Tactics and Techniques

Fish the Riffles.

After lunch, my brother fished the seam that separated the fast water along the far bank from the slack water along the island where we ate our lunch.

My father and I watched him from the drift boat while we had our sandwiches and finished our candy bars and passed the flask of rye. He looked back when his rod bent with a fish on. The seam was fishing good.

Smoke from the fires in Canada that summer hid most of the landscape in a grey haze. It was hot, and when I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes, I knew I only had to decide, and I could be asleep. But the river brought me back, and I opened my eyes and stepped out of the drift boat and pulled it back to me so I could reach my fly fishing necklace and fly rod. An extra fly box, some split shot, and a few strike indicators were stuffed in my shirt pockets. I stood for a while longer watching my brother. My father offered me the flask and I took it.

Good luck son.

Thanks. The rye burned my lips and I handed it back.

I walked up the bank and stopped short of where my brother was fishing. His strike indicator moved along in the swirls of the river while he mended line and worked to keep a natural drift. At the end he let the line drag and looked back at me and smiled and then cast. When his line hit the water, I walked past and continued upstream. My father was still watching him when I looked back the last time.

On the other side of the island the river was a wide, shallow riffle that reached a hundred yards to the far bank. There was one narrow chute of slightly deeper water in the middle where the drift boats would slide through. I looked up at them while I fished the riffles, wondering what their story was. What brought them to the Bighorn.

Sometimes they looked back at me. Maybe they wondered what my reason was.

I believe everyone has another reason they go to the river. Something besides catching fish. Each reason is different, and they may not know it themselves, but I believe it is there.

Why Fish the Riffles?

The riffles are a great place to find fish. There is a lot of movement in the water as it passes along the bottom. This creates good oxygen and food supplies for trout.

Shallow water does not mean there cannot be descent sized fish. I caught a few nice trout in less than a foot of water that day on the Bighorn.

Fishing the riffles keeps your line wet as you move along the river. There are few places I would rather be than wading up and down a trout stream. Part of the joy is the movement and the discovery of the river.

To me, the riffles are every bit as exciting as any other part of the river. I think of the riffles as connections between sections on the river. Don’t pass on fish as you are moving from section to section.

Riffles can be fun to fish with someone else. When a river opens up and creates a large area of shallow water it can make for a lot of room to share with the folks you are fishing with. Everyone is fishing similar water. A big riffle is a chance for fishing with friends.

Tips for Fishing the Riffles

I love fishing the shallow riffles of a trout stream. Over the years I have developed some techniques that make it more enjoyable and more productive.

Methodical Movement

Start at one end and move to the other casting to the places that may hold fish. Being methodical can ensure that you cover all the water and do not pass up good sections of the riffle. Try fishing closer in at first and then further out so you do not spook fish casting over them.

Where are the Fish?

It can be hard to know how to fish the riffles because often there is so much water that looks the same. But there are still certain places that are more likely to hold fish than others. Fish the edges where the river flows into the riffle and the tail where it flows out. In between, look for the small seams and fingers that come off of larger rocks and shelves. They may be subtle, but if you look hard you will find them.

Glassy parts in the middle of riffles may be the clue to a slight bucket or seam under the surface. It takes focus to find the smooth parts in riffles that may hold trout.

Focus on the Drift

The riffle has a lot of uniformity and this can be an advantage because it helps with a natural drift. Do not be afraid to mend downstream if you need to cast across slower water to reach the faster riffle.

Watch for Fish

It can be harder to spot fish in the riffles because the water is chopped up by the shallow water running over the rocks along the bottom, but it is not impossible. Move slow and continue to keep an eye out for fish.

Adjust your Rig

Do not forget to adjust your strike indicator to account for the shallower water. Often the weight of the fly is enough, but depending on the speed of the water you may still need some split shot.

Set the Hook.

Fishing shallow water can mean touching bottom more often. Remember to hook set when you see an indication of a strike.

READ: WADEOUTTHER | Hook Sets are Free.

Moving On.

Eventually my brother joined me on my side of the island. He told me how good the fishing was where he had been and how many fish he caught. I told him how good my fishing was and how many fish I had caught. Then we fished the big riffle together until we both knew it was time to move on. I do not remember who caught more fish.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Don’t Keep Score.


As I followed my brother around the bushes, I looked back at another drift boat sliding past the big riffle we had fished and thought I knew my other reason. Wadeoutthere.


Jason Shemchuk

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  • Reply
    Richard Joiner
    April 27, 2020 at 2:41 pm

    Great article about riffles. Have a lot where fish,yet usually ignore to get to deeper more familiar water. Victim of habit,if catch fish in 4ft runs that’s what I look for,but obviously missing out. Try your tips,my main concern if have 50,100yd wide run where the hell to fish!!?? Thanks.

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      April 28, 2020 at 12:14 pm

      I understand what you mean Rich. It can be tough when you have a wide run like that to decide where to start. Good for you to want to try something new and get out of your “comfort zone”. I think a lot of growth and discovery occurs when we do this in fly fishing. Here are a few other considerations.

      First, I don’t stay in one spot for long. Moving around a lot let’s me cover more water. I think of it like streamer fishing. I’ll give the trout one or two presentations and then move on. They are either gonna take it the first time or not at all. I’m not afraid to come back to a spot later though and I have caught many fish this way in the riffles moving about.

      Another benefit of moving is you explore the whole section so you can find spots that are more likely to hold fish, like shelves or submerged rocks that you might not see if you don’t get across the water. I like to fish the fingers that come off of those shelves.

      I also don’t cast very far and keep a high stick. Keeping it tight helps me maintain a solid drift…always important but especially in the riffles.

      I’m not afraid to use dries either. Almost always will use a bigger lead dry so it’s easier to see. And hook set on that when I can’t see my smaller trailer.

      Finally, I make sure that my nymph is bouncing on the bottom. My take is that if there is not much water for the fish I think the strike zone is right along the very bottom and not much higher. It’s relative to the depth of the water column in other words. Often the water is moving fast in the riffles and because it’s shallow we think we don’t need split shot. Don’t forget the speed of that water when trying to nymph the riffles.

      Really finally…this means I will have a lot of bounces and bumps that might not be fish but I never assume it’s the bottom just bc it’s shallow or I can’t see the fish through the chop. Hook sets are free…mostly.

      Thanks for reading and supporting Wadeoutthere. Hope this helps and is a bit more specific. Cheers.

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