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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
T R O U T B I T T E N