Fishing the Pods
By George Anderson
up the definition of a pod in Webster's and you'll probably find
something that pertains to peas. Ask any real hardcore fly angler
though, and they'll immediately know what you are talking about. Heads.
Big heads slurping in small flies. The phenomena of schools of fish
feeding on the surface in tightly packed bunches. Exciting to see and
experience, but sometimes tough to deal with for the average angler.
These pod fish that are easily alerted
and easily put down. One sloppy cast will often do it. Throw some line
over them, and they'll all blow out of there and disappear. Once you
know how to fish these pods effectively though, it can be some of the
most exciting dry fly fishing in the world!
Pods of hungry, feeding trout seem to
form in flatwater situations almost anywhere when there are heavy insect
hatches with a lot of bugs on the surface at once. Immediately, the
Trico hatches on our Western tailwaters like the Missouri and Bighorn
rivers come to mind. You'll find pods of trout on our western spring
creeks, and even on our larger freestone rivers like the Yellowstone and
Madison. Lakes like Hebgen Lake near West Yellowstone that have good
hatches of Tricos are famous for the big pods of rainbows that slurp up
everything in sight. Pods are not just a Rocky Mountain phenomenon,
though. You'll find this kind of activity all across our country, and on
flatwater anywhere you find intense insect hatches.
Two anglers fishing to a
pond of 50 fish
Although a lot of us associate fishing
the pods with the heavy Trico hatches, I've often fished good pods of
fish during hatches of midges, and small mayflies like Baetis (BWO's)
and Pseudocloeon. The key is having a lot of bugs on the surface at
once. Then fish can move into a holding position very close to the
surface, and not have to move far, or burn up much energy, to pick off
these insects that are floating along on the surface, coming over their
heads - often spaced out only inches apart.
The keys to success
The key to catching
these fish is a combination of careful approach, casting accuracy,
perfect presentations, and then, of course, having the right fly.
At times during these hatches, fish are
easier are far easier to take than others. A good example is early in
the Trico hatch, just at daybreak, when the duns are emerging. There are
fewer flies on the water during this part of the emergence, which takes
place over perhaps two hours. The spinner fall takes place much more
quickly, often over a period of only a half hour to an hour at any one
When the duns are coming off, the flies
often seem to be spaced out so that you see the emerging duns a foot or
two apart on the surface. The fish are cruising more, working a wider
pattern within the pod, trying to pick off the duns as they come down.
Casting accuracy is not as critical since the fish are moving six inches
to a foot laterally from their holding position to take each dun.
Once the spinners begin to fall though,
things change rapidly. The fish that were looking for dun imitations
earlier with an upright wing silhouette, are now are keying in on
spinners that are packed tighter together on the water and are laying on
the water with their wings spread out flat.
Now the fish are holding a much
steadier line and moving far less to take each bug. In fact, an
individual fish may not move more than one or two inches laterally, from
its holding lie close to the surface. One of the reasons for this is
that the fish's window of visibility decreases substantially as it moves
closer to the surface and they literally cannot see a fly six inches
away! This is when casting accuracy becomes really important. An angler
that can repeatedly place his fly within inches of this line over the
fish's nose, is going to catch a lot more fish than the guy that is
having trouble getting his fly within two feet of the fish.
Vortex cloud of Tricos on
During intense Trico hatches, when you
are seeing literally clouds of spinners in the air, create the toughest
fishing, once the spinners hit the water. During the spinner fall, you
will often see the surface of the water blanketed with these tiny clear
winged, black bodied spinners that are only an inch or two apart! The
fish are going crazy, increasing their rise rhythm and seemingly taking
everything that comes down the pike.
For most fly fishermen, this is the
time in the hatch when things get really tough. It is doubly
frustrating, watching all these fish ignore your fly, while slurping in
naturals all around your fly!
The seasoned pod angler though, is
knocking them off right and left during the heaviest part of the spinner
fall! You might wonder how he is doing it when you are using the same
exact patterns, tippet etc. The answer is simple—casting accuracy and an
experienced angler's ability to judge the movement of the exact fish he
is working on within the pod. Then all it takes is the ability to make
the cast and place the fly where your brain is telling you it must land
to make the interception with that big fish as he begins his rise to
take the next "natural".
Before getting into some of these
techniques, though, let's talk about strategy that you'll need for
fishing the pods.
