Upper Sac Field Notes | Reading Water
Posted on 12 October 2017
I gave the Rogue a break this weekend and headed down south to the Upper Sacramento for some trout fishing. I went out hoping for some good dry fly action with October Caddis, but was left pleasantly surprised by the productivity of the nymph fishing.
For me, fishing the Upper Sac seems to be all about locating the most likely holding water. Because of the swift nature of the stream, the fish will often be hanging in water that’s protected from the brunt of the current. Take a look at the image below, which features a typical run you’re likely to encounter on the Upper Sac.
As you can see there are a mixture of pocket water and larger, more defined pieces of holding water. I describe holding water as any water adjacent to the main the current that is deep enough to hold a fish. Let’s dissect this piece of water in terms of approach and fishing tactics.
Holding Water #1: The first section of holding water in this image is by far the easiest bit in the run! Often times I get caught up in looking at the far side or behind boulders (Holding Water 2 & 3). But many trout are often found right next to the near bank on the Upper Sac and many similar trout streams throughout the west. The first section is the easiest because you don’t have to do any technical mending to get a proper drift with a nymph rig or a dry fly. The main thing with fishing this piece of water is not approaching it too quickly or bluntly. Sneak up to the river – come up from behind with a profile. If the fish are looking for food – you’ll likely find one in water like this within a few casts.
Holding Water #2: To be honest, this type of water has always been the hardest for me to achieve a dead drift in. Part of the problem is in casting accuracy. Behind large structure, like the boulders in this photo it’s not too hard to land your fly behind and get a decent drift. But often that casting window is much smaller which forces you to place your flies with pinpoint accuracy. What’s been more difficult for me than accuracy in this situation is in managing the complicated river currents. In Hold Water 1 you will notice a more or less direct current downstream. The boulder in Holding Water 2 complicates that current, creating tons of micro swirls and eddies in the current – these are dead drift killers! With dry flies and nymphing, I don’t spend too much time fishing behind boulders specifically because of the lack of a dead drift. I will cover them more thoroughly if I’m fishing streamers, because it is nice holding water and the lack of a good drift doesn’t affect streamer fishing the way it does nymphing.
Holding Water #3: This is my favorite water to cover with nymph fishing tactics, partly because it seems most productive and partly because of “the grass is always greener” effect (i.e. the farbank always fishes better). Covering this water effectively forces you to land your flies on the far side of the feeding lane and immediately through a dramatic mend into your line. This mend will be put upstream of your flies, allowing them a fighting chance at a dead drift in the soft water on the far side. If you get a couple good drifts, you will likely find some success places like Holding Water 3 as I did this past Saturday. One small note to make is that the size of the mend you make is directly related to the force of the main current. Stronger currents required bigger mends. Just play around with different size mends and see how the help you achieve a dead drift.
Holding Water #4: This piece is similar to #1, it’s just much shallower. Don’t avoid the shallowing sections of this river or similar trout streams. Fish will use that white cover of the riffle as camouflage against predators (which includes us), making it ideal for targeting fish. Just make sure as you’re walking up or down toward this water, give the fish extra room and start your casts short. I often crouch or kneel down just to give myself better odds at finding fish.
Feeding Lanes: Often referred to as seams, these are the places where the current is funneled in a small area which carry most of the aquatic insects downstream. Fish will intermittently move between feeding lanes and holding water in an effort to stock up on food and conserve energy. Every time you step into a run you should be looking to identify these basic water types. The water in the lane or near it is usually very product for trout that are eating nymphs as the fish in the Upper Sac often do. I typically find fish right on the edge of feeding lanes and defined holding water.
When I’m fishing streamers, I don’t not spend as much time on feeding lanes as I do holding water. I just feel that larger fish that are looking for a bigger bite aren’t as concerned with all the PMD and BWO nymphs drifting past them. They want to rest when they’re not feeding which makes them likely contenders to be found in holding water.
Conclusion: You can fish whatever way you please – that’s one of the great things about this sport. But if you want to increase your odds, start reading water with a keen eye every time you hit the river. Fish different pieces of the river according to what they dictate and start finding fish in new places. Cheers.
P.s. smaller fish are so fun on lighter rods, as this small guy was on my full flexing 4wt. I got this one and a few more on a standard black Pat’s Rubber Leg in Black. They took this fly consistently over the more realistic stone fly nymphs I had in the box.