October 02, 2021
By Derek Grzelewski
This article was originally titled "How to Spot Trout" in the 2021 Fly Fishing Made Easy special publication of Fly Fisherman magazine.
We had barely gotten out of the car when Jennifer pointed to the river and said: “There, a fish just rose! There. Another one. See it?”
How could I not? When you spend a good part of your life walking riverbanks and lakeshores, staring into waters both moving and still in search of feeding fish, when even at night when you close your eyes you see the afterburn of river currents replaying against the backs of your eyelids, the sight of rising trout attracts your vision like red flashing neons.
And these fish, porpoising to intercept tiny Blue-winged Olives on Colorado’s Fryingpan River, were indeed flashing red, their camouflage cued off the brick-red basalt rocks that framed the river and studded its bottom.
“There’s another fish just out from where you are, 4 feet out, 2 o’clock, not rising but nymphing,” I said. “And another one 3 feet above it, too. See them?”
She looked at me first to check if this was some kind of a practical joke. It wasn’t, and she studied the river more closely.
“Ah, yes, now I see them,” she said, and her face lit up with a smile. Since we’ve put our lives and our fishing together, commuting between Colorado and New Zealand following the seasons of trout, Jennifer has easily converted to the idea that sometimes just finding and seeing a feeding fish is as rewarding as catching it. And I, after some 30 years of fly fishing in New Zealand—half of that guiding—have found great delight in transplanting Kiwi angling techniques to the American West and seeing just how well they worked here. This was especially true with the art of sighting fish.
New Zealand has an unsurpassed reputation for sight fishing: spotting the fish before it sees you and sneaking into position to make that all-important first cast. Both anglers and guides in New Zealand have to become experts at spotting trout, out of necessity and by choice. It’s a necessity, since you wouldn’t just blind-fish a blue-ribbon water that may hold one large fish every few hundred yards. And it’s a choice, because this kind of interaction with the fish is intensely visual, intimate, and electrifying, perhaps the most pure and satisfying way to engage with the trout.
Yet most anglers new to this style of fishing, or unaccustomed to the clarity of water that makes it possible, frequently struggle to see all but the most obvious fish. And, when you point out to them one of the hard-to-see, perfectly camouflaged trout, they think you’re playing a prank on them. And keep in mind that the easier the fish are to see, the harder they are to catch, not just because they can see you as well, but because the easy-spotting water—glassy and slow—makes a stealthy presentation tough if not impossible. Ideally, then, you want to start spotting those hard-to-see trout—they are more likely to be deceived, because the broken surface that hides them also disguises any casting faux pas, drag, and approach errors.
Sometimes, especially when visibility is less than ideal, finding feeding fish may seem like an almost supernatural ability. But there is a method to the magic, and strategies to follow, and you certainly do not need an osprey’s eyes to find trout and create enough opportunities for a good day’s fishing. So let’s see if we can demystify the art of spotting trout.
Where to look
Before you even start spotting fish, trying to x-ray the water and willing the trout to appear, you need to know where to look. Otherwise you may end up straining your eyes through a lot of dead water, losing focus and enthusiasm, then spooking the fish when you finally get to where they were feeding all along. Trout are not distributed evenly in a river. They prefer certain features and places, and identifying this prime trout real estate is the first skill to learn. The best way to do that is to begin looking at a river with the eyes of a paddler.
Notice how the river runs, how it turns from side to side, how the outside corner is always the deeper one, how there is usually a distinct staircase profile to the flow—pool, riffle, pool—and how the current speed varies both along and across the river. These speed differences are the key features for a trout hunter. What you’re looking for are current lines and shears—places where fast and slow water meet.
Trout are top predators, and they do not needlessly exert themselves. Their preferred feeding spots are places where they can rest in slower water while feeding from a faster current. Brown trout are notorious for this, often parking in totally slack water with just their noses edging into the current. Rainbows tend to favor faster flows, but they still adhere to the same principles and behavior. That is why you rarely find trout feeding in strong, featureless current. It takes too much of their energy just to stay in one place.
