TOP TIPS TO SPOT TROUT
Mike Davis with top tips on getting your eye on the prize
In most sports, with a little work and tenacity the majority of people can reach a competent level fairly quickly, and fly-fishing is no different.
After a bit of practice, most people can load a rod sufficiently to cast out to 20 metres, no problems. They have the basics of controlling a drag free drift to catch fish most times they’re out on the water. This means that when fish are out and feeding well they will have a good chance of success. But what happens when they’re following someone else up a river or fishing a piece of water that has had increased pressure? The answer is that only the best anglers will still keep catching fish.
Once you reach the standard where most fly fishers are the improvements are made in incremental gains. These subtle changes will make a big difference. Outside of casting ability and line control, the single biggest area where people can improve is spotting fish.
Room for improvement
To be great at this you must first understand where and why fish hold in certain areas or lies of the river. You need understand how water temperatures effect the fish and where they’re sitting at different times of the year. Most importantly you need to have the ability to scan the river far enough ahead to spot fish early.
This means that most of your time observing the river for trout should be spent looking hard at the water with the highest probability of holding fish. Areas known as prime lies, which meet all of a trout’s survival needs will always have fish close by. A prime lie has protection from strong currents; obstacles that break the flow of moving water like large boulders or submerged logs. Fish can often be located in front of and behind these obstructions in the calm pockets created by the break in the current seam.
Deep pools formed by the river meandering and changing direction also gives protection from the strong currents, the depth of a pool provides protection from predators and in turn sweeps food right to them so very little effort is needed to obtain a meal.
In New Zealand, most of our freestone rivers have a run, riffle, pool configuration; these are always the most stable parts of a river system. Freestone rivers are characterised by a riverbed that is made up of stones
and boulders. The healthy oxygenated water will carry large insect populations or nymphs. The riverbed structure also dictates where fish are found, sections of riverbed with a sandy or gravel bottom usually support lower numbers of fish so these areas can be covered quickly until the more favoured rocky riverbed is found.
Experienced anglers look carefully at the different currents created by the river and observe the little things like surface disturbance, changes in riverbed and the difference in river colouration. The darker areas highlighting subtle changes in water depth may be potential fish holding areas, especially over the warmer summer months.
When it comes to newcomers, it can be really hard for them to grasp the fact that experienced anglers aren’t actually looking for the whole fish in the water.
While moving upstream scanning the riverbed when working a run or riffle, the most important thing you can work on is getting used to looking far enough ahead that you can pick up
With more time spent observing the scene instead of endless casting, the secrets of the trout are revealed making the angler more successful
signs of fish early. By observing 2030 metres you are not walking on top of them once they have been spotted therefore spooking the fish easily. Most newcomers concentrate on the area just in front of their feet and are often surprised at the number of fish that bolt out from just in front of them.
This is of utmost importance when spotting clear rivers especially when brown trout are sitting in the shallow edges. It is very rare to see a trout out feeding in the open in full view unless you are fishing water that is seldom fished, so become accustomed to looking for parts of fish or shapes that may be fish. Most of the time, especially when looking at faster water, a smudge facing upstream is all that is seen.
Colour and light
Both brown and rainbow trout are difficult to spot for most novice anglers and trout have that uncanny ability to change colour with the riverbed structure. Shapes that face upstream in the water are usually trout but if you’re unsure, cast at it. If it is a fish you will usually see some movement from it before long.
Some brownies can almost be a silver colour in very clear mountain rivers, while in other waterways they take on a very olive colouration. When it comes to looking into pools especially long slow moving pools, at first glance nothing is seen. By taking a little time to sit down and carefully study the water for a few minutes shapes can often appear out of nowhere to suddenly become fish. By positioning yourself with a high backdrop of bush or riverbank you will often reduce glare on the far side of the river and will allow yourself to see clearly into the water.
Having the sun high in the midday sky is another advantage when spotting trout on rivers, because when the sun is sitting low on the horizon such as a bright morning or in the late afternoon, excess glare can make spotting trout very difficult. For the same reason, spotting fish in autumn is much harder than in the middle of summer with the excessive water glare.
Patience is a virtue
In faster sections of river when trying to spot fish, the fast river currents turn the riverbed into mass of blurs, the water and boulders all entwine to make spotting very difficult. When looking into fast water one has to slow down and after a little time a window, an area of smooth water that is not broken up by the fast currents, will open up allowing you to see right through to the bed.
The patient angler that waits for the window will soon see shapes and objects in the river that they would have by-passed if they were moving quickly. Often these turn out to be fish. The other advantage the angler has when fishing in fast water is that they can sometimes get very close to the fish without it knowing by using the water and current speed to their advantage.
Know your angle
One of the greatest advantages an angler can have when looking into the water is to examine the river from a high angle. By getting high above the waterline the whole riverbed can often be seen very clearly. When viewing the river from an elevated position be sure to have vegetation of some sort conceal your whereabouts. Sit down into the bank if fishing along farmland so not to be silhouetted by the sun's light, as the fish will see you clearly if you are highlighted by the skyline.
The most successful method for spotting and stalking fish is to have a friend on high ground. At water level, glare prevents the angler from seeing the fish but the mate who is spotting from a high point can give clear instructions to where the fish
are located and then guide the angler on where to cast their offerings.
An item every angler should carry to aid in spotting fish is a pair of Polaroid glasses and a peaked or wide brimmed hat. One without the other is almost useless but used together they are invaluable.
Polaroid sunglasses are a must for good spotting as well as being a safety device for stray hooks in the wind. If glasses are worn without the aid of a hat too much light is let in through the sides of the glasses for full effectiveness. The shading hat eliminates excess sunlight and glare from hitting the glasses. If the underside of the peak is a dark colour even more glare is eliminated.
In freshwater, amber and copper coloured lenses will help the most, with the copper lenses ideal as an all-round fishing glass and the amber great in low light conditions. Polaroid glasses come in either polycarbonate or glass lenses, the polycarbonates are cheaper than glass in price and lighter in weight but they have a tendency to scratch very easily if not taken care of. While the glass lenses are heavier they are also clearer or sharper to look through and do not scratch as easily.
The manufactures also have the ability to make them photochromatic, this allows the glass to change shade subtly with differing light conditions. Photochromatic glasses darken up slightly in very bright conditions and lighten a shade in low light.
All in the timing
The best time for clear spotting is when conditions are calm and the sun is high in the sky, but as with most recreational activities Murphy often comes to visit once you finally get the chance to get out and cast a few flies.
Overcast and windy conditions can make spotting trout more difficult when walking the riverbank but the patient angler is usually rewarded. With more time spent observing the scene instead of endless casting, the secrets of the trout are revealed making the angler more successful.
Remember, that ninety-nine percent of the time the whole fish will not be seen and it may only be a smudge in the water, a fin or some unusual movement that triggers your attention. The golden rule is if in doubt give it a shot; it may just be a fish.
A prime Jack rainbow sight fished by the author.