To Know a River…And Why It Matters

It is a game of trial and error, of countless trips, exhausting hikes and fishless days. But when it finally starts to pay off, you will have developed a unique relationship with the water and its inhabitants. It will elevate the notion of “home water” to a whole new meaning. And, such intimate connection to place and time in the natural world may well be the very essence of fly fishing.

By Thibault Millet

In A River Never Sleeps, published in 1946, Roderick Haig-Brown concluded with a chapter called “To Know a River.” In it he wrote: “I have known very few rivers thoroughly and intimately… The Campbell I know almost as a man should know a river. I don’t know the whole story, or anything like the whole story; but the outlines of the plot and characterization are clear and definite, much of the detail is filled in and each new detail fits neatly into an appointed place as I learn it.”

I have been flyfishing for over 20 years now, and I’m only beginning to fully understand what he meant. I now realize more than ever how success is inextricably linked to experience – not the mere accumulation of random fishing hours – but the dedication of trying to intimately know a river, its natural cycles and the behaviour of its fish.

There’s only enough time to attempt to fully understand a few rivers. I’ve made my attempts over the last (many) years, and here are a few things I have learned in the process.

Spring Creek Lessons

As a youngster I spent countless hours stalking wary brown trout in France’s heavily fished chalk-streams. In particular, I spent a lot of time walking the banks of a particular stretch of the river Seine in Burgundy (yes, the same river that flows through Paris a few hundred kilometers downstream). In its upper reaches it is a remarkable chalk-stream, with crystal-clear water and paranoid, native brownies – which are probably still there thanks to their highly-developed instinct for survival. This stream taught me three essential trout fishing skills.

First, it was a perfect school to learn delicate, precise fly fishing with small nymphs and dries. The ability to present small flies on long, delicate leaders to fussy trout came in handy several years later when I was fishing for selective trout in the Grand River in Ontario, and the Crowsnest River in Alberta – and just about anywhere I encountered difficult trout.

Second, I learned how to approach trout like a heron, without being detected, sometimes approaching so close that I could present a fly to a sighted trout with a short bow-and-arrow cast. Several years later, I remember approaching bank feeders on the Bow River, and successfully hooking large rainbows with precise, short casts of a small Hare’s Ear Nymph – even after anglers in drift boats unsuccessfully covered these fish. These trout were feeding only inches from the bank, and the float-fishermen were presenting their flies far too fast, and not in the right feeding lane.

Third, and most importantly, the Seine taught me that persistence and time on the water always pays off sooner or later. I still vividly remember every pool, every run and every holding lie I discovered through a painstakingly slow learning process. Through trial and error, you can understand when the river fishes best, where to find fish in high or low water, which flies produce well under certain conditions, and even how to find the optimal casting position to allow the best presentation for every difficult spot.

One word of caution, though: although what you learn on a particular piece of water can be very useful on another, you should resist the temptation to apply it blindly. As an example, I spent several days trying to catch monster brown trout from a small Ontario creek. Back then on my home water the best way to lure large fish was sight-fishing with a small nymph, so that’s what I tried there, too. But these fish didn’t even blink at my tiny morsels. I learned later from a friend that the best way to hook and land these predators was with a huge dark streamer smashed and dragged across the surface – a.k.a. fishing the mouse “hatch.”

That’s precisely what good fishing guides have to offer: instant access to a wealth of knowledge and experience of a specific piece of water – assets the traveling angler does not have time to acquire on his own.

Tiny Tributary Lessons

Some years ago I learned of the existence of a creek that was supposedly spring fed, at least partially. I pored over the Internet, google maps, and dug out old regulation pamphlets. I eventually found the creek. It was (and still is) a lovely little stream only a few feet wide, cascading over plunge pools, rushing into narrow cliffs, and running through long stretches of pocket water. It is also relatively short, just over a couple dozen kilometers in length.

One season, I decided to walk and fish this creek from top to bottom, perhaps because unlike on bigger pieces of water, this seemed like an achievable challenge. I dedicated as much time as possible to this creek, from the season opener until the end, and even paid a visit after the season closed. The experience was enlightening for I not only discovered an absolute gem of a creek, but learned so much more along the way.

I first realized that the upper reaches of the creek – merely a trickle in summer – fished very well early in the season. When every other stream is high and muddy with run-off, the upstream section of this creek has just enough water and hungry trout to start the season two or three weeks ahead of other neighbouring streams.

