The Spooky Trout: Find Their Blind Spot

by | Sep 21, 2020 | 15 comments

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.

Photo by Austin Dando

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.)

READ: Troutbitten | Face Upstream — Fish Upstream

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.

Facing Upstream

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.

River at eight weeks

Into Practice

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.
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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15 Comments

  1. (given that you are not pushing waves against it.)—the holy grail.

    Reply
  2. I just ordered myself (with wife’s permission) the perfect 70th birthday present from your shop! Thanks Dom for all your hard work, information, and for keeping us inspired; and, at almost 70 (Oct 12), I still feel like Aiden when I’m knee deep in running water. Thank God. Gene

    Reply
  3. Great article! Gary Lafontaine did some research on this and found that after moving into position (assuming you were reasonably careful) the fish would take about 20-30 min to come back and start feeding – and the smaller fish always came back first. He did some ground breaking work by scuba diving and watching the fish reaction to our typical clumsy wading. I doubt most people wait 20-30 min in a spot before moving on and spooking the next pool!

    Reply
    • I read that too. But I think it has a lot to do with the water type and the fish, the region, the hatch activity and probably many other variables. Basically, I think it would take a lot more testing like what Gary did to make much of a determination. Great start and a valuable reference point, though.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
      • Absolutely. We hear stories about rivers where a missed step means you don’t see fish for the day. Highly pressured waters will be different of course. I always treat this 30 min guide as a minimum and just try to keep it in mind.

        Reply
  4. Dom,

    Nice looking pup – hard to concentrate on stalking spooky trout with the great pictures of Aiden and River on the river. You all make a great team and glad you decided to invite another canine friend into your family and join in on your future journeys.

    Reply
  5. Dom, I grew up with an Australian shepherd. Very loyal dog. If I ever became a dog owner again, the AS would be my only choice. Hope all is well. Fishing has been good in my area. Our day on the stream back in early spring seems like a lifetime ago. Regards, John

    Reply
    • Hi John. My Border Collie was also loyal. That’s such a cool quality, if you think about it.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  6. Congratulations on the newest member to the family, sure is one good looking pup. With water levels this low are you fishing primarily the mono rig or traditional fly line?

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Hi Emmett. Thanks. River has a great temperament too. I think he’s just right for our family.

      I tend to fish a lot of dries in the summer, just because I like to. It’s the best dry fly fishing of the year, in my opinion. I love prospecting with terrestrials. So I use a fly line a lot.

      If I’m nymphing and I can get close enough, I use a Mono Rig.

      Make sense?

      Dom

      Reply
  7. Beautiful dog!…great name!…..and these are unusual conditions!!……what would be a good dry dropper to use in these clear low conditions…of course upstream!!??

    Reply
    • Hi Terri,

      I like to pair a #16 parachute something with a #18 bead head nymph. I’m deliberately leaving the pattern choice vague, because I believe it’s least important. That said, tomorrow, I’ll probably start with a Klinkhammer and a Walts.

      Make sense?

      Dom

      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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