If Fish Could Talk

The following is a guest post from Ryan McCullough, a personal friend of mine and one of the best fly fishers I know. His insights on trout, and specifically fishing dry flies, has helped me become an immeasurably better angler. Ryan’s knowledge is timeless.
– – Note from Spencer Durrant, Trout Life Marketing Director/Managing Editor

I watched Matt as he approached the rising trout. He asked me how big I thought it was. “Oh, he’s decent.” I said, holding back my own enthusiasm and the knowledge that I had already estimated him to be 21-22 inches long. You can tell a lot about the size of the fish from his head alone. The distance between his dorsal fin to his tail is another dead giveaway, if you’re lucky enough to get a glimpse of both at the same time. Matt hadn’t seen the fish yet, just the break in the water’s surface as it melted downstream. I wasn’t too worried. His approach was perfect and I knew that he wasn’t about to spook this fish. He was adept at getting a good drift and rarely throws his line over rising fish.

“There’s another one! Oh man! He may be bigger yet!” Matt yelled in the loudest whisper he could muster up. He always made direct eye contact and gritted his teeth with a stressed smile when he got really excited about what he was seeing on the river. Matt could easily see the two fish actively feeding on top. Callibaetis Duns were popping up regularly. As the casts got increasingly closer to the zone where the fish were feeding the action improved greatly (for me at least). Matt, by his own admission is not a very patient angler. Me? Well, sometimes I am patient to a fault – like the times that I don’t even bother to make a cast. At times, I’m too busy to catch fish because I’m caught up watching fish.

One of my favorite pastimes (besides getting fish to rise) is getting Matt’s temper to rise. It’s a rare occurrence, but he gets pretty annoyed when he isn’t catching fish in my favorite hole. I can tolerate it, because when Matt is on his game, he turns into an absolute magician with a fly rod. This time, though, I knew I was in for a real tantrum. I was tying on my first fly of the day when he left the hole and moved upstream muttering a few choice words. Matt thinks fish can hear. Matt also knows I am quite hard of hearing on the stream. Something about targeting a rising fish makes my unused senses dull. That is why he shouted when he directed the same insult at me. Matt had glanced over and saw me playing the same fish that wanted nothing to do with him five minutes earlier.



Matt doesn’t miss much. In fact he seems to have the best luck of anyone I know. But he did forget something that I used to forget all the time. It’s important to listen to what fish are saying. It’s definitely a one-sided conversation, but they tell us things by their body language all the time. Matt had missed the advice from those fish because he had failed to pick up on the subtleties of this fish body language. He was fishing a Callibaetis Dun. The fish was showing a classic head-to-tail rise. I noticed that while there were dozens of duns, no duns had disappeared from the surface on any of the takes I had seen. The fish was voraciously eating emergers stuck in the surface film. That is why I tied on an emerger while Matt was getting frustrated and giving up. A fish will tell you what it is eating if you will listen. One of their most telltale signs they leave behind is their riseform.

What is a riseform?

A riseform is simply a surface disturbance made by a fish as it moves to take food from above or just below the surface film of the water.

Why is it important to learn about riseforms?

When we learn to identify the feeding behaviors of fish and the evidence they leave behind (riseforms), we begin to understand what a fish is doing and how to tailor our fly selection to match these behaviors. I call this “listening to fish advice”. I also call this: “Not being a Matt”.

So, what are the different riseforms?

1. Head Rise
2. Head-to-Tail Rise
3. Dorsal Fin-to-Tail Rise
4. Sipping Rise
5. Splashy Rise
6. Bulging Rise
7. Tail Rise

(Editor’s note: unless otherwise states, all photos used from here on out are courtesy of Ryan Kelly, general manager of Trout Creek Flies in Dutch John, UT and a personal friend of mine. His photos are incredible and I encourage you to follow him on Instagram @Greenriverflyfisher.)

1. The Head Rise

You see the fish’s head pop out of the water, mouth open.
How to React to the Head Rise:

If a fish is showing a head rise, or you look downstream and see a big, white, open mouth coming at you, tie on a dun pattern of whatever is hatching and hold on. An alternate pattern is the cripple (insect stuck in its shuck), or stillborn (a developing insect that didn’t make it).

2. The Head-to-Tail Rise


The Head-to-Tail rise is one of the most complex riseforms and often looks like a porpoise swimming at the surface. Be careful to watch for the fish’s mouth. Is it actually eating an insect off the surface? In many instances, the trout comes up, but you don’t see that big, open mouth – just the top of his head and a fin or two as it rolls back down.

