Are You Spooking Trout?

by | Sep 10, 2020 | 12 comments

We make countless excuses for why trout don’t eat the fly. It’s the pattern or presentation, the weather or the water. It’s angler pressure or a low fish count. Sure it is. But so many times, the real answer is more simple. We’ve scared the fish that we aim to catch.

In a recent interview with Howard Croston, Paul Gaskell, of the excellent online resource, Fishing Discoveries, said it best: “Nobody ever caught a spooked trout.”

What a great point. Trout in any river have to feel comfortable enough to feed, because safety is their primary instinct.

So then, what spooks a trout? And how long does it take a wild fish to recover before it starts feeding again? What about stocked fish? Do trout become conditioned to accept the presence of fishermen? And why are trout more sensitive in some rivers while they are more tolerant in others? These are the questions we’ll address in this Troutbitten short series about spooky trout.

” . . . All trout continuously adapt to their surroundings — they learn what to expect, and they spook from the unexpected.”

Brandon and VT

Decades ago, Brandon and I were camping and fishing in the deep woods of Vermont. We planned to target a handful of small streams, and we expected to catch mostly wild brook trout with a few stocked fish. But after the first morning of leapfrogging upstream among prime holding water, neither of us had seen the elusive trout that we chased. Suspicion crept in as Brandon and I lost faith in our chosen water. Then, after a doubt-filled discussion, I put my rod down and worked upstream along the bank, deliberately trying to see or spook fish at every bend and likely piece of holding water. I jumped across midstream boulders and watched for the telltale signs of streaking trout colors against the bright sun.

Nothing.

Brandon and I halfheartedly fished the rest of the day without a single trout to show for our efforts. Then we retired to camp early and made plans to move over to the next valley at sunup.

I’m a restless camper, and I slept poorly that night. So I was dressed at dawn, and I grabbed the fly rod to fish the piece of water nearest to our tent. My low-enthusiasm changed when I hooked trout on each of my first few casts. After breakfast, Brandon and I found willing fish in the same water where we couldn’t buy a trout the day before.

What was the difference? I’m convinced that we had spooked trout the first day. We’d started in the high afternoon sun. And in the summertime low water, trout were undoubtedly hanging in shady cracks and sulking under deep logs. Even my efforts to walk the banks and surprise a few fish surely spooked the trout with ground vibrations, long before I looked into the water.

READ: Troutbitten | Nobody Hungry — Nobody Home

But on our second day, Brandon and I treated the water with more caution. We assumed that trout would sense our presence from great distances. And we treated the fishing as a still-hunt. Neither of us had ever encountered trout so spooky. But by respecting their wariness, we brought many challenging trout to hand.

Your Rivers and Mine — Your Trout and the Others

But what about all the other times? Each of us has a story about our buddy who fished the same water that we just waded through a few minutes ago. And of course he caught a bunch of trout that we couldn’t find.

Likewise, we’ve all had fish take our fly just a rod’s length away from where we were standing.

But there are many fine points to consider in every situation. Water type, depth and color are big factors in masking our presence to the fish. And recognizing just how close our approach can be is not an intuitive skill. It takes a deep understanding of river dynamics, of trout habits, and it takes some trust. Time on the water is the best teacher for this. But the learning curve is easily shortened by being thoughtful and analyzing each setting.

Remember too, we must always be careful what we learn from one trout, one river, or one situation . . .

READ: Troutbitten | Why Are Summer Trout Harder to Catch?

Conditioning

My sons enjoyed touring the local trout hatchery. And we did it a lot when they were younger. The fish commission workers were happy to hand a smiling kid a bucket full of food pellets to throw in the holding tanks that were packed with hatchery trout.

Early on, Joey noticed a trout behavior that ran counter to everything I’d taught him at his young age.

“Dad,” he asked. “Why do these trout splash and come to the side of the tank when we pass? I thought trout were afraid of people. But these ones get excited.”

The answer, of course, is conditioning. The hatchery fish had learned to relate overhead movement and humans with mealtime. I’m sure many other things could spook those trout, but people waving their arms around was not a problem.

