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How to sight fish for trout – The Ultimate guide

I love fishing; I love trout, and my favorite type of fishing is fly casting to sighted trout. The thrill and rush of adrenaline as a sighted trout glides across, opens its mouth, and slowly engulfs a fly keeps me returning to trout rivers day after day. I feel there is no fishing more rewarding than getting to watch a sighted trout raise through the water and engulf my life.

If I can not see a trout, chances are I will move on to the next likely hold. Sure, I leave many fish unseen for a pure numbers game. Blind fishing could be more productive. But for me, there is nothing that beats the excitement of presenting my fly to sighted fish.

What is sight fishing for trout?

Simply put, when sight fishing you are casting to trout that you have spotted feeding in the water. This allows you to present the fly or lure directly in front of the trout.

The key points on how to sight fish?

I feel it is easier to show someone how to sight fish than it is to teach them. Sight fishing requires patience and preparation for the best success. Trout can be hard to see through the ripples of the water. If there is one paramount piece of advice is to take your time and slowly search the water.

  • Wear polaroid sunglasses. A bright bronze color works well. I discuss what makes a good pair of fishing glasses here.
  • Take your time, fish slow. Give the trout time to reveal themselves.
  • Prioritize the best water, even if it means sacrificing time searching for good water.- Some water is simply too difficult to sight fish. Just ignore it, and concentrate on the water which you can see.
  • Look for high ground. It is easier to look into water from above than from river level.
  • Position yourself with a solid backdrop, this helps reduce the scattered light, while at the same time hiding your form from cruising fish.
  • Expect to fish your feet. Often most spottable trout will in the extreme shallows or right opposite you. Practice extreme stealth not to spook them. When trout are so close, there is no time to change rigging. So be prepared beforehand.

See without being seen.

First, You must see the trout without being seen first. It is easy to rush over to the prime spot and stare into the water from a few feet away. Chances are you will see trout, but unless you are fishing for innocent stockies chances are you will see them darting away to cover.

When approaching the shoreline keep a low profile, move slowly. It is all about stealth, imagine you are a cat stalking a bird. Make yourself invisible to your prey, take care to wear clothing that blends into the surroundings. No strong contrasts.

Not being seen is easier said than done, because trout have excellent eyesight, they have a much wider vision of view than us. But, they have weaknesses we can exploit. Just like us, trout can not see from behind. So approaching from the downstream direction gives the best chance of avoiding detection.

Their second weakness, is that they are quite dumb. Trout have excellent vision but they respond mostly to movement. If a cruising trout you were stalking suddenly turns, then freeze. Do not move a muscle. Do not squish the blood-sucking insects which use exactly that moment to descend upon any exposed skin en mass. Do not scratch that irritating itch, do not reposition your legs despite the developing crump. Most certainly do not cast. Freeze, stay frozen and there is a good chance the trout will not see you.

The next point is quite a contradiction. To see trout, you want to stand tall, the height makes it possible to stare deeply into the water. Standing tall also makes you much more visible to any fish. So to avoid detection it is best to keep a low profile. I have seen anglers almost commando crawl between pools. While this is a bit excessive, it can be worth doing to peer over the side of a high cliff to look directly into the pool below.

I like to use the environment around me. If there are boulders or scrubby vegetation I will stand behind them, use them to break up the figure of my body.

Even in clear conditions trout can be hard to see

Where to place the sun when sight fishing

I like sight fishing on sunny days. The bright conditions make trout easier to see.

Looking into the sun is a different story. Trout, just like us do not like looking toward the sun. So by approaching a river with the sun behind you is a good way to avoid detection. Just make sure not to cast your shadow over the trout. That can cause them to scatter.

I also somewhat believe trout hate looking into the sun when feeding. Must make spotting tiny nymphs and flies difficult. If the sun is directly upstream, I will consider moving to a different section where the sun is more to the side or behind.

How to see the trout

Trout have excellent camouflage. They are further hidden by the ripples, glare and movement of the water. When sight fishing, I almost never clearly see the fish. At least not at first. I do not look for the outline of a fish, but I look for ‘movement’ within the water column, i look for out of place shadows, I look for unusual long rocks or logs resting. Often, all that I will see is the white flash of a jaw or the flick of the tail.

Most of the time, I am not casting at a trout. But I am casting to a dark smudge towards the bottom of the pool. Sometimes, the object turns out to be logs, or rocks. Sometimes, I had logs turn out to be trout. It is annoying when that happens.

