Fishin’ the Cushion

As fly anglers, we are eager to fish those obvious, prime holding lies showcased by the river. You know the ones I’m writing about – those deep pools, the foam-lined runs, the riffles, and those juicy downstream seams created by submerged, or semi-submerged, boulders. Yeah, as a fly angler, you know what I’m talkin’ bout! Just thinking about these holding lies makes our palms sweat and our hearts begin to beat a little faster – right? So, in this article I want us to focus on those super-juicy holding lies that are adjacent to boulders, or any structure that impedes the flow of the river.

The first and most obvious holding lies created adjacent to boulders arethose where a boulder interrupts the flow and splits the current into two distinct fast-moving seams. Juicy! Downstream of that boulder those seams reunite to form a soft spot where trout are eager to live, as they intercept food from the buffet line being delivered by the current – Door Dash ain’t got nuthin’ on the river’s delivery system of trout food! Yes, those soft spots, created downstream of boulders, are some of the juiciest, fishiest, and obvious prime holding lies – lies that we are eager to explore because they are so obvious (and juicy!).

The Hydraulic Cushion

But, what about that other “not-so-obvious-but- front of that boulder? Yes, in front! In front of boulders, large rocks, or any structure that impedes the flow of the river, is an area of slow, soft water known as the “hydraulic cushion.” The hydraulic cushion is formed when current rebounds off the boulder and forms a pocket of slow, soft water where trout are willing to live. And, why not? That hydraulic cushion is the perfect spot to intercept food from the buffet line being delivered directly into the trout’s face. Too easy! The size of the hydraulic cushion is dependent on the size of the structure – in our case the boulder.

The bigger the structure, the bigger the soft spot and vice-versa. However, when you begin to effectively fish the hydraulic cushion I believe you will be amazed by the size of trout that are willing to hold in a relatively small cushion.

I was recently tight-lining some fast, shallow water below Hughes Crossing on the Blue River, Oklahoma’s premiere seasonal trout fishery. Examining the water, I noticed that a hydraulic cushion was forming in front of a large rock – a “boulder.” See Fig. 1. So, under a tight-line and with my sighter off the water, I allowed my artificial offering to drift into the center of the hydraulic cushion. The sighter paused, I set the hook, and I was immediately rewarded with an eager eat. This feisty little gal was holding in the soft, slow cushion in front of the boulder. Success! See Fig 2. 

Fishin’ the Cushion

So, how do we fish the hydraulic cushion? Well, there are several methods we can employ to effectively fish the cushion. To help us better understand these methods, let’s examine them from the angler’s position relative to the hydraulic cushion. 

The Angler in an Upstream Position. This position for the angler is arguably the easiest position to fish the cushion. However, the angler must exercise caution. Remember, trout typically face upstream and an upstream angler is easily detected. Be stealthy! Oh, by the way, “stealth” will be the subject of my next article, so stay tuned (such a shameless plug!). From an upstream position the angler might decide to swing a steamer through the hydraulic cushion – this is “money” for targeting big trout! Similarly, the angler may choose to swing a soft hackle into the cushion, which is amazingly effective. Further, allowing a dry fly or a nymph to drift into the cushion can be very rewarding, as well. As indicated, an upstream position may be the easiest position for the angler to fish the cushion effectively. Spend some time analyzing the type of water the river is showcasing. Learn to recognize those downstream hydraulic cushions. Once located, whatever modality you choose, don’t forget to fish the cushion when in an upstream position. 

The Angler in an Adjacent or Downstream Position. Because the trout’s cone of vision favors this position, stealth becomes less important – not unimportant, just less important. The difficulty of this position is in actually getting the flies into the cushion where the trout may be holding. Why? Well, let’s be reminded of two (2) important characteristics we have learned, so far, about of the hydraulic cushion: (1) the size of the cushion is determined by the size of the structure – big structure, big cushion; little structure, little cushion, and (2) relatively fast water is required to form the hydraulic cushion. So, keeping these two (2) characteristics in mind, let’s look at the typical presentations employed when fishing the cushion – tight-lining the cushion, or fishing the cushion with an indicator.

Tight-Lining the Cushion. When tight-lining in fast, shallow water the angler will typically lead his/her flies with a relatively shallow rod angle. Too often, for fear of snagging the structure, the tight-line angler will maintain that shallow rod angle and prematurely lift the rod and the flies out of the drift before they actually enter the cushion. There is a better way. The tight-line angler might consider this method: As the flies approach the hydraulic cushion, regardless of its size, briefly stop leading the flies and allow the rod angle to steepen. This will enable the flies to actually enter the cushion, providing the trout with an opportunity to see the flies, then eat the flies! Success!

Fishing the Cushion with an Indicator. While the following statement may be obvious, it is easily overlooked, or simply forgotten: The location of your indicator is rarely indicative of the location of your flies. Read that statement again…let it sink in – breathe. Unless you’re fishing a deep, slow pool, your flies are rarely, if ever, under you indicator. In relatively fast water it is not uncommon for your flies to trail your indicator by several feet. As such, when fishing the cushion, be prepared to allow your indicator to drift past the structure to allow your flies to enter the cushion. Much like tight-lining, resist the urge to prematurely lift your flies out of the drift. As Dom Swentosky says, “fear no snag!”

So, fish the cushion! Be deliberate in your approach to the river and look for those “not-so-obvious-but-equally-juicy” holding lies -- the hydraulic cushions. I believe that, more often than not, you’ll be rewarded with more than a few trout who are eager and willing to eat your artificial offering. 

Fish on, my friends!

Stephen Ruiz

Native Waters Outfitters

Stephen on the Fly