Hatchery fish don’t remain that bold once they’re in the river, of course. All trout continuously adapt to their surroundings — they learn what to expect, and they spook from the unexpected.

My friends who have fished the San Juan River tell me that the San Juan Shuffle is indeed a real thing. Here, and in other similar setups, trout have learned to station themselves just downstream of anglers whose boots stir up the riverbed and dislodge nymphs into the flow, and some anglers do this deliberately. (It’s illegal, by the way.) Holding just a few yards downstream of a wading angler provides an easy meal for the trout of the San Juan. But I promise you, it would never work in the waters that we fish here or in most trout rivers.

One of my guided guests last spring was an excellent dry fly angler who primarily fished a popular water in Massachusetts. And with me, he routinely wanted to fish downstream while wading just thirty or even twenty feet of the target. I told him that it was impossible to catch the trout we were after because they were long gone before he started casting. He was simply wading too close. I explained that we could get away with that distance while fishing upstream but not down.

My friend was still skeptical. He said it worked back home and that he had a hard time believing that these trout were more sensitive. Unfortunately, the fish were off and uncooperative at any angle that day, so I don’t think my New England friend ever believed what I know to be fact. We were spooking trout everywhere.

Steve, working the surface.

Here are the Fundamentals

Unexpected movement spooks trout, so an angler’s approach is everything.

Stay behind the fish, and you have a pretty good chance to remain hidden, even at close range. Because trout can’t see what’s directly behind them any better than you can. This is a guiding principle for me on the water, and it’s one of the key reasons to work upstream whenever possible. Trout predictably face into the current. So we can use that knowledge to hide our presence.

Don’t push waves or cast shadows over a trout. Use as much stealth as necessary to avoid giving up your position with water-waves and moving shadows. In calm, flat water, exceptional patience with wading is required. And with a strong sun overhead, attention to shadows is critical.

If you break these basic rules, assume that all trout are spooked.

I’ll say it again: If you break these basic rules, assume that all trout are spooked.

Next Time . . .

There are many parts to come in this Troutbitten short series. Because stealth on the water and understanding what spooks a trout is foundational knowledge in fly fishing.

Remember what Paul Gaskell said, “Nobody ever caught a spooked trout.”

Fish hard, friends.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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12 Comments

  1. I was soooo eager to get into the meat of the matter, and then it left me hanging. I hope I can get to read the rest of the article, as I’m going to the sea for a couple of weeks, Cape Cod. Hopefully the cottage will have good internet and easy sign in to join the signal. Is there a way to find this article on the website in case I miss it?

    Reply
    • Hi Keith,

      Sorry to leave you hanging. But that’s the thing about this large topics — can’t jam it all into one article. This one was already 1500+ words, and there’s a lot more to dig into. There will be a few more articles in the series over the next couple months, spaced out among other topics.

      Your question is a good one. Yes, you can always easily find this article by using the search feature at the top and in the menu. You can also follow the topic via the categories at the top of the article and the tags at the bottom. There is also a list of series topics in the menu. Basically, there are many ways to find more of what you are looking for on Troutbitten. That said, I know it can be better. That’s the trouble, really, with a site that’s 600+ articles deep. Organizing things is difficult. Having many ways to find things is both a blessign and a curse, I suppose. I’m working on a “Start Page” that will explain more about how to find what you are looking for.

      The short answer is to subscribe to Troutbitten, and you will receive an email when each new article is published (about 3 times a week.)

      Cheers, and thanks for the support.

      Dom

      Reply
  2. I recently got rid of the studded felt soles of my wading boots and now fish with straight felt soles. To get an idea of how loud underwater sounds can be, next time you go swimming take two little rocks with you, stick you head under the water and bang the rocks together. Incredibly loud! My thinking is that the trout can hear me approaching from many yards away as the cleats scrape and slide on the stream- bottom rocks. Or am I just being silly?

