We’re really lucky to have an extremely diverse trout fishery at Alaska West. It’s not uncommon during any part of our season to catch trout by swinging flies, stripping streamers, dead drifting sub-surface patterns, or skating mouse flies on top.
However, one of our favorite ways to target big leopard rainbows is by sight fishing for them in side channels. During certain parts of our season, trout seek refuge from the main river in smaller channels. The water in some of these smaller off-shoots remain nearly gin-clear making for an extremely exciting way to fish. Spot your fish, make your cast, and watch him eat. It’s pretty incredible.
Spotting trout is not always easy however, but Alaska West alum, Jeff Forsee, has put together a great write-up on sight fishing for trout. Aside from his time at Alaska West, Jeff also spends his winters guiding in New Zealand, so you could say he knows a thing or two about sight fishing for trout.
Sight Fishing for Trout
Whether it’s in the back channels of Alaska’s Kanektok river or the gin clear waters of New Zealand’s backcountry, the ability to sight a fish before casting to it gives you an edge. Spotting that fish first gives you the time and information needed to come up with a methodical and effective approach. Where are the seams? What cast do you need to make and where do you need to make it from? Is he looking up or is he swinging for nymphs? How deep is he? It also gives you the information you need to make the necessary adjustments as you fish. If the fish refuses your fly you can see that. Maybe there is too much drag, or maybe it’s the fly itself. One way or the other it’s time to make an adjustment. It also gives you the opportunity to target individual fish. Smaller or less desirable species can often get in the way, or ultimately ruin a shot at that larger trout holding in the better water upstream. The information is there. Observing these fish in their natural lies will also give you a better understanding of trout and their behaviors in general, and will undoubtedly lead to more success on the river.
Plus, in my opinion, there is nothing more exciting than seeing a large trout expectantly lift from his hold as your dry fly drifts down stream, only to break the surface with a confident and proficient eat. Even a point blank refusal is pretty exciting when you’re watching it all unfold.
Sight fishing is one of the most challenging, exciting, and rewarding ways to catch fish that there is. Here are a few pointers when sighting in your next trout.
- Slow down! This seems to be a common theme in fly fishing. Happy trout don’t usually move very fast. Their movements tend to be fluid and efficient which makes them difficult to pick up on, even when you are moving at a slow pace. Often times stopping completely to have a good look into a run is the key. Remember, these guys live in a very dynamic environment that they have extremely practical and adaptable camouflage for. Many times the first thing I see when I spot a trout is nothing more than a swing, a lift, or the subtle kick of a tail.
- Look ‘through’ the water. Believe it or not, there’s a bit of a technique when it comes to using your eyes. Look through, not at the water. It’s a three dimensional and animate environment, and the trout don’t just sit right on top of it. It might sound simple, but it often gets over looked.
- Wait for the window. If you find yourself arms crossed, fruitlessly staring into a really juicy looking run, just wait for the window! Inevitably, a beautiful and glassy clear piece of water will develop on the surface giving you a quick but clear glance into the depths of the run.
- Team work. Fishing with a buddy? Work together. There is no doubt that four eyes are better than two, and two angles are better than one. Each take a side of the river. If possible, one should spot from an elevated position and help direct the other while they fish. Having an eye in the sky and getting a little commentary on what exactly is going on can be a huge advantage from a glared river level view.
- Use the backdrop. If there is a side of the river that has a bluff or a bank of trees, spot in that direction. Use those kind of elevated features as a backdrop. They eliminate a lot of glare and can be a huge advantage.
- If in doubt, it’s probably a trout. Well, probably not, but it could be so make the cast! It only takes a minute and there is nothing to lose. Plus, there is not much worse than dismissing a shape as a rock, only to watch it swim off as you walk past it.
- The grass is always greener. Having a hard time seeing into the water? What’s it like on the other side of the river? It may be night and day. Best to go have a look.
- Pay attention to the Sun. When the Sun is close to the horizon it can cause all kinds of issues. The biggest being glare and shadows. Your shadow is something to always be mindful of on the water. If your silhouette is cast half way across the river and twenty five feet in front of you, you’ll spook every fish in the run before you get to them. Sight fishing is often best when the sun is high in the sky and shining directly down on the river. That being said, overcast conditions can make great spotting conditions on the right river as well. These are generally tight rivers; gorges and small willow lined streams. The steep walls of a gorge or high trees along the bank will cast a lot of shadows if the sun is not directly over head and this creates a pretty severe contrast that your eyes may have a hard time adjusting to. You simply won’t be able to see into certain stretches of water on these rivers during most daylight hours on a fine day. Choose the right water for the day’s light conditions.
- X-Ray vision. That’s what I feel like sometimes when I have my sunglasses on. Every serious angler should have a quality pair of polarized sunglasses. Lens color does make a difference and I prefer brown or copper lenses for sight fishing. Black lenses can be too dark and a real disadvantage in low light situations. Anything lighter can be stressful on the eyes and not as effective on bright and sunny days. There are many great options out there, but I’ve long been a fan of Smith and have had a lot of success recently with their new ChromaPop polarized brown lenses.
- Don’t forget to blind fish. Okay, we all want to see the fish, but no one can see everything. If you can’t quite see but the water looks really good, it’s probably worth chucking a quick couple of casts through.