Spotting Fish

Tips for spotting fish

  • Get a quality pair of polarized sunglasses. The right sunglasses are essential when trying to spot fish. Sun on the water causes a lot of glare, making it quite hard to spot fish. Polarized glasses removes that glare.
  • Fish midday. Fishing early and late when fish are more actively feeding increases your odds of catching them. However, for learning to spot fish - and thus better understanding their movements, preferred lies and feeding habits - the middle part of the day when the sun is high overhead gives you a better advantage. A high midday sun means there is little glare on the water, allowing you to more easily see into the river.
  • Approach the stream carefully. How you approach a stream is critical to your success. Always walk gently, never stomping your feet. Keep low, even squatting or crawling if the fish are spooky. Stay in the shade if possible. If you wade, go very slowly, keeping your ripples small and close to your feet.
  • Look for a fish's shadow on the streambed. Even the most experienced angler has difficulty spotting the actual fish holding in its lie - just ask any osprey. Millions of years of evolution have given trout an amazing ability to blend in with their watery surroundings, but there is a trick you can use: look for the fish's shadow.
Learn how to read a stream.

Now that you've burned some midday hours trying to spot fish and learning where they live in the river and why, it's time to learn to find and catch fish you can't see. And quite honestly, that's most of them, most of the time.

While you may not always be able to see fish, you can learn to "read" any river, as they all share common traits. Learning to read a river means being able to recognize the type of stream habitat the fish are most likely to favor at different times during the day, both at rest and while actively feeding.

All streams or rivers have the same basic sections and share common traits. Fast water can be broken down into rapids, riffles, and pocket water. Slow water can be broken down into pools, slicks, and eddies. Fish prefer to live in a slower current most of the time as this helps them conserve valuable energy. Trout generally lay up in front of or behind rocks or in the gentle seam of where two currents meet.

The features that will create slower water ideal for attracting and holding fish are:

  • Boulders: Fish love boulders for the protection and feeding opportunities they provide. Boulders protruding from the water's surface create a pocket of slower water. The front pocket is formed by the damming effect on the current, causing the water to stack up and create a bulge of slower water. You will recognize this bulge and sometimes see a wave breaking just in front of it.
  • Stream Banks: First look for fish along the shore or banks of the river where the water is deep enough to hold fish or allow them to move into the shallows to feed. Particularly in the early morning, trout will move into surprisingly shallow "skinny water" to feed on nymphs or emerging insects. Look for active fish down stream from any irregular shoreline feature, bump or other protrusion you can see, such as a series of rocks jutting into water. Fish will hold in the slack current behind obstructions like these, so you can be confident they are there whether or not you see them feeding.
  • Fallen, Submerged Trees: Finding fish means first finding their habitat, and trees that have fallen or been swept into the river provide plenty of that. Whether still attached by roots or lodged against the bank or other structure, whole or partially submerged trees create a slack current attractive to fish (look for a slick water area or area of calmer water).
How to Read a Stream

Example of a Head, Gut and Riffle

  • Head of the Pool: At the end of the rapid or riffle - a riffle is just a shallow rapid - there will be a transition area called the "head" of the pool. The water rushes down the rapid area and hits a deepening stream bottom that might also widen and slow the current. The previously tumbling water becomes smoother and quieter in its movement as it enters the pool. You will also find fish feeding on bottom-dwelling nymphs in this area, or catching the drowned insects and other morsels carried on the current's conveyor belt.

    Just downstream from the head of the pool is an area that may be shallow on one bank, known as a "shelf." The shelf may consist of a gravel, sand, or mud bar. There will be a very distinct line between the fast flowing channel current and the shelf's slower current. Look for feeding fish in the slower moving water of the shelf, as well as the outer seam where the two currents meet.
  • Tailout: A tailout is located where the pool empties into the next rapid or riffle, also referred to as simply the "tail" of the pool. Notoriously shallow and susceptible to the eyes of predators, the tail of the pool does not fish well during daylight hours. The tail has holding areas but the water becomes shallower and spills into the next rapid's area of the stream.
Fishing the Undercut Bank and Streamers

Fishing streamers gets you started catching fish. Requiring less finesse and delicacy in presentation than dry fly or even nymph fishing, streamer fishing requires its own skill set that can reward you with true lunkers. After all, streamers are used to imitate the minnows, juvenile game fish and other baitfish larger fish key on. Streamer fishing is also a good alternative when weather or poor water conditions prohibit you from fishing other flies; big fish are almost always feeding and streamers might be just the invitation they were looking for. Follow these tips to improve your streamer fishing skills:

  • Streamers are big flies that sink fast and swim naturally. They give trout fishers an added advantage because trout rarely see objects of this size and appearance. Unlike dry flies presented on a nice, slow run that gives a trout ample time to decide if it is interested, streamers are "stripped" past their face in a hurry. This method kicks in a trout's predatory instincts, often inciting powerful strikes before the fish has any time for second thoughts.
  • When using streamers, you want a big rod - 5-7 weight - and big flies. Toss out your streamer above the general area where fish hold against the bank (see illustration above).
  • Let the fly sink a moment, then strip in the line, varying the rate of speed and number of stops, suggestive of an injured baitfish. The keys are locating the target depth and finding the optimum retrieval speed. It has to appear natural for trout to strike.
Best times to fish streamers:
  • When fishing cut banks (see above illustration).
  • In spring runoff.
  • In muddy water after a rain.
  • If there are few rises and no sign of a hatch.
  • When fishing deep pools, plunges, or shelves.
  • When traversing lots of water quickly.
  • When ambient temperatures are frigid.
  • Fishing in lakes for trout or bass.
  • When big fish are the goal.
  • When fish hold under limbs and other obstructions.
  • When fishing riffles and runs and gravel bars in bigger rivers.
  • When there are long stretches of pocket water with a multitude of obstructions.
  • On overcast and rainy days.
  • Early in the morning and in the evenings.