Sight fishing for trout – The Ultimate guide
I love trout, and my favorite type of fishing is fly casting to sighted trout. The thrill and rush of adrenaline as a 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 more rewarding form of fishing than watching a sighted trout raise through the water before swallowing my fly.
While exciting, Spotting trout, even in clear conditions can be difficult. Their camouflaged backs have evolved to be nearly invisible from above.
Their patterns and coloration are designed to trick the razor-sharp eyes of birds of prey. An osprey’s eyesight is 3-5 times stronger than ours, such vision is what trout evolve to hide against. The odds of spotting one are not in our favor.
Fishermen only see a fraction of the total number of trout in a river. I have fish runs and pools where I will see a couple of trout. Later I drift dive the same areas and will see dozens more. Trout are exceptionally well adapted to avoid detection from above.
This article will provide some hints on how to even out the odds. To improve the chances of spotting fish.
Before I get started on the list, always wear the proper gear. Polarized sunglasses are nearly essential because they reduce glare. A bright bronze color lens works well. I discuss what makes a good pair of fishing glasses here. A wide-brim d hat also massively reduces the glare which is an enormous help when sight fishing.
The 10 fundamentals of sight fishing for trout
Let’s get straight to the point, with some basic guidelines that if followed will make spotting trout, and any fish for that matter much faster.
1) Fish slowly, take your time
Take your time, and fish slowly. Give the trout time to reveal themselves.
When sight fishing it is so easy to walk too fast and end up spooking fish. I have lost count of the number of times I have never stood on a trout that was resting in the shallows.
When sight fishing take your time and give every spot a good looking over before moving on upstream. Trout are difficult to see, and if you go too fast the majority of trout will end up being spooked.
2) Look for movement
No matter how well camouflaged a fish is, its movement that separates fish from the other objects on the river floor. If a sharp is moving against, across, or diagonal to the current, it is safe to assume it is alive and it is most likely to be a fish.
When searching for trout, I am always trying to pick up movement that is out of sync with the current. Maybe it will be a darker patch that just seems to be moving out of sync. Sometimes the white flash of a jaw, or the flash, as the sun reflects off a fish’s scales as they move through the water.
3) A trouts shadow gives them away
When searching for fish, I do not look for fish themselves, but I am mostly looking for the telltale signs that give them away. Once I see such a sign I can concentrate in that direction allowing me to make out the features of a fish.
As already discussed, trout and most fish are naturally camouflaged. Their dark, spotted backs do blend in well with their watery home. So, I do not look for a fish, but I look for the shadow their body casts.
No matter how pristine the pattern it can not hide the shadow. I generally look for the darker outline towards the bottom, this suggests there is something suspended in the water column. Usually a fish.
4) Submerged “branches and oval rocks” can be trout
Trout, submerged branches, and elongated rocks all have one thing in common. At the bottom of a swirly pool, with plenty of glare they can be hard to tell apart.
A long skinny rock and a long skinny trout facing into the current can be hard to distinguish. I have made that mistake many times, and so have some of the most experienced anglers I fish with.
When I see a rock, or branch which looks somewhat fishy and is facing into the current I always assume it is a fish. So I will make a few casts. At worst, you get a few practice casts in, at best it is a trout.
There is nothing worse when a large ‘rock’ swims away to cover. If it looks like it could be a trout, treat it as one.
5) Use elevation to see into the water
A higher vantage point makes looking down into the river so much easier. This is because there is less surface glare to see through. With less glare to contend with spotting fish is significantly easier.
Keep in mind, this also works in reverse. The trout can see us much easier.
When searching for trout, I often climb a cliff or large boulder, just to give the area a good scan and identify where the trout are holding. When up there, I am aware I must still keep a low profile. I do not want the trout to see me.
After spotting the fish, I will sneak back down and use my new knowledge to find the fish again at the water level.
When fishing with a friend, it is a good idea to work as a team. One person spots from a vantage point and instructs the other angler where to cast to catch the fish that they can see.
6) Read the water
Reading the water is a skill in its own right, by understanding the currents and flow patterns. It is possible to understand where the trout are most likely to be holding.
A classic example is that trout often hold behind or in front of a large boulder. The trout are there because the rock split the current, creating an area of relatively little flow. There they can feed while minimizing energy fighting against the flow.
