Know Their ‘Niches’

By Jeff Durniak – Unicoi Outfitters

From Merriam-Webster: “niche: a habitat supplying the factors necessary for the existence of an organism or species.” After electrofishing streams and lakes for three decades and fishing them twice as long, I’ve learned a bit about fish niches and would like to share this intel with you. If you know their niches, you’ll catch more fishes!

In scientific terms, these niches, or habitats, are a combination of water velocity, depth, substrate, and cover that a certain species prefers, and selects those spots when they’re available. In angler terms, those niches are where sportfish can hang out safely, grab a meal, and not be a meal themselves.

Watch a veteran angler. They will first “dissect” a river or stream by looking for those niches and concentrating their casts in those prime addresses. Many anglers call this “reading the water.” When you can recognize these instream abodes and knock on their doors with your popper or Ned rig, you might have some extra fish stories for your friends! Let’s look at some niches for our several of our favorite North GA fishes.

A real popular target is the rainbow trout. They’re built like a bullet or rocketship (fusiform) and evolved in the swift streams of the Pacific Northwest. Unlike their lazy cousins, ‘bows prefer and can tolerate faster currents, and they’re not as addicted to some form of cover over their heads. Just give them a rocky bottom to blend in with and they’re happy while picking off drifting nymphs. Since they’re not picky about homeplaces, agency research shows wild rainbows often have 2-3 times the density (fish/mile) than brookies or browns in similar-sized southern Appalachian streams. Show me a nice “blue-green” run or pool head with moderate current speed, depth of 2-5 feet, and a cobble/boulder bottom, and I’ll drift my double nymph rig through it for bows (plural!).

In contrast, browns and brookies are fat, lazy, and paranoid of predators. They like much slower currents and a roof over their heads and will even tolerate sand and silt under them. “Roofs” are sometimes bedrock ledges, boulders with undercuts, undercut streambanks, thick overhanging vegetation, fallen logs, and especially big logjams. With this cover-loving duo, I coach anglers to cast at “groundhog holes” in the stream. A slow spot with some depth and shade is a prime niche for a colorful speck or a hefty brown.

Let’s slide downstream and hit a few niches for our river fans. Like our slower trout species, river bass and bream are also fat, lazy, and wary of “death from above.” Their body shapes tell us they won’t spend much time body-surfing the waves in the main current. Look for those groundhog holes in your favorite rivers and you’ll have a great shot at shoalies, smallies, spots, and colorful redbreasts. Shoalies are addicted to rocks, so aim for boulder fields and rock ledges- the ones that are perpendicular to flow (slow water, right?). Put some low tree branches or a big fallen log over that slow, rocky spot and watch out for Bubba, who may push 20 inches. You’ll also find some shoalies in the whitewater, but they’ll actually be in the slow water “underneath” the ripping main current.

The other river bass and bream species also like shoalie niches, but they love what the Unicoi Guru terms, “frog water.” Look for the slowest, shadiest spots along the river with at least 2-3 feet of depth to hide them. Deep, slow, shady spots along the riverbank are some of the best river bass niches created by Mother Nature. If there’s a bunch of low branches, a downed tree, or a huge logjam over that niche, you better check your knots and have your camera ready before you knock on that door. Boss Hog might be home.

Scan your favorite stream for these niches before you hop in or float down. By skipping over the marginal water and knocking on these prime doors, those niches may give you more fishes, too. If the niche system works for you, then be the hero and pass on your intel to that new angler following you. He or she will be your next best friend, niche spotter and conservation ally. Good luck fishing the niches!