Sight Fishing - Part 2. Observation
Tactics and Techniques

Sight Fishing – Part 2. Observation

Is there a fish in this water?  Will I catch one?  It’s these questions that bring hope and wonder to the process of fishing.  Sight fishing changes things.  We see a fish, cast to it, and because we have eliminated the one giant variable that we are constantly dealing with when fishing, we expect to catch the fish we see.  Or at least our frustrations peak when we don’t.  It’s called sight fishing for a reason, but the observation has just begun once we find the fish we’ll cast to, and there’s wonder in hope in that as well.    

In Sight Fishing Part 1 – Pick Your Battles we discussed the decision making that goes into which fish we cast to, and which are meant to pass up.  Not every fish you spot will be brought to the net, but once you’ve “picked your battle”, thinking critically about what and how to observe when sight fishing can make the difference between a frustrating wade upstream and a nice trout in your net.

READ: WADEOUTHERE | Sight Fishing – Part 1. Pick Your Battles.

Take Your Time

It’s tough to see a fish and not cast to it right away.  I’ll be the first to admit, I react rather than plan my next move when sight fishing more than I’d like.  It’s even harder when it’s a big fish.  

In my experience, the difficulty of slowing things down is directly proportional to the size of the fish.  The bigger the fish, the harder it is to take your time. It has also been my experience that the bigger the fish, the more important taking your time becomes.  Why?  Taking your time allows you to observe all the clues for how best to catch the fish.  And a bigger trout will take all the advantages you can muster.

Back Away

I almost always freeze when I see a nice fish in the river.  Next, I’ll take a quick snapshot of where I am and where I see the fish.  I may have to back away or change angles to observe the fish better.  The snapshot helps me to come back to see the fish.  

Backing away gives me time to calm down and adjust my cadence.  Time to think about the other things we’ll discuss in this article.  You really only need a minute or two, to let your brain see the problem and begin trying to solve it.  

Ask Some Questions

Here’s the mental cadence my brain goes through in those initial moments when I see a fish:

  • How’s it eating?  
  • What’s the river doing and how will that affect things? 
  • Can I observe this fish and the current better from a different angle?   
  • Before I cast, can I tell anything about what it’s eating?  Observing it eat on the surface, or can I check my surroundings and tie on a better bug?  

These are the questions we’ll dive into further in this article.  But step one for me is always, always, take your time.

Use Angles to Help Observe

All situations are slightly different when sight fishing. Just like each fish and each piece of water are different.  Changing the angle at which we observe can often help us view the fish better in that dynamic environment.  It makes the rest of the techniques in this article more relevant and more likely to work.

Different spots on the river provide different vantage points for observation.  I have seen trout, backed away, and then shimmied up on a boulder for a better look before going back to where I first observed the fish and casting.  Getting a more bird’s eye view often helps me with figuring out how the fish is feeding laterally in the current.  

Sometimes approaching fish from a more rear angle after backing away can get me closer and tell me more about the depth the fish is at in the water column, or the timing of its feeding.

Whatever angle you move to for observation, be careful not to spook the fish in the process.

The goal is simply to be mobile enough to give yourself the opportunity to observe the variables that will give you the best shot at hooking up.  When you come face to face with a monster trout being deliberate and thoughtful about how and where you observe it from can make a big difference.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Seven Tips for Spotting Trout

Observe Patterns of the Fish

There are two patterns I look for when observing a trout. Both give important insights into how to best present a fly that will catch a fish.

First, I observe the pattern of how the fish is eating.  I’m looking for deviations in the normal pattern of how the fish sways in the river.  Did it move left, right, or up to eat?   How far? 

Observing how the fish is feeding can help you decide how to rig.  If it’s feeding below the surface, but rising up to eat you might change from nymphing to a dry dropper with an emerger further off the lead fly.  Or maybe you keep nymphing, but move your tag fly higher up the leader.  If you observe the fish feeding side to side on the bottom, you might switch to a heaver lead fly with a tag fly off the hook. 

The second pattern I look to observe is when the fish is eating.  Timing is important when sight fishing.  Trout have rhythms that they feed in, especially when there is an abundance of food.  
READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Four Tips for Hooking Up When the Hatch is On.

Observe the fish when sight fishing

A trout that just exerted itself to eat may not eat again for another five or ten seconds.  It’s not necessarily going out of its way just because you put a fly in its face, even if it’s the “right” fly.   I will go so far as to count between eats, to be as accurate as possible with the timing of my fly.  

If your fly shows up on time…chances are better he’ll eat. 

Observe Patterns of the Water

Observing the patterns of the water can be just as important as observing the patterns of the fish.  Here are a few things I pay attention to when observing the water while sight fishing:


I’ll categorize all of this into seams, but what I’m most interested in is how the water upstream is moving as it approaches the fish.  I want to observe any breaks in the current and ensure I choose the water that will take my fly to where the fish is eating.  I really want to make my first cast count so I don’t want to be surprised when my fly deviates into a seam I wasn’t expecting.  Look for where the current shifts and be aware that this may be different at different depths in the water column.