How to React to the Head-to-Tail Rise:

If you see dead insects littering the surface, or if there is a spinner fall, tie on a spent-wing pattern. You can now be sure they are eating spent insects. (Dead insect with wings splayed out, flat on the water). In the event there is no spinner fall and bugs appear to be hatching, try cripple or stillborn pattern (a klinkhammer pattern also works well here). If all else fails, try a parachute pattern, since it can represent an emerger or a spent insect quite well.

3. The Dorsal Fin-to-Tail Rise:


The dorsal fin-to-tail rise is much like a head-to-tail rise, because you are seeing part of the fish’s back out of the water as it rolls, but this riseform looks more like a whale spouting and not like a porpoise gliding through the surface. You won’t see an open mouth – maybe just the top of the fish’s head and the dorsal fin.

How to React to the Dorsal Fin-to-Tail Rise:

When you see a fish rolling on the surface with one or more of its fins visible, it’s almost always time to tie on an emerger. This one fish feeding behavior and riseform frustrated me so much that I developed a fly specifically for this purpose. In times when you just can’t see what is hatching, a midge emerger or midge pupae pattern in a very small size is a good bet.

4. The Sipping Rise


The favorite rise of the dry fly angler, the sipping rise is the slow, leisurely take of a fish in slow water, often in a back-current (eddy).

How to React to the Sipping Rise:

Watch carefully! Can you see insects disappearing? If so, use an imitation that matches the fly that was just eaten. If you can’t tell, a spent-wing is a sure bet. Another bit of advice: lengthen your leader, check your fly for debris, and apply floatant. Every cast counts.

5. The Splashy Rise


A splashy rise is just that – a fish that breaks the surface sharply enough to cause a splash. A splashy rise can be a head thrash, a breach, or a full leap out of the water.

How to React to The Splashy Rise:

This riseform, is of course, the easiest to identify, but is not always the easiest to decipher. A fish displaying a splashy rise can drive you crazy. Try a caddis, a mayfly dun, a terrestrial, or an airborne insect imitation (damselfly, for example). The thing to remember is that a fish going after an insect that aggressively has a very strong motive. What is driving that fish crazy enough to make it react? Chances are, it’s a worthwhile meal.

6. Bulging Rise


A bulging rise looks like a submarine under the surface. Or if that analogy doesn’t work, just think JAWS and you have the picture. A bulging rise is caused by a fish displacing water by moving just below the surface.

How to React to the Bulging rise:

Although it is a very difficult riseform to spot in fast water; the bulging riseform is incredibly common. Spook a fish in shallow water and you’ll get to know very quickly what it looks like. A bulging rise is the telltale sign of fish eating emergers on their way up to the surface to hatch.

What are your waiting for? Tie on an emerger or try a dry-dropper rig.

The Tail Rise:


Last, and probably least; is the tail rise. I like Pluto and I was pretty put out when it was downgraded from a planet to whatever it is called now. That is why I am leaving it in this list even if it is not truly a “rise”, but a “show”. A fish displaying a tail rise is going head down to feed on nymphs, scuds, freshwater snails, etc. You’ll see a tail mysteriously sticking out of the water and you’ll know it’s time to float a nymph rig by.


Learning to read riseforms is perhaps the most important skill an angler can develop in order to make proper fly selection and take the mystery and guesswork out of choosing the right imitation for the situation. Once you learn the different riseforms and learn to spot them on the stream, you can make informed decisions as it does follow a very logical sequence. Classify them in your head in a way that makes sense. I like to tag riseforms with one of five numbers. Basically the feeding behavior all falls into five classes: 1,2,3,4,5. We can all separate the flies in our boxes according to these five classes. They follow the five stages that we see insects progressing through that result in specialized feeding behavior. Doing this mental exercise will help you remember what the riseforms mean and will help you correlate the flies in your box that will work when you see that particular riseform displayed in front of you on the stream. I have created the following diagram for convenience:

Class Target Food Corresponding Riseform(s)
1. Nymph Bulging/Tail
2. Emerger Head-to-Tail/Dorsal Fin-to-Tail/Splashy
3. Cripple/Stillborn Head/Head-to-tail, Sipping
4. Dun Head/Head-to-Tail, Sipping, Splashy(occasionally)
5. Spent/Spinner Head/Head-to-Tail, Sipping

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