So look for any features and disturbances in the river flow: corners and bank protrusions, rocks and trees, current lines and seams. You’ll soon see and realize that, because of the ways the river flows, how pools funnel into riffles and turn left and right, the current lines are places where most of the food gets concentrated. These are the feed lines, and the edges of those are where you’ll find the most fish.
Of course, the river is a complex, three-dimensional environment, even though, looking down from above, we perceive it in only two dimensions. The features we see on the surface—cushions and lee spots, split currents and eddies, pockets of turbulence and calm—also occur in the vertical plane. And the trout are likely to take advantage of those because the water’s depth also affords shelter and camouflage.
So pay particular attention to changes in depth—drop-offs, lips, channels, and seams—because they are trout hot spots. Even a single rock is enough to create a holding place for a fish, so let your eyes travel down the edge of a feed line, from a rock to rock, and see if any of those rocks have tails.
After you are able to identify the various edges of currents, both on the surface and along the bottom, you begin to stack them up because the trout like to maximize their feeding opportunities. Basically they need two things: food and shelter. Food comes down the current lines, shelter is found in depth, and under overhanging vegetation, usually both.
Understanding this, putting all the habitat clues together, you’re well on your way in developing your “fish brain,” which is an essential attribute for a trout hunter. You ask yourself, “If I was a fish, where would I be in this piece of water?” Then you look there. With time and practice, you develop an ability to read water as if the trout hideouts were mapped out for you. This is also one of the most satisfying aspects of sight fishing: figuring out where the fish could be, then finding them there.
What to Look For
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but in moving water, trout always face into the current (to feed and to breathe) and they are streamlined into it, so any shape at an odd angle to the flow is unlikely to be a fish. Unless it swims off when you approach, which sometimes happens too.
One summer day in western New Zealand, my friend Jamie and I were staring at a log that almost barred the river, and a massive branch that protruded upstream from the log, just below the surface. The branch seemed almost too thick and long to be a trout, but the light was terrible, with drizzly overcast and metallic glare, so we could not tell for sure. We were down on our knees, peering through clumps of tall grass, and the cicadas were too loud for us to hear ourselves think.
“Have a cast,” Jamie offered.
“Naw, it’s not a fish,” I said, and stood up.
The “branch” swam off at speed. It was easily a double-digit trophy.
When in doubt, always cast, but fear not, as you become an adept at the trout-spotting game, you’ll be spooking a lot of fish, too. This is a good thing, because along the way, you can learn not only where they are and how to approach them but also what they look like. Truth is, with those tough-to-spot trout, you rarely see the whole fish clearly. You see hints, visual clues that what you’re looking at might just possibly be a fish.
Shape and orientation are primary clues, as are shadows and color, but what you really want to see is movement. Feeding fish move a lot. Sometimes, to take an insect close to the bottom, the fish will briefly turn side-on and you’ll see a silvery flash from its flank. Blink and you’ll miss it, so spend time watching any likely candidate closely, looking for signs of activity. You will still end up casting to sticks, rocks, or fish that are resting and will not eat no matter what you throw at them. It’s all part of the game.
Weeds can be especially deceptive. Sometimes they check all the boxes—they’re in the right spot, they have the right shape and color, cast the right shadow, and yes, show a lot of movement. But like the nonmoving fish, they don’t eat, either. It may take you a number of casts and fly changes to figure this out.
One of the key skills for successful sight fishing is the ability to slow down to the pace of water. There is also a contrary school of thought on this, suggesting that you should go fast and cover as much water as you can. But if you do that you’ll see only the obvious fish, and you’ll spook most of the trout in the river and won’t even know that you have.
How to Look
Your eyes are essentially round lenses whose shapes are controlled by several pairs of tiny muscles. Good vision is not the matter of their strength but precision, coordination, and balance. So, when looking for fish, avoid staring hard into the water. This is counterproductive, as it will fatigue your eyes, lock out your peripheral vision (which is good at picking out movement), and may even give you a headache.
