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Finding the Fish

How a Seasoned Guide Finds Trout on a River

One of the most common questions I get is, "How do I know where the fish are in the river?"

Well... I'd have to agree:

Finding the best spots for targeting trout in a river is the biggest key to a successful day. If you can’t find the fish, no matter what you’re casting, you’re going to be hard-pressed to have much success.

If you learn to understand the river, even just a little, you’ll have more opportunities for more (and sometimes bigger) fish!

In this article, we’ll discuss successful, tested methods for finding trout in a river so you can get more hookups, battles, and have a productive day on the water.

Locating Trout, at a Glance

Here’s what we’ll cover today

  1. Why Understanding a River Matters

  2. Parts of the River

  3. Chunking Down

  4. Finding Fish

  5. Seasonality

  6. The Near to Far Method

  7. Summary


Why Understanding a River Matters

Trout are, well, in the water. So what more do we need to know? Aren’t we just able to walk down to the riverbank, start wetting a line, and voila!?!?


But there are a few things to keep in mind when finding the best spots for fly fishing:

First of all, you chose to (or are at least thinking about trying to) FLY FISH!

Why does that matter?

Unlike spin fishing or bait fishing, the very nature of fly fishing requires you to get quite specific.

You’re literally eliminating the river (or lake, pond, salt flat, etc.) as a whole and targeting fish…trout in this instance…in a precise manner.

In spin fishing, you’re casting across, generally as far as you can (or at a specific target, say a boulder or dock) and retrieving toward you.

  • You’re most often coming across the current or perpendicular (ish) to the shoreline.

  • The attraction, movement, and even noise is built into the lure and brings fish to you.

In bait fishing, you’re relying on the bait itself.

  • The scent and/or natural movement brings the fish to you.

  • You don’t have to do much but cast and wait.

In fly fishing, you’re casting upstream and drifting down.

  • Your “lane” is from upstream to downstream, not across and toward you (there are some exceptions like streamer fishing.... but, for the sake of easier understanding, we’ll have that conversation another time).

In the fly fishing example, you’re relying on a fish (hopefully) being in your chosen “lane” and also being willing to feed on your fly. Your fly tries to represent what the trout is naturally wanting to feed on at that moment.

What does this mean for a fly angler?

This means that, in deciding where to fly fish, it works to your benefit to be able to have a better idea of where trout want to hang out so you’re not just casting to empty water.

Knowing the Parts of the River Can Help Increase your Productivity

We’re talking about rivers because they’re generally more dynamic than lakes or ponds. While still-water ( lakes and ponds) have subtle currents and flows, rivers are more obvious and tend to draw more fly fishers than still-water.

You’ll want to know: Run, Riffle, Pool, and Tailout


a general term for a section of river from the very beginning of one riffle to the beginning of the next.


Riffle is, in fly fishing terms, any water that has enough speed to create waves, an undulating motion, or a broken/unsmooth surface but generally less than whitewater. The most obvious river feature is the riffle.


The slow, sometimes deeper part of the river just after a rifle and before the tailout


The end of a pool that becomes shallower, often rocky or gravelly, just before the water speeds up and spills into another riffle.

Tailout can have a secondary meaning: the place where the riffle slows down and meets the pool; just before or at the point where the riffle calms and the water’s surface becomes flat again.

Shelf and Bucket-

A shelf and bucket coexist. They’re not always present in every fly fishing spot but often occur somewhere near the end of a riffle or inside seam (seams are discussed in the “Finding Fish '' section below).

Look for a relatively shallow gravel/rock bed that suddenly drops into a deeper spot or section. The end of the shallow gravel bar or rock bed is the shelf and the deeper part is the bucket.

Knowing these terms helps you understand the next part…..

Chunking Down to Make it Easier

Here’s the Deal,

Looking at a river (lake, pond, etc) can be overwhelming. You understand the parts of the river, now let's make it less intimidating!

The first step in “chunking down” is identifying the run. As mentioned above, simply identify one riffle. Mark the very beginning of it…the moment the water speeds up into waves and cascades down toward and into a pool. That’s riffle “A”.

Now, look downstream to where the pool below riffle “A” speeds up into another riffle…riffle” B.” The point from the top of riffle “A” to the point right before riffle “B” (usually the shallow tailout of your pool), is your first chunk…

As long as no one else is fishing there, the area is big enough for two, or you know the person there...

You’ve found your run!

The fish can be anywhere in your run, however. But even if you only make it this far, you’re still a step ahead of many!

Now, let’s find a good spot for trout.

What can I do, beyond chunking it into runs, to read the water?


Chunk it further!

Finding Fish

You’ve already identified your run, so you know how to look at the difference in flows (speed/velocity). Remember your riffle and pool?

Are the trout in the riffle? Are they in the pool? What about the tailout?

One of the easiest ways to find trout in your section is to find the seams.

Seems are - the place, point, or lane where two or more DIFFERENT currents meet

One of the best places to find a seam is on the inside of a bend, meaning the river curves around you. You’re standing on the inside of the curve and the opposite shore is on the outside of the curve…

As the riverbed curves around you, the velocity of the riffly water tends to want to stay moving in a straight(er) line. The riffle itself will continue out toward the middle of the river leaving “softer”, slower water between you or your shore and the riffle.

