When I began steelheading as a teenager, an old-timer of the sport told me that if I wanted to consistently catch fish, then it was imperative for me to be on the river well before other fishermen to secure the best hole.
The definition of “first water” held a different meaning back then.
Today, the phrase simply means to be the first angler to present his offering in the most likely holding water to rested fish.
When I started, the drift boat phenomenon had not made its migration from the Westcoast to the Great Lakes, so most steelheaders resorted to bank fishing.
Public access sites were limited and most were extremely crowded.
If a guy wanted to score a decent spot, it was mandatory for him to get out super early to claim his real-estate. That usually meant standing in frigid water while waiting for the sun to rise. Back then, a ridiculous start time was a common practice for a steelheader.
My last attempt to race other fishermen didn’t go as planned.
Somehow, I was able to convince my father to leave at an absurd time in the middle of the night by assuring him that if we could be one of the first boats downriver, it would almost guarantee us some fish.
We arrived at the river well before sunrise only to discover that three boats had already launched under the cover of darkness, and one boat was backing down the ramp. Even though it was virtually pitch black, I could sense my dad’s glare of displeasure.
It was reminiscent of the time when I was five years old and I intentionally poured his entire bottle of Old Spice aftershave down the sink on the same night of his annual Bowling banquet. The deflation of having to fish in the middle of the pack, instead of being in front of everyone like we anticipated, set a negative tone for the rest of the day.
After that disappointing experience, I came up with the motto, “If I can’t beat them, then I’ll learn to fish behind them.” I have discovered some things that you can do to increase your chance of success, even when obtaining that coveted “first water” is out of the question.
If I do happen to arrive at a river early in the morning, only to discover that there is a fair amount of boat traffic ahead of me, I will refuse to join the parade.
Instead, I will stay back and let the fish come to me. Learning the fish’s travel lanes and resting spots along the way is an excellent strategy first thing in the morning. Depressions, holes, and slots adjacent to shallow flats or riffles are good places to intercept fish that are moving upstream. Sometimes, it’s even possible to locate the fish’s path by keeping an eye on the water.
Use your polarized sunglasses to watch for fish that are gliding over shallow bars or pushing through riffles. Visual confirmation gives you the confidence that you are fishing in the right area.
River neck downs, especially with structure nearby, is another spot to wait for migrating fish to arrive and take up a temporary residence. One of my favorite places to intercept moving fish is where the river narrows and a fallen sweeper lies in the perfect position to create an ideal current break for the fish to rest.
On days when the fish are pushing upstream, I will anchor and make several casts into the tiny spot. I’m not concerned if I don’t touch anything right away because I’m anticipating that the fish will eventually move in. It’s a small pocket, about the size of a bathtub, and can easily be covered rather quickly, unless new fish keep showing up.
It seems strange to concentrate on such a confined area, but it has paid off with multiple hook-ups on several occasions. On larger rivers, where the travel lanes are less obvious, I suggest spending extra time working the heads and tailouts of some of your favorite holes and runs longer than normal.
Even if you know the area has most likely been fished earlier, it’s still worth a try. Remember, you’re hoping to hook moving fish, so it doesn’t matter how hard the hole was previously pounded before you got there.
Also, the new arrivals will usually let their presence be known by their aggressive nature. Sitting back and waiting for the fish to come to you is a relaxing, and oftentimes, productive way to start your morning.
Unfortunately, the fish will usually slow their upstream journey at some point during the day, forcing you to move and search for new opportunities.
One of the disadvantages of fishing from a driftboat is that you will occasionally need to leave good fishing because floating the river puts you on a time constraint.
While drifting downstream, be sure to fish anywhere and anything that could possibly hold fish.
Sure, it’s nice to relax and enjoy the scenery between runs, but I don’t know of anyone who has caught a fish without a bait in the water. Concentrate on long flats, especially with ones that have boulders, fallen trees, and multiple current seams.
Also, when making your way through rapids, look for pockets of gentler water where fish might have slid in to rest. Even the fastest sections of the river contain soft water and current breaks that are usually worth fishing. Always fish as much water as you can.
All of us have hooked fish in some obscure spot and said to ourselves, “What the hell was that thing doing there?” Catching those “oddball” fish makes sense to guys who are accustomed to fishing behind crowds.
There is a of couple reasons why fish can be found in unconventional sections of a river rather than the typical classic holding water.
- First, the fish are in transition.
- Second, the fish will often get pushed out of the main runs due to heavy fishing pressure.
I enjoy fishing nonconventional water because I feel that it’s more rewarding to catch a fish from a place where it “logically” shouldn’t be. One seems to forget most of the fish he has caught from runs where they should be, but he will always remember the fish taken from those “out of the way” places.
When you do find these fish, they tend to be less-pressured and super-aggressive.
In these areas, it only takes a cast or two to discover if anybody is home and willing to play. Catching these “bonus” fish can either save the day or even turn a good trip into an exceptional one.
If you spend enough time fishing rivers, it’s inevitable that you will find yourself fishing behind other anglers, and it becomes a challenge to find water that hasn’t already been worked.
Sure, you will stumble across vacant runs, and even though you suspect the area has already been fished hard by guys ahead of you, it’s just too sweet of a spot to pass up without at least trying it for a few minutes. When you do come upon these exhausted runs, try to fish the water in a different way than the previous fishermen did.
