“There’s four nice fish in this hole.”
He said it as we pulled over along the side of a narrow gravel road. I did not ask how he knew. I am a bit envious of the fly fisher who knows a stream inside and out. Those that have re-caught fish. That know all their spots. Where they tuck in behind rocks or sway downstream from dead drifts. That name the trout they catch. Each day on the river is still discovery for me. And it seems I am always finding ways to not spook trout. Maybe someday I will know a stream that well.
We left the truck and walked down through a thin strip of marshy grass that paralleled the river before we saw the stream and I knew our destination the moment I scanned the water. He pointed to it. A gravel bar upstream that let down through a shallow riffle into a deeper, widening pool. Fast water meeting slow. It was a beautiful spot to fish.
He waded across as he had hundreds of times, and I followed for the first. Blue skies met fir trees on the ridge beyond the river. Cold water tugged at my pants with slow, deliberate steps. I waded patiently, observing it all.
He let me fish it first. I approached slowly, waiting to see the colors move in water that would show me a fish.
“I see one.” I could tell it was a beautiful rainbow that would put a healthy bend in the rod.
He was smiling when I looked back. Proud. Watching me share this place.
“They’re in there.”
It came towards me when I hooked into it splashing violent flutters in the slower water. Then it pulled upstream towards the top of the riffle.
“Try to work it back if you can. Keep it out of that hole.” He said it plainly. I began taking steps back towards him while tilting the butt of my rod to the right and away from where the fish’s head leaned towards. Fighting it further from the seam that held the others until eventually I was downstream and abeam where he stood, and he waded into the river and scooped the fish into his net.
After the release I looked at him. “Thank you for taking me here.”
“Go ahead! There’s more in there.”
“You want to fish?” I asked.
“I’ll fish it next.”
That day on the river with someone who knew the water so intimately, made me reflect. How many times have I spooked fish fighting fish? Often, I catch fish without thinking about the next. You cannot totally control the fight every time. The fish after all, has a vote. And bigger fish have bigger votes. But this experience made me think about fishing the spots I discover differently.
What if I fished every hole or seam as if I knew that “there’s four nice fish in this hole.”
A Fighting Trout Will Spook Fish.
After setting the hook, I try to assess what the fish is doing. After I have an initial idea, I will begin to work the fight to a spot that is better for fighting fish. Trying to keep the fish away from fast water or obstacles that make the task of landing it harder. This is a good technique for fighting fish, but it is also a good technique for not spooking them. Taking the fight away from where other fish are, as you would any other undesired place to fight fish, keeps your spot from getting spoiled and allows you to go back to fish to the others.
The goal is to keep the splashing and fighting away from the other fish. Often the fish will do some of the work for you. It might make a run up or downstream or towards you. Take advantage of these parts of the fight. You almost never can pull the fish exactly where you want, but you almost always can have some influence into how the fight goes. This influence becomes easier with smaller fish.
Don’t Give Up.
If you catch a fish and it stays where the other fish are, or makes a run back to it, do not get discouraged about casting there again. Trout will sometimes move only slightly away from where they were. They may just become harder to see. Try working the spot laterally, casting to the edges.
Sometimes just allowing some time to pass after fighting a fish disrupts the water, will allow the other trout to slide back into their original places. They were there for a reason. It is likely they will return.
There is little you can do if you hook into a fish and it runs into the rest of the fish and causes a ruckus. Enjoy the fight and don’t sacrifice good mechanics just to avoid spooking fish. You can keep fishing there, move and come back, or maybe hit the spot at the end of the day or when you are ready to move sections.
Do the Little Things.
There are some basic techniques that will help keep you from spooking fish. Wade smoothly and move slowly, especially while approaching a fish you see or a spot that hold fish. Approach from behind in blind spots where fish cannot see as well. Mind your shadow, and ensure it is not cast ahead or beside you onto the water you plan to fish. To someone new to the river, these may not seem obvious. To those with experience they are truths built into years of mistakes and lessons learned.
On face value they all may seem simple, but how often do we still spook fish walking along the shore or wading up towards a seam. Sometimes this is fine. We mean to move from one place to another and if a fish is spooked in between so be it. But often it is forgetfulness or complacency that is the reason we forget some of the basics. And who knows if that spooked fish would have taken your fly and made your day.
Part of not spooking fish is doing what we know to do.
Trout have incredibly good vision and senses that are genetically developed over centuries to keep them alive. If you expect to get up close you are going to have to overcome those obstacles. Getting tactical, the way you would hunt any creature can make the difference. And when it comes to being sneaky on the river – it can get pretty tactical.
Low crawling up to a spot or at least approaching and fishing from your knees may be required to get to a place where you can cast without spooking fish. It is not often I find the need to actually low crawl (had my fill of that in basic training), but crouching and fishing from my knees has come in handy. Some people will wear camouflage. Walking along the river with your rod tip behind you prevents particularly spooky trout from having an eight to ten foot heads up that you are approaching.
When you approach a spot that you identify as potentially holding trout, fish it from the downstream section to avoid being seen and casting past near fish. If you are able to see the fish, this is even easier. Move up to a spot and take time to see the different seams in the water. Analyze where fish might be and pick some spots that you want to target and then approach those spots from downstream where you are less likely to spook fish.
I do not always move upstream when I fish. When I do find a spot I want to fish though, I do not go straight to where the fish are. I will almost inevitably move back, well clear of the river, and walk down stream to approach the spot or the fish from angles that they are less likely to see me. If you were walking downstream or even wading, and you see a good spot, leave the river and walk down stream away from the bank so as not to spook the fish and then approach as you go forward and work it upstream.
Casting over trout is a sure way to spook them. The bigger problem is casting over fish you do not know you are spooking. If you cannot see the fish, you do not know how far back they may be in a riffle or seam. Pick spots to cast to and work your casts further up. Cast a distance you are comfortable with and able to mend easily and then wade on. In this way you can target specific sections of the water and be methodical about covering a section that holds fish. This is the case for dries and nymphs alike. This way you can deliberately work a piece of water and be sure to cover every part of it.
It can become challenging to do this when you see a very specific place you want to fish to, and there are benefits to targeting that three by three foot piece of water, but even a few casts as you move towards it might find a fish you did not know was there. The other side of this is deliberately NOT casting to other parts and approaching to a place you can cast to your niche and go for it.
As I spend more time on the river, success breeds success and momentum begins to unfold. Now, when I fish a spot I expect and search for not just the one, but the many. I realize that the way I not only approach where fish are, but how I fish to them and how I fight the fish I catch has an effect on how productive a good spot might be. I am more aware of the fish I might spook in pursuit of the fish I might catch. I still spook fish, but I do it less. Maybe. Wadeoutthere.