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Spotting Trout in Their Lies

There is probably nothing more exciting in trout fishing than searching for, then, finding a fish to tempt with your fly or lure. But spotting fish can be harder than it seems.

I can still remember very clearly the first time I saw a trout while fishing. I was fishing the Avon River in the heart of Christchurch, NZ, and I was about nine or ten at the time. As usual I had caught nothing, and was getting pretty close to packing-in this whole trout-fishing business. This day however, a man walking along the bank stopped and during a chat asked me if I could see the trout out towards the middle of the river. I could not so he offered to help me.

Trout Image

Slowly and carefully he guided my sight to bottom features leading me step by step towards the fish. Still I could not see it – I was beginning to doubt there was actually a fish there.

“Stop looking for the fish”, my newly-found mentor advised, “look, can you see that dark smudge just to the left of the ribbon of weed”.

I looked and I could, and then I noticed that the smudge moved briefly upstream a few centimetres. Then something truly magical happened, the smudge materialised into a trout. There is no other explanation – first there was only a dark smudge, and then like a butterfly opening its wings, there was the trout.

“There’s another trout about three yards (yes, yards way-back then) ahead of that trout,” my mentor advised, and now that I knew what to look for I soon found it.

Don’t Look For a Trout

The trick to spotting fish in water where they might or should be is not to look for fish. Fish have spent millennia organising their outward appearance to make it hard for predators to see them. They have become very good at it – so trying to spot a fish is difficult. It is much easier to look for signs of fish such as a movement, a shadow moving on the bottom, or the white flash of a mouth as a fish feeds.

Concentrate your search on the area where a trout should or could be, and once the bottom and its features reveal themselves, look for something that changes or moves against the background of those bottom features.

Once the position of a fish has been ‘fixed’ by picking up a movement or such, it is amazing how easy it becomes to spot the fish again and again, even after looking away or moving away.

In pools or lakes (and some long runs), many fish will cruise or patrol a regular pattern in their search for food. If you spot a fish on the move, stay very still, (blink only if you must) and concentrate on the area where you first saw the fish. Very often the trout will move back through this same area.

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If you look for fish throughout the total area of water around you, 90% of the time you will be wasting your time.

If you have done your homework, and you have become proficient at identifying lies, the task of spotting fish becomes much easier, because you have narrowed down the places to look.

Looking in the 10% of the water that is likely to hold fish is much more productive.

Another key to spotting fish is to gain height. The steeper the angle of view, the less you have to compete with the reflected glare off the water. It is more efficient to try and spot fish from a vantage point well above the water if possible, and then define marker points you can reference when you get down to water level, then move into position to fish for the fish you have found. But this is a two-edged sword. The lower you are to the water’s surface, the harder it is for a fish to spot you, the higher you are above the water, the easier it is for you to be spotted.

It is good practice to try and keep some natural formation (tree, bush, boulder, etc.) between you and the fish at all times. Keeping low helps too - I often get down on hands and knees to move into a position to spot or cast to a fish. (Well, I used to crawl but there is not a chance in hell of me doing it these days.)

If you are fishing with a mate, one spotting - one fishing, in rotation, is a great tactic.

Don’t Stop Looking When you See a Trout!

I simply cannot stress how important it is to continue to survey a piece of water completely, even if you have spotted a fish.

I would be too embarrassed to admit to how many times I have spotted a fish and immediately set about moving into position to cast to it. In the process nearly stepping on a fish or three between me and the fish I originally spotted. The fish I missed speed off to wherever trout go when an angler does something stupid, frightening the original fish in the process. The number of times the unseen fish were way bigger than the original fish does not bear thinking about - so I won't - I’ll only get depressed.

Pick Polaroid’s For Spotting Trout

Polaroid glasses

If you are trying to spot trout you simply must invest in a pair of Polaroid glasses or Polaroid clip-on’s for your prescription glasses. Trying to see into the water without Polaroid’s is difficult at best, impossible at worst.

Lens colour does make a difference when trying to spot fish. For best all round performance amber or yellow lenses cover most situations. On very bright days rose-coloured glasses work very well. (Some people reckon I wear my rose-coloured glasses all the time!) On slightly overcast to fully overcast days, yellow lenses are best. On days when the light is changing rapidly, clouds masking and unmasking the sun for instance, amber is best. Yellow-tinted glasses also work well in water that has a tannin (brownish) tinge.

But the key to lens colour selection is to recognise two factors:

I usually carry three pairs of glasses, (or glasses with interchangeable lenses) amber, yellow and of course a rose coloured pair. I have other colours that I take out depending on the conditions, or if I know the water is stained by tannin. These days, special Polaroid glasses with side-light masks, or wrap-a-rounds cost very little.

In fact fish-spotting performance wise I have found very little difference between two NZ$350.00 pair I got as gifts and the NZ$29.95 pair I often wear. But I also have to say that at the end of a long day on the water, especially in bright conditions, my eyes are much more tired and sore with cheap glasses than when I have been wearing my more expensive pair.

An expensive pair is probably better for your eyes, and will last longer, assuming you don’t sit on them as I have done to 2 pair - both given to me as gifts. I now use inexpensive glasses and never sit on them, don’t lose them, can’t scratch them, – funny that!

Even weirder is the fact that my three inexpensive pair not only cannot be bashed, buggered, beaten, or lost; but they are breeding, I now have four pair - truly weird.

Here is another trout spotting trick

I was guiding an American client who was a very accomplished angler. We had a successful morning spotting and then fishing to spotted fish. Over the morning I noticed that every time we took a break for one reason or another, he would face away from the direction of the sun and remove his sunglasses for several minutes. In fact I also began to notice that often when we approached a possible lie he would take off his glasses for a few moments and put them back on as we began to search for a fish.

I questioned him about this and he theorised that over time our eyes adjust to take account of the different light characteristics reaching them, because of the sunglasses. He believed that by removing sunglasses regularly, the heightened ability to detect contrast when you first put on Polaroid’s was re-stimulated.

So I tried it, and it worked, and still works for me.

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Always Wear Glasses When Casting

There I was over a Xmas break, in the tinny on Lake Otamangakau. I had caught a seriously good brown trout and a good rainbow, but things had gone a tad quiet. I took off my Polaroid’s, and put on my reading glasses to tie on a new nymph to the end of the 6m leader.

There was - as is pretty-much usual high up on the big ‘O’ - a stiffish wind of around 15 knots blowing from behind as I prepared to cast. Up till now, the wind had not posed too many problems, despite the long leader I was using, so I heaved away.

I felt and heard the line hit my hat, followed in very quick order by a thud just under my eye. I feared the worst and I got confirmation by opening my eyes - the nymph was in plain view attached to my face just near or in my eye. In fact, the nymph was embedded in the lower eyelid just under the eye-lashes - a few millimetres higher and it could have found my eyeball.

Very lucky, but very silly. All I had to do was put my Polaroid’s back on before casting. A little thing to remember - the potential to become a big nasty-thing when forgotten.

With the help of a nearby Guide, and using forceps clamped to the upper bend of the hook, a press down on the eye of the hook, a flick-of-the-wrist, and the hook was soon removed with little drama.

A fly at the end of the fly line gets along at a good clip (some estimates put it at around 200 kph) and one or five will hit you especially while you are learning. It is an occupational hazard. Most will hit your hat or back, but a whack in the face is not rare. You really do need to protect your eyes. You should always wear glasses, or sunglasses, when fly-fishing.


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