February 03, 2023
By Landon Mayer
This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of Fly Fisherman.
One of the most important skills you can learn to consistently catch large trout is spotting them in the water. Once you can see where a fish is holding, you can move to make the best possible presentation, and see when the fish takes your fly. This enables you to set the hook immediately for more hook-ups and less foul-hooking. Sight-fishing provides a visual thrill that you don't get when blind-fishing and is more efficient because you are not wasting your time casting in water that doesn't hold fish.
Here are ten tips that have helped me learn to spot fish.
Look, Then Fish
An important difference that separates successful fly fishers from the others is patience–they look a lot before they fish. In some cases they use a teamwork approach, having a friend spot fish from a high bank while the other fishes under his directions. If they are fishing alone, without the aid of a partner's eyes, they walk a high bank (staying well back from the edge) and examine the water carefully for the fish. Then they plan their approach and presentation to avoid spooking the fish when they make their fly presentation. Most experienced fly fishers watch. Then they fish.
Wear Good Polarized Glasses
Good polarized sunglasses are essential when looking for trout. When there is glare on the water, which is frequently, it is nearly impossible to spot fish without them. The more fish you see, the better your chances of catching them. Polarized glasses remove glare, providing a clearer view of the river bottom, and some lens tints intensify colors to help you determine if what you see is a trout. The most effective glasses have side shields or side lenses. Using quality polarized glasses has not only helped me catch more fish, it has helped me understand their behavior and movements below the water's surface because I am better able to see them.
Choose the Right Lens Color
Own a few pairs of high-quality glasses with different lens tints so you can choose a lens color based on weather conditions and water clarity. The most common tints are brown (or gray), copper, and yellow. Dark tints are best for bright conditions and light amber/yellow tints are better for low-light conditions. Light-colored lens tints don't remove as much glare as dark tints, but they do help you see better in low light conditions. In mixed conditions (changing light or water conditions), or if you only want one pair of glasses, the best general-purpose tint for fresh water is copper or amber. High-quality lenses have less distortion and defects, providing clearer vision and making fish spotting much easier than when using low-quality lenses.
Fish at High Noon
From about 11 A.M. to 1 P.M., the sun is high overhead so there is little glare on the water, allowing you to easily see into the river. However, while it is easier for you to see into the water, it is also easier for fish to see you. So be cautious, scan the water thoroughly, and try to spot the fish from far enough away so that you can get into the best casting position without spooking it.
Look for Viewing Lanes
When there is glare on the water, position yourself so tile sun is at your back. That way, the reflections off the water are aimed away from you and the sun's rays are not in your eyes. Try to approach the fish so your shadow does not frighten it; if possible use a shaded backdrop to eliminate shadows and to mask movement. Look for places where you can see into tile water without glare or reflection of color on the water's surface. These viewing lanes can often be 4 to 8 feet wide and can stretch from 5 feet in front of you to the other side of the river. If it's possible to do so without spooking fish, examine the water from both sides of the river to find the largest and clearest lane.
Once you find a good viewing lane, use it to scan the river. Carefully look at the entire area and then walk upstream (constantly looking into the viewing lane) so you approach the fish from behind and don't spook it. If the viewing lane is downstream from you, keep a low profile and thoroughly examine the water. Once you spot a fish in a lane angled downstream, mark it, and reposition yourself parallel or downstream of the fish before you cast so you don't spook the fish.
Look for Water Windows
In broken, turbulent water, intermittent flat spots move downstream with the speed of the current. These moving windows allow you to see fish holding on the river bottom. If possible, get on a high bank (but stay low) and scan the moving window to spot the trout holding in the water. Position yourself downstream of the target. Then using a moving window cast upstream of the fish with a strike indicator, weight, and one or two flies. Allow them to sink to the river bottom. Watch for the trout to move and take your fly. Better yet, have a companion watch the fish when you cast and yell "set!" when the trout moves and takes your fly.
Refine Your Approach
Once you find a viewing lane (and a trout), you need to determine the best approach. Most of the time the best approach is walking upstream along the river's edge and downstream from the trout so you don't spook it. Before moving along or entering the river, search the shallow water near the margins. The largest trout sometimes hold there because they don't have to battle fast water and currents push food out to them. If your best viewing lane is downstream, keep low and thoroughly scan the water before taking another step downstream. Once you spot your target, slowly retreat back and away and reposition yourself so that you are casting from a position that's across or downstream of it.
Know What to Look For
Trout are like chameleons: They take on the color of their surroundings. You are lucky if you can spot half the trout that are actually in one stretch of stream. It helps to first look for fish, then to look for details that betray their presence–shape, shadow, color, movements that differ from the stream bottom background. Some fishers look for shadows created by trout holding in clear water; others look for the white that edges brook trout fins, or the white "wink" that trout make when they take a nymph, or the "leopard spots" or yellow sides on spawning browns, or the red sides of spawning rainbows, or the red slash of "cut-throats."
Look for White Mouths
Not only do flashes of white signal feeding fish, once you've spotted a fish and started casting to it, the white mouth indicates that the fish has taken your fly and that you should set the hook. Wait for the trout to open and close its mouth before setting to ensure a good hook set.
Look for Shadows
If the conditions or water quality makes seeing the colors and silhouettes difficult, try looking for a fish's shadow on the bottom of the river. When you spot a shadow, watch for movement.
This method is effective in bright, sunny conditions and in multicolored river-bottom areas. Even in turbulent waters, shadows are visible, though they may be distorted.
When I first started to pursue trophy trout, I spotted a few fish on each trip, but I would often spook them because they saw me first. I knew I was spooking even more fish than I saw. So I started looking for situations and areas on the waters that I fished that provided the best visibility and allowed me to spot fish before they spotted me. These windows of opportunity have made all the difference. I catch more trophy trout.
[When fish biologist Bob Bachman was working for his PhD doing trout behavioral research on Spruce Creek at Penn State University, his student stream watchers discovered that an experienced fly fisher dressed in camo and trying slowly to approach the trout research pool could not get near the water without most of the trout disappearing. Movement is the great betrayer of fishers to trout. Movement is also a great betrayer of trout, both on the surface and beneath it. Relax–Sit and watch the stream for a long time. As Yogi Berra once noted: "You can observe a lot by watching." THE EDITOR.)
Landon Mayer (landonmayerflyfishing.com) is a Colorado fly-fishing guide and Fly Fisherman contributing editor. He lives with his wife Michelle and their four children in Florissant, Colorado. His most recent book is Landon Mayer’s Guide Flies: Easy-to-Tie Patterns for Tough Trout (Stackpole Books, 2022).