March 19, 2019
What happens when you spot a large trout? All fly fishers get excited, but are you the type who rushes to make a cast, or do you think things through before making a move? This is a thoughtful sport, and if you want to make the most of it, everything you do needs to be based on planning and preparation—not just when you see a big trout, but right from the minute you leave your vehicle.
For example, if you are trying to spot fish, you don’t walk downriver along the banks. Trout face upstream and they’ll see you coming if you approach from that direction. If you are scouting for fish you should always walk upstream. This easy strategy makes a huge difference, but is frequently ignored by the fly fishers I see walking the riverbanks.
I guide on a public river where I regularly cast to and catch 10-pound-plus brown trout, but most fly fishers never see these fish. Many of them don’t realize these quality fish are even in the river. Sometimes big fish are caught by pure luck, but most of the time it happens through careful preparation and by using strategies that literally and figuratively put you on higher level. If you want to catch these big trout you need to elevate your game.
Turkey hunters wear camouflage. Elk hunters wear camouflage. I’m a trout hunter, and I wear camouflage for exactly the same reasons. Trout can see you, especially when you try to gain a high vantage point to spot them. Trout themselves are camouflaged against the stream bottom, so I figure two can play that game.
I’ve always worn dull, drab, earthy tones for outerwear and waders, but the new River Camo waders, shirts, and jackets from Simms have changed the way I think about concealment when stalking wary trout.
Do you have to wear camouflage to catch fish? Absolutely not. In golf you have multiple clubs to help you get closer to the hole. Camo is just another tool I use to get closer to the fish, and to make shorter and more effective presentations.
If a big trout doesn’t know I’m there, he’s more likely to eat the fly. Conversely, we’ve all had experiences with big trout where the brute doesn’t spook or swim away, it just sits in deeper water with a bad case of lockjaw and doesn’t eat the fly. It’s a sure sign the trout has spotted you.
When it comes to stalking and sight casting to big fish, I use every advantage I can get. Camouflage is a new, but big part of that.
Sun and Clouds
When you’re trying to spot trout in a river, the sun can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Try to keep the sun at your back when possible, but beware of casting a shadow on the water. This shadow has been the death of many opportunities, particularly early and late in the day when the trout are most likely to be feeding.
Just the shadow of a cloud passing over can spook fish in both salt and fresh water. A few years ago, I was fishing for permit on a bluebird day, and had two fish heading my way, looking as happy as they could be. Unfortunately, a cloud a blocked the sun for a brief second and both fish spooked from the flat.
I asked the guides what just happened, and they said it was just the passing cloud. Spooky fish don’t often distinguish between clouds, diving predators, and fly lines. Sometimes they just spook first, and ask questions later. I am not saying that all trout will spook as clouds roll by on a sunny day, but it should give you cause to at least consider your own shadow. That’s something you can control.
Cloudy days can be good for close-quarters fishing for exactly this reason—you don’t throw a shadow. But to pull it off, you need a good pair of yellow lenses like Costa’s Sunrise lens. Standard copper or amber glasses are great in bright sun, but not for spotting fish in low-light conditions because they block too much light. Yellow lenses help you see the fish in conditions where the fish are less likely to see you.
If you are in sunny conditions and angled light is causing you to throw a shadow, stay back from the river so your shadow is contained on the bank, not on the water. You may even have to cast so your fly line drapes across dry ground. When side glare is especially bad, try cupping your hands around your face to block side light. This binocular-type vision can help you spot fish in harsh conditions.
Elevate Your Position
Get high. Yes, I do live in Colorado, but I don’t mean that kind of high. Gaining elevation whenever possible drastically helps you spot fish.
We have all hopped up onto a rock to get just a little bit higher. This works effectively if you are cautious and you are aware of their cone of vision. A fish in shallow water can see very little, while a fish in deeper water has a wider field of vision. This is often a tricky game, as you’re trying to see the fish but don’t want them to see you.
