Over the past few seasons I have taught a couple of exceptional hunters how to fly fish. Both initially struggled with spotting fish, despite being able to see deer that I have no chance of seeing. I spent a fair bit of time thinking about how to spot trout, and why I am able to spot fish so easily despite being colour blind to help them become good at spotting trout. Both are now very good, and these are the things that helped them.
The Gear If you are serious about spotting trout get the right gear. The right glasses make a huge difference, as does the right hat, and I am also firm on the need for a camo or neutral shirt, so fish do not spook before they are spotted.
Hat Broad brimmed hats cut out more background light than caps. I never wear a cap because in some conditions I do not see as well as I do with my hat, and I think having to put my hand up to shield the sun is an amateur mistake. I wear a heavy leather Australian hat because it stays on my head in the wind, and blocks out light to help with spotting.
Glasses I have experimented with many different sunglasses and by far my favourite are the Smith’s Guide Choice Low Light Ignitors. They work brilliantly in low light, as well as being functional on sunny days. They are expensive, but they are worth it if it means you catch more fish, and I certainly catch more fish with them because I see more fish.
Shirt While not directly helping see the fish a camo or green shirt will help reduce the number of fish you spook. If you want to wear some other colour, especially from a big American brand that produces non natural fish spooking colours you will cut down the number of fish you spot.
Your gear is controllable. If you choose not to have the right hat, glasses & shirt you are putting yourself at a disadvantage through choice, which in my view is the ultimate sin in the field. Fishing is hard enough without making it any more difficult.
Tactics & Technique
Once you have the right gear to spot with it is worth spending a fair bit of time working on your technique & tactics.
Fish Sunny Times & Sunny Days Fishing is far easier when it is sunny. So try to fish when it is sunny, because you will see more. Also be aware that most days will start sunny but will cloud up early afternoon and the wind will also get up, so you lose the ability to spot. I’ve often ran into people starting their fishing in on a nice afternoon when I have caught fish all morning and am heading home because I can’t see the fish anymore, and the fish have often stopped feeding because the water temperature has got too hot.
Move Slowly The first and most important thing is to move slowly when you are in an area where there could be fish. If you move fast you will be more likely to spook the fish, and you won’t give yourself a chance to spot the fish that are there.
Speed Up Between Fish I am aggressive in my movements between viable fish habitat. There is no point in wasting good spotting light when there are no fish to spot.
Position Find a good position at the back of the pool, perhaps slightly higher than the water level to spot fish. This applies especially to rainbow fisheries, while browns are more varied in where they will hold.
Rainbows are very predictable in where they will be. Their first line of defence is to have cover, usually in the form of deep water very close by. So you can be more aggressive in your movements because a rainbow will be unlikely to hold in skinny water at the side of the pool.
Browns, on the other hand, have a different first line of defence. They back themselves to spot danger & flee so they hold in all sorts of water, all parts of the pool and in particular shallow water close to the bank. When I switch from rainbow fishing to brown fishing I tend to spook a fair few browns before I get dialled in to the right position to spot browns.
If you are fishing for browns stop back a bit further from where you would for rainbows and look extremely carefully through the entire pool.
Sun & Shade If a pool has any shade on it the fish will be hard to spot if you are looking from sun to shade. If you can get into the shade yourself and you will see fish far better than you can from the sunny areas.
Give Yourself Time Do not rush past good fish habitat even if you cannot immediately see fish. Stop and look carefully until you have seen right the way through the water, especially where it is deeper and windows of clear water are required to see through the turbulence.
Look Through the Water Do not look at the surface of the water. Look down through it, and pick out features on the bottom. A rock, a log or a dark patch is a good focal point. Get your bearings by seeing the bottom of the river first. Then start looking for fish, unless you have spotted a fish already.
Look for Movement The first thing I am looking for is movement. Anything that is moving is likely to be a fish, and even if it turns out to be weed or something else it is worth looking carefully at anything that is moving.
Do not look for the whole fish Do not look for or expect to see the whole fish. Look for parts of a fish, like a tail or a fin or something that does not look quite like the bottom of the river. Often fish are really hard to see, and you cannot see all of them. Looking carefully for parts of the fish makes a big difference to the chances of seeing fish.
Look for Shapes Fish have shapes that are different than most rocks, branches, logs, and weed. In turbulent water it might be hard to spot them but looking for shapes makes a difference. You are most likely to see a fin or a tail, so know what these look like and spot them.
A Combination & A Sense Good anglers will be looking for a combination of shape and movement and will develop a sense for what is a fish and what is not a fish. My basic rule is that if I think something MAY be a fish I fish to it until I confirm whether it is or not. I never fish unless I can see something I think is a fish, but I do fish to shapes or movement that I am not sure about. I often catch fish doing this, although I catch rocks, the bottom or nothing far more often.
Fish when Spotting Conditions are Good I am lucky enough to be able to plan my work around fishing. I am constantly checking the weather and looking for sunny conditions when I will be able to see fish easily. It is a rare summers day that I will not be fishing when it is completely clear in the morning, and I never fish on a cloudy day. This makes spotting far easier.
I am also pedantic about getting on the water when the spotting conditions are going to be good. I’d rather wait at the water’s edge for half an hour for the sun to burn through fog than be late and lose the light. I rarely fish in the afternoon, because in Hawkes Bay it usually clouds over early afternoon and the light goes and I cannot see fish.
The best way of learning to spot fish is to only fish when you see a fish. This forces you to concentrate on seeing fish before fishing, and if you can see fish, you get an immediate feedback loop when you start fishing. You see if your movement spooks the fish, or if it refuses the fly, or if the cast is not accurate enough, or the drift is not close enough or not deep enough.
Good Technique in Poor Conditions
It is not always possible to fish on days where the conditions are perfect for spotting. Even when the conditions are perfect the technique stays the same. Have the right gear. Move slowly when looking. Look in the likely fish holding water. Look for movement & shapes. Fish to something that may or may not be a fish. Move fast between good fish holding water.
Sight fishing rapidly improves your fishing ability. I spent twelve years only fishing to fish I could see, and this made me a far, far better angler. It taught me the importance of the first cast being perfect, the drift being at the fish’s level & of positioning, movement, and clothing.