There are two distinct
approaches I use when fishing pods. The first, and probably the most
popular, is trying to maximize the number of fish you are going to catch
out of each pod. For a good angler this might be 3 to 6 fish before he
puts them down. It doesn't take much to get fish in a pod thoroughly
spooked or split up. When I'm going to employ this strategy, I want to
approach the pod from below and fish up over the fish, picking out one
of the fish at the rear of the pod or possibly on one side or another.
The second tactic is going for the
biggest fish in the pod. This is fun and often more exciting, and it is
usually not that tough to hook the biggest fish in the pod. The downside
is that you are probably not going to get any more fish out of that pod
once the big fish starts cartwheeling through them. If Arnold Palmer
were a pod fisherman, this would be his style. Going for it. Going for
the pin on every hole. Come to think of it, I took that approach to golf
too, but it got me in more trouble than putting down a few fish.
George Anderson and a nice
from the Fat Cat
If I am fishing a river like the
Missouri or the Bighorn, where I'm going to encounter numerous pods,
I'll take the "skim the cream off the top" approach. Catch a few nice
fish as quickly as possible and then move on when the pod breaks up or
is down. During a typical Trico hatch on the Missouri, I might be able
to fish from 6:30 or 7 AM thru 1 PM or until the wind comes up and catch
fish out of 15 to 20 pods. If I'm on a stream where the pods are few and
far between, then I'm going to take my time and try to maximize the
number of fish I'm catching out of each pod.
Before talking about the nitty gritty
of approach and presentation, talking about the right equipment and how
to use it (casting techniques) will help you catch more fish.
The right equipment and how to use it
Fishing the pods requires the ultimate in casting accuracy. Casting
accuracy is very dependent on your ability, your choice of rod to get
the job done, and your choice of leaders and tippets. Only then does the
fly pattern become important. Sure, you have to have something halfway
close, but it is interesting to see how many weird things a good angler
can force feed these fish when he gets the cast on the money.
Casting styles vary a lot. The most
important thing to strive for is the ability to throw a tight loop, and
to deliver it close to the surface, getting the entire leader and tippet
to straighten out just over the water, and then fall gently to the
surface. I like to deliver the cast with a lot of velocity, and even
shoot line into the fish, so that they see only the last cast going over
their head, and none of my false casts. Doing this and getting the fly
to land gently is the trick, especially when you are casting directly up
over the fish. In teaching people to do this, I've found that the only
way to get the utmost accuracy is to show them how to drive the line
directly over the tip of the rod on the forward cast. A good angler can
easily cast this way, even with his rod canted a radical angle. In most
situations, I like to cant my rod slightly to the side, and make the
backcast so that the line can pass my body on the right side (when I'm
casting right handed). On the forward cast, I want to have the line and
leader unfold vertically over the tip of the rod. By doing this, my
leader and tippet will lay out in a straight line over the fish, rather
than hooking in or slicing in at some odd angle.
Picking the right rod helps me control
these tight loops. My all time favorite rod for this kind of delicate
fishing over the pods is Sage's old 389 LL, in graphite III, the 2 piece
version. This rod is 8' 9" in length and loads beautifully with a #3
weight forward line.
The best rods for this fishing are #3
or #4 line rods that have enough power in the butt to reach out 40 and
50 feet when you need to, yet have a nice soft tip to deliver those
tight (yet delicate) loops with long leaders and fine tippets. These
rods will also do a better job protecting light tippets when you are
striking and playing fish.
Some of Sage's new SLT rods and light
XP's fill the bill, as do the #3 and 4 line WT rods from Winston. Their
8 1/2 foot #4 2 piece has always been one of my favorites. I've also
liked some of the Scott G series rods—the 8 and 8 1/2 footers, for this
work. All of these mentioned have the actions and soft tips needed for
As for lines, my favorite is Sage's new
Quiet taper. This has a very small running line and shoots extremely
well, important when I'm trying to shoot 5-6 feet of line into the fish
on my last cast.
Leaders and tippets are perhaps the
most critical part of the equation in terms of tackle. I've found that
only stiff butted, hand-tied leaders are up to the task. I'm normally
using a 12-15-foot leader that has a 2 1/2 to 4 foot tippet. I'm tying
these leaders with Maxima for butt sections, with both the Chameleon and
Knotless leaders are nearly all tied
with softer material to get the strength needed in the tippet sections,
so they simply do not have the ability to transmit the drive and
acceleration needed to straighten out a long leader and tippet. Add a
little breeze and I'm dead unless I'm using a hand-tied leader with
stiffer butt and mid sections. The best of these tied leaders utilize
stiff butt and mid sections but then shift down to more supple material
like Umpqua or Dai Riki for the tippet.