One of the worst things you can do is just to jump up onto a rock with a lot of movement. I was recently scouting for a guide trip and was sitting quietly watching a big feeding brown trout. Another fly fisher was working his way up the opposite bank, and he stopped to study the water in each run as he moved upstream. As he made his way to the tailout where this great fish was, he hopped up onto a big rock that was about 4 feet tall.
The fish bolted for deeper water and by the time this fly fisher got stable on his new perch and started looking around, the fish was 50 feet away and in 6 feet of water. This fly fisher stared intently for a few minutes at the spot the fish used to be, and then continued on his way. He never knew he had a chance at a 10-pound-plus fish because he spooked it before he gave himself a chance to see it. Move slowly and cautiously toward elevated vantage points.
Sometimes a low tree limb or a big boulder comes in handy for spotting trout, but these natural features aren’t always there when you need them. That’s why I carry a ladder.
This is a little outside of the box on the small tailwater stream where I fish, but not all the way out. Ladders have been used at Pyramid Lake in Nevada for years. Fly fishers started doing it there primarily to keep their lines higher while casting, and to better manage their lines. It also comes in handy to reach troughs and drop-offs in deeper water and importantly to spot fish. I use a ladder strictly to spot fish. I don’t cast from it.
There are downsides to carrying around an 8-foot stepladder all day—it’s heavy, awkward, and people look at me like I am nuts. But it has helped get many clients into big fish that I would not have otherwise seen.
There is a right and a wrong way to use a ladder. Trout predators like ospreys, eagles, and herons often attack from above, so if you just set up an 8-foot ladder close to the fish you will spook them. Set the ladder up 50 to 70 feet from the water’s edge or downstream of where you hope to spot a fish. By having that much real estate between you and the fish you won’t spook them, and you can still see everything that is going on. There are exceptions. If it’s overcast, snowing, or raining, you can set the ladder much closer, sometimes in the water behind them.
I plan my ladder position to use natural cover like tall bushes or trees and set the ladder behind it. I try to blend in with the surrounding skyline. Again, River Camo helps me blend in with the surrounding willows and shoreline structure. Even my ladder was painted olive at one time. Although the paint has now chipped and faded, the ladder is not shiny and reflective.
Using the buddy system is the best way to take advantage of a ladder, and having a spotter talk you toward your targeted fish while you stay low is the key to making this work. You can also use the ladder solo by first spotting the fish, then climbing down and casting from a crouching or kneeling position. This is far less effective than when someone can keep eyes on the fish at all times to direct your casts and yell “strike!” when the fish moves erratically or opens its mouth. From the vantage point of the ladder, you will see that nymph fishermen don’t recognize most of the strikes they receive.
If you are going to start using a ladder, be safe. Setting up a ladder safely on round river rocks and uneven terrain is difficult. A fall of just 6 or 8 feet onto rocky terrain is serious, and I’d hate to hear of someone breaking a leg out there. I’ve fallen off my ladder a few times during the excitement of chasing a large trout, but thankfully have never been seriously injured.
Develop a Game Plan
Slow down! In saltwater fishing, a bonefish or tarpon appears quickly and is gone just as quickly. You have to take your shot instantly.
Trout fishing isn’t like that. A feeding trout is not going anywhere. Once I find a fish, I take the time to observe it and try to discern any habits that could give me an advantage—this might take five minutes or it might take an hour. I’ve sat with my clients and watched a trout for two hours before moving in for a shot. We used the time to study the current speed, depth, and direction as well as the fish’s behavior
One thing I’ve learned is that big trout are most likely to eat the fly on the first or second cast, so it’s important to make an educated guess on how much weight to use and how to rig your leader and tippet to get the perfect drift the first time. It’s far less effective to cast first and develop a plan as you go.
Most of the fish I pursue do not stay around long if there is any disturbance overhead, or if heavy split-shot gets snagged in front of their faces. You need to study the water, pattern the fish, and tailor your tackle and your approach to get the best possible presentation the first time.
