(An oldie, but goodie. On FF&W by request.)
Riffles are the “hotbeds” of a stream system. Their relatively shallow depth and tumbling currents allow sunlight to penetrate and oxygen to mix. As a result, plants and algae, and the insects that feed on and live among them, multiply. And if you’ve got food, you’ve got fish.
Due to the turbulent waters and choppy surface of riffles, however, it can make it more difficult for a fish to spot a passing fly (or you to spot a fish). Indeed, fish that are “on-station” in riffles may focus on a feeding lane whose width is measured in inches rather than feet. So how can you be successful against such hydraulic odds? Easy, start shotgunning.
A shotgun is designed to fire a large number of pellets into a defined area at close ranges. Such a patterning dramatically increases the chances of hitting a target, if only with a single piece of shot. The same principle can be morphed in a successful fly-fishing technique. Instead of making a few “chuck-it-and-chance-it,” long-range casts into a wide area, the angler makes a large number of short, controlled casts into a predefined target zone. That’s the core methodology of classic shotgunning, a tactic that I had drilled into me at an early age.
There are many ways to apply shotgunning when working riffles, but all revolve around defined target areas and numerous, but short and accurate casts. Perhaps the simplest shotgunning method is to fish up-current, working a back and forth pattern up the length of a riffle. Begin by visually blocking out a 10 foot by 10 foot area (the target area) that begins 10 to 20 feet in front of you. This will allow you to keep casts short (or even just off the rod tip).
Once the target area has been determined, work it from front to back and edge to edge with casts. Don’t just make a couple of casts to a few locations and move on. Rather, saturate the area with perhaps 20 (or more) casts. If you see spots that look especially “fishy,” concentrate some additional casting there.
If nymphing, a Tuck Cast and perhaps a small shot or two will get the fly down quickly and prevent wasted drift distance. And even though shotgunning casts are close and fast, an indicator can be quite useful. An indicator that is brightly-colored and floats high will allow your eyes to quickly pick it up in choppier waters. In some cases, you may want to use the indicator to suspend the fly at a certain depth so as to avoid bottom structure (i.e. using an indicator as a “float,” or dare I say it, “bobber”). Whether or not the indicator is being used to suspend the fly, it can also be used to help in determining fly speed/general position and to help in seeing takes.
When shotgunning I typically strip only minimal amounts of line. All you need to do to take up slack at very close ranges is raise the rod tip, lifting excess line from the surface at the same rate as the current moves it toward you. A quick C-Pick-up can lift a fly from the water with ease. An added haul can also help to further energize a short length of line.
Once you’ve sufficiently worked one 10 by 10 foot block, move over 10 feet and start again. Once you’ve worked the breadth of the riffle, move upstream and work back across. It may not seem the most exciting way to fish (especially if you’re a “Type-A” personality), but it can work in a serious fashion. Of course, don’t waste your time shotgunning less-productive riffle sections that are easily covered with a few well-placed casts.
I had one day during the PMD mayfly hatch on Armstrong’s spring creek when I shotgunned one riffle all morning. The fish were just stacked, and I took browns and ‘bows literally from water’s edge to water’s edge, with the biggest fish coming from under a pad of weeds just a few feet from the shoreline.
You can shotgun across-current (try it with a Leisenring Lift) and down-current (with a Parachute Mend). You can also experiment with block sizes and casting ranges to find what works best for your particular circumstances.
Shotgunning isn’t difficult, but it does require self-control and care. Aim right and you may soon find it can dramatically improve your cast-to-catch ratio.