This is the Inside Seam!

That spot where the near edge of the riffly water meets the slower water (between your shore and the riffle) is a spot where two different currents meet. This is the Inside Seam - A GREAT SPOT TO LOCATE TROUT!

Another seam can be found on the downstream end of an island. One current goes around one side of the island and the other current around the opposite side.

Directly below the island will be a spot of slow water. The currents of faster water moving around both sides of the island will eventually converge some distance BELOW the island, leaving you a clear seam or even multiple seams!

That’s Trout Town! Fish there too!

Water temperature and seasons play a roll as well...…

Understanding Seasonality will Increase your Odds!

This point relates to the last, but with a little further clarification.

Seasons matter.

  • Temperatures matter (mostly water temp but ambient air temp plays a role).

  • Trout activity and preferred holding water changes with the seasons


Summer = hot weather = warm water = lower dissolved oxygen in the water. Trout will do one of two things

  1. Move deep into water that has at least some motion/riffle as to escape the heat. Water at the surface is warmed by ambient temps. Colder water is found deeper in the pool.

  2. Move into fast water. Fast roiling, riffly water has higher levels of dissolved oxygen. It makes it easier for a trout to breathe. The water may be relatively deeper (often preferred to escape ambient warming), but can also be fast and shallow too…high in the riffle and right in the middle of the river!

Winter = cold weather = cold water = trout metabolism slows. Trout are cold blooded and will seek warmer water.

  1. Focus on deep (often relatively slow) water

  2. Look for warmer water… a spring coming out of the ground or a tailwater below a bottom-release dam. Both instances are earth-heated water which is warmer than the colder water that has been exposed to winter air.


Some trout spawn in spring

  • Rainbow trout

  • Cutthroat trout

Some spawn in the fall

  • Brown trout

  • Brook trout (and other char)

Why are temps/seasons relevant?

Trout tend to get more aggressive just before spawning. They will move from deeper water to shallow, mild-to-moderately riffled water to make spawning beds (redds).

Most fly fishers consider it un-sporty to target spawning trout. They’re easy prey, exposed to predators, and interrupting the spawning cycle means less future trout populations.

Also, walking on these shallow gravel areas kills the eggs!

Instead, target non-spawning species in the depth just downstream of the spawning fish.

For example, when the brown trout are spawning in the fall, rainbow trout and other species will be feeding on eggs washed down off of the redd (spawning bed). You’ll find brown trout doing the same behind the spawning rainbows in the spring.

To do this…

  1. Simply locate the spawning fish in the shallow gravel.


  3. Look just downstream of the spawning fish where the shallow gravel drops off into a deeper spot…the shelf and the bucket

  4. Fish the bucket with an egg pattern or attractor fly for non-spawning fish! Colors like orange, pink, chartreuse and yellow should do well.

Work Near to Far to Find More Fish!

Now that you’re able to chunk-down and find a good spot for trout, how do you cover the river efficiently?

By Fishing Near to Far

Just as the name states, you’ll want to begin your fishing near (closer to you) to far (further away).

Let’s look at approaching a run:

Don’t just walk right up to the water and assume you’re going to wade in and cast to the middle or even the opposite bank. You’ll want to:

  1. Find your target. Look at your ideal drift...maybe a seam or boulder in the riffle.

    1. Think about where the top of your drift (where you’ll land your fly upstream) and where the bottom of your drift (the end of the drift where you’ll pick up your line and cast back upstream).

    2. Mark the middle of that lenght and walk toward that spot

  2. Don’t fixate on one thing. Have your target in mind but adjust as needed upon approach.

  3. Walk slowly toward the water. See if the water near the shore is possibly deep enough to hold fish.

  4. Start your casting/drifting short of your intended target

    1. Fish the nearest probable place for trout first. No need to spook trout that might be closer to you than anticipated

    2. Get a few GOOD drifts in the near lane, move out 6 inches to a foot, and do it again

    3. Keep “covering the water” until you’ve fished closer than your target, through your target, and farther out than your target!

Using this method helps you find trout that may have been closer to shore, at/around your target, and even beyond your target.

Now, you’ve effectively “covered” the water!


Bottom line is this…

If you’re looking to find the best trout water:

  • Learning to chunk down the river into smaller, bite sized sections makes things easier and more straight forward.

  • Learning to see the difference in structure, flows, and depth, helps to understand where the fish are more likely to hang out.

  • Understanding the seasons tells where certain trout will want to be and how the will most likely behave

Small streams are easier to chunk down than large rivers but don’t let the size of a river scare you!

When searching where to fly fish in big rivers, riffles, seams, and pools are still present! Even on large, slow moving rivers, there are still features, no matter how subtle they seem!

Just chunk the river down more and more until you find the best spot for fly fishing.

Don't forget to check out other Downstream blog articles and please comment below and share your experiences!

Cheers and tight lines!


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