A Guide’s Perspective on How to Read Water: Midriver Dropoffs - By Kyle Wilkinson
As a fly fishing guide, I’m constantly reading water. The river that I spend most of my time on changed no less than five times last season. Snowmelt and an abnormally rainy summer removed entire logjams, blew out corners and redeposited gravelbars hundreds of yards downstream. Finding fish is a top priority and we have to adapt as the river changes. Reading water is critical for success.
Midriver dropoffs: My dirty little secret
On the rivers and creeks that I guide, I like to focus on midriver dropoffs. These places are often overlooked by anglers looking to fish structure and pound the banks. With the right river dynamics, food source and depth, these midriver drops can hold some of the biggest fish in the river.
The magical midriver drop
After the egg drop this past season, there was one particular run that had a random drop in the middle of the river. On every float I could guarantee an eat if the client could land their drift in the right zone, just upstream of the drop. I would prepare them by pointing out the dropoff when we were about 100 feet from the drop. I would tell them to cast when we were 20 feet from hitting the drop. Their flies would hit the water and begin sinking, oftentimes tapping the bottom in the shallow taper of the pool above before hitting the shelf and dropping in. I could sense when their rig would go over the drop as soon as their bobber would stop quivering and the flies stopped bouncing bottom. It would sometimes be only seconds before their bobbers would drop as a fish inhaled their bead. These fish that we were targeting were sitting just at the start of the drop.
What to look for
Midriver drops can be easier to find if you know what type of river dynamics cause them. Unless you spend an ample amount of time on a given river, these areas can be overlooked. I’ve found myself and other anglers often stick to fishing what they’re used to. That usually involves fishing structure, pounding the banks and fishing seams and heads of pools. Finding midriver drops often requires multiple floats over a certain piece of water in good conditions. Low, clear water helps to locate these depth transitions.
In the creeks that I guide, I find many of these drops upstream of a major bend in the river. The tailout of a pool along a straightaway in the river will taper out to sometimes only inches deep before plummeting off of a steep dropoff. As the river starts into the hard bend, the current will carve out this deep hole. These areas are often indicated by a tan color on the bottom of the river [the shallow tailout of the pool above] transitioning to a bluish-green bottom [the deep hole behind the dropoff]. I believe that the dynamics of the current hitting the corner and being pushed back upstream into the oncoming current creates large, roiling eddies that stir up sediment and cut out these large holes. Now I’m no hydrologist, so don’t hate on this fishing guide if that’s not entirely accurate. I just make stuff up for clients.
Two braids of the river that come together will create a deep midriver drop. These areas are easier to spot, as this will also create a visible seam at the surface. The converging of two currents will cut a deep hole that fish will stack up in.
Midriver structures, such as log jams and boulders, will cause water to diverge around it and consequently carve out deep holes for sometimes 50-100 yards below the structure. One such log jam in one of the creeks that I fish creates two channels, a shallower one flowing to the right and a deeper one going left. The area immediately behind the log jam is shallow, allowing anglers to get out of the boat and fish on the corresponding gravel bar. As the right channel comes back to converge with the left, there is a 10+ foot drop. The fish will often sit just at the head of the depth change. Most anglers that drift by on the left side would totally miss this hole or only have one really good shot at it.
How to fish it
When fishing these areas, it’s important to make a cast before you think you need to. Many times these fish will nose up to the drop. If your cast lands in the deep water just after the drop, you may miss some of the bigger fish that have pushed their way to the head of the run. Casting your fly in the shallow water upstream of the drop and allowing your rig to drop as soon as the shelf appears will give you better opportunity at catching more and bigger fish.
An ample amount of weight is necessary to hit these types of drops effectively. Sometimes two or more size 7 split shot are necessary to get a bead rig, streamer or nymph deep enough. Again, we’re looking to drop these flies in the shallow water ahead of the drop and get them straight to the bottom as fast as possible. I run my split shot closer to my fly/bead than most anglers. I like to keep my split shot no more than 10 inches from my hook, oftentimes even closer. This keeps the fly/bead in the strike zone and helps to provide a deeper presentation. A large strike indicator, such as the large Oros indicators, provide ample floatation for heavy rigs and heightened sensitivity for light bites.
My ideal setup for fishing the bead drop would be a pegged bead on 8lb Maxima tippet and sitting about 8 inches below two size 7 split shot. The split shot would be positioned above a surgeon’s knot connecting my 8lb tippet to a 15lb Maxima leader. This keeps the split shot from sliding down the line and hitting my bead. I can add or cut off leader material to achieve the depth that I want my weights and bead to run. A good starting length for me is 10 feet. This 15lb leader would be connected with a loop-to-loop connection to a 12 inch long section of 25lb Maxima that would then connect to the fly line.
A fast-action rod will help turnover heavy and lengthy bead rigs. I wouldn’t run anything less than a 6 weight when fishing heavy setups like these. A floating line with a heavy weight-forward taper will punch these big rigs through the air and help to mend from long distances.
Midriver drops: Watch for them
Put this information to good use. Remember this trick the next time you hit the water. Keep an eye on the river as you float and look for transitions below the surface. Fishing a midriver drop could be the difference between a good day, and a legendary day.
Kyle Wilkinson is a fly fishing guide for Bear Paw River Guides in Southcentral Alaska. Kyle is a co-host of The Young Guides Podcast and works at Heather’s Choice as a production supervisor when he’s not guiding, hunting or hiking with family.
*All images and material credited to and provided by Kyle Wilkinson