Featured Photo: Native Colors

Featured Photo: Native Colors

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Picking the Pockets: Improving Your Pocket Water Game

Middle Prong of Little River, Great Smoky Mountains NP

As we move into late spring and early summer, the pocket water sections of most freestone streams here in the southeast can produce the easiest fishing you’ll experience all year.  In fact, my best catching days have all been on this type of water.  Granted, it can be hard to determine what should be referred to as pocket water in streams like Little River where everything looks a lot like pocket water.  For the purpose of clarification, I’m going to define pocket water as a section of stream where the overall flow is medium to fast and is interrupted by boulders and other stream obstructions that create holding water in a section that is otherwise too swift for trout to inhabit.  The picture above is a prime example of the type of water I’m referring to. 
Fishing pocket water is not normally the poetic aesthetically pleasing experience many associate with fly fishing.  Instead of making a beautiful 50 foot cast with a tight loop, you’ll often find yourself chucking heavy nymphs with plenty of split shot.  If textbook hatches and trout rising on a glassy surface are your game, stop reading now.  If you are interested in catching more fish, then this was written for you.
Pockets generally hold a lot of fish year round, but they really shine during the summer and fall.  One oft cited reason they fish so well in the summer is that the fast broken water will hold oxygen better, attracting fish out of the slower pools and runs as the water warms.  Additionally, the insects that the trout feed on are normally widely available in the fast water surrounding the pockets.  The calm pockets provide shelter from the current while the broken water on the surface provides shelter from aerial predators.  All this means that trout feel safe and are relatively easy to approach while holding in pockets. 

As we move into the summer months, some of the more significant hatches are mayflies and stoneflies that have a strong preference for faster water.  Here in the Smoky Mountains, the Isonychia bicolor (Slate Drake) mayflies hatch for an extended period starting in late spring and lasting through the summer.  The nymphs are particularly vulnerable as they swim towards boulders or rocks along the shore prior to hatching.
Stoneflies tend to prefer fast water as well.  In the Smokies we have good to excellent hatches of Golden Stoneflies and Little Yellow Stoneflies (including Yellow Sallies).  You can throw stonefly nymph imitations in pocket water and catch a few trout year round, but during the spring and summer you can have banner days catching an obscene number of fish. 

 A beautiful pocket water rainbow

Fishing pocket water is generally pretty simple.  In general, the closer you get the better.  When I fish freestone streams with good pocket water, it is rare for me to have more than 10 feet of line out.  Sometimes I only have a foot of line out past the top guide.  The easiest way to fish pocket water is with a dry fly, but often the most efficient method of catching is to fish nymphs.  My favorite summertime rig is a combination of heavy Tellico nymph to imitate a stonefly and an Isonychia soft hackle pattern I tie. 
One of the better rainbows I have landed in the Park fell for the Isonychia while it was still in the developmental stage.  Some of the largest browns I’ve caught came on Tellico nymphs.  It is not a coincidence that these fish feed on the most available food items. 

In the winter I prefer to fish a dark stonefly nymph with a midge dropper.  A surprising number of fish show a preference for the midge even in pocket water.  I guess their eye sight is much better than mine, because I have a hard time seeing them when they are sitting in my fly box, much less rushing downstream on a strong current. 
When fishing pockets, don’t forget to try terrestrials.  Trout in streams both east and west feed on a surprisingly wide variety of foods.  Ants and beetles make up a larger portion of their diet in the warmer months and other choice morsels such as grasshoppers and cicadas may bring up the largest trout of the season.  Bouncing streamers around cover is another good trick for pocket water. 

If you want to target fish in pockets with a dry, stick with something that matches one of the expected hatches unless you find a specific hatch to match.  Flies should be visible so you can track them through the current.  Here in the Smokies I fish a Parachute Adams or something similar a majority of the time but Stimulators and other bushy patterns work also. 
In pocket water, the best area to target is normally the slack water immediately behind any obstruction (the pocket itself).  However, you can improve your catch rate considerably by purposefully targeting what seems to be faster water downstream of the pocket.  Without actually showing you what I’m talking about it can be difficult to describe but I’ll make the attempt. 

