Steelhead Drift Fishing: Recognizing and Identifying Holding Areas
By Bill Herzog
The first step in reading water is realizing that no two sections of river are the same. With this in mind, how do you go about generalizing what holding water should look like? There are several keys to physical makeup of river contours that identify possible holding areas. I say “possible” because often, upon closer inspection, what first appears to be steelhead water fails to meet holding water standards.
In a typical free-flowing, fast, steep gradient western steelhead river, you can eliminate 70% of the river proper as possible holding areas. We can make a list of areas that do not hold fish, and they are common to the physical makeup of western streams. Waterfalls, chutes, rapids and wide, steep shallows (two feet deep or less) are all too swift and powerful, or, in the case of the shallow wide drop, too fast and with no cover to house resting steelhead. This leaves 30% of the river with areas that might hold steelhead. The word “resting” is the solution to where to start looking for holding water on rivers.
“Comfort” may be a good word to use also; you will never find the silver ghost laying over any type of sand bottom. Sand and fish gills do not mix, and steelhead avoid these sandy areas, even though a spot may look like holding water. If the bottom is predominantly sand, skip it. Gravel, rocks and boulders comprise the bottom makeup to look for. Steelhead will lay on top, along side and behind rocks. Rocks and boulders also help break up current, making it easier for fish to hold without expending energy. When the river flows over a submerged large rock or boulder, it causes a swirling boil, giving away a prime holding location.
Steelhead are looking specifically for spots that can give them rest and safety from predators. Since they use the path of least resistance when seeking holding areas, you must look to areas where the river begins to slow and gain depth.
This slower area must meet a set of ground rules. Steelhead gravitate toward quieter, flowing water (a man’s casual walking speed is a good gauge) near the bottom of a river that ranges from 3 to 15 feet deep. There are exceptions to this depth, but for 95% of any river you will fish, these depths are written in stone. These deeper areas can be any size and length, depending on the size and physical makeup of each individual river. These areas have many names, but we can break them down into four specific sections as they take form below the falls, rapids and chutes.
RIFFLE: The area where rapid, crashing water first starts to slow down. The riffle is characterized by bouncy, choppy water caused by refracting off rocks and small boulders (the same kind that attract steelhead) as the water slows. Riffles are commonly 2- 1/2 to 6 feet deep.
POOL: Often the deepest portion of holding water, this is the area where the riffle begins to calm down. Bouncy chop is replaced by undulating slicks and boils. Pools can be anywhere from a few feet deep in the smallest streams, to several fathoms in large rivers, but commonly range from 5 to 20 feet deep.
TAILOUT: Where the depth of the pool gradually lessens, shallows up and is, to a degree, wider than the rest of the holding area. The tailout is literally the tail-end of a classic piece of steelhead holding water.
BREAK: The point directly after the tailout where the holding water shallows and speeds up to again form a rapid, falls or a chute. The “pool” is normally the largest portion of the holding water, but that is a generalization. Some stretches of holding water are nothing more than a riffle before the break. This brings us back to that small percentage of water on any river that consistently holds fish. The “riffle-pool-tailout” configuration makes up 40 to 50% of the physical makeup of a typical western steelhead river. If this is all potential holding water, where does the small percent come in? It brings us to the most important factor in reading steelhead holding water, and that is finding the “flat spots.” Veteran steelheaders all have a favorite run that consistently gives up strikes. There may be other runs or stretches of holding water near that look the same, but rarely produce like the favorite hole. Beginners take note. Sherlock Holmes said, “We see, but we do not observe.” The reason for the one run producing well over the others can be attributed to the river bottom actually being flat, or without any downward (seaward) slope. Remember, no two stretches of holding water are alike; “flats” can be 2 to 200 feet long. These flat spots are areas of holding water that actually go up; that is the river bottoms are ever so slightly tilted upward. In the classic holding water situation of “riffle-pool-tailout,” this is common where the pool transforms to tailout. At this pointthe bottom is sloped upward. The upward slant to the bottom provides steelhea6 with the easiest resting area due to the slower, refracted current. The flats, however, can occur anywhere in the river where there is sufficient cover for holding fish. The start of the tailout is an obvious flat area, but flats can be found in long rif- fles; deep troughs that extend for 100 yards; deep runs; along side back eddies; along clay ledges and even behind large boulders that are situated inside chutes and rapids.
To find a flat spot in a section of holding water, simply study the bank on the opposite side of the river, focusing on the water line. Follow the contour of the water line as the run progresses downstream. You will notice that these holding spots will slope downward, then at some point will “flatten” out and flow level. Some stretches may even seem to tilt upward. These are the key spots to concentrate on when reading water. Some fishy-looking beats may have more than one flat spot. Some may have none, and these “flatless” places, even though they may look like practical holding areas, are usually the ones that are vacant. But remember, these flats are not always a gimme, just like every other aspect of learning to read water, there will always be variables. Every river and season has conditions where steelhead will be found in other portions of definable holding water. Locating the flat areas on rivers is still the most important first step in identifying holding water.
When deciphering a river, if you can safely wade across or take a driftboat, look at the holding water from both banks. What may look at first glance from one side as “too fast” or “frogwater” (too slow) may qualify as ideal holding water when viewed from the other bank. Currents can be deceptive, and just because it did not fish well from one side due to a number of factors (such as converging currents, back eddies or just the necessity of a longer cast) does not mean a piece of water is incapable of holding steelhead. It may have less (or more) current that could suit a migrant’s taste, and could even have a small “flat.”
One more point to ponder. Steelhead, when moving upriver, always follow the path of least resistance. In normal to low water, this equates to travel in the portion of the river with the greatest flow. The increase of water allows easier passage for fish over boulders, rapids, chutes and obstructions. There is always one side of the river that has more flow. This is a major key when trying to determine which side of the river steelhead will choose to hold. Most of the time this is fairly simple; the deepest or slowest portion (more suited to hide steelhead) of the river is on one side. There are times when they are difficult to tell apart. It can some times be imperceptible, such as a casual glance at a wide, smooth tailout. The flow may look even all the way across. However, how many times have you waded three-quarters of the way across these tails only to find, in the last few feet, the flow was just a bit stronger and the water just a bit deeper? You have just found the side of the holding water the steelhead will travel through, and the side they will hold in.
How can you determine the side with the most volume? This is something that can come only from close observation, which in turn comes from experience. This is evident when a pool forms two nearly identical slots below a rapid or riffle. You will notice (especially if the river is heavily fished) that even though both edges of the pool look similar, one side produces 90% of the fish. While the other non-productive side may look just as good, it is more than likely missing key ingredients for holding steelhead. Upon closer examination, these sides are sloped (not flat, like the other side), have less flow and may have fewer rocks and boulders with more sand.
Like all other bits and pieces of reading water and steelhead behavior, there are no “exacts” when locating fish. All the points mentioned thus far deal with low to above moderate river flow. When rivers are high and off color, the rules change.
These are, however, the basic ground rules to recognizing and identifying holding areas.
Excerpt from Steelhead Drift Fishing by Bill Herzog