I knew when the sun hit the water in the canyon, things would heat up, but without my waders it was cold. Fishing was slow. Being cold seemed to make it slower. I resolved that fishing was slow because the river was new to me. Deep down I knew it was just another problem to solve, but the idea helped a slow, cold morning without fish sting a bit less.
When the fishing is slow, I tend to branch off into one of two directions. Speed it up and fish more water, or slow it down and observe. Fishing faster meant staying warmer, but the river was just too clear to pass up a slow pace spent looking for fish. Finding a trout would help remove an important variable, and on new water, I’ll take it.
I was out of the water at least. My strides matched the space between boulders I moved along and my eyes switched from where my feet landed to the pockets and seams where I expected to see fish. My shoulders were tense from the cold and the slow pace battled with my desire to stay warm. The sunlight crept down the rock walls as I fished.
Eventually I had my trout. A big, beautiful brown, swaying in the slow water between two rocks. Definitely a fish. I stared down into the pool. It could be a rock though… A slender, golden rock along the bottom sitting exactly where a trout would. No. Not a rock. This was definitely, maybe a fish.
I moved back down stream and waded up to a rock along the bank that I could cast from without spooking the fish. My indicator drifted by in the seam, and I saw the fish sway but no take. I cast again. Same result. Another. Nothing. I showed it several good drifts before I decided to make a change.
With a deep breath I began reeling in line. Leader in hand, I paused and stared at the fish before swapping flies. “Is that a rock or a fish…”
Trout Don’t Make it Easy.
Spotting fish is easy, until it’s not. We all know what a fish looks like and when it’s obvious, sight fishing moves along nicely. But mother nature has a tendency to make things tough. There’s a reason these trout are so beautiful. They blend in with their surroundings, and we all know “trout don’t live in ugly places.” Rocks and stones along river bottoms combined with debris, vegetation, or branches do a good job of fooling us and helping trout. There are lots of things we can do to help us spot fish and tell the difference but only a few ways to know for sure. How can we be certain what we are looking at is not a rock? There are only two guarantees. Catch it or spook it. Even though catching fish is the goal, both will improve your sight fishing game over time. Here’s how…
Because I am an optimist, lets refer to the rock in question as a fish for the remainder of this article. (although it is totally possible it’s just a rock.)
If you cast to the fish and it takes your fly, well, there’s a darn good chance it’s not a rock. Catching fish is always preferred, but sometimes uncertainty prevents an attempt. It is always worth a cast to a questionable rock if you suspect a trout.
Even if you do not end up with a fish on the end of your line, you may induce a look at your fly that could reveal the answer. I have been surprised many times when a questionable rock resulted in a hookset.
If no fish are caught in this test, it’s up to you to decide between persistence and moving on. But before giving up these days there is something I almost always do that has helped me improve my skills at differentiating between trophy trout and trophy rock. Wadeoutthere and spook it.
A technique that wins the long game but falls short in the moment is to simply try to spook the fish. This has become my last resort technique for telling the difference between a rock and a fish.
Sure, the fish is gone, but I had given up anyway and you can’t spook a rock.
More importantly, now you know for sure. And that’s important. Maybe it will not help you catch that fish, but it creates a data point for the future. I am a believer in pattern recognition. The more we see things, the more we are able to compare and contrast and make better future decisions. That’s a fancy way of saying it builds experience.
But you can only accurately identify patterns if you are not guessing. Over time, you will get better at telling the difference between a rock and a fish because you’ve guessed so many times before and seen the answer. There’s that time on the water thing again.
I did manage to spook a fish that day. After a solid but futile effort to induce a take, I waded out waste deep to be sure my skills and not my eye for fish in the river had left me empty handed. The current between rocks was fast, but I didn’t have far to go. I put my hand down on a smooth chunk of granite to keep my balance and a dark shadow bolted from my shins and disappeared upstream. Definitely a fish. My brown trout remained, swaying in the water as before. I reached out with my rod and tapped the water above this stubborn fish. Nothing… My trout was a rock, but at least I knew. Next time I’ll know for sure. Maybe. Wadeoutthere.