Predicting when a trout will eat is about as difficult as predicting the weather. You get it right sometimes, but just as often you’re dead wrong. Even experts with all the tools of observation and experience can’t really crack the code. But we look at the weather report anyway, don’t we? They get some of it right part of the time, and that’s better than nothing, I guess. Correctly forecasting trout feeding patterns, and finding bite windows can turn lousy days into the most memorable ones.
The best fishermen I know seem to have a theory for everything. Fishing success is so ephemeral that we need somewhere solid to drop an anchor. We want predictable things to believe in. So we search for events that are possibly repeatable and hold onto them. We look for bite windows — the times when trout eat with regularity and (perhaps) some predictability.
Bite windows happen
There are undeniable periods of trout activity in a full day, and there are times when things slow down. It’s easy to think that you’re doing everything wrong for an hour, so the net is empty. Then you seemingly do something right for the next twenty minutes and quickly catch a handful of trout. But maybe you just fished through a bite window.
There’s only one way to learn the difference: get out and fish — a lot. Anglers who cast through the slow times, who hang in there when catching trout is difficult, are often rewarded with a good bite window. Eventually you learn to recognize these times and make the most of them. The best anglers develop strategies for fishing through slow periods, and they capitalize on the fast times.
Bite windows happen when a group of trout recognize an ideal opportunity to feed on insects or baitfish. And most good windows are short.
The wisdom of the bait fishers
When I was a kid, my uncle taught me to fish with live minnows. But we didn’t sit on a five gallon bucket by the old bridge. No. We moved. We fished long days and covered miles of water. And in those hours my uncle would tell me things like, “They aren’t bitin’ right now, but they will.” Our mantra was, Just keep fishing, because they have to eat sometime. And it was true.
My uncle taught me that luck was only part of the game. But fishing at dawn improved the odds, and finding the darkest corners of water throughout the day provided the best chance to hang a good trout in the afternoon. He showed me that luck and good fortune can happen at any moment — so just keep fishing.
When I picked up the fly rod (and especially when I learned to fish nymphs) I was able to catch more fish throughout the day and under a wider set of conditions. With nymphs I could kind of make things happen on most fishing trips. But it took a decade of fishing nymphs and being too hard on myself before I finally relaxed and remembered that sometimes the trout are on, and sometimes they’re not.
The point is, if you’re not catching fish, it’s not always your fault. Sometimes they just aren’t bitin’ right now. But when the action is slow, stay out there. Keep cycling through patterns, rigs and tactics until something works. You can make things happen while waiting and searching for the next bite window.
The (sort of ) Predictable Bite Windows
These are the easy ones. Other bite windows happen for God-knows-what reason, and you can luck into them if you fish hard enough. But the following windows present a predictable opportunity for finding feeding fish . . . sometimes.
The low light bite
Fish dawn and dusk especially. All fishermen know this. But try actually doing it — get out before dawn and stay for the moon. And on sunny days, expect a window just after the sun goes over the mountain.
The good hatches
Once a seasonal hatch settles in, things can become predictable and almost easy. That’s why the parking lots are full during hatch season. It’s a chance for anglers of any skill level to fill the net. My seven year old son once got into double digits in the last hour of the day over a sulfur hatch — and then we did the same thing the next evening.
With stable weather patterns and a good hatch in full swing, the timing of bite windows around a hatch can be consistent. On my waters the May Sulfurs usually hatch in the evening, and the spinners fall in the last hour of daylight. Good hatches make you feel like a champ.
Of course, dialing in the bug activity is not the same as dialing in how the trout respond to the bugs, and some days are better than others. But a reliable spinner fall during the last hour of daylight during hatch season is about as good as it gets.
When rains come and waters rise, trout put on the feed bag. But timing it right is tough, and the bite window is often a short one, so it’s best to get to the water before the rain and stay until the water turns muddy. Bring a raincoat — that’s what you bought it for.
I’ve had the most repeatable luck with summer thunderstorms, when there’s a quick rush of cool water into the low flowing rivers. With just enough sediment to turn clear waters cloudy, action can be fantastic.
After the rains, as waters clear and levels drop there are usually more bite windows. Again, high water windows can be tough to dial in, but they can also result in the biggest fish of the year.
The other stuff
There are probably a hundred more reasons for bite windows. Sometimes the whole stream just turns on, and a trout that refused to eat your fly ten minutes ago will now move great distances for the same presentation.
Some guys swear they can predict success through moon phases and barometric pressure systems. I’m not yet convinced, but I have an open mind.
The more time you spend on the water, the more you learn to recognize these events. Keep your eyes open too. Bite windows can happen around stoneflies migrating to the banks to hatch, tailwater releases, or suckers dropping eggs for the spawn. They can happen in the riffles as trout feed on nymphs before a hatch or on streamers in the shallows. Experience is the only real teacher for this sort of thing, and predicting a repeat occurrence is hit or miss — just like the weatherman.
Seize the day. The best bite windows are special.
Most bite windows are short, anywhere from fifteen minutes to a few hours. The good ones leave you with an experience that becomes part of you forever, and you’ll recount the story hundreds of times to anyone who’ll listen.
The best fishing I ever had was around the Cicada hatch in the summer of 2008. Everyday — all day — after 9:00 am, the largest trout in the river came up for size 6 dry flies. It was that predictable for seven weeks. If I covered enough water, fishing the prime slots and pockets that held big fish in low water, I caught one large trout after another with dry flies.
The Cicada madness was memorable because it was so unusual, and I doubt I’ll ever see such a thing again. Even 17 years later, the weather and water will likely not cooperate like it did that summer of 2008. About one week into the madness I realized what kind of window was in front of me, so I stepped through it. I fished every single day for the next six weeks.
When you are in a bite window, keep fishing. Do what is repeatable. Give ‘em what they’re taking, and trust your instincts.
When you’re not in a bite window, that’s the time to experiment. Find the water type where at least some fish are feeding. Change flies, rigs and tactics to keep yourself in the game. Keep searching for something that works. Keep your eyes open for the next bite window and remain flexible.
Some anglers miss their chances by packing it in too early. Within every bad day of fishing, there are great bite windows to be found. Arrive early and stay late. Push through the slow times and find the next window. Then do something with it.
Good luck out there.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
Great article Dom. I’ve really been enjoying your writing lately and decided to take the plunge with using a mono rig. After getting over the initial casting adjustments Ive really come to like it for weighted flies, even caught my first fish of the year using it! Still have to work on the patience required to find that bite window though…
AWESOME. It kind of opens a bunch of new possibilities, doesn’t it?
Absolutely. I love using it with a weighted streamer, feels so much more in touch with the fly.
Appropriate timing.. Just spent the day on a river i’d been fishing well the last few weeks, but whole different day this time around. I was euro nymphing and snagged 5 fish before it turned on later and they would open their mouths. On the drive up, i actually thought i was going to have it dialed in that day…..
I just stumbled on to your website. Really love your focus on the nuances of fly fishing! I just tried the mono line fishing at a technical tail water in Colorado yesterday. The sighter I made was super visible and limp, but alas, no luck catching fish, so I wimped out and caught a few using my old ways. I’ll try it again next time in ess technical water or in pocket water to build up my confidence. Again, thank you for sharing your insights!
Cheers. Thanks for the kinds words, Mike.
Mono Rig fishing isn’t easy right away. It takes a little bit of dialing in. Here are all the Mono Rig articles in one place:
Best bite i ever saw was a hatch along with a storm front. I always find the 15-30 min before a storm to be great for some reason. Some say its the pressure drop, but i have no idea. Regardless it’s happened so many times i think there is something to it.