    Reply
    • Hi there,

      I’ll write out longer thoughts about this common question in a future article. But, like so many other things in fishing . . . in depends. If you fish flats and pools with really slow water, then sure, I think it might matter. But many of us fish the parts of the river that move more. So I always say, stick your head under the water sometime in pocket water and see how loud it is. You are right, sound travels easily under water. But in moving water there are a lot of sounds. I don’t believe the sound of studs matters at all in those parts of the river . . . which is to say, most of it.

      Also, I make more noise stumbling around without good traction.

      Those are my thoughts.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  3. I try to stay out of the water as much as possible. If i can fish from the bank on one side vs wade on the other then i take the long way around just to avoid stepping in the water. Funny thing i often see is people wading right where the big fish live – quiet as they may be they are on top of the fish.

    Reply
    • Good stuff.

      I stay out of the water on small streams as well.

      One thing, though: The people you see wading where the big fish live may have already fished that spot before they waded through it. Know what I mean?

      Dom

      Reply
  4. Good stuff as always….I made a set of rock grabbers for a new pair of rubber soled boots because I felt like I was fishing on ice. The studs def helped, and I always wondered if the “grating” on rocks hurt the fishing. But for me, if I spook a couple as a trade off for not breaking an arm cause I’m falling in, it’s still ok.
    I’m just more cautious than I was before.

    Reply
  5. This is one thing I am neurotic about. I wear a camo hat and either a camo shirt or a dark green shirt and brown nylon pants. I like camo better than solid colors as it breaks up my outline more. However the most important thing IMO is kneepads/shinguards, my approach to a good lie is almost always painstakingly slow, on my knees, and then will rest it for several minutes before the first cast. Haven’t crawled on my belly yet for a fish…

    Fishing this way is a hassle, and honestly sometimes I don’t feel like it. in high flowers and heavy water you can kind of get away without doing this. But in the summer and fall it is the only way to catch big wild fish consistently where I am. Even in higher flow conditions you will catch bigger fish more if you are stealthy, ie on your knees. I fish a well-known stream here that people complain is fished out and only has small fish. However if you fish it on your hands and knees you’ll find it is full of plenty of very large fish. People don’t believe me when I tell them the numbers and sizes I am catching out of it.

    Reply
  6. Great info, especially with our record breaking low flows in Central Pa. this season. One behavior I have noticed that was not mentioned is that the trout you spook from your feet while carefully and slowly wading can race ahead through the pool and spook other and sometimes all the other trout, even many yards ahead. I first witnessed this “secondary spooking” phenomena on the famous Silver Creek in southern Idaho. The trout in this large very clear spring creek are notoriously easily spooked. The only way I could approach a feeding pod was with long shake out casts from 50 – 60 feet upstream. Any attempt from the classic position below would bring the leader over the sipping trout with instant avoidance. I had carefully positioned myself above and was in the process of making my downstream slack line presentation when an angler came walking up the far bank on the well trodden path used by tubers who float this stream. When he was adjacent to me a trout shot out of the undercut bank and raced past me down stream through my rising trout. Instantly they all raced for cover, even though they had seen or felt nothing other than the one frightened trout. I have seen this same behavior on the Little j in low flat water many times since. I have no doubt trout are spooked by other unseen (by the angler) trout more often than directly by the anglers image or wake.

    Reply
    • I agree with you Bill as I fish small streams for our native Brook trout. Sometimes I’ll spook a trout in water that I wasn’t planning to try just to see it haul ass upstream to the pool I was sneaking up to. Sometimes still catch one but likely not. Happy days are when I get to the stream on a cloudy day and the stream is stained from previous rain showers.

      Reply
  7. I have always approached fly fishing like deer hunting,camo clothes,walking slow,keeping low,yet continuously see people standing on rocks,wearing white or bright clothes ,never hang around to see if catch anything,but totally hip to how unbelievable spooky trout are!!

    Reply
  8. I used to wear camo, but have taken to wearing the same colors I see in herons, greys and grey-blues. Slow movements certainly help. And this summer I fished on my knees more than once. That can help.

    Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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