There's no question that sight-fishing is my favorite way to fly fish.
The experience of stalking, making a perfect presentation, and ultimately watching the fish eat my fly provides the ultimate rush. I've caught a range of species from trout to tarpon while sight-fishing and it simply never, ever gets old no matter how many times I do it. At times, the targeted fish are super obvious to just about anyone with functioning eyes and a pair of gas station glasses, while other times it takes an especially sharp eye to spot the fish no matter how good your shades may be. Eye health and lens types aside, experience undoubtedly goes a long way in helping you see the most subtle signs.
Often times while sight fishing, you want to be able to pick up on the presence of a fish as quickly as possible. This is especially true when looking for actively cruising fish. With fish that are on the move, you might only get a few precious seconds to quickly set up and get a single presentation off before the window of opportunity has passed. With those fish that are stationary or not moving around too much, spotting them quickly helps lessen your chances of scaring them from unknowingly wading too close or blind-casting over the tops of them.
When I'm looking for fish to cast at, here are 3 of the more subtle signs I might see that will make me instantly stop and focus...
Slight Color Changes: Often, the first sign of fish you'll see is nothing more than a little patch in the water that doesn't look quite right. I say "patch" because many times it really won't look much like a pronounced fish shape, but rather more like a small area that is just a slightly different coloration. Keep in mind that a bigger discolored area can often indicate a school of fish hanging together as opposed to just a solitary fish. This color change can be the actual side or back of the fish showing through, or it may even be the shadow of the fish that's first detected. Spotting these slