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In this article, I’ll take you through the process and things to keep in mind when fishing overhanging structures. If you fish any kind of river, big or small, there will come a time when you have to make a cast up against a fallen tree or an overhanging branch.
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This article, in conjunction with the video tutorial we’ve done, will help you gain confidence in these tricky situations.
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Why Trust My Article?
I’ve been fly fishing for quite some time. Actually, I had to sit down and really think about it. I started when I was 10 years old, so if my calculations are correct I’ve been at it for just over 24 years. Like most anglers in South Africa, my first fish on the fly was a stillwater trout.
Things changed the first time I ever caught a wild brown trout in a small stream. To me, the challenges the river, wild fish, and unmanicured banks posed were what made me fall head over heels. I know I’m taking the long route to get to the point, but bear with me if you will.
If you spend some time targeting river fish, especially trout, you get a keen sense of where the fish will typically hold. Some anglers call this a sixth sense, but I believe it’s just because our understanding of fish and their behavior improves. And what helps us to identify likely fish-holding spots? Structure.
This article will give you a better understanding of why fish like overhanging structures, how to approach these fishing situations, and most importantly, how to fish them. I guarantee you that when you fish overhanging structure better you’ll catch a lot more fish.
Why Do Trout Like Overhanging Structure?
In many cases, especially when trout are happy and in a generally approachable mood, they’ll be out and about. But, there are always those individuals who stick to overhanging structures.
Here you have a good chance of hooking into some bigger fish too. But, why do they like sticking (pardon the pun) to overhanging structure?
Cover and food. Yes, some species of fish, like bass, have a nest in a particular spot, so that might be another reason. But, the overhanging structure serves as a cover and could potentially offer a food source to trout.
Overhanging Structure as Cover
Trout may be predators and may even be classified as the apex species in some streams, but they’re also very vulnerable to other predators. Think eagles, otters, and even us human beings flicking around feathers strapped to a hook.
If the fish are heavily targeted by these predators, there’s a good chance they’ll head for cover. Over time, these fish adapt to stay in well-covered areas. If you’re fishing stillwaters or dams like this, it’s absolutely critical to be able to fish at the overhanging structure.
Another reason why fish tend to stick to overhanging structures is shade. If the ambient and water temperature is warm, and the sun is beating down, trout will opt to stay in the shade.
I do recommend that, in these cases, you don’t even target them, out of an ethical point of view. But the fact stands that they use this cover to keep their body temperatures down. It’s a matter of survival.
Overhanging Structure as a Food Source
Things really get interesting when trout use the overhanging structure as a food source. In case you forgot, trout are carnivorous predators, so they eat all kinds of animals like fish, rodents, and most frequently, insects.
A story that one of my dear friends, Ed Herbst, loves telling is how he was sitting having lunch next to a small stream close to Cape Town. He became aware of a fallen tree branch that was literally covered in ants working hard at transporting something.
A thought came up to see if he could induce a “hatch” of sorts downstream of this branch, so he shook it and many of the ants fell into the water. They drifted down naturally, and low and behold, a fish came up and ate some of them. He shook the branch again and once more, the fish ate the ants.
I love this story, as it really shows how trout, and any fish for that matter, adapt to changing scenarios. Terrestrial dry flies work excellently when you’re working overhanging structure. I always keep a selection of hoppers, ants, and spiders in my box.
What Kind of Structure Should You Be Working?
With reference to what I mentioned above, I work on any kind of structure large enough to hold a fish and that provides shade, a physical cover where trout can hide under, or a branch or bush that holds insects.
Very often you’ll find that the bank also creates an undercut which the water has eroded away over time. This is an excellent spot to drift or swing your fly past. Once again, it provides cover and shade.
A note that I’d like to make is that if you don’t see a fish under some structure, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there. Trout are experts at staying out of sight, so I’d say just keep working on likely fish-holding spots and you’ll get them.
Watch the Video
Plan the Fight Before Casting
It’s hard enough getting a fly right up against or into an overhanging bush, but pulling the fish out of there can be even harder. You need to think ahead and play out different scenarios in your mind of how the fight will proceed.
Think practical, like if I hook the fish here, it will probably go there. And then ask, can I retrieve it? Remember, we need to try and be as ethical as possible, so if you know there’s absolutely no way of landing a fish, why bother hooking it?
Another great thing about planning the fight is that it helps you to get into the right position. I’ve seen countless fish lost because the angler’s position was completely wrong from the onset. This is actually a great tip for everywhere you fish. Plan the fight and learn from your mistakes.
