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Why Pocket Water Is the Coolest Place to Catch Summer Trout

FROM THE BANK, I tightened the knot on my fly and looked out at the river, which sent a brief shiver of fear through my excitement, like the feeling one gets before going on a carnival ride. The river was high and flinging foam over the boulders after one of those long summer rainstorms that left clouds of steam across the fields – just like it looked when my grade school friend Jo and I first fished the site years ago.

Jo had a reputation for being a tough boy. (No one pointed out to Jo, for example, that only girls spell that name without that e.) The river did not scare him. He hiked through the worm box – filled with nightcrawlers we swiped in the rain the night before – from his waist to his armpits and tightened the belt across his chest. Then he let himself in and fought the current to a rock below a raging plunge pool.

As he turned and gestured for me to wade in, his sneakers began to slip and he began to flail his arms for balance, to no avail. The worm box jumped open. Revelers sailed. And in the seething ooze below, where the fat morsels splashed and raced downstream, a yellow stone rose and parted the surface.

It was the biggest trout I had ever seen.

After that I wasn’t afraid anymore. I jumped in and threw a crawler into the same slot – and the bay fell and sped downstream. As I leaned into the fish, my sneakers shot in opposite directions and I rode the current downstream, rod held high above the foam. But when I finally found my footing, the fish had broken off.

Upstream Jo laughed. As we were both soaked we spent the day wading or swimming to the river’s hardest to reach holes – and had one of the best days of summer fishing I can remember.

Just do it

In the height of summer I want to be waist-deep in deep pocket water when the river is high and the fishing starts. I don’t praise crawlers as much anymore – not because I think I’m over it. I just find that fly fishing is more fun. And summer should be fun.

Summer should also be easy. It is a nice coincidence that when there is good rainfall, pocket water can be good for fishing in the hotter months. Until then I need a break from all the hustle and bustle that comes with dry fly fishing in slow waters and pocket water is the perfect antidote. It’s one of those rare things in life where you can take the easy route without sacrificing success.

Wading angler with net prepares to free trout from hand;  The second angler watches
A solid brown trout turns up on the Upper Madison River. Brian Grossenbacher

From a fishing standpoint, the easiest way is to attach a hit indicator over an underground fly or two on a 9ft 5X hooklink and run up the middle of the river, picking pockets left and right. You can make it more complicated. You can study the water as if reading it were a form of code-cracking. But why should you? The fish are in the slower spots next to the faster spots. And eager. Do a decent drift and they will usually snag your fly.

Pretty much any pattern that looks like trout feed (and many that don’t) will now catch fish in pocketed water, but in general I think it’s hard to defeat a weighted stonefly nymph with a Muddler Minnow dripper. If there are more rainbows than browns, I trade the Muddler for a Woolly Bugger. It just seems to work better. Pick a pocket or seam, wade in close and toss over it with a flick of your wrist to dispel the flies underneath. Stick them up through the sweet spot, then allow the muddler to swing down and to the side before picking it up. If the trout don’t seem active enough to chase a streamer, switch to a small nymph or wet fly. That’s it. Work quickly and cover plenty of water.

And don’t be afraid to get soaked. Put on some wet wading shorts and jump in. This may sound crazy, but after almost 40 years of pocketwater fishing I am convinced that nothing will increase the number and size of fish you catch when the currents are high and fast than just wading aggressively . I don’t mean recklessly – you have to play it safe. And I don’t wear sneakers anymore. Studded waders help, and a collapsible wading stick comes in handy even in the roughest of terrain. Remember that when the water is heavy, it’s in the hard-to-reach spots that the neglected and often larger fish hang out. And you can’t rely on long casts to reach them. With so many currents in between, the pocket water forces you to wade close, often very close, to get a decent drift.

Redemption time

Back on shore, I took a step into the drink and was waist-deep in it, then struggled my way to the slippery floor beneath the roaring plunge pool where I’d lost that giant yellow rock years ago. Halfway into the drift, my blinker stopped. But this time the fish was going upriver instead of down, and I landed it in a shallow side whorl. On my tape was a length of 23 inches – the largest brown trout I’ve ever caught in a free rock river, along with a healthy dose of redemption. And I didn’t even have to go swimming. Summer fishing couldn’t be easier – or more entertaining.

Gear Tip: Take it to the top

Close-up of the stimulator
A stimulator is a great fly for gliding through the soft spots and slippery spots of fast-moving streams. Orvis

There can be sporadic but good surface stonefly activity in mid-summer. So bring a handful of large, buoyant imitation stones, such as stimulators or sofa cushions. Grease them and let them glide over the soft spots about an hour before dark or when you see large bugs appearing. You won’t catch any more fish this way, but you will see some big trout reeling and banging. And as long as you remember to boost your leader to at least 3x, you’ll land a few of those, too.

Also read: What Do Bass Eat?

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