Likewise, trout are more likely to hold towards the edges, because the eddies create a back current and the trout can feed there without wasting energy to maintain their position.
If you know the locations where the trout are most likely to be feeding, they become so much easier to spot.
7) Know the water
Why do you think guides can spot trout so quickly and effortlessly?
Do they have excellent sight fishing skills gained from years of experience? Probably. But more importantly, they usually know the river they are guiding like the back of their hand.
They have seen the trout, and where they hold countless times before. Once you know the most likely holding spots on a river, it becomes significantly easier to spot trout the next time you fish in that location.
8) Look for openings or windows in the ripples
Stare at a current for long enough, and eventually, a calm patch of water will appear.
These calm spots, while only lasting a second or two act like a window into the river below greatly improving the chances of seeing what lay below.
To see trout in the water, you have to look through it not at it.
Even just a glimpse is enough to keep track of a fish.
9) Practice, practice, practice
Practice spotting fish every chance you have.
The more you practice sight fishing the easier it becomes. Whenever I am walking beside water or over a bridge, much to my wife’s annoyance, I always try and spot fish. It is important to keep honing your skills.
It does not matter if the stream holds trout or not, I am going to try to find fish in it. I also search for them in the ocean while beach walking, and I always scan ornamental ponds just in case.
10) Sun position makes a difference
This one is obvious, but looking into the sun is difficult at the best of times, so trying to sight fish with the sun in your eyes is difficult.
Try and fish with either the sun directly overhead or behind you. It makes spotting trout much easier. Directly overhead is typically best, not only is there less glare but there is no chance that your own shadow while casting will spook fish.
It is also advantageous to position yourself with a solid backdrop, this helps reduce glare from scattered light. While at the same time hiding your form from cruising fish.
Only search the most productive-looking spot
It is always easier to show someone how to sight fish than to teach them. Sight fishing requires patience and preparation for the best success. Trout are 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. The longer you spend looking the more you will see. Prioritize the best water, even if it means spending less time searching just okay water.
Some water is simply too difficult to sight fish. Just ignore it, and concentrate on the water which you can see.
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 most will be darting away to cover.
Fish your feet first, and start by searching the shallows. The trout that are easiest to spot will often be in the extreme shallows. When approaching the water edge, practice extreme stealth not to spook them. When trout are close, there is no time to change rigging. So be prepared beforehand.
When approaching the shoreline keep a low profile, and move slowly. It is all about stealth, imagine you are a cat stalking a bird. Make yourself invisible to your prey, and take care to wear clothing that blends into the surroundings. Avoid strong contrasting colors.
Trout have a blindspot, we can exploit it.
Not being seen is easier said than done, because trout have excellent eyesight, they have a much wider vision of view than us. But, trout 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.
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, and I look for long rocks or stubby logs in appropriate sizes. 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.
Before casting, spend time observing 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 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.
Also use this time to try and figure out how deep the trout is holding. If it is near the surface, then a shorter tippet might be required, if it is deep near the bottom a heavier nymph might be required.
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.
How to approach trout when sight fishing?
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.
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.
Sight fishing in different situations
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. It is not uncommon to see multiple trout patrolling one after the other. If you spook one, chances are you will spook them all.
Take your time, and make sure not to spook a tiny follower while lining up that trophy.
I also look for weed banks close to the shore. Trout often patrol along weed banks gently sipping
g 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 when it’s windy
I hate the wind, and I think most fishermen agree with me. Even a slight chop can make sight fishing very difficult. I have met anglers, who by some magic can still identify trout through the chop, but I certainly struggle. I suspect they just know the stretch of water extremely well, so they know exactly where to look.
When it is windy, I concentrate my efforts on the calmest side of the river or lake I am fishing. Whenever possible, I will try to stay on the leeward side. I want the wind behind me, blowing the chop away and not blowing in my face.
I also spend more time looking, in windy conditions it is even more important than usual to wait for an opening in the current, a clear window without glare or ripple to see into the water column. This might mean waiting minutes for a lull in the wind.
When the wind gets too bad, I forget about sight fishing and just tie on a streamer instead. Sometimes the odds are just not in our favor.
How to sight fish in dirty water?
When the water looks like mud, it is not possible to sight fish beneath the surface, at best it is possible to see surface disturbance, even then due to the lack of visibility trout will unlikely be raising. So the best bet is to look for the splashes and ripples trout create while they hunt in the shallows.
