One of our favorite ways of targeting fish here in Colorado is sight fishing. For those uninitiated, sight fishing is the act of spotting a fish, casting to that fish, and then hopefully, catching that fish. It is one of the most exciting ways you can catch trout on a fly rod. The spot, the stalk, and the successes and the failures of sight fishing can account for some of the most visually compelling moments of your fly fishing career.
In addition to fun, sight fishing can be very effective. It allows an angler to target a specific fish (often times a bigger fish) more successfully. It's an excellent skill to have in your angling tool belt and it's a skill that travels with you to any fishing destination.
Now, spotting fish is not always the easiest of tasks. With that in mind, we put together a not-so-quick list of tips and tricks to help level up your sight fishing game.
It feels irresponsible to not mention the benefits of polarized sunglasses when sight fishing. A good pair of polarized sunglasses cuts down on glare, reduces eye strain, increases contrast, enhances colors, and boosts clarity. They will help you see past the surface of the water, see more underwater detail, and see more fish.
Simply put, high-quality polarized sunglasses are a must.
This might sound stupid, but the best sight-fishing anglers also catch quite a few fish. blind casting. Why? Because they understand where trout should be in the river. Years of experience have led them to make an informed decision about where a trout should be feeding. As a result, they can pinpoint where to spend their time looking for trout.
You could have the best fish-finding eyes in the world, but if you're spending time looking in water that doesn't hold fish, you're wasting daylight. Knowing where fish should be based on water types, structure, flow regimes and the like will make any angler a more efficient sight-fishing angler.
Additionally, every great sight fishing angler I know excels at either seeing their flies while they present them or can easily approximate where their flies are during their drift.
Why is this important? Well, often times a fish you're sight fishing to isn't moving that far for a fly. As a result, you need to know that you're presenting your flies within the target fish's feeding lane. This will inform your decision about when to change your flies, adjust your weight, or change your approach. Which, as it turns out, is important.
Knowing the ins and outs of their dry-dropper or nymph rig and how the rig behaves in all different kinds of water types is a MAJOR key. Looking to improve this aspect of your game? Fish big gaudy bright flies. Nothing sticks out like a big orange egg or a pink San Juan worm. Take that information and apply it to your more technical rigs and you'll be able to present your flies to your target fish.
This one is a three-parter.
1. Your movements, while you search for fish, should be slow - so as not to spook them. Fast movements are startling. Slow movements are not. You might need to army crawl, but you probably won't.
2. You should take your time scanning a section of water. A happy fish typically doesn't move that fast, so you need to give your eyes time to tune into one of the visual cues they're presenting. From a subtle rise in the water column as they move into a feeding lane, a swing across a rock as they track down a nymph, or the white of their mouth as they open it up to eat, those cues can run the gamut. You need to give your eyes a chance to see something. Take your time.
3. While it is important to give yourself time to clue into a fish's movements, it's also important to not bang your head against a wall. Give a section ten or more minutes of undivided attention and then move on to the next stretch. The more chances you give yourself to track down a couple of targets, the more likely you are to be successful over the course of a day. Remember, not all fish are players (so to say), so be willing to leave fish that are glued to the bottom. (We're looking at you Cheesman Canyon trout)
If you spend time sight fishing, you're going to be fooled by the fishiest piece of vegetation or shadow in the river. There's no way around it. But, take it from me, I've spooked plenty of trout because I didn't trust my eyes and thought I was just looking at weeds.
If you think there's a chance that you've spotted a trout, there's a fair chance that it is a trout. Confirm whether it is or isn't by throwing casts and making good presentations. If you know your flies are being presented to this slithery silhouette in the depths and you're not getting any feedback (positive or negative), you know it's time to change flies or move on. I often find that I can make the judgment - "fish or vegetation" with a lot more clarity when I'm actively presenting flies.
The last thing you want to do is start walking upstream and see that piece of vegetation darting into the depths looking an awful lot like a 24" rainbow. Heartbreak city.
The sun is very much your friend and enemy when sight fishing. Use it to your advantage. Light makes colors pop. Light creates shadows. These are the things you're looking for while hunting down that big donkey of a trout. Position yourself on the side of the river where the sun makes it easier to see into the water column and spot fish. Sometimes that means sticking to one side of the river, other times it means crossing back and forth to keep the sun behind you.
However, be mindful of your shadow and do your best to avoid glare. Your shadow will spook fish and the glare will blind you. Leaving you a bummed-out angler with no fish to hand.
Take your cue from birds of prey and use the higher ground to your advantage. High banks, cliffs, and rocks will all help to give you a "bird's eye view." Your ability to see fish can increase greatly as you increase your vertical distance from the water. It should be noted - this also makes you more visible to the fish you're chasing, so move slowly.
It's a lot easier to pick a fish out from a higher vantage point. Fair warning though, every fish you see from a high bank or cliff will look bigger than it actually is. So, don't get too excited. I've spotted plenty of 24" trout that turned out to be 18" trout when they found their way into my net. It has something to do with the shape of your eye, the refraction of light by the water's surface, or something like that.
Email me if you're a physics person and you know the actual reason.
