Fishing the Pods by George Anderson

Look 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.

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.

Pods


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 given location. 

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.

 
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.

Pod tactics

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 nice brown from the Fat CatIf 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 this work. 

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 clear material. 

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 materials.

Pod tactics to maximize your catch

When 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. 

Oakley Thorne fishing a pod on the MissouriOnce 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.

Be observant

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!

Fish it wet

Trico spinners on the surfaceI'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 hooked

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 wind.

Change position if you can't get the drift

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 casting. 

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

In a 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.

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.

Big brown caught on #20 Trico dun

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 fish.

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.