Tips for Spotting Fish and Reading a River

Tom Preece

Here are some industry leading tips on how to spot fish and properly read a river.
  • Get a quality pair of polarized sunglasses. The right sunglasses are essential when trying to spot fish. Sun on the water causes a lot of glare, making it quite hard to spot fish. Polarized glasses removes that glare.
  • Fish midday. Fishing early and late when fish are more actively feeding increases your odds of catching them. However, for learning to spot fish - and thus better understanding their movements, preferred lies and feeding habits - the middle part of the day when the sun is high overhead gives you a better advantage. A high midday sun means there is little glare on the water, allowing you to more easily see into the river.
  • Approach the stream carefully. How you approach a stream is critical to your success. Always walk gently, never stomping your feet. Keep low, even squatting or crawling if the fish are spooky. Stay in the shade if possible. If you wade, go very slowly, keeping your ripples small and close to your feet.
  • Look for a fish's shadow on the streambed. Even the most experienced angler has difficulty spotting the actual fish holding in its lie - just ask any osprey. Millions of years of evolution have given trout an amazing ability to blend in with their watery surroundings, but there is a trick you can use: look for the fish's shadow.


Now that you've burned some midday hours trying to spot fish and learning where they live in the river and why, it's time to learn to find and catch fish you can't see. And quite honestly, that's most of them, most of the time.

While you may not always be able to see fish, you can learn to "read" any river, as they all share common traits. Learning to read a river means being able to recognize the type of stream habitat the fish are most likely to favor at different times during the day, both at rest and while actively feeding.

All streams or rivers have the same basic sections and share common traits. Fast water can be broken down into rapids, riffles, and pocket water. Slow water can be broken down into pools, slicks, and eddies. Fish prefer to live in a slower current most of the time as this helps them conserve valuable energy. Trout generally lay up in front of or behind rocks or in the gentle seam of where two currents meet.


  • Boulders: Fish love boulders for the protection and feeding opportunities they provide. Boulders protruding from the water's surface create a pocket of slower water. The front pocket is formed by the damming effect on the current, causing the water to stack up and create a bulge of slower water. You will recognize this bulge and sometimes see a wave breaking just in front of it.
  • Stream Banks: First look for fish along the shore or banks of the river where the water is deep enough to hold fish or allow them to move into the shallows to feed. Particularly in the early morning, trout will move into surprisingly shallow "skinny water" to feed on nymphs or emerging insects. Look for active fish down stream from any irregular shoreline feature, bump or other protrusion you can see, such as a series of rocks jutting into water. Fish will hold in the slack current behind obstructions like these, so you can be confident they are there whether or not you see them feeding.
  • Fallen, Submerged Trees: Finding fish means first finding their habitat, and trees that have fallen or been swept into the river provide plenty of that. Whether still attached by roots or lodged against the bank or other structure, whole or partially submerged trees create a slack current attractive to fish (look for a slick water area or area of calmer water).


  • Head of the Pool: At the end of the rapid or riffle - a riffle is just a shallow rapid - there will be a transition area called the "head" of the pool. The water rushes down the rapid area and hits a deepening stream bottom that might also widen and slow the current. The previously tumbling water becomes smoother and quieter in its movement as it enters the pool. You will also find fish feeding on bottom-dwelling nymphs in this area, or catching the drowned insects and other morsels carried on the current's conveyor belt.

    Just downstream from the head of the pool is an area that may be shallow on one bank, known as a "shelf." The shelf may consist of a gravel, sand, or mud bar. There will be a very distinct line between the fast flowing channel current and the shelf's slower current. Look for feeding fish in the slower moving water of the shelf, as well as the outer seam where the two currents meet.
  • Tailout: A tailout is located where the pool empties into the next rapid or riffle, also referred to as simply the "tail" of the pool. Notoriously shallow and susceptible to the eyes of predators, the tail of the pool does not fish well during daylight hours. The tail has holding areas but the water becomes shallower and spills into the next rapid's area of the stream.

Blog Credit: Redington

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