Depth of the Water.

The depth of the water the fish is in determines the amount of weight that you need to  incorporate into your rig through either a weighted fly or split shot.  This might also determine how far upstream to cast so that your fly has a chance to get down.

Speed of the Current. 

How fast is the current moving in the section that the fish is sitting?  This helps me build an expectation for the timing that will be associated with my initial cast and the hookset to follow.  This also gives me another clue as to how much weight to include.  Faster water carries your fly further downstream before your fly has a chance to reach bottoms.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Give Your Nymph a Chance in Deep Water


Are there things that I need to watch out for snagging?  What about behind me?  Backcast.  Hook set.  And when to give up and recast.


Observe where you can fight and land this fish if you hook up.  I’ve lost more big fish than I can count because I didn’t observe my surroundings and make a plan for fighting and landing my fish.  If it’s a nice fish, this can really hurt.  

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Now What? How to Land Trout Before the Hookset.

Observe Bug Life

I don’t alway go into this step when sight fishing, but it’s worth mentioning.  Theoretically, observing bug life should already have been completed.  Hopefully, I’m fishing a fly I think will catch fish.  If I’ve been fishing and things seem to be working I’ll stick to what I have, although I may make adjustments on how I fish those flies.  More of that to come in Sight Fishing – Part 3. Presentation.

But if I’m not sure, or I have been fishing a fly without luck, now is a decent time to re-rig.  I want to optimize my presentation and part of that is the fly that I use.  

Backing away and turning over a rock never hurts.  Even different sections of rivers may have different aquatic insect activity.

Observe bug life when sight fishing

If the fish is feeding off the surface, observe what types of flies it’s eating.  You may be able to tell the color, size, or type.  The fish may only be eating the tiniest dries or it may be feeding on clusters or cripples.  

How can you tell if it’s eating tiny flies?  You see the fish eating. You see flies on the water.  But you can’t see the flies the fish is eating.  If the flies are too small to see, it might be time to tie on that size 22 trico…  

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Small Flies, Light Takes, and Lost Fish. It’s Good for You.

Observe the Take

Watching the take when sight fishing is a balance, but when it all comes together it’s a big part of what makes it so exciting.  Observing the take is an exercise in visual crosscheck. At first I’m concentrating on a precise cast, then my fly moving in the water, but as the fly travels downstream, my eyes shift to focus more on the fish.

Sight Fishing Nymphs

Don’t stare at the indicator.  Don’t stare at the fish. When I see the fish moves in the direction I was expecting and I think my fly is in the right place based on the timing of the current and the indicator, its time to hookset.

You may even see the first flashes of the take or the fight before the indicator.  It’s all a part of the excitement of sight fishing.
READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Look Through and Fish the Flash

Sight Fishing Dries

If I’m dry fly fishing, I will probably be clued in that the take is coming as I observe the fish rise up for the fly.  It might be a slow slurp or an aggressive smash. Crosscheck is still important, but knowing when the fish takes your fly is no guessing game.

Sight fishing with dries is challenging for me because I tend to get excited.  But that’s why we love fishing dries, right?  Remember to allow the fish time to take the fly before ripping it out of its mouth.
READ: WADEOUTTHERE | The Art of the Missed Hookset

Take It All In

Doesn’t this take too much time Jason?  The short answer is yes, and it should.  Of course it takes a little longer to go through these steps.  To stop and observe.  Back away.  See if there is a better vantage point.  Watch the water.  Observe the fish.  Think about bugs and maybe turn over some rocks. 

Sight fishing, especially to big trout, is a mindset shift.  It’s okay to pick your battles and move along the river, but when you’ve decided the juice is worth the squeeze.  Take just a few minutes to up your odds.  

It’s all perspective really.   Good things take time, and if you take your time to observe a little you’ll probably catch more fish.  Would you spend five minutes to catch a nice fish on a trout stream?  Maybe we’ll even slow down enough to take it ALL in…wading through a beautiful river, face to face with a beautiful fish, and observing it all play out.  Wadeoutthere.

What’s the biggest fish you ever sight fished to and what did you learn?  I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments below.


Jason Shemchuk

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  • Reply
    Joe Vincent
    June 2, 2022 at 11:08 am

    I’ve been intimidated about trying to sight fish. All I see are water and rocks. Your articles and podcasts just might encourage me to work on it. Thanks for the message. Joe
    BTW: one of your trout prints was on my Christmas list and I received it from my oldest daughter. Like it.

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      June 2, 2022 at 11:12 am

      Thanks for saying that Joe. That is my exact goal for putting the content out there. It’s a lot of fun and a wonderful place to make memories and find joy through progress. I’m so glad you enjoy the art as well. Thanks for reading, listening and commenting.

      Sight Fishing Part 3- Presentation will be coming soon….

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