Upper Potomac River

Fly Fishing
streams and rivers
with Bill Byrd.

During my float trip on the north branch of the upper Potomac, I was reminded of some river tactics that I always think of when seeking out trout. I realized that I had set some of these tactics aside when fishing area rivers and streams for non trout species. The Potomac trip re focused me on these tactics for non-trout species in local waters when I returned home. I'll define them for you in this article.

I don't claim to be a "veteran" river fisher. I know guys who have thousands of hours and fish strictly on rivers. Over the past 10 years I have spent more time on rivers, and enjoy fishing these moving waters VERY much. I sound like a broken record but I have seen that using the methods that I teach regarding downsized flies, a real subsurface fly fishing plan, and patient application of that plan will work wonders at finding fish in a riverine environment. My Potomac trip was a perfect example.

Potomac River smalliePotomac River redbreastPotomac River largemouth

On my recent Potomac trip we set out that long float trip looking for fully grown smallmouths and even Tiger muskies. When we realized they weren't present and active, we down sized flies, stayed with a subsurface presentation, and discovered what was hitting and what it took to get strikes -- hundreds of strikes! The result was catching and releasing well over a hundred fish including fat smallmouths, strong river redbreasts, and scrappy largemouths as you see pictured above.

Remembering this very result I decided to apply the same strategy I used on the Potomac to some local rivers and small streams. I'm not going to be specific about which rivers and where I fished them. That really is NOT important. All rivers are unique but all have similarities. The process of fishing rivers is essentially the same. The process of fishing subsurface is essentially the same regardless of the body of water and the fish species. Once we settle into that mind set, we can catch about any fish species on about any river system or body of water. That's my message. To go to my definitive article on subsurface fly fishing click on: Fishing the Watercolumn.

One of the first things I had to do to become comfortable fishing moving waters was to become skilled and confident fishing subsurface. Why? Except in rare occasions when there are hatches creating surface feeding, fish feeding in currents are feeding subsurface. Once they establish a good lie, they can let the current bring them food. They hold just out of the current but let the current DELIVER their food to them and expend little energy. In nature this allows them to first survive, and then to grow larger. Whether the fish is feeding on surface or subsurface this is how he feeds. It is VERY efficient and necessary.

Ever heard a fly fisher speak about a "drag free drift or float"? Mostly that conjours up images of tiny flies sweeping along in current to waiting trout. That is because insects fall in and on water and are helplessly swept into fish's feeding lies. Being able to produce drag free floats is an important tactic in surface AND subsurface fly fishing.

Georgia river bluegillGeorgia river yellow perchGeorgia river largemouth

Larger insects, small fish, and crustaceans can be swept along by the current as well. River based species including largemouths, smallmouths and their cousins redeye, shoal, and Flint River bass, redbreasts, bluegills, redear sunfish, yellow perch, even river catfish are using current to bring them food and save their energy. I also find river fish have a tendency not to fool around. When they see something that looks like food they will usually hit it aggresively. Many times they only have one shot at it.

Knowing what forage each species preys on, and where they like to set up to let the current bring these food morsels to them will set the stage for fishing the right flies, in the right presentation, to the right part of the stream for your target fish. Probing water and catching fish will confirm your choices or make you ask more questions and cause more fly and tactic changes until you get the result you seek -- you catch fish!

Much of the time I fish creek systems and sloughs and the mouths of creeks flowing into bigger moving waters. These edges can be productive. You can fish the shoreline edges of the river channel and cast upstream, cross stream, or down stream then strip subsurface flies to probe water. You will pick up fish that way.

Georgia river cross section

In the image above I have drawn in current flow direction in black, the bottom contour of the inside bend in blue, and where to cast to and strip out from the cover for strikes.

The idea is to help you learn to visualize. When you look at the surface of this scene, your mind should take over and you should see at least a 2 dimensional cross section like this. First cast to the red circles. Let your fly sink, then begin slow strips toward you and down the contour. Then just probe across the trough and you should get strikes.

If you can find woody cover on current edges like you see above - probe it from the upstream side. Give your fly a natural sweep into the cover. If you don't get an immediate reaction, cast in there several times. Cast farther upstream to let your fly sink deeper. Quickly strip your fly out from the cover. Use short strips -- 2 inches -- to emulate small forage foods.

For sunfishes, largemouths, even smallies look to outside bends with current and relatively deep water. In several sections of water we found this pattern active on the Potomac. In those cases we cast upstream, let the fly sink naturally in the current, and if it wasn't struck sinking a few short cross stream or upstream strips usually got the strike.

Potomac River shoalsPotomac River smallmouthPotomac River smallmouth

In the image just above left, I cast cross current to the circle right. I fast stripped my subsurface fly cross current to the left 2 strips and he struck. The smallmouth above center and right was hooked and quickly released. In shallow water and current it all happens FAST!

You may find smallies, shoalies, and redeye bass in fast white water holding just like a trout: behind or beside boulders, wood, or current shielding cover. They will hold deep in holes just under the current feeding on bottom tumbling flies. Probe all the water until you pattern the fish. Then work that pattern. Another good article on reading water and presenting subsurface flies is: Fishing Helen's Winter waters.

If you can get into back sloughs and up creek channels look for deep depressions in the streambed or sloughbed. Look for wood or anything that will give fish cover. Then fish that area as you would in a lake of the same depth.

Current: Remember current is created by wind on normally still water. Use the same techniques on still water in strong wind as you do on moving water with current. The current is there and the fish are using it to find easy food. Another good article on fishing in wind driven current is: Fishing in Wind.

Sparse bodied weighted flies that imitate leeches, crayfish, minnows, and other insects are good flies for fishing these waters. Try some of these suggestions and see how you do next time you go to the river.