocket-water trout are not normally cautious or selective. They understand that the uneven river bottom, the holes and boulders, the swift currents, and the choppy surface hide them from predators. These same features also make it difficult for them to scrutinize the insects and other forage that the currents bring them. Trout food appears suddenly, moves in a fast blur, and disappears quickly. To survive, the fish learn to react aggressively to whatever morsels appear. If it looks edible, they eat it while they can. So rarely must the fisherman worry about matching a hatch or using fine leader tippets or making long casts or delicate presentations. This simplifies the angler’s tactics and choice of flies.
Dry Flies: Trout typically hold in the softest pockets close to the bottom, but they’re conditioned to dart toward the surface for a bite. So if the water is clear, dry flies are a good choice, even in the absence of hatching insects. Dries should be big and bushy so that they’ll float high, and they should be visible to the fisherman as well as the trout. Heavily-hackled hair-wing flies such as the Wulff series were designed for pocket water. The Humpy, Irresistible, and Elk-Hair Caddis work well on pocket water, as do terrestrial imitations such as hoppers, beetles, and crickets. Pocket-water trout strike quickly and suddenly, so it’s important for the angler to be able to follow the drift of his fly. Choose dry flies that create a contrasting silhouette on the water. White, pink, chartreuse, or orange wings help the fisherman without discouraging the fish.
Nymphs: Nymphs should be big and heavy so that they’ll sink quickly to the fish’s depth. Generic beadheads and weighted stonefly nymphs are perfect for pocket water. Add a smaller unweighted nymph or soft-hackle wet fly on a dropper to double your chances. To detect the quick, subtle take of a pocket-water trout, use a strike indicator. Its distance from the bottom fly should be about twice the water’s depth—in three feet of water, place the indicator six feet up from the fly. Whenever the indicator hesitates, twitches, or darts under, set the hook.
Streamers: Big streamers tumbling through the currents imitate stunned or disoriented baitfish and will entice the biggest trout in the river, especially in water that is home to sculpins. Use weighted olive, brown, or black Woolly Buggers, Maribou Muddlers, and rabbit-strip streamers. Cast the pattern upstream or up-and-across, and use standard high-stick-nymphing tactics to dead-drift the streamer through likely pockets.
Tandem Rigs: You can double your chances—and figure out what seems to be working best—by fishing with two flies. Tie a foot of tippet material to the bend of one fly and add a dropper. The possible combinations are limited only by your imagination: streamer and wet fly, dry fly and nymph or emerger, two dry flies, two nymphs.
In the summer, when trout are attuned to terrestrials, a “hopper-dropper” rig can be deadly, especially in bankside pockets. The big hopper will usually draw most of strikes, but often a trailing beetle, ant, mayfly imitation or generic nymph will do some heavy work, too.
Pocket Water Tactics
Although pocket-water trout feed opportunistically on anything that looks digestible, they will refuse any fly that doesn’t behave naturally. Whether you’re using a dry fly, a nymph or a streamer, the key to fooling pocket-water trout is to make your fly drift realistically through the currents. If the swirling water snatches your line and drags your fly through a likely pocket, it will spook the fish.
Fortunately, in swift, broken water, trout see only blurry images above the surface, so you can sneak close to them. Wear drab clothing, approach from downstream, hide behind a boulder if you can, and make short, precise, up-and-across or straight upstream casts. Drop your fly just above a pocket, hold your rod high, and steer the fly through, keeping as much of your line off the water as possible. When using dry flies, grease your leader right down to the fly to minimize drag.
After your fly has passed through the pocket, lift quickly and cast again. Many short, accurate casts work better than fewer long ones, because fast-water trout don’t like to move out of their comfortable pockets to chase food. Study the water and pinpoint those fishy-looking pockets. Probe each of them thoroughly, but don’t waste your time on barren water.
Another effective pocket-water tactic is to turn around and fish downstream. You can simply make long, blind across-and-down casts and swim a wet fly or streamer through the currents on a tight line. This is the old-fashioned wet-fly technique. By “covering the water” this way, you’ll pick up a random fish or two.
But you’ll catch more trout if you study the water and concentrate on steering your fly into fish-holding pockets. Hold your rod high and let the current swing your fly above a boulder or slick or bankside cushion. Then lower your rod so that your fly drifts through that fishy pocket. Raise your rod and twitch your fly back up through the pocket. Then drop your rod and do it again. By swimming your fly on a down-and-across arc, steering it into all those pockets and probing them thoroughly, you can cover many prime spots with a single downstream cast.
Final Thoughts on Safety
Whether you choose to fish upstream or down, you’ll find wading even shallow stretches of pocket water treacherous. The fast currents scour the sand and gravel, leaving the bottom cobbled with slick rocks. Wear felt-soled waders or, even better, studded soles. Watch your step; it helps to use a wading staff. Don’t try to cast while you’re changing your position, or you could end up filling your pants pockets with river water. That is not what is usually meant by “pocket water.”