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Sight fishing – part 1


For the past ten years we (as @FlyStalkers) have travelled for a couple of weeks to Southland in the South Island of New Zealand for a fly fishing holiday. Many people wonder why we bother to travel for roughly 36 hours (one way) for two to three weeks of fly fishing. The answer is simply the addiction to sight fishing. Being able to see big trout feeding on nymphs in clear water and what happens when a fly is cast to its feeding zone is something extraordinary and very captivating.

 Successfully cast a dry fly ant imitation to this cruising barbel and you will see your backing in no time.

What is ’sight fishing’

Some fly fisherman from or frequent visitors to New Zealand (or e.g. Patagonia) do not divide fishing methods to spin fishing and fly fishing, but they talk about sight fishing and blind fishing. Sometimes also the term ’stalking’ is used. When once visiting a fly shop in Rotorua North Island, New Zealand I asked for tips on where to fish. The guy behind the desk asked from another person: ’Have you checked if it is already possible to stalk in XXX’ This question meant that had the other fellow visited a certain fishing spot to see if the water had cleared after a heavy rain couple of weeks ago and whether it would be possible to sight fish there.

There are many nuances in sight fishing, but the main definition could be that it is fishing where the fisher walks on the shore of a river or a lake or wades in a shallow area to see a fish. Then after spotting a fish the fisher tries to lure the fish to take the bait offered.

Carefully scan the riffle, calmly cast to a nymph feeding fish and you might get rewarded with a violent run.

When can you sight fish

There are two prerequisites for being able to sight fish with fly fishing equipment:

1. You need to be able to see the fish without spooking it

2. You need to be able to cast your fly to the fish without spooking it

Usually the number one means that one must move very slowly and number two means that one must be well prepared to get the fly quickly and quietly to a proper place for a fish to eat it. Also to be able to spot the fish before spooking it you must be able to see under the water and this requires the weather to be suitable and that certain locations in the globe are better for sight fishing than others. And, of course, the water needs to be clear.

Finding clear water is not a problem when bonefishing 4-clothes-help-in-approach: Clothe selection can help in approach

Weather factor

In the waters where there are no shadows sight fisher needs sun and no clouds. If, however, the river or the lake shore is shadowed well by trees and other vegetation then sight fishing can be successful also on overcast days and actually darker the clouds better the visibility.

Rain, especially if heavy, is your enemy as rain dropping into the water usually makes it impossible to see underwater. The same applies to heavy wind in open areas. The ’wind ripples’ make it very hard to see the fish. On the other hand, both rain and wind make fish much less spooky as it is not easy for them to see the movement on the shore. You can sometimes get ridiculously close to the fish in heavy wind or when raining.

Selecting a fishing spot for the day is a semi scientific intellectual process involving weather forecasts, river flows and cumulative rain diagrams. If you know the area well enough, you can from this data make an educated guess where spotting fish will be possible. And if you guess wrong it is useful to have options B and C for the day also.

Clothe selection can help in approach

Location, location

In part 2 I will introduce a couple of places where successful sight fishing is possible. The rule of thumb is that the closer to the equator you are the better sight fishing there is due to the angle on which the light from the sun hits the water surface. This is the saddest part of living here in the north. This also means that midday is the best spotting time. And good polarizing sunglasses are a must.

Even big trout are not easy to spot from the riffles. Move slowly – stop – look for a movement.

Walk slowly

Ok. Let’s imagine our fishing spot selection has been successful and there is a good visibility to underneath the water surface and there are active fish feeding. Most fish are hysterically afraid of any movement over them. The fisherman must be able to spot the target before it has a sense of any movement that would alarm it to call it a day. It can not be emphasized enough that when sight fishing the fisher needs to walk slowly. And when I say slowly I mean really slowly. Slower than you have probably ever walked. It is a way much easier to spook a happily eating trout than it

 is to spot it and start observing its behavior without the trout having any idea of then evil rod holding human. If you are sight fishing for the first time, you will walk too fast. Slow down!

Portuguese carp are usually easy to see, but very difficult to catch.


So now we are walking slow enough. What does it take to actually identify a fish from roughly 15 meters away under the water? Experience creates masters, but for the beginner there are some good starting points. Look for any solid darker ’smudges’ or ’shadows’ that are roughly the size of the fish you are after (=BIG!). If you see anything like that, stop. Then look for any movement. Feeding fish moves at least every now and then. Do not move yourself when you are trying to see, if the object you spotted is moving. Everything looks to be moving when you yourself are moving. In still water the fish are constantly moving or ’cruising’ so identifying movement is much easier.

In some conditions you can get very close to the fish. If you have heavy vegetation behind you and your clothing is roughly the same color as the surroundings, it is very hard for the fish to see your (slow) movements. As already mentioned wind ripples or rain drops in the surface also make the fish much less aware of what is happening on top of the water. Faster broken water like ’riffles’ also have the same effect. You can sometimes get to Check or at least French nymphing distance of a big fish in the riffles and that makes life very interesting. In these riffles you typically only have a slight glimpse of something solid under the water that is moving sideways every now and then. 

Time for a nymph!

Having slightly cloudy water due to snow melt does not prevent sight fishing totally

Catch the fish

If everything else has gone according to plan, it is time to cast the fly to the fish and make it eat the fly! Best tactic is to try to find out (or know) what the fish are eating and cast an imitating fly so that fish sees it. Often in rivers this means a nymph that needs to sink quickly to right water column (=bottom). However, also dry flies and streamers have their place in sight fisherman’s fly box.

I will go through in more detail some very interesting sight fishing tactics in part 2.

outhland riffles can bring you the ultimate prize

Surprise factor

There are rules and there are exceptions. One of the exceptions is that it is actually possible to catch a fish that has seen you and is in the process of fleeing to its hiding place. That process with most fish species (at least brown trout) takes a couple of seconds. If the fish sees something very delicious during those seconds, it surprisingly often eats that before running away. So if you are quick enough to deliver the fly, you actually have a chance to hook the fish you already spooked.

Sometimes a fish will be spooked by the fly (or fly line or leader), but not run away. Fish spooked like that sometimes just stop eating, but stay in the same spot or move just a meter or so. Perhaps letting the adrenaline to lower and being prepared to start eating again when emotions calm down. Now you have two choices: wait until the fish starts to eat again and then try some other smaller or more pale colored (=less frightening) fly or tie in a big streamer to take advantage of the adrenaline rush of the fish. These fish can sometimes be very aggressive and usually another small fly doe not do the trick. They are not in the mood to lazily munch easy small prey. They are in the mood to kill or be killed!

There is even a third surprise tactic in these situations that we have yet to try out a lot, but the first experiences are quite encouraging. If the fish has been spooked by a small natural nymph or dry fly imitation, try something bigger and more colorful like big flashy dry fly or a large squirmy worm style nymph. Not sure why, but our first experiences with this have been very successful.

hree big trout hanging below a drop-off

In part 2

In the second part of this double blog I will go through the places where we have sight fished and the equipment, rigging as well as the tactics we have used there. Stay tuned!

A quick cast with green caddis nymph to a promising shape