The cutbank of a river is a storied location in the realm of fly fishing. Flies are broken off on gnarled root balls, thick grasses, and precarious branches. Anglers are often left stumbling, slipping, and snagged. The evidence of their efforts can be seen in the tangled tippet and lost flies that look back at those of us who imagine brute-like brown trout lurking in the tight close seams below a hard to reach cutbank. Particularly difficult to reach cutbanks may seem like more trouble than they are worth but armed with some tactics for penetrating these tight spots, cutbanks can bring many a memorable trout to the net. Here are three I use when the opportunity presents itself.
My confidence in the value of fishing to these waters began below the Grand Tetons with the high muddy waters of the Snake River running before me. A small pool along a steep cutbank offered my only glimmer of hope on a thus far unproductive fishing trip. Snow melt in early June meant run off was making fishing in the Rocky Mountains tough to say the least.
The only fish I pulled from the river that day sipped a Parachute Adams after bouncing off roots below the grassy ledge of a steep cutbank.
Alibi: Targeting cutbanks from a drift boat solves many of the problems discussed below. This article addresses problem solving while on foot.
Wade Tight to the Bank.
Wading along cutbanks is tough, but even a tiny amount of ground can allow you to tuck in tight and wade up the bank. For me, wading along a cutbank is a deliberate three-step process. Wade upstream, stabilize in the current, and then cast. I typically wade with one hand grasping onto whatever vegetation or structure can steady me, and the other holding my rod. A store bought, or nature provided wading staff can help steady the trek as well.
Casting is also challenging. I have learned to mitigate snags by casting out in front of and across the body with the rod parallel to the river and using water hauls to get line out. Hook sets also need to be up, out, and away from overhanging trees that could grab your line.
Walk and Drop.
Walking above a cutbank and fishing the water below is sometimes the best option depending on the vegetation along the bank. Steep drop offs and restricted real estate may force casting more across the body and out over the water.
Water hauling is a good option when walking along cutbanks as well. By picking the rod tip up you can use the height of the bank combined with the height of the rod to get line out and roll cast upstream.
After casting, be ready to strip line quickly as it comes downstream. As the fly approaches my position, I transition to a high stick, while keeping the line off the water across the body, and then feed line as the fly continues downstream.
Finally, a technique that is not pretty but works, is the true walk and drop. I will hold my rod out and let the current take line. If possible, I may even cast to the middle of the river. The point is to get line out. Next, I will lift the rod up and back until the fly is tight to the bank. Then, let it go and watch it bounce downstream, again feeding line as required.
I love this technique for getting the fly close to or behind overhanging branches that would be hard to reach from another angle. Especially if you need a very natural drift or want to present the fly up close and personal to those roots and brush where the big fish sit.
Wade Out. Cast Back.
I first began to realize the ability to wade out and cast back in larger rivers when I began to fish more from a drift boat. Often, when we dropped anchor, I noticed the water was shallower than expected in places far enough from the bank to be truly surprising. Unseen sand and gravel bars may be reachable with some persistent and explorative wading.
Of course, this all depends on the size of the river. If you can wade across a trout stream you can reach the cutbank. It may take some careful wading, but it could pay off.
Landing Fish Along Cutbanks.
The gotcha in all these tactics is what happens after the hook up. Trying to fight fish among the debris you just worked so hard to get your fly into is a challenge. The balance is avoiding the brush while fighting the fish. Rod tip position is critical. A bit of side pressure may be required to nudge the fish in the current away from obstacles. If you are high on the bank, keep the rod tip down and away the bank. Avoid the temptation to pull the fish upstream.
If I have waded upstream to fish a cutbank I will most likely attempt to move back the way I came to an easier place to fight and land the fish. Get the line tight, assess where the fish is going, and be prepared to move downstream with the current. I prefer to get the fish on the reel before moving around too much on the river.
Since that cutthroat on the banks of the Snake River, my stories of memorable fish caught along hard to reach cutbanks have steadily grown. Now, I look at cutbanks with an eye of addiction. I know what is possible with thoughtful persistence and a handful of tactics. The next time you see a hard to reach cutbank, try one of these three tactics for fishing it and start adding a few more fish to the net and memories to the journey.