Re-Reading the Rise
by John Juracek
In his 1976 book, In The Ring of The Rise, author Vince Marinaro has this to say about the riseform of feeding trout:
“Unfortunately, the riseform, important as it is, does not tell the fisherman very much, certainly not as much as he needs to know. It tells him only that a trout is feeding and in a few circumstances it may tell him what kind of an insect is being taken. That is all.
[The riseform does not] reveal the direction from which the rise came. It does not tell how far the trout drifted with the insect before the rise occurred, or on which side of his face the trout has been feeding, or whether he took the insect facing upstream, across stream, or downstream."
Though I thoroughly enjoy and maintain tremendous respect for Marinaro’s writings, my years of experience have taught me that a couple of his observations beg further examination. For indeed the riseform does reveal the direction from which the rise came and, in the case of rivers, whether the trout was facing up, across, or downstream.
To understand how this is so it’s necessary to look closely at the structure of the riseform. Characteristic in all surface riseforms is the presence of a “high” and “low” side. By this I mean that the small waves created when a fish disturbs the surface are not uniform in height across the rise itself. This can be seen in the first photo. It’s quite clear that the tallest waves in this rise—the high side—are on the left. The low side, home to smaller waves, is on the right. (The dissipating waves outside the immediate riseform are from a previous rise.) Draw a line from the low to high side of any rise and that indicates the direction from which the fish came. And the highest point on any riseform always indicates the direction the fish was facing when he rose. In our photo, the rising fish was heading left.
This high/low feature of the riseform is a manifestation of a phenomena we’re all familiar with. Think about what happens when we put our hands in a river. Water piles up in front of them on the upstream side, then drops and smoothes out behind. The faster the water, the higher the pile. Trout rising in a river act just like our hands or any other obstruction. Water pushes up in front of their snouts which causes the high side of the rise (always in the direction they’re facing), and as this water flows around them it drops and smoothes out resulting in the low side of the rise.
In stillwater situations, a similar effect occurs. But unlike in a river where water flows around the relatively stationary fish, here the fish are moving while the water remains still. Their bodies act as an obstacle, causing the exact same high/low effect on the riseform.
How does a knowledge of this phenomena aid our fishing? In several ways. I find it most helpful in stillwater environments; gulper fishing on Hebgen Lake comes to mind. Fish rise virtually every day on Hebgen, but sometimes not steadily enough to allow their path to be predicted by the linking of consecutive rises. Unless you can read the single rise and determine the fish’s path of travel, catching these fish is nothing more than a crap shoot. But the ability to look at a one-off rise and know immediately where to place your fly greatly increases your chances of success.
This skill in reading the rise is also useful on rivers like the Lamar and Slough Creek. Here, the cutthroat and rainbows frequently rise randomly as they cruise long, slow pools searching for food. Being able to predict their direction when conditions don't allow them to be seen underwater is a huge advantage in getting your fly in their path.
Trout rising in back eddies can also present similar opportunities. It’s not always apparent in a back eddy which way a fish is facing, especially a fish that’s milling about. But observing the high side of the rise tells you straight away where the fish is and at what angle he’s facing.
It’s worth noting that simply because we know the direction a fish is facing or traveling when making a rise doesn’t mean that he will remain on that course. Fish on Hebgen and other lakes are notorious for randomly changing directions immediately after single rises. Still, your odds of success are greatly increased through the ability to read the direction of the rise and placing your fly in the estimated path.
It takes time and a lot of practice to consistently pick out the high and low sides of a riseform. Naturally, in the frozen moment of a photograph it’s very easy, but remember that in real time the rise happens in the blink of an eye. The stronger the rise, the greater the discrepency between the high and low sides, and the easier it is to pick up on. Subtle rises, with little difference in height between the sides present much more of a problem. Since many fishermen struggle with simply seeing riseforms at all, looking deeply into their physical structure is unquestionably an advanced skill that requires serious cultivation. Even many pros struggle with this. So don’t be discouraged if you experience difficulty in the learning process. It is hard. But when mastered it provides exceptional satisfaction and can help you catch some truly tough fish.
Can you pick out the direction of travel of the trout in the second and third images?