My standard leader for fishing the pods
would be a 12 foot 5X, but I usually alter the tippet by using a bit
more than the 20-24 inches of a standard leader. I like cut the leader
back to the 3X or 4X section and then tie in a three-foot tippet or 5X
or 6X using a Stu Apte improved blood knot. This is important since now
I've got a knot that is close to 100% and if I break off the fish, I've
broken off at the fly and have not lost the whole tippet too. When the
fishing is hot, I hate taking the time to replace the whole tippet and
then adding a fly.
Casting accuracy is somewhat dependent
on the tippet material you are using. I tend to stick with materials of
moderate stiffness like Dai Riki, Orvis Super Strong or Umpqua. These
have enough suppleness to allow the fly to move freely with complex
surface currents, yet are stiff enough to get your whole tippet to
straighten out on each cast when you need it to. There are several very
soft tippet materials on the market now, and although these are strong
and do have good knot strength, they simply will not turn over in the
wind nor cast as accurately as I'm used to with my favorite tippet
Pod tactics to maximize your catch
I'm approaching a pod from below, I'll take my time getting into
position, and then try to get as close as possible to the fish in the
pod before making my first cast. Often I'm only 15 to 20 feet away from
the tail enders. I'm trying to wade slowly, minimize any ripples or
upstream waves and keep a low silhouette. If I'm in shallow enough
water, when I get close, I'll kneel down. By getting in close, I can
observe the individual fish much better to determine their feeding
pattern, plus I'll be able to cast much more accurately at these shorter
distances. Casting accuracy, above all other factors is what is going to
help me catch these tough fish.
Once I get into position, I'll be
patient and come up with a plan to maximize both the number of fish that
I can hook, and also give me a chance at catching the larger fish in the
pod. This usually means picking off one of the tail end fish first or
perhaps one fish that is off to one side or another. If I'm lucky, I can
hook several before putting the whole works down.
Oakley Thorn fishing a pod
on the Missouri
Being observant at this
point really pays off. Try to pick a fish that is rising with a frequent
and aggressive rise rhythm. You'll see some fish in the pod that are
rising infrequently, and you don't want to waste your time on them
unless they are really big.
I'll pick out one specific fish and
work on that one fish until I hook him or put him down. This is like
shooting quail or Huns—if you blast into middle of the whole covey, the
chances are good that you won't get a single bird! But by picking out a
single bird and concentrating only on that one, while figuring your lead
etc., you have a good chance to kill that bird and go on for a double.
I'm not going to waste a lot of time
working on any individual fish though. If I can't get that fish to take
after I've thrown a half dozen good casts over him, I'll go on to
another. Often I'll be able to get a take from a specific fish the first
time I get a good accurate shot over him and get a good drift.
When I'm below a pod, fishing directly
up over these spooky fish, I want a leader and tippet that is going to
fire out there and straighten out every time. Fly placement is critical.
I'm using a long leader with a 3-4 foot tippet, but in most instances, I
want my fly to land only 8 inches to a foot in front of the fish's nose.
Most anglers try to cast far too much line and leader over these fish,
often putting them down.
In these situations, I've always felt
that getting the accuracy and placement of the fly on the water is my
primary goal. If I'm having problems with tricky surface currents, I can
always find ways to solve this by changing my casting position slightly,
or induce more slack into the leader and tippet system by mending or
using slack line casts, curve casts, etc.
Don't worry if you can't see your fly!
One of the toughest things for the average angler to overcome is his
inability to see the fly on the surface of the water. This is
complicated even more when the fish in the pod are tightly packed, and
their own rise forms are creating a lot of surface disturbance. When I'm
fishing small flies like midges or mayfly spinner imitations, I may not
see the fly at all! The trick I use is knowing approximately where my
fly is on the surface of the water, and I see a fish rise within a foot
or so from that spot, or patch of water where I think my fly is
floating, I'll set the hook. I'll bet that I'm seeing my fly only 10-20%
of the time in a lot of these situations.
By getting the full extension of my
leader and tippet on each cast, I'll have a very good idea of where my
fly is hitting the water. Often I'll fire it in there a little harder to
actually see where the fly is hitting the water! Then, once I have a
very good idea of where the fly hits, I'll follow that patch of water
downstream over the fish. If he comes up in that target area I'm
watching, I'll sock it to him!
