Tactics and Techniques

Seven Tips for Spotting Trout.

Stop. Wait. There’s a fish there.  You see him?


Right there.  Right to the right of that that bluish grey rock. 


Just keep looking.  Right there.  Did you see that?

Oh yeah.  I see him…

That conversation gets my blood running. It can be me whispering to a friend, or my brother telling me while he points at the river. I may even be talking to myself!

Why? Because I know what happens next.

Casting to a trout that you can see is exhilarating from start to finish. 

Whether it takes your nymph or comes up for the dry, being able to watch the process of a fish taking your fly play out is one of the things that makes fly fishing special.

Two Wadeoutthere Stories About Spotting Trout:

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Look Through and Fish the Flash.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Six Techniques for Fishing Small Streams.

It’s Addictive.

I love catching trout that I have spotted so much that I have become addicted to searching for them on the river. I am a sight fishing junkie you might say. In pursuit of this vice, I have developed a few habit patterns on the river that help me find trout in the water.  Here are seven tips that will help you put eyeballs on trout the next time you Wadeoutthere.

1. Polarized Sunglasses.

I am not going to say these are a “must have”, since I fly fished a long time without them when I was younger, but they sure are nice to have. (Sort of a must have…) They make spotting fish dramatically easier by cutting the glare on the river. Sunglasses are also good for eye protection, something even more important as a beginner. If you are wearing sunglasses anyway, they might as well be polarized. I have worn both expensive and cheap pairs and cannot tell a huge difference. Since I am prone to smash, scratch, lose and bust up my sunglasses, I buy cheaper ones now. For thirty to forty dollars you can get some that will work just fine. The brand I wear is Angler Eyes.

2. Go slow.

Often, as you wade the river, the fish you might see are closer to you than further. If you are moving fast you could spook them by splashing. You may see fish, but they will be darting away from your path to other hidden locations.

3. Always Be Looking.

When it comes to tying flies, I joke that you should A.B.T. Always Be Tying. But when it comes to spotting trout in the river it is all about A.B.L. Always Be Looking. Your odds of finding fish are just mathematically increased the more you look. Try stopping a bit more often as you move up and down the river and keep an eye for fish. The more you enjoy catching fish you have spotted, the more looking for them will begin to take care of itself.

4. Avoid Glare.

There are other ways to avoid glare besides polarized sunglasses. Fish with the sun at your back and try to stay in the shadows to avoid squinting with the sun in your eyes. A simple ballcap helps too.

5. Scan Pattern.

Your eyes need something to focus on. Break the river up into sections and search smaller pieces at a time. It may seem like it takes longer, but you cannot focus on the whole river all at once.  Look at one smaller section for three to five seconds then move on. Believe it or not, this is a habit pattern I was taught flying A-10s for the USAF. We were looking for different stuff though…

6. Stare it Down.

Sometimes you have to force yourself to look in one spot long enough for the trout to show himself.  This is especially true in riffles.  The chop of the water can hide fish. You need to be watching that one spot for the moment the movement of the fish is discernible from the flow of the river. I do not know how many times I have said or thought, “is that a rock or a fish?”.  If it is a fish, staring it down long enough can result in seeing a flash as it moves, usually to feed on bugs coming downstream.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Fish the Riffles.

7. Get High.

I can still remember walking the high footpaths along the South Platte River in Cheeseman Canyon and looking down into the pools and eddies below for trout. I did not always hook up, but spotting those big fish was always exciting. Often when the path along a stream goes up in elevation, it is a good time to look down for trout. Boulders provide another excellent vantage point for spot and stalk tactics.

There are quite a few things that make fly fishing special, and sight fishing to trout is definitely on the list.  Especially a nice sized brute. Even if you do not hook up, just getting to watch a trout swaying in its natural habitat is, well, pretty darn cool. Hopefully, these seven tips will help you experience this the next time you are on the river. Now catching them is a whole different story…Wadeoutthere.


Jason Shemchuk

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  • Reply
    R Joiner
    May 16, 2020 at 2:09 pm

    I think only trout I’ve seen was right by my legs,standing in a little depression,about 3 ft off shore. Never did catch it,but proved all fish aren’t on other side!!

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      May 17, 2020 at 1:13 am

      No they aren’t! Thank you for reading. Cheers.

  • Reply
    Matt Budde
    May 17, 2020 at 11:28 pm

    I find tilting my head let’s me see fish better when they are moving. Otherwise your article is spot on. Now if only we could find em on overcast days.

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      May 18, 2020 at 12:51 pm

      Appreciate that. Thanks for reading. That makes it harder for sure…

  • Reply
    Paul Kenyon
    May 18, 2020 at 8:41 am

    Thanks for writing about a very useful but often overlooked skill.
    Your scan pattern tip, and your comment that it was part of your training “flying A-10s for the USAF”, reminded me of the WEFT (Wing shape, Engine configuration, Fuselage shape and Tail type) recognition system developed in the 1930s. You are probably familiar with it.
    I use that system when helping people spot sea trout during the day.
    It’s described on this page:

  • Reply
    Paul Downing
    May 20, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    I find that forcing your self to focus on the bottom, rather than the surface helps in spotting trout. Look for shapes or movement that are not like the rest of the bottom. A trout is always moving, at least its tail, so look for movement.

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      May 20, 2020 at 1:58 pm

      That is a really good technique Paul. It’s almost when your not looking exactly for it when you see the motion. Thanks for reading and the great comment.

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