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Fishing Pocket Water

Read Time: 6 minutes | Published: 13th September 2021 | Author: Rachel Finn

Anyone who’s ever been to the West Branch of the Ausable has been challenged by its infamous pocket water. You know, that fast water with the greased bowling balls? Pocket water is a section of a river with rocks of all sizes above and below the surface. But it’s not just rocks—trees, stumps, bridge abutments etc. will also create pocket water. These objects break up the current and create places for fish to feed and hold. I’ve been guiding on this water for many years, and while it may be challenging, it’s really exciting and fun. To help you on your journey to fishing water like this, here’s my quick guide to fly fishing pocket water.

Assess The Level

The first thing I do is assess the river level. Summer levels are perfect for wading pocket water on the Ausable. After checking the water temps (I make sure it’s under 70 ), I’ll find a good long section with no people. Then I will sit alongside the river and observe. I’m looking for what might be hatching. Birds working in the air are a good place to start. I’m also looking for rises. Rises in pocket water can be hard to detect. If you don’t see any, don’t worry. You are going to “make” them come up for your well presented fly. I’m also loosely “planning” my attack route. 

Summer levels are perfect for wading the Ausable.
Photo: Sean Platt

Next, I’ll rig up. Both nymphs and dries can be productive (especially Euro nymphing), but I really like fishing dries. There’s nothing like watching a dry fly drift through beautiful water.

My Setup

I use a 9’ 5wt Scott Centric, Nautilus Xs reel with an Airflo Universal wt forward floating line. However, anything 4-6wt will do. I rig a 9’ 4X leader and 4X tippet. Fly selection will be dictated by local conditions. I’ll use the late summer as an example for the Ausable. We have the Isonychia hatch August – September. So, I might choose an ISO Parachute #10 or 12, or a Grey Wulff #10 or 12. It’s important to  choose a dry that will float high for pocket water. A few other classic patterns are: Stimulators, Ausable Bombers and Wulffs, Chubby Chernobyl’s, and Hoppers. I like to go big. 

Some top dry flies for the Ausable.

Personally , I usually start with just the dry. I love the freedom of casting one dry. Make sure you put floatant on your fly. This is especially key for pocket water.


98 %the time I work upstream. If the water is super high, I might go downstream from the bank with a streamer. The reason to work upstream is that it will give you the advantage of stealth.

The majority of pocket water fishing is prospecting. You are looking for seams and current breaks caused by rocks. These are areas where a trout can obtain food that is drifting. Fish will be behind rocks, but also in the hydraulic in front of them. When the current breaks and goes around a rock, look for where they come back together below. Your job is to search these areas with your fly. 

Searching the right areas pays off.

The hardest part about fishing pocket water is line control. Fish a short line and try and keep most of your line off the water. A high rod tip helps for this. If it’s super fast water, I might fish my fly suspended on a tight line. Don’t be afraid  to improvise casts. Think of each spot as a puzzle you need to solve. This requires a lot of repetitive casting.


I will search an area first with a few dead drift casts. If nothing rises, I will skitter or move the fly on the surface. You should always try a few different presentations. Trout are very opportunistic in pocket water. Moving your fly will sometimes make all the difference in the world. Another thing I do is drift my dry downstream on a dead drift, then skitter it back upstream. Try it all!

I will generally stay in the water and wade to my next targeted area. I fish everything that looks fishy. You’d be surprised how many fish will be in shallow water. The Ausable is a tough stream to wade, so I will take advantage of my position and cast to every available holding spot from my location before I move. When I do move, I use a Folstaf Wading Staff. This is a valuable tool as it will keep you safe and dry, but also allow you to move quicker. I wear Patagonia Foot Tractor boots with felt soles and studs. If you stay in the water and wade up stream, make sure that you are stealthy in your approach, especially in low water. Trout can sense vibration/noise with their lateral line. 

Fish everything that looks fishy.

Changing Flies

If I’m fishing and not moving any fish, I will either change my fly or add a bead head nymph dropper. The dropper really makes a lot of sense when prospecting as it covers two different parts of the water column. During the Isonychia hatch I will add a #12 Pheasant Tail and make sure that I drift it very close to the rocks as the Isonychia hatch on them. The length of the dropper depends on the depth of the water and weight of your nymph. The standard distance is 18-24” 

It’s also possible to fish another dry as your dropper. I’ve encountered Trico or Baetis hatches while fishing pocket water, and it’s tough to see a size 20 fly in fast water. I’ll tie a small fly 18” from my big dry, which will act as a reference. I have a client who uses an ant as a dropper. The ant will sink or float- it doesn’t matter, its deadly!

Generally if you catch a fish in a pocket it’s time to fish another one—unless it’s a sizable pocket.

Fish at any pace you want, and remember to have fun!
Photo: Nick Yardley

You can fish at any pace you want. Somedays I’m ambitious and full of energy, others not so much. It depends on how much Scotch I had the night before. But know that to catch a lot of fish in the pockets you have to cover water. 

Most importantly, remember to have fun and to look around at the beautiful scenery! 

To read more from Rachel, check out her other article on the blog!

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