Trico spinners on the
Fish it wet
I've found that pod fish
are not only interested in taking flies like Trico spinners on the
surface, but they also love to take them totally submerged, in the wash
a few inches under. One great tactic I use is to slam my Trico spinner
in hard, so that it sinks a tiny bit. By greasing my leader and tippet
out to within a few inches of the fly, I can control the depth that the
spinner will sink, and the floating leader and tippet give me a perfect
indicator to use to spot the strike. As soon as I see the tippet or
leader get pulled under the surface film, I'm going to set the hook as
quickly as I can. Sometimes I'll see a bulge or a suspicious tail swirl
of the fish as he takes the sunken spinner. On any indication like this
that the fish has taken my fly, I'm going to blast him. Having the
spinner hit the water hard also lets me know exactly where my fly hits
the water is in relation to the fish and if my accuracy is off slightly,
I'll immediately make another cast.
How to control the fish once he's
Once I set the hook, the next few seconds is critical if I hope
to get any more fish out of the pod. I quickly try to determine where
the fish is headed and then react. I'm hoping that the fish will peel
out of the pod and turn back downstream. If this is the case, I'll lay
the pressure on him, and perhaps even wade back away from the pod while
playing and landing the fish.
If the fish wants to run forward, into
the pod, I'll try to immediately slack off on the pressure totally and
not get him too excited. I'm hoping he won't discover he has been hooked
and rip through the pod or worse yet, cartwheel through it in a series
of explosive jumps. As the fish runs up through the pod, he will
eventually turn, and start coming back downstream. At this point I'll
really pour on the heat, making him run away from the pod and downstream
where I can work on him without putting all the other fish down. This
doesn't always work out the way you envision though, and no matter how
tricky you are, sometimes the fish has blasted through the school, and
the rest of the pod is shooting around like an osprey is chasing them!
The good news is that if you take the
time to rest them for just 10 minutes or so, the pod will reform and it
will be back to business as usual. In a larger river, sometimes the
whole pod will move and set up 10 to 20 yards upstream.
Approach and presentation are critical
Aggressive wading and casting on your part may not put the pod down, but
"herd" it upstream. Often you can follow these fish for long distances,
up to say 100 feet or more before you finally put them down. Take your
time and you'll catch more fish. Once the pod finally disappears, after
some time, it will usually re-form in the original location if the bugs
are still on the water.
Rapid movement is what scares trout the
most and when they are in the pod mode. They are close to the surface
where they are very vulnerable to ospreys, eagles, and other birds of
prey. This is why it is so important to make a low, fast delivery. Any
cast that comes in too high or unfolds 3 to 4 feet over the water is
sure to scare the heck out of these fish.
For this reason one of the tactics I
use is to make my false casts slightly off to one side of the fish and a
few feet short. Then on my last cast I'll shoot line on the delivery,
getting the cast to unfold gently just inches above the water. By
allowing line to shoot through the fingers of my left hand, I can snub
up the line and get the leader and tippet to kick over, even into the
Change position if you can't get the
You may find that despite your best efforts, you are still having
trouble in getting a nice drag free drift over the fish. This often
occurs when you are working fish in tailouts, and you are below the fish
where the water is accelerating into the riffle. On a cast where you are
getting your leader and tippet to straighten out, the result is
immediate drag. In these situations you can often get the results you
need by throwing an exaggerated slack line or "pile" cast. If this won't
work, or you are spooking too many fish, move your casting position to
the side, or better yet, upstream and off to the side of the pod. Now
you can go after the fish with a reach cast or slack line reach cast.
I'll take extra precautions to make sure the fish are not seeing me
while I'm casting though. I'll try to set up slightly farther from the
fish, stay low in the water, and keep my rod at a low angle while I'm
With a good reach cast, and some
mending, you can get perfect down and across presentations that will
take the toughest fish. Now, the fish see the fly first, and then your
tippet and leader. The best bet is to set up with a bit of an across
stream angle so that when the fly passes the fish (and he doesn't take
it), you can allow the line to swing the fly a couple of feet to the
side before picking up your line and making the next cast.
The placement of your fly on the water
is one of the keys to success in fishing the pods. I've found that most
anglers want to present their fly way too far above the fish. They might
get only a foot or two of good drag free drift, but they are getting it
3 to 4 feet above the fish! When I think about a perfect cast, I
envision the fly landing between 8 and 15 inches ahead of the fish and
on a path that will take it directly over the fish's nose.