But if a sharp somewhat resembles a trout, it is certainly worth casting to. At times, I have convinced myself that I was casting to a log. Only for it to raise up and gobble down a fly. Other times, after many fruitless casts, I wade closer to reveal my potential trophy was a well-worn chunk of timber. This is the reality of sight fishing. Even the best anglers still makes mistakes and if in doubt make a few casts.

Observe the trout

After spotting the trout, it is a good idea just to observe it. See if it is moving side to side in the current, probably grabbing nymphs or raising to the surface after emergers. Use this knowledge to better select the fly which best resembles what the trout is feeding upon.

In still water, trout often prefer to cruise, most of the time trout have a routine that they follow. I like to wait and watch, and see where the trout swims. After two or three laps I know the opportune time to cast to minimize the chance it will see my line.

One last advantage is that often by observing one trout. I spot others feeding nearby. At times, I have seen a small trout, and while watching it I observe a much larger one feeding nearby. Sometimes multiple trout jostle for the best position.

Practice makes perfect

The more time you spend sight fishing, the better at it you will become. You will become more skilled at identifying the slight telltale signs of a feeding fish. Slight shadows take on sharps, and movements become more apparent.

By far the biggest gain is simply knowing where to look. After fishing a river a dozen times, you will have a good base knowledge of where the trout are most likely to be holding. This gives you the knowledge to concentrate on the most productive areas of the river.


When fishing with a friend. It is a good idea to team up. One can act as a spotter, normally from an elevated position from which they can sight and direct the angler targeting the trout. Two eyes are certainly better than one.

How to spot trout in rivers?

Trout in rivers, typically face upstream. Look for long thin shapes, slightly darker than the bottom facing upstream. If you are lucky, the shape will move occasionally. When that happens it is nearly always a feeding fish.

Trout typically position themselves, just out of the main current. This allows them to intercept any food floating downstream, without exerting excessive energy.

When approaching trout on a river, I always approach from downstream, and on popular rivers, I try to avoid approaching from the easy side. The vast majority of fishermen approach pools from the same side, and the trout have learned that. By approaching from a strange side reduces the chance of the trout seeing you. This often means I have to push through scrub or cling to steep cliffs. Not always possible, but certainly worth keeping in mind.

How to spot trout in lakes

Trout behave differently in lakes compared with rivers. When sight fishing lakes, I ignore the middle. You might see a few raises, but when fishing from the shore they will be impossible to reach.

I sight fish the edge of the lakes, there are several features that I look for. One of my favorites is shallow flats. For some reason, trout love to patrol such areas. Trout in the shallows are often easy to spot, but they are generally quite flighty. In some flats I will see multiple trout patrolling one after the other. Take your time, and make sure not to spook a tiny follower while lining up that trophy.

Another feature I look for are weedbanks close to the shore. Trout often see along weedbanks gently sipping up snails and other invertebrates.

Finding high ground, makes looking into a lake much easier. On one of my favorite lakes, I like to climb a steep bank from which I can seat and just observe the trout feeding down below. When the time is right, I sneak down, hide behind some reeds and try to intercept my prey.

River mouths and deltas are also a great place to find feeding trout. Look for them patrolling the shallows on either side or holding right in the current. River mouths can be difficult to approach from the shore, many fishermen prefer to fish them from boats.

How to sight fish in dirty water?

To successfully sight fish you need clear water. If the water is the color of mud, sight fishing is a waste of time. Go find a lake or spring creek with clear water.

Sight fishing in water that is slightly stained, is challenging. But fish can still be spotted by concentrating on the shallows. It is also worth keeping an eye out for rising trout. If you can see the ring, chances are you can concentrate in that area to see exactly where the trout is holding.

In large rivers, smaller side channels or backwaters often flow clearer. Making them a prime sighting fishing location.

How to Sight fish at night?

Sight fishing at night is difficult. There is simply not enough light to see fish. The best option is to look for feeding activity on the surface such as the rings, from a raising trout or the swirls caused by a hunting trout in the shallow. You are unlikely to see the trout, but at least you can pinpoint their appropriate location.

There is another option, which is quite controversial. That is using a bright spotlight, some anglers either walk or float along the river shining powerful spotlights in the water ahead. When they spot a trout, they turn the light off and wait a few minutes. They then hope the trout had not spooked before casting where they previously saw the trout. In the dark, you will not see the trout catch the fly but at least you can cast in its approximate location.

How to sight fish when it’s windy

I hate the wind, even a slight chop can make sight fishing very difficult. I have met anglers, who by some magic can still identify trout through the ripples, but I certainly struggle.

When it is windy, I personally concentrate my efforts on the calmest parts of the river. When fishing a lake, I will go to the side with the wind behind me

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