I'm certainly not advertising myself as the world's foremost authority in the realm of sight fishing for trout. There are plenty of talented anglers that I've had the privilege to fish with. Two of those anglers are Trouts' own Tanner Smith and fly fishing guide Phil Tereyla. When I first moved down here from Montana, I spent more than a couple of days fishing the Dream Stream with these two - chasing big lake-run rainbows in spring.
The Dream Stream is well known for its sizable resident and migratory fish and sees plenty of angling pressure year-round. While you can certainly find success blind fishing likely holding water, you gain a definite advantage if you can spot and stalk a fish in that system.
In those early days on the Dream Stream with Tanner & Phil, I found plenty of opportunities to bug them to death about the art of sight fishing. I was struggling to spot fish with the same regularity that they were, so I glued myself to their downstream shoulder as they worked up a run.
They'd spot a fish. I wouldn't see it. I'd ask them to point it out. I wouldn't see it. I'd ask what their visual cue was. I wouldn't see it. I'd continue asking questions until I saw what they were seeing.
I'd stay in that position and watch as they made a couple of drifts through the zone. Looking for a reaction, or even better, waiting for them to hook that fish. Eventually, I started to see what they saw.
There is no doubt in my mind that time on the water with a guide or experienced friend can truly fast-track your sight fishing game quicker than reading any blog or book. There's no substitute for that on-the-water classroom.
We have plenty of great guides that are willing and able to help you improve your sight fishing game. Book your trip HERE, if you'd like.
Rarely are you going to see the whole trout and nothing but the trout. Typically, you're looking for hints of a trout. The woosh of its tail. The reddish-pink flank of a rainbow. The white of its mouth as it feeds. The green or yellow pop of the back of a brown trout.
Trout are pretty good at hiding themselves. They make a living off of it. But, as you familiarize yourself with the color and appearance of the substrate of a river, the slight differences in color and shape caused by a trout will start to stand out more and more. As with anything, it takes time and repetition, but you'll train your eyes to see those changes and differences and will be a sight-fishing machine that is the envy of all of their friends.
When ranking these tips by levels of stupidity, this might be the dumbest piece of advice. However, I wholeheartedly believe that when you're learning how to sight fish, it's about getting your reps in and confirming whether what you're seeing is actually a fish or not. Follow me along on this stupid thought process...
You come across the soft inside of a fishy-looking riffle. You spot what you think is a trout.
You make some amazing presentations. Nothing. You change depth. Nothing. You change flies. Nothing. You change your rig. Nothing.
What should you do? Just move along? Sure. That's an option. But, I'd rather confirm whether what I just spent a half-hour fishing for was a fish or not. Additionally, I want to know if there were any other fish that I might have seen, but didn't recognize the appropriate visual cues.
So, take a mental picture of the section of water and start trudging right toward that "fish." Chances are, if it is indeed a fish, it'll scurry off and will spook all of his friends that you didn't see. This allows you to collect and process that mental picture and save that information for the next time you fish that section. This leads me to my next point...
Fishing the same stretch of water over and over again and focusing on sight fishing while you do will pay off in the long run. Of course, you want your sight fishing game to be able to travel with you to any waterway, but when you're trying to level up, familiarity is your friend.
As you get to know a one-mile stretch of water, you will start to unconsciously log information in that big old brain of yours. That means that subtle color changes, shapes, shadows, and differences will be magnified over time. You'll start to train your eyes and brain to process that visual information and pick out more and more target fish. If you're like me and you value variety in life, focusing your time on one stretch of water might seem a bit boring and repetitive. But, this approach can really help you nail down the essentials of sight fishing a lot quicker. It's all about eliminating variables and consistently fishing a familiar piece of water can do that.
It can be very easy to let your eyes become locked in or laser-focused when you're sight fishing. If you've spotted a fish, this can be a great thing. But, when you're doing a first scan of a piece of water, letting your eyes relax can often accentuate the visual cues that a fish's presence will present.
It's a learned skill and it doesn't mean you not looking through the surface of the water. It's not a zone out, but a soft focus. I'm not positive I'm describing this in the best way, but when I relax my eyes and don't hyperfocus on specific points in the river, I am more likely to pick up on those color differences, movements, unexpected shapes, or even the white of an open trout's mouth.
Looking through the water, not at the water is absolutely key when sight fishing.
NEWS FLASH: Water is dynamic and the seamlines and currents of a river will swing back and forth as water pulses downstream.
It's certainly a lot easier to sight fish when you're looking through relatively soft or flat water. But, as you start to polish your sight fishing skills, you can really level up your game when you start to successfully sight fish in riffles and runs with more complex currents. These dynamic currents serve as excellent cover for fish and you can find some quality fish hiding in there.
Once you're positioned to avoid glare and see through the water's surface, wait for those pauses when the turbulence shifts and a window of clear water passes through your field of vision. Very often you'll get a quick glimpse at a trout or two. This oftentimes requires a fair bit of patience for the window to appear, so give it a little time and don't move too fast upstream.
If you're dealing with sun or glare from your side, throwing up a hand to block the sun can help immensely. Throwing up two hands like blinders on a racehorse can be an absolute game-changer.
As we've noted glare is the enemy of any sight-fishing fly angler and throwing up your "blinders" helps your eyes focus better while decreasing the number of visual distractions you have to deal with as you lock in on your target fish.