Watch the fish in the pod that you are
trying to catch and see how rapidly he is rising. His rise rhythm will
then allow you to determine how far in front of the fish your fly needs
to land to maximize your opportunity catch the fish.
Factoring in the rise rhythm
typical rise cycle, the fish sees the insect coming, then adjusts its
position in the current to line up with the incoming insect, and examine
it by using its binocular vision. Then, once the fish makes the decision
to take the fly, the rise to the surface, the take, and the drop back
into the initial feeding position takes on a certain rhythm.
Learning to judge the rise rhythm of
each individual fish helps my brain to calculate approximately how far
in front of a fish's nose my fly must land to give me the best shot at
igniting the fish's initial rise response. In an average pod situation
on the Missouri River, the fish might be rising once every second and a
half. Given the average current speed in the flatwater on the Missouri,
I want my fly to land about a foot in front of the fish, no more. I'm
using a 3 foot tippet of 5X or 6X, and the fish gets to see only half
the tippet fly thru the air over his head and hopefully land gently!
Of course many anglers get the job done
by simply putting lots of casts over a given fish. If the fish doesn't
spook, sooner or later a cast gets in there that is on target, has the
exact interval needed in front of the fish, and is getting a perfect
drag free drift. For the better than average angler, this may take 50 or
more casts. A more experienced angler, utilizing better casting
accuracy, good presentation and the correct by rise rhythm timing can
get the job done in 2 or 3 casts!
One important way an angler can improve
the accuracy of his delivery is to spend just a little time trying to
figure out an individual fish's pattern of activity within the pod. Is
the fish holding a steady line and rising in roughly one spot, or is he
cruising from side to side a half a foot or more to take an insect?
Maybe the fish will cruise forward a foot or more but then drop back
into his original position. By close observation of the rise form, an
angler will be able to see the direction the fish is moving and better
anticipate exactly where to place that next cast in order to put the fly
right in front of the fish.
Very often I've fished over fish in
pods that may drift over making 2 or 3 rises in one direction and then
move back the other way the same distance. I'll often keep false casting
until I feel that I can make a good determination of where the fish is
headed and then deliver the fly to the fish as quickly as possible to
make the interception.
Big brown trout caught on
#20 Trico dun
Going for Mr. Big
Catching the largest
fish in the pod is always a challenge but you'll have to change tactics.
In any given pod, there is a certain pecking order and this almost
always means that your Mr. Big is the lead fish in the pod. Getting to
him by casting up and across all his buddies isn't going to work. You'll
just put everything down.
The way to clobber Mr. Big is to get
above the pod and slide your fly down into him, so that your line and
leader never get close to the other fish.
Get position by approaching the pod
from above. Sometimes this isn't possible because of the size of the
stream—you don't have enough casting room or the fact that you are going
to muck up the water above the pod, which usually puts them all down.
In larger streams or rivers, where
there is some room to maneuver, approach the pod from above and to the
side. I try to get set up so that I'm casting down to the fish at a 45
degree angle rather than straight across-stream. Now I can use a reach
cast or combine this with a slack line cast and some mending to get a
perfect drift into Mr. Big.
Remember that your first couple of
casts are critical. If you screw this up, Mr. Big will be gone and along
with him the rest of the crew. Now that you are above and off to the
side, it is going to be a little more difficult to judge when you have
the fly on the exact line to go over the fish's position. Again, be
patient and observant. Get the rise rhythm right when you make the cast.
Take your time picking the fly off the water if you need to make a
re-cast, and do this as gently as possible so that you don't spook any
of the other fish in the pod.
If everything goes right, there is a
very good chance that Mr. Big will be duped on the first good cast you
get in front of him. Remember to slow down your strike so that you don't
pull the fly back out of his mouth. Larger fish almost always have a
slower rise form and you must factor this in when you set the hook.
Watch for Mr. Big to open his mouth and don't set the hook until you see
him close it and nose back down through the surface film. When you do
set the hook, do it more gently, since you'll have a lot more current
drag on your line and leader than you would when fishing up and over the
If you get lucky, Mr. Big might run
upstream, or away from the pod and you'll get a shot at more of his
buddies. Chances are though that he'll blow everything up with some
ripping runs through the middle of the pack or a spectacular jump,
landing smack on top of the other leaders, spooking the living daylights
out of them. You've got Mr. Big though, and after you land him, there
will be more pods to pursue.
Article written by George Anderson ©