In highly pressured waters, pocket waters produce fish

There is a tendency by fishers to head for the largest and deepest holes in a stream, which are usually also the most well-known, and stay put. But when the pressure is on, the fish take notice. At times like this, it can be much more productive to fish the scattered pocket water between these holes. When pursuing steelhead recently in the Lake Erie tributaries this once again proved true for me.

After the water began to fall and clear following a large storm, I headed to the tributaries to the west of Erie, Pennsylvania looking for good fishing. Instead, I mostly found huge crowds of people at nearly every access area I visited. I’ve never been a big fan of combat fishing, and that’s increasingly true as time goes on – especially after my experience fishing in Iceland.

So I decided to ply the water in between the well-known holes, each with names of their own. I walked the well-worn banks and the brush alike, searching the water with a pair of polarized glasses in search of fish and water with fish-holding characteristics.

I was fishing a float rig with a pink Berkley trout worm. I switched up my rigging and bait throughout the day, though kept coming back to this as it was clearly the most productive.

At daybreak, I spotted a moving pocket of water in the middle of the stream only a few yards downstream of a small fall and washed out hole where a dozen or more fishers stood. Over the light shale bottom I could clearly see a number of fish, even as the sun had only barely began to appear over the horizon. I set up here and began to fish. It became clear to me quickly however that even set as short as possible, the float rig wasn’t going to work. The fish were already on edge in this area, and the appearance of a float—even a tiny one—over their heads in 16 inches of clear water put them on even higher alert.

In order to get around this, I removed my float and simply tossed the worm at the head of the pocket. The small jighead and micro split-shot were enough to get the little bait down in the strike zone. It was just far and deep enough to disappear when I felt a slight but distinct pressure on my line. In the split second I had to respond I set the hook. Maybe it was a rock, but I doubted it. I was right.

A bright silver hen, fresh from the lake, appeared instantly. She fought more like a salmon than a steelhead, pulling slow and methodically up and down the run and into the tail of the pool above. After a bit of back and forth, which amounted to a lot less than I would expect from a fish her size, she was brought to net. I snapped a quick photograph of her in the net and then released her back into the stream. The sun was still partially obscured over the horizon and I had already caught a great fish. Of course the commotion caused by my catch caught the attention of a number of other fishers, themselves looking for a place to fish among the large crowds. Before I knew it, I too was crowded. No problem for me. The fish in this pocket were now spooked and it was time to look for new places to wet a line.

After a short walk revealed that the waters open to the public in this area were either crowded beyond belief or devoid of fish, I headed to a larger stream. There too crowding was at levels above what I had ever seen, but there was a lot more open water.

I patiently walked the high bank, being sure not to be too obvious to any fish waiting below, and again searched. Here the water was deeper and cloudier. So instead of looking for fish, I looked for fishy spots. A few hundred yards above me sat a very popular, deep hole on a bend under a railroad bridge. It was surrounded by a large number of fishers. The last time I had fished it in the middle of winter, I was the only angler there. I had a lot of success. This time, I’d pass.

I worked my way up to it, starting at a short run of swift moving water where I had caught a large fish a few years back. Nothing. Next I moved up to a larger washed out area that was approaching a pool in size. Two fishers passed me, stopping to peer into the water and try to identify the fish I was targeting. They couldn’t spot anything, so they moved along. Of course, I couldn’t see fish either, but I could tell that this was a spot that would hold fish. As the steelhead moved up stream, this would be the last pocket they could rest in for several hundred yards. Above it, a long shallow run over light shale rock stretched until the next bit of deeper water. These kinds of stream features often hold numbers of fish larger than most would expect, especially while a run is still in progress, with fish arriving from the lake daily. I didn’t catch any fish here this time, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. As I began to move upstream, a fish appeared, breaking the surface before disappearing back into the water.

After the long stretch of shallow water running over exposed shale, there were a few small pockets that cut into a high muddy bank. At this point I was much closer to the popular deep pool above me.  An angler with a fly rod, the only the person I’d seen fishing the pockets, was leaving just before I approached. I made my first cast. I checked my float to make sure my drift kept pace with the current, ensuring a natural presentation. A few feet into the drift, my float stopped and slipped under the surface. I set the hook. Another large silver fish appeared. The fight was longer and more intense this time. I thought the fish would take my line into the fallen tree on the bank and break it off several times over. Luckily, I was able to steer it clear of that obstacle and bring it to net. It was another nice fish. Fresh from the lake, and though not huge, bigger than average for this part of the world.

The rest of the day went something like this. Bites were few and far between, but they came. Although it took a bit of walking, surely I had more success than I would have had I tried to muscle into one of the already overcrowded holes. And even if not, the experience was still much more enjoyable.

Often passed over, pockets waters deserve attention when targeting salmonids in moving water.

Later in the day, as I headed back toward my vehicle, I noticed a very large tree in the middle of the stream. I remembered it well. Not long ago, when the waters were almost too high and muddy to fish at all, I hooked a small male steelhead out of a piece of broken water that formed alongside its trunk. The waters had receded. The tree was now almost completely dry. Ignored by the majority of fishers on this day, it was just as overlooked then when it gave a fish a place to ride out the storm.