Then I found the handful of real pools this creek has – and found them quite far apart. I might have missed them through a more random exploration of the creek. The very best pool was a discovery in itself – to me at least, as the locals seem to have pounded its banks for ages without telling anyone. I call it the Impossible Pool. Picture this: Roughly the size of two or three suburban swimming pools, its glassy surface usually reveals two or three dozen trout, with real hogs lurking in the deeper section. The v-shaped tree branches planted in the bank as rod holders clearly indicate how the locals fish here: with a worm on the bottom. They might catch a fish every now and then, I suspect, but they don’t get them all as there have always been plenty of really nice trout left, season after season. Why? Because these fish are very difficult to catch. I tried almost every imaginable technique (legal and with a fly rod, that is). They all failed except one. I only managed to hook trout of 18 inches or more during the first few hatches of Hendricksons, which usually occur in late April. Only then did I see the larger fellows lose their legendary fussiness and rise to eagerly take dry flies. I guess after a few months of harsh winter, they couldn’t resist the sweet taste of a Hendrickson.

Even on the last day of the season I made a significant discovery. While fishing a small run, I literally bumped into a huge trout, or rather its massive, square tail sticking out of a rocky undercut bank. This trout had its head deep under the bank and didn’t see me coming. I was so close that I couldn’t resist dipping my rod tip below the surface to touch the tail. The fish did not like the intrusion and immediately burst out of its hole like a rodeo bull and shot for cover someplace else. This fellow must have been 24-inches or more – a size totally disproportionate in a creek just 10-feet wide. But I had seen enough to wonder where this guy had come from. My assumption was that it had run upstream from the main river below, in order to spawn in the creek. I came back without a rod a month later, well after the season closed. I paid a visit to a plunge pool just below a high waterfall and there I found confirmation of that theory: not one, but two massive trout on a spawning redd. Guess where I went fishing on the last day of the next season?

Do you want simple advice? Pick a river you like, and spend a season or two focusing your fishing effort on that stream. You will be grateful you did.

Visiting an Old Pal

For a few years I spent most of my trout fishing season on the Ausable river in upstate New York. Of course, I had it all wrong during the first season or two. All I could catch were 8-inch hatchery trout stocked in the spring. Despite the disappointing results, the time spent trying new spots and peering through the tannin-coloured water eventually started to pay off. I realized the biggest trout (either wild or holdover) fared better through the winter in the slow sections, where anchor ice had no effect, rather than in the pocket-water sections. Early in the season, when the sun’s rays were finally warming the water, I saw these hungry trout gradually emerge from the deep pools to move onto the shallow sandy stretches. I was then able to sight-fish and catch some of them with a weighted nymph rolling on the bottom – an exhilarating experience when most anglers were still fishing streamers or nymphs below a strike indicator.

Then, when the trout moved to their spring and summer lies, my fishing buddy and I had a peculiar, yet edifying experience. We were able to catch the same trout in the same hole three times over two seasons. We took photographs that allowed us to positively identify this brown trout, thanks to its unique and easily recognizable spot pattern. The first two times, this fish was a respectable 19 inches or so. The second year, it was a fat 20 inches. Unfortunately, I never saw that fish again, despite repeated visit to its “home.” I would pay a reward to anyone who could tell me what happened to this old pal afterwards.

Low Water – High Returns

The Saint Lawrence river has become my summer home water, particularly the famous Lachine Rapids section in Montréal. As the dog days of summer come, usually in late June or early July in southern Quebec, the Saint Lawrence is alive with daily hatches of caddis and mayflies. Smallmouth bass feed aggressively on just about anything. Navigating the rapids in a kayak is my favourite way of fishing the countless pools and riffles almost untouched by other fishermen. (I bumped into only one other angler during the entire summer – and it was my buddy). During the summer of 2012, the Saint Lawrence was at a record low level of flow. As a warm-water fishery, the river was still thriving with activity. Moreover, the low water levels allowed for a detailed exploration of underwater structures that are simply not visible under normal conditions. That summer, we fished spots whose very existence we did not even suspect before. We even caught bass sight-fishing on a few shallow water flats on a number of occasions. We were able to wade in the middle of this very large river on gravel bars usually covered by enough water – and current – to blow you downstream like a bobber. The lessons we learned there will likely prove invaluable in coming seasons, as we discovered as much in a single season as we would have in several summers of prospecting high waters.

Similarly, there is usually much to gained by visiting your favourite coldwater fishery in low-water conditions. Although fishing and putting stress on the fish is not advisable, just walking along your favourite pools may reveal a lot: the bottom structure of a deep pool, the location of underwater springs, and even perhaps the ability to spot a few large fish to visit when water levels return to normal.

So, whatever your favourite piece of water may be, try to dedicate your time and best effort to know it to the fullest. What can be said for a long-lasting relationship with a person may also be true for rivers. You may never completely understand them, but in order to truly appreciate them, you need to keep trying.

It is a game of trial and error, of countless trips, exhausting hikes and fishless days. But when it finally starts to pay off, you will have developed a unique relationship with the water and its inhabitants. It will elevate the notion of “home water” to a whole new meaning. And, such intimate connection to place and time in the natural world may well be the very essence of fly fishing.