How to Tell Where in the Water Column Trout Are Feeding

Hatches are beginning to pop off on trout streams all across the lower 48, and that can be a frustrating time if you are having difficulty reading which part of the hatch the trout are keyed in on…Are they rolling on the bottom munching nymphs? Hovering near the surface sipping emergers? Or perhaps you’re seeing fish launch themselves out of the water for a meal? All of these are signs of what flies to tie on and make the right presentation to fool those early spring trout!

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You see fish rising to bugs on the surface…

Photo by Brien Hansen

Probably the simplest of the 3 situations to observe, but the trickiest to imitate. Once you can confirm that the fish are rising to flies on the surface, you should start paying attention to what those flies are: What color are they? What size? Are they mayflies or perhaps a caddis or stonefly? Take a few minutes and try to match the hatch as best you can with the flies you have. Before you cast out your offering, watch the fish and see how they are rising, are they patrolling still water in the eddies or rising consistently in the riffles? Present your fly accordingly and watch for that fish once your fly lands on the water because there is nothing cooler than watching a trout rocket off the bottom to crush your dry!

You see fish rising, but no flies on the surface…

You will see fish break the surface but you can’t get them to take a dry and it doesn’t seem like their eating anything off the surface. This is a typical sign that these fish are feeding on emergers (nymphs on their way to the surface about to hatch into flies) in the top few inches of the water column. Now is the time to throw on emergers or soft hackles that suspend in the top few inches of water. Present your flies upstream of the trout with plenty of time to rest in that top section of the water.

You see flashes and fish rolling…

You’ve walked up to the stretch of water you are planning on fishing and you start to see the occasional silver or yellow flash low down in the water column. This is a typical sign of trout feeding on nymphs in the bottom half of the water column. If you can see the fish after they flash, you will notice that they are hovering a few inches off the bottom and will move only slightly to feed. This is when you need to pay attention to the depth of your nymphs to make sure that fish doesn’t have to travel too far to eat your fly!

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