Also, learn to distinguish actively feeding fish from fish that are merely sitting on the bottom. Don’t waste time on fish that aren’t feeding.
It has been my experience that if you start drifting flies past an inactive fish, you are likely to annoy it and push it into deeper water to hide for the rest of the day. Instead, catalog that fish in your brain and try to figure out where and when it may begin feeding. This is a process that may take days or weeks. You may have to just wait 15 minutes for the fish to move into an obvious feeding lane.
When I game plan with clients, we fine-tune our terminal tackle to match the situation, develop an approach, and I coach them into making the best possible cast the first time. We also look into the future and talk about how to set the hook and how to fight the fish.
You always want to set the hook away from where the fish is facing. In most nymphing situations that is downriver, but due to branches and other obstructions that might thwart this natural tendency, it’s best to rehearse these things in advance.
Also think about your plan of action once the fish has been hooked. Look at all possible obstacles like rocks, trees, sticks, and places you may have to enter or exit the river. Look for good places where you might be able to net a fish, and try to envision what a big trout is most likely to do if hooked. If the fish runs downriver, can you jump into the water to give chase? Or is it too deep? If the fish decides it’s going to run upriver toward a big rock, you should have a plan for that as well.
Trust Your Equipment
Too many fly fishers spend their money on the best waders, the best wading boots, and the latest and greatest rod and reel, but they overlook their flies and the hooks the flies are tied on. Don’t skimp on flies. If you buy them from a fly shop, ask what company they get their flies from.
If you are a tier yourself, spend the money on great hooks. It will be a low point in your fishing career if you hook the fish of a lifetime, and lose it because the hook straightened out. This is particularly important when you are using #20 and smaller hooks.
Don’t get me wrong, your reel is important too. Many fish are lost because fly fishers don’t use the reel adequately, and they try to strip in line to land fish. We are humans, we make mistakes, and we often hold onto the line a split second too long when we should have been letting that fish run. Get the fish on the reel, and then use the reel to land the fish.
Once the fish is on the reel, don’t touch the reel unless you are reeling. If you have a death grip on the reel handle it can’t turn, and that defeats the purpose of the disk drag in that fancy new reel you just bought.
I typically set my drag very light—even on large trout—because I use small flies and I know that I won’t be able to stop the first couple of runs of a large trout anyway. The light drag keeps the fish from breaking off and allows the fish to run and exhaust itself. After the fish makes a couple of tiring runs, I turn the drag a little heavier.
I believe that big fish are most often lost in the first 10 seconds or the last 10 feet. If you can keep a big fish over 10 pounds on for the first 10 seconds there is a good chance you will land it.
At the end of a fight, the angle of the line changes, the hook has had time to wear a hole in the trout’s flesh, and some fly fishers simply get too excited when they see the color and the size of the fish. Then they try to rush things.
Breathe! Enjoy the fight, savor the adventure, pay attention to your line and reel, and remember to try and take one good shot at netting the fish.
Don’t overplay the fish either. There is a line you can cross where you play the fish too long. Take enough time to do things right and maximize your opportunity to catch a fish of a lifetime and release it safely. Emotions are running high during the last 10 feet of this battle, but if you think about all the things you did to get here, you don’t want to blow it in the last 10 feet.
Next time you hit the water in search of a giant trout, remember to go slow and be patient. Have a plan for the day and also formulate a detailed game plan for every fish you target. You don’t need to use a ladder, or wear camouflage to have a good time on the water, but if you’re like me, you’ll find happiness in taking the entire process to the next level. You do everything you can, and let the trout do the rest!
*Matt McCannel (mattmccannelflyfishing.com) has been a full-time guide since 2005. He lives in Ridgeway, Colorado with his wife Liz and guides on the Gunnison Gorge and on the Uncompahgre River, where his clients routinely catch wild trout weighing more than 10 pounds. His best trout to date weighed 19.4 pounds.