Casting at Structure
Remember what I mentioned earlier, that the fish are holding under or at least very close to the piece of structure. If you’re fishing a dry fly, the fly needs to drift as close as possible over them for them to see it.
The same goes if you’re fishing nymphs or a streamer. You need to swing them or drift them as close to the fish as possible.
Because the fish are holding under something, there’s a good chance that they won’t see the fly on the first drift, especially when you’re using a dry fly. Also, they won’t necessarily swim very far to grab the fly, so once again, working the fly as close to the structure is key.
First Gain Confidence
One of the worst things is if you spot a fish feeding up against the bank and you make that first cast, you overcook it and get stuck on the bank. You then have two options, either break the fly off and redo your rig or, what I do, retrieve the fly, as I don’t want to leave flies and tippet hanging in the trees. The problem is you’ve probably spooked the fish now.
What I’d suggest is first make a cast that you know will be about two to three feet short. Make another cast or two, making sure that the leader unrolls perfectly, so you’ve extended as far as possible.
After those first couple of casts, extend the line slightly and cast again. Work your way closer to the bank with each cast until you reach the desired spot. If you follow this process, you’ll soon get more confident and get a good feeling of how your rod, line, leader, and fly combo turns over.
Different Types of Casts for More Effective Fishing
Now that you have more confidence in how your rig works together, here’s a quick rundown of some more advanced casts that will help you become more effective while fishing an overhanging structure.
The more you practice these casts, the better you’ll get, so don’t get discouraged if you’re not getting them right away.
A normal fly casting stroke is over your casting hand’s shoulder. The imaginary plane created is parallel to this casting stroke and almost perpendicular to the water’s surface.
Now, imagine you take that plane and casting stroke and tilt it to the side until the casting plane is parallel to the water’s surface. This is a side cast.
This cast works great for fishing overhanging structure, as your casting plane cuts right under the branches. A couple of things to keep in mind for the side cast:
- The faster your line speed, the farther you’ll be able to cast and hence, you’ll be able to cast deeper into a hole. For this reason, having the double haul technique in your repertoire is helpful.
- This cast is easier to perform with a single fly. Heavy nymphs, in particular, make it hard to perform.
An unconventional-looking cast, the bow-and-arrow is indispensable for the small stream angler. Going back to the absolute basics of fly casting, one of the essentials is tension. You can’t make an effective forward cast if you don’t have tension on your line. This is what loads the rod.
What the bow-and-arrow does is that you create this tension by holding onto the fly and loading the rod, and once you’ve aimed, you let go of the fly. Once it’s mastered, you’ll be able to make incredibly accurate casts. A couple of things to keep in mind for the bow and arrow cast:
- The maximum casting distance is determined by the length of your arms and rod. If you want to cast farther, get a longer rod.
Important Structure Casting Tip
If you attempt any cast at or into overhanging structure, concentrate on keeping the line in your line management hand (the one not holding the rod) during the final delivery. If you don’t and you have too much line out of your rod tip, you’ll overcook the cast and end up in the sticks.
However, if you maintain control of the line in your management hand, and you see that you’ve let out too much line, you can always pull back on the line during that final delivery. This technique will also enable you to help your leader turn over better if you see it’s going to land in a coiled heap.
For obvious reasons, this tip is not applicable to the bow-and-arrow cast.
The Best Flies to Use Around Overhanging Structure
If I had to choose one fly pattern group to fish around overhanging structure, it would be terrestrial dry flies. As mentioned earlier in the article, trout may use overhanging structures as a potential food source. If that’s the case, they’re most probably feeding on terrestrial insects.
Some of my favorite terrestrial patterns to use include:
Sometimes, if the fish are holding deep in an undercut, there’s only one way to get them to move and that’s with enough meat. There’s nothing that can pull a trout like a Woolly Bugger or Slump Buster, two of my go-to river streamers.
As you progress through your fly fishing life, you’ll realize how important it is to be able to effectively fish at overhanging structure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve saved a blank with the techniques I discussed in this article.
I honestly hope that this article has been of some help to you. If it has, or if you have any comments, please leave them at the bottom of the page.
Please remember to also have a look at the tutorial video where I cover some of the basics I spoke about in this article. I mainly focus on how to build your confidence, but please let me know what you think of the video and what kind of videos you’ll like to see in the future.
Until we see each other again.
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