We have a new Australian Shepherd puppy. And yesterday, I took him for another walk along the river. I’ve made a point to have my young friend on the water most days since we’ve had him — a full week, now. He’s a wonderful dog: loving, curious, fun and intelligent. We named him River. And I’d forgotten how much I enjoy dog life.
The puppy’s short legs and relatively low stamina forces a casual pace for hiking. And that’s a good thing. Honestly, I haven’t taken my time like this in years. And as I walked the grassy banks of a popular access, we passed about a dozen anglers in our one-hour journey. None of them were catching trout, and every one of them was making the same mistake (from my perspective.) Their casting angles were bad because their body positioning was wrong. They were exposed to the trout. And fish were no doubt spooked long before a fly ever hit the water.
They See You
Around here, the weather has cooled again. And, along with the leaves starting to turn, it’s a welcome change. Hunters are scouting the woods and fishermen are anxious to get back on the water. About this time, every year, the summer heat finally subsides, and it’s again comfortable to fish past 10:00 A.M. The cool breeze and the crisp scent of fall inspires memories and calls us outside.
But this year, although the temps may have burned off, the water table hasn’t yet recovered. It still looks like summer out there, and we’re under drought conditions. Sure, the rains will come soon, and fall will look as we expect it should. But for now, taking measured caution over the trout we intend to catch is still paramount to success.
As I passed those dozen anglers, all of them were fishing across stream or down. None of them fished upstream to stay behind the fish. And on this creek, in this section and at this level, the water is no more than forty feet wide.
What They See
Here’s the thing: a trout can look forward, up and to the side. But it cannot see behind itself any better than you or I can. Add to that, a trout can’t turn it’s head the way we do. To see what’s behind requires a movement that takes too much energy to be worth it. The trout might turn around if it’s startled or senses something with its lateral line. And you can use this to your advantage by tossing top-water terrestrials or rock-bottom sculpins behind a trout. But that’s all for a different time.
Just understand that trout can’t turn their heads, and they don’t look behind them casually.
Stay behind your target fish, and you can get remarkably close. Yes, even in drought conditions.
Much has been written about trout vision — whole books in fact. I’ve even owned and read some of them. But as I scan my bookshelves now, I don’t find them. Surely they’re in the hands of a friend or one of their friends. Ever notice that book loans usually turn into giveaways?
The Cone of Vision is a scientific way of describing what a trout sees from its vantage point below the water. And a lot of words have been poured over that as well. The cone also factors the refraction of objects above the water. I’m sure it’s (mostly) correct. And from a fisherman’s perspective, as one who has spent decades accidentally scaring the fish I intended to catch, I assure you that the best way to approach a trout is from behind. Stay low enough so you are not in its upward vision either, and you can wade to within a rod’s length of a trout while approaching from its backside (given that you are not pushing waves against it.)
I often preach facing upstream and fishing upstream because it’s a better tactical decision. Our dead drifts are much better when we work upstream and keep both the fly and the tippet in one current seam. But another reason to work upstream is to stay behind the trout and out of its vision. Not many fish take a fly after they see you.
Know the trout’s blind spot.
Because we understand that a trout cannot see behind itself, it’s easy to predict the best angle of approach, even when we can’t see the fish.
Understand that a trout must face into the current to breath. It takes water in through its mouth and passes that water through the gills, where oxygen is absorbed and ejected through the gill plates. Like you and me, breathing is a constant, primary function of survival for a fish. Therefore, you can reliably predict the trout’s blind spot by reading the river currents.
So what about those dozen anglers who were spooking fish yesterday? Why do they fish from bad angles? I think it’s because the same method probably worked last time. The water, at this level and clarity, is unusual. But under average conditions, those same anglers can cast across and even downstream without spooking fish. Because higher water creates a lateral wall of cover for the angler, even when it’s clear. Riffles on the surface mask our presence. And stained or dirty water offers even more cover, for both the trout and the angler.
But all of that is for another time. Later in this Spooky Trout series, we’ll address such matters. For now, get out and stalk a fish. Find its blind spot and prove to yourself how close you can get to a wary trout.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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