Generally a pocket will have currents flowing around each side of it and perhaps even a small back eddy within the pocket.  These current tongues will meet up again some place downstream.  Most people think that’s all there is to the pocket, thus placing all their casts in the slack water and then moving on.  This common mistake means they are missing out on some of the better fish in the pocket.  The best feeding lie is downstream of where the currents converge.  This is because under the surface, especially near the bottom, the calmer water of the pocket continues downstream under what appears to be a fairly fast current.  Rocks near the bottom provide enough cover for a fish to sit behind, and these fish are virtually sitting in a funnel, with food coming from both sides of the pocket and as the currents merge together again. 
This position at the far downstream tip of a pocket is often a prime lie, meaning the largest fish in a given piece of water will make its residence there because it fulfills all the trout’s needs: food, shelter, and a place to rest from the current.  In this type of water, trout will not come up for a dry fly unless there is a heavy hatch going on.  The strong current near the surface of the stream means the fish will be expending too much energy when it could just sit on the bottom and gorge on nymphs, larva, pupa, and other bugs and critters caught in the drift. 

In the illustration below, the arrows represent where each trout’s food is coming from.  Notice that the larger fish are sitting under what appears to be a stronger current.  However these fish are getting food from multiple directions at once without moving at all.  Also notice that fish are not always facing upstream.  In fact, fish will often be facing downstream.  Trout will face into the current regardless of what direction it is coming from. 

As with all fishing, careful observation will be the difference between those who have success and those that go home frustrated.  Despite the broken character of pocket water, it is still possible to spot trout. 
Two summers ago I was fishing the Gunnison River in Colorado with two friends.  One was a new convert to the sport.  We sat down on some rocks by the river to rig up.  While sitting there I noticed a flash that could only come from a feeding trout.  Hoping my friend could catch a quality fish on his first trip, I got him set up and then talked him through how to approach what I believed was a big brown.  On about his third cast, I noticed the brief flash again and yelled “Set!”  His reflexes were not yet those of a seasoned fisherman and the hook set was hopelessly late.  Yet to get a good look at the fish, we all leapfrogged up the river.  The whole time though I continued to wonder about that trout. 

At the end of the day, we were hiking back down the river to our trail out when I decided to give the fish another shot.  Carefully tying on two of my best stonefly imitations, I made a careful cast into the small pocket along the bank.  The line ticked almost imperceptibly, and without thinking I set the hook.  Immediately I realized that the best fish of the day was on the other end of my line.  The fish tore through a set of rapids and into a large pool while I ran downstream as fast as I could.  Finally, the heavy bodied brown came to the net in a large back eddy.  We snapped a couple of pictures, and I pondered how I managed to spot the fish in the first place.  The lesson stuck with me though.  I always thoroughly fish every pocket in the hopes of stumbling across another chunky brown.


  1. David
    Really enjoyed the story about pockets, and I must say I learn things I didn't realize about fishing pockets. Thanks for sharing some good information.

  2. Bill,

    Glad you found this useful and thanks for taking the time to read it!

    David Knapp

  3. Great article. Thanks for the tips.

  4. Great piece you have here. As a kid I grew up fishing streams that were so tight that sometimes you had to use and old Eagle Claw telescoping rod to get into the holes.

    Thinking back on this makes me want to go stand in some water and drift a big black ant pattern down into a hole.

  5. Great article. Thanks. Didn't Brad Pitt do that in that movie... (you know, the one that, without the fly fishing, would be unwatchable)

  6. That is a nice brown, good job. I also learned some valuable information reading this post. Thanks.

  7. Great article for the novice fly fisherman (me) on how, what, and where to fish pocket water. Thanks for the info.