By John Randolph
Most of us fish for trout without actually observing them: They’re just a riseform on the surface or they’re down in the opaque water column, perhaps eating nymphs.
We recognize the fish only when it surfaces to take our fly or when our strike indicator dips with a take. But we should learn to think with our eyes, the way the true predator does when it searches for food. That is the subject and purpose of Landon Mayer’s new book Sight Fishing for Trout.
When I taught my grandson to fly fish, I said to him: “Ben, you must learn to observe, to watch your fly as it floats, to think with your eyes. Otherwise you will not see the fish take your fly and you will not be able to react fast enough to strike and hook the fish. Eventually you will habitually fix your eyes on the fly and react.”
This is the primary premise of Mayer’s book—to become a trout predator by first spotting and then stalking your prey. Trout are like chameleons: They naturally take the colors of the stream bottom on which they dwell. They have feeding lies and hiding lies: One provides them with sustenance and the other with safety.
Trout have evolved as both predator and prey: As predator species they prey on drifting aquatic insects (invertebrates) and other fish (vertebrates). As prey species, they must be able to spot approaching predators from above (osprey and eagles) and below (mink and otter). Their eyesight is nearly full circle, so they can see in all directions except about 10-15 percent directly behind. As prey, external movement is their key alarm. Their entire bodies act as highly sensitive sound receivers, and wading sounds in quiet waters send them fleeing.
So where does this leave us as trout predators? As Robert Bachman learned in his three-year doctoral studies monitoring trout behavior, conducted on the Penn State University water on Spruce Creek, most wild trout disappeared from their feeding stations before expert fly fishers could approach the stream using stealth and wearing camouflage clothing.
Can we even hope to get close enough to wild adult stream trout to catch them? According to Mayer, we can, and he has built a reputation guiding his clients to trophy trout on the waters of the South Platte River where the trout are particularly wary, and the best guides (like Mayer) must hone their skills to spot and then get within casting range of them.
There is an old fishing adage that holds: “Ten percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish.” The percentage is overstated. It is more accurate to assert that 10 percent of the fishermen catch 70 percent of the older trout, and they catch them by first locating them, observing their feeding behavior; then selecting the right fly and presenting it the way the fish expects to see its prey (food items). All of this successful predatorial behavior is predicated on experience. And the most important element of that experience is learning how to spot the largest (oldest) specimens of the species.
Developing the eye of the hunter (coeur d’oeil) is key to successful trout spotting. If you are one of those hunters who can spot deer while speeding by woods, then you understand “hunter’s eye.”
Once the hunter’s eye learns to recognize prey shape (morphology), color tone, shadow image, and movements that don’t fit the surroundings, and preferred feeding and hiding locations, his search patterns and eye triggers are “educated.” He begins to “think with his eyes.” More than half his work is prescribed. The rest is stalking, spotting, and presentation.
Most successful hunters are born with inherent predatory instincts. But even nonhunters can become superb fishers through training, if they have enough drive to learn the elements of eye-search and recognition as mastered and explained by Mayer.
Clear tailwater rivers and spring creeks are perhaps the best places to learn the disciplines of “hunting with your eyes.” The waters are clear, they move slowly, and they produce large older trout that have learned all the tricks of concealment and survival. Perhaps it is the demanding challenges of these waters that have produced our greatest trout fly anglers. Among them, the one who taught me most in my decades of hunting for large trout was George Harvey of Pennsylvania, a born hunter and teacher. I think he would have approved of this book.