Reading Waters

Gary Borger

Fly Fisher/Fly Tier/Author

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Gary Borger explains the characteristics of moving water examining the three types of lies and how to identify and fish them from small streams to massive rivers. He also takes the mystery out of reading lakes and ocean flats.

Gary Borger
Reading Waters
Gary Borger Reading Waters

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Where does the “fly fishing gene” come from? It might start out as a fond boyhood memory of casting a simple bamboo pole with a worm on a hook into a nearby creek. In fact, many anglers can fondly recount those first formative casts. The longer you stay at fly fishing the more you’ll discover what a fascinating sport it has developed into. This isn’t just because of the amazing array of rods, reels and flies you have available but also because of the abundance of knowledge you can tap into from fly fishermen who have made a career out of casting. One such expert is Gary Borger.

Luckily, that cliché “those who can do and those who can’t teach” doesn’t apply to Gary. He’s been a fly fisher since 1955 and in that time has developed a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of the sport. He’s such an expert that when Robert Redford set out to direct A River Runs Through It, Gary was tapped to be a consultant. So, what does Gary have to say about the best approach to fly fishing? First, you’ve got to read the waters.

The first thing Gary thinks every angler should consider when approaching a body of water are the life rules for biologic organisms. Technically, you don’t need a degree in science or biology to understand the foundation of these rules. Basically, birds got to fly and fish got to swim. They also have to eat. Most of the decisions you will be making with regard to picking the perfect fishing hole has to do with the primary urge of a fish to feed. The core issue here is exactly what will they be eating and that’s where reading the waters comes into play. Then there is the “spooky” factor. As Gary tells it, “Fish are super, super spooky, much more spooky than most anglers give them credit for. A wild brown trout is every bit as spooky as 10-point mule deer or 10-point whitetail.” Actually, this gives the angler a bit of an advantage. A fish really can’t see a fly fisherman approach like a deer might see a hunter approach. It’s comes down to a matter of developing a relationship with the water and the fish.

A common area that most fly fishermen overlook are the shallow water areas. There is a perception that the deeper you go the more you’ll find the fish but then you wouldn’t be reading the water. A fish is going to find more abundant sources of food in shallow water. So, while you’re trudging through that pond to get to the deep waters, you’re probably stepping over some very nice catches. Bottom line: fish the water first; then wade through it.

The other thing to consider is how a fish is moving in the currents of that water. Fish can’t swim in currents for very long. If they could, they would develop such strong swimming muscles that you’d never be able to land one. Where a fish holds up is its “lie” and understanding where to find those spots along the currents of a river is going to open up all new possibilities for great casting spots. The lies break down to three distinct categories:

  • Sheltering Lies for protection from predators
  • Feeding Lies for food sources
  • Prime Lie which is the best of both worlds of protection and food

Obviously you want to tap into a prime lie. Gary describes the perfect prime lie zone, “Right at the very head of a pool where the riffle comes in and the water banks off sharply and drops into the deep gut of the pool. That is a prime lie if the water in the riffle is more than about knee deep. If it’s a very shallow riffle coming in, the fish probably won’t hold there because there’s not enough water above to make them feel protected, but if the water is more than knee deep and it’s a relatively fast riffle coming in, there will be fish there all the time feeding.” If you can get a handle on the fish lies then you’ll be ahead of the angling game.


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