When water is dirty, it is best to seek out clear water. This can occur at river mouths, where a clear flowing stream merges with the main current. It can also occur in areas with powerful springs. Trout do not like muddy water, it damages their gills. When given the chance, they will seek out cleaner water.
In large rivers, smaller side channels or backwaters often flow clearer. Making them a prime sighting fishing location.
Sometimes, the water is not muddy, but just slightly stained. Maybe from tannins, or a light algae bloom. Even in such conditions, sight fishing is not easy but possible. I suggest concentrating on the shallows. It is also worth keeping an eye out for rising trout. If you can see the ripple ring or a dorsal fin proposing through the surface cast in that general area.
How to sight fish at night?
Initially, I thought sight fishing at night is impossible. That the question was a bit of a joke. There is simply not enough light to see fish. But when I stopped and think about it for a while, sight fishing at night is still possible.
Sight fishing at night is difficult, and without a light source, it is impossible to spot fish holding under the surface.
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 trout hunting 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 been 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.
What to do after sighting a trout?
Spotting a feeding trout is only the beginning, next we have to catch it and that is when the real challenge begins. In some ways, casting and catching a fish you can see is more difficult than blind fishing simply because if we can see them, they can see us.
But on the other hand, seeing allows us to customize our cast, presentation, and fly to maximize the chances of catching it. Here are some questions worth pondering.
- Where are the current seams, and how do they flow?
- Use this knowledge to minimize drag.
- How deep is the trout holding?
- What is the best angle to cast from?
- Is he raising, or swinging sidewise for nymphs?
- When the trout refuses, we can see that. This allows us to change tactics.
Estimating how deep the trout is feeding and selecting the best fly
To maximize the chances of catching a sighted fish, it is important to know how deep it is feeding. We can basically break the water depth into four different feeding zones, Surface, subsurface, mid-column, and bottom.
I will start at the surface. Surfacing feeding trout are the easiest to see, although studies have shown they spend less than 10% of their time there.
It is obvious when a trout is surface feeding because we can see them as their fins and head break the surface, creating boils and splashes. Sometimes, smaller fish will even jump clear out of the water. In my experience, the smaller fish usually make the biggest splashes, the large ones elegantly sip flies from the surface barely causing any disturbance.
When a trout is surface feeding, it is nearly always best to fish a dry fly. This will usually be a small mayfly or caddis imitation, although in late summer terrestrial insects also make up a significant portion of a trout’s diet.
Only a few inches separate a surface from a subsurface feeding trout.
One is feeding on insects on or near the water surface, while the other is sipping insects just as they emerge. Often stuck in the surface film.
These trout can be caught on either dries, or unweighted nymphs. Even old classics such as hare’s ear or pheasant tail can bring results. This is also the time to fish emerger patterns for example CDC midge or mayfly flies.
Middle Depth – in the water column
Things become a bit trickier now, because there is no easy way to tell how deep in the water column a trout is holding, and the clearer the water the more deceptive it can appear.
Judging how deep a trout is in the water column, largely comes down to experience combined with trail and error. Start by looking at the surrounding river features and try to make an educated guest. If the current is flowing fast, it is probably safe to assume the trout will be holding closer to the bottom. If it is only a gentle flow, it might be closer to the middle.
I probably will start with a lighted weighted nymph, maybe weighed down with a single copper bead.
If it seems to be drifting too high in the water column, then you have two options. Increase the weight, to force the fly down quicker, or use a longer tippet and cast further upstream giving the fly more time to sink to the desired depth.
Trout spend most of their time feeding close to, or on the bottom.
When they are not breaking the surface after a mayfly hatch, or harassing baitfish in the shallows they are probably on the bottom. They feel safe, there is less current to fight against and they can watch all the food floating by.
If the trout is barely moving, just sitting there. It is safe to assume they are on the bottom, so be prepared to fish deep. Knowing just how deep is mostly down to experience.
Fish heavy weighted nymphs, and even consider some split shot. Could even be worth throwing a heavy streamer.
Is it possible to start fish when spinning for trout
Yes, sight fishing is a useful skill for spin fishermen to develop, although it is not an essential one. The main reason is, most visible trout are more likely to be feeding on hatching insects, and not actively hunting.
Spinning is also much better at covering a lot of water quickly, which reduces the need to find trout quickly.