Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

In Part I of this post we discussed the common topologies and features of waterfall pools and the basins in which they lay. This installment deals with ways of fishing a waterfall pool.

Surely in fish legends and lore, waterfall pools are where they go in the afterlife if they’ve been good. It’s paradise–and plenty of them seem to have swum the straight and narrow in their day, because they’re here in abundance. Besides the richness of the pool’s ecosystem, there’s yet another powerful reason why fish–of course naturally migratory species like salmonids, but in general any species whose instinct is to seek out new haunts–will congragate there. A waterfall of any significant height represents an impassable barrier to unstream-bound fish. They yearn to go further, they cannot, and there they stay, some tossing themselves against the rock from time to time, others simply waiting for the unlikely day the barrier will come down. The pool may become crowded, but as long as sufficient sustenance exists, the fish will remain. As they grow large enough to no longer fear others of size, they’ll “graduate” up from the stream below to inhabit the pool. In summer they stay cool there, in winter they have the depths to save them from a full freeze…and they wait, and eat, and grow.

As we observed before, waterfall pools are very often in a bowl carved out by eons of powerful water. This means that unless you’re standing at the tail of the pool where the stream comes out to continue its journey (and where can lurk other creatures drawn to a falls, they being camera-toting tourists who will happily step into your backcast’s path with oblivion), you may need to be at the side edge of the pool, with high ground rising steeply behind you and a bottom far too deep to wade, even just a step or two into it. The point I’m making is that your standing point often gives you very little backcast room, and still too much distance to the pool’s center to reach it with a roll cast. You’ll often have to angle backcasts in a highly vertical way and still shoot line horizontally as best you can.

Figure 4--Casting Space
Figure 4–Casting Space

But again, these fish take full advantage of the mist and breeze the falling water creates. They typically don’t have undercut banks under which to hide, but they don’t need them either. While you’re shivering and slowly becoming drenched to the bone by that fine mist, they’re using it as cover, often to prowl to amazingly close proximity of the pool’s edges and surface. So don’t overlook lateral casts left and right in reach of your position. Your casting ability can be far better in semi-lateral directions.

If the pool is small enough that you can cast to the point where the water tumbles in from above, you should take note that the fish aren’t likely to be right at the surface directly under that falling influx. For one thing, there’s a lot of turbulence there; for another, they can’t see (and I think maybe can’t respirate) quite as well in water that’s mostly air. And they know by instinct that what’s falling into their pool isn’t only water. It’s also bits of rock–occasionally lethal chunks. They’re going to hang a little below and a little to the side, vigilant for bugs and for small baitfish and other critters damaged by the fall. As always, putting your offering where the fish are will improve your chances.

Waterfall pools provide a terrific opportunity to leverage the combined power of the sink tip line and a wooly bugger or other highly productive wet fly or streamer pattern. These fish are active because they can be; they’re in fish heaven. If you can shoot line even passably well and can get your offering somewhere roughly under the spray zone, you’re likely to tempt what’s there–big fish, or old logs, or some of each.

Figure 5--Jim-Jim Falls Australia
Figure 5–Jim-Jim Falls Australia

Whereas one avoids spoiling a stream by fishing it from downstream to upstream–casting to a point, drifting the fly back down, and only then casting to a point a little upstream of that–I believe a waterfall pool is best fished from surface to depth. I get my fly to a given area and work it back to me near the surface, then a little deeper, then a little deeper yet. I give a direction a rest after a couple of casts and do something similar to its left, or right…then try the area again, sometimes initially the same depth as before, but then letting the fly sink a little more. Little by little I’ve covered a good sampling of the water column. I typically assume that left vs. right is not as important as up vs. down.

The primary points I like to remember when on the edge of my favorite waterfall pools (and I’m lucky enough to have a few stunning ones) are: Light, Depth, Obstructions. I don’t overthink the choice of fly; I assume any decent offering is likely to get a strike. I try to take advantage of the fact that the reduced visibility will keep fish active and will tend to bring them up. I try to use an offering that lets me “work” the depths if water nearer the surface proves less productive. And I pay a lot of attention to submerged obstructions (lest I lose rig after rig)…and to obstructions behind me, as they’re almost always one of the bigger challenges.

Figure 6--Burney Falls
Figure 6–Burney Falls

A waterfall pool is not just another pool; the forces that carved it, and that are still carving it, set up special conditions particularly conducive to fish survival and growth. Learning how to work a pool’s currents and avoid its hazards can produce some extraordinary trout.

2 Comments

  1. Some of the high country creeks I often fish are long , narrow stretches more like cascades than streams. They are difficult to navigate, not because of water depth, but because of the speed of water tumbling over large rocks and around boulders. There are lots of fish hiding in tiny shadowed eddies produced by the rocks. The larger fish inhabit the larger eddies or perhaps a pool around the boulders or group of larger rocks. Small waterfalls produce the best pools and the dry flies that catch fish in other areas of the creek often produce nothing in these pools that can be much deeper than they appear. It always amazes me how trout can survive here, especially through harshly cold winters, yet they flourish.

  2. You paint a vivid image El Grillo. The adaptability of creatures like trout never cease to amaze, what with their ability to not only survive but thrive in such little pockets. Imagine an existence in a single pool, waiting for food to wash down, unaware of what’s above or below, or up on the bank.

    I agree it’s not often easy to distinguish between a falls and an ongoing tumbling cascade. High gradient areas like some slopes of mountain ranges have such waters in abundance, but it depends on the range.

    There’s a little creek that feeds into the culverts of the huge metropolitan area in which I live. It amazes me that there’s a species of native rainbow trout in that creek (before it becomes a culvert), even to this day. Most are tiny–half the size of my thumb (and I’m not Shrek, either). In the dry months you find them in tiny “pools” that might be as much as two inches deep, behind some tiny tennis-ball-sized rock. And where the dry season trickle pours over a log and an actual eight or so inches of depth can be found below the pour-over, one finds some serious size–up to four or five inches! And they’ll hit just about anything, because their reality is that they have to get to a bug before their buddy does.

    I found a place once where I could get down into the creekbed and actually “cast” (instead of just dangling the leader). Very short cast, but I tried it. On one back cast, a fish must have grabbed the fly the instant it lifted off the water. The fish was so small I barely felt it. Still on the hook, it whizzed past my ear with a tiny “eeeeeeeeeee!” Somehow I swear it made that sound. Poor little guy–I never fished there again.

    IMO, tiny pools of tumbling cascade streams can be fished like pocket water for the most part, although you’re right that footing is very difficult and the pockets are more like crevices between rocks. Like you say, it’s amazing they can call such places home, winter and summer, freeze and droght. The pools of big waterfalls a hundred feet high or more are a different story–they fish more like a small lake that’s deep for its width, except for the addition of the vertically falling influx which serves a fish’s need to stay hidden very well.

    – Mike

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