Ask the Experts: How Do You Approach a New Water?

Figuring out a new water can be very rewarding, especially if you land a good fish.
Photo by Dave Brown

Fishing in new places can be a bit daunting, but expanding your repertoire is a great way to develop skill and to help ease overcrowding in popular areas. We asked a selection of Orvis-endorsed guides how they like to approach new water, hoping their insights are useful the next time you’re exploring a new spot. 

I start by searching online, since there is a wealth of knowledge on most locations these days. I will then reach out to some of the authors for further insight, and that sometimes includes local Fish and Game departments, as well. I’ve saved a bunch of time and hassle over the years doing this. 

I like to take time to get a feel for the river after arriving, slowly walking the banks and really observing. I’m looking to see what type of water the trout are holding in, and what types of techniques the other anglers are using. If I’m not sure, I’ve found that most folks are super helpful if I just ask. 

As I start fishing, I tend to break the river down into smaller sections, focusing only on the riffle, run, or pool in front of me, so I don’t get overwhelmed by trying to approach the entire thing at once.  

Hilary Hutcheson, Lary’s Fly & Supply (Columbia Falls, Montana):

My first step in scouting a new piece of water is to reach out to local experts. Orvis stores and the nonprofit United Women on the Fly are great resources. When possible, I book a guided trip, since experiencing new water with someone who knows it intimately is wildly rewarding. If I’m going DIY, I start by calling the nearest fly shop to check on conditions, including stream flow, whitewater class, spawning times, hatches, angling pressure, and local regulations. I also keep a public-lands map handy to make sure I’m legally accessing the water. I never go alone, and I don’t take my dogs with me until I’m sure it’s a good fit. 

After an in-person stop at the fly shop to pick up vital gear (including a hat and stickers) and get my shuttle set up, I try to arrive at the water early enough that I’m not rushed to set up. If I’m floating, I’ll always be following another rower who knows the water well. If I’m wading, I’ll spend some time settling in by looking at the river’s structure to decide on the best approach. Where are the safe crossings? Do I have room to backcast? Should I start with the inside bends or the outside cutbanks? I’ve learned the hard way not to be too hasty when approaching a new stretch of river, whether by losing my footing after charging in like a freight train, or spooking fish in a near-side eddy after assuming they were holding farther out. Slowing down and taking time to settle into the environment before slapping water has helped me to get the most out of my days. 

After the trip, I typically make another visit to the fly shop to give them feedback on my experience. Letting shops know how well you did out there, what challenges you ran into, the amount of fishing pressure, etc. will help them provide the most up-to-date intel to the next customer. I feel it’s important to share angling information openly in order to keep people motivated to help protect the resource.

Capt. Dave Pecci, Obsession Charters (Portland, Maine and Charlotte Harbor, Florida): 

When scouting new waters, I look for similarities to areas I’m already familiar with. Whether I’m targeting striped bass on the Kennebec river in Maine, or redfish and snook down in Charlotte Harbor in Florida, it really does seem like ninety percent of the fish are in ten percent of the water. But there are certain things to look for that help to narrow it down, such as available food, good structure, and a place to escape from predators. When I find areas with those three things, I tend to catch fish. 

Jess Westbrook, The Mayfly Project (Benton, Arkansas): 

Before I get to the river, I consult the internet and a local fly shop to help answer two important questions: which species of trout are in the river, and are they stocked or wild? Knowing the answers will help narrow down where the trout should be holding, and which technique might be most effective. 

Browns tend to be more aggressive, meaning streamers could work best. Cutthroats and rainbows tend to be more willing to look up, so dry flies might be the best option. Wild fish tend to hold in a wider variety of water–including swifter runs–while stocked fish often prefer slower, deeper runs with less current. Wild fish will also be pickier about your fly selection, while stockers will eat a much wider variety of “junk flies.”

The time of year will also determine where fish are holding, as they move from feeding in swifter water during warmer months to retreating down into deeper holes during the leaner winter months to conserve energy.

One of my favorite ways to fish a new stream is by wading with a dry-dropper rig, using a Chubby Chernobyl Ant as the dry with a beadhead nymph as the dropper, 12 to 24 inches underneath. It’s an effective way to cover water during most of the year, since the ant can imitate stoneflies early in the season and grasshoppers during summer and fall, and the dropper is appealing all year long, although I don’t often use it during high hopper season. 

If the dry-dropper rig does not work, it’s time to fish nymphs with an indicator. The key with this method is to continually adjust both your weight and your indicator so that your flies are always down near the bottom. Don’t be afraid to hang a streamer under your indicator, as well, when fishing faster-moving runs. Swinging a streamer downstream on your way back to your entry point is also a good tactic to ensure you cover multiple approaches.

Exploring new places is very rewarding–even if the fishing turns out to be a bust–and the challenge of getting outside your comfort zone by trying new fly-fishing tactics will surely make you a better angler.

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