Though you might not have actually seen how the run was fished, you should have a pretty good idea what the other guys are doing ahead of you. For example, if you’re fishing on a stretch of river that is predominately fished with bait, then maybe doing something totally different such as pulling plugs or casting spinners and spoons through the water can sometimes get a neutral fish to bite.
My buddy, Danny Kozlow, loves to go against the grain by throwing hardware right behind bobber and drift fishermen. You would be surprised how many fish he connects with in the same water that appeared to be thoroughly covered by competent presentations. Watching Danny taught me to never vacate a run without first experimenting with different presentations before I move downstream.
Showing the fish something different is one of the keys to catching fish behind other fishermen.
For years, I have experienced good results when I experimented with various fly patterns that look like nothing in particular to pressured fish. Steelhead don’t care what the fly is supposed to represent, they just see something different and react to it. Small, dark, “nymphy- looking” concoctions seem to work well, particularly in clear water. Also, yarn flies with unusual color schemes and combinations seem to trigger a response. Of course, using a lighter line than you normally fish is typically the trend when fishing on busy streams with good clarity.
Being different can make the difference.
I will always gravitate to colors and baits that are being overlooked by other fishermen. When the entire fleet of boats ahead of me is casting some sort of chartreuse-colored crankbait for salmon, I’m chucking a pink one, or possibly a gold or black-plated spinner.
Maybe I’ll turn away from casting crankbaits altogether and backtroll Kwikfish through the run. When I’m predominately using bait, I will always keep at least two or more different egg cures and several scents in the boat and continually rotate them throughout the day.
I use the commercial cures and scents developed and sold by the Pro-Cure company. Experimenting with scents is often an overlooked detail that can really improve your catch rate!
Also, try experimenting with the way you present your bait.
Side-drifting is a good example. Instead of running your lines angled off to the side of the boat like the traditional manner, try positioning yourself above the run and fish directly downstream from the boat.
You will read the water in a different way and discover current breaks and seams that you couldn’t possibly have seen when fishing off to the side and casting across the current. By using this technique, it allows you to have greater control of your bait’s path and you will be able to fish the water more precisely around obstructions.
This minor change in presentation can make a huge difference. Don’t be concerned that you will spook fish. You would be astonished by how many fish will hit close to the boat. But, if you are still apprehensive, you can always cast your bait well ahead of the boat for some peace of mind.
Finally, we all know that being the first man to cover the best water will normally produce some action. Unfortunately, always relying on “the first one to get the hole” tactic will lead to disappointment if things don’t go as planned.
Searching for vacant runs on a crowded day can be mentally challenging, so nothing brings down morale faster than when you have your heart set on a certain spot that is unobtainable. This is why it might be better to consider starting your day later and concentrate your fishing during the afternoon. When the river pressure settles down, the rested fish will regain some of their aggressiveness, similar to how they normally would act first thing in the morning.
The late morning/afternoon fishing routine becomes an even better alternative during the cold-water periods when you allow some extra time for the water to warm up. It doesn’t sound like much, but just one or two upticks on the thermometer might be all that it takes to influence a negative fish’s mood in a positive direction.
By starting your day later, you will also create some much-needed space between you and the early morning crowds that are certainly ahead of you. It’s amazing to see how delaying your starting time by just a couple of hours can make a huge difference on a crowded river.
I recently spent a week on the tremendously popular Pere Marquette River during the peak of salmon season, and never once set the alarm clock.
My buddy, Pedro Gonzalez, and I decided to sleep late, and we woke up when the sun was shining. We enjoyed an unhurried breakfast and even ran a couple of errands in town before hitting the stream.
Every day when we arrived at the boat launch we were astonished by the number of trailers in the parking lot, but we didn’t let the flotilla downstream discourage us.
Since the other fishermen had already pushed downriver, we were able to catch fish less than one hundred yards downstream from the ramp out of a vacant hole that several anglers had already fished or passed earlier that morning. After hooking a couple of salmon from the hole, we would leisurely float down the river while enjoying the solitude of having the place virtually all to ourselves.
The only boats we saw were the ones leaving.
Places that would normally be occupied by fishermen first thing in the morning were now empty. Some holes produced for us and some didn’t—but either way, it was fun getting a chance to fish all of the spots for a change. The tranquility we experienced by not having to rush to get out and compete with other anglers made that trip as satisfying as any of the previous trips.
Steelhead and salmon fishing will always attract lots of fishermen—and that’s never going to change. By anticipating the crowds, you can alter your routine and still connect with a few fish.
Sure, you can always get up at some ungodly hour and attempt to race the masses to be one of the first fishermen to capture a magical run that everyone wants to fish. That trick will work sometimes and most likely get you a few fish, but you really don’t learn anything.
All that it really proves is you are highly functional when suffering from sleep deprivation. Unfortunately, if you constantly rely on that strategy to catch fish, then there will be days that you will be severely disappointed. Learning how to adapt to the conditions, not owning a reliable alarm clock, will make you a better fisherman.
The old saying goes, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” which I refuse to do. I was never one to be a conformist, so I’ll choose to sleep in and then figure out a way to stir up some action after everyone is gone.
See you sometime in the afternoon!
- written by Tony Ensalaco