Eyes work best when they are continually moving, so let them travel lightly over the water and through it, exploring it as if it were a giant painting. Relaxed, happy eyes will see more than those trying to bore a hole through the water.
Ideal spotting conditions would have clear blue sky, strong overhead sun, little or no wind, a good high backdrop of trees, cliffs, or distant mountains, and perhaps some extra elevation to look down from. But of course, ideal conditions are rare. Most of the time we have to deal with the prevailing conditions and have strategies to work around them.
Flat, overcast light puts an opaque sheen on the river’s surface. Wind can make it look as if it’s frozen, lack of backdrop causes glare, and in all these scenarios you will find yourself squinting, staring, tilting your head from side to side, and generally seeing a lot fewer fish. A well-timed hatch can often save a day like that, but otherwise you need to make the most of the sighting opportunities that you do have. So go more slowly—the fish can see you much better in overcast conditions because there is a lot less contrast between below and above, and they are not looking into the sun. Remember, this is a situation of one top predator hunting another, so, with the odds favoring the trout, you really need to lift your game just to stay in it.
Seek any elevation you can find, any backdrop to look against, even if you’re looking down the river. When you are moving slowly and stealthily, as a hunter should, it’s not uncommon to see a fish downstream of your position, backtrack quietly, and still get an opportunity to cast to it. It’s in tough light conditions that having best-quality glasses becomes critical. Skimp on other gear when you must, but if you’re serious about sight fishing, you need the best polarized glasses you can afford.
My friend Dean Bell has been considered one of the best—if not the best—trout guides in New Zealand. Though such accolades are highly subjective, one sure thing I can tell you about him is that he’s got the best eyes of anyone I’ve ever fished with.
“My polarized glasses are the most important piece of fishing equipment I own,” he says, “and when your reputation as a guide is on the line every day, you cannot afford to use anything but the best. This allows me to find trout most anglers simply walk past. I especially favor the Smith’s low-light Ignitor lenses, which transmit 32% of the incoming while still polarizing it. Kind of makes an overcast day sunny again.”
The first time I used the Ignitors on a dark, overcast day, I remember thinking to myself, “Man, I can see! I can see again!” Costa Sunrise Silver Mirror 580P lenses are another option for cloudy days, and they have a 25% light transmission rate. Regular fishing lenses commonly have a 12% or 14% light transmission rate, which is perfect for bright, sunny days.As you’re parting with your hard-earned cash, keep in mind that you are not buying just another gadget, but the most essential tool in your fishing kit.
In the end—when you’ve put in plenty of riverside mileage, spooked enough fish and learned from that, when you can read the water and pick out its clues—seeing trout becomes almost a sixth sense. You can’t even explain how or why, but you know that the shape you’re looking at is a fish, even if your companions suspect you’re hallucinating. Sometimes, you’ll still cast to rocks and sticks, and weeds especially, though less and less frequently. There is a particular softness and fluid grace to the shape of trout, which other river features do not have, and you learn to recognize it. It’ll draw your eyes in as if by magic.
How do you know you’re there? When you start doubting yourself, when what your mind dismissed as “not a fish” swims off at speed just as you take another step. So, when in doubt, always cast. Some rocks and weeds I’ve seen have been known to even come up and take a dry fly, and put up a good fight afterwards.
After you’ve learned to spot trout, you can apply your fish-finding skills to other species and environments, including salt water. The visual clues may be slightly different—the colors, shapes, and patterns of movement—but the principles are the same, and so is the thrill.
Be forewarned though: Fly fishing at this level is addictive in its intensity. It refines both skills and expectations, and the way you want to engage with the fish. It’s like developing a taste for expensive single malts—after you have, it’s no longer satisfying to go back to the cheap stuff.
Derek Grzelewski is a former professional fly-fishing guide and the founder of Wanaka Flyfishing Academy. He is the author of three books about fly fishing in New Zealand: The Trout Bohemia, The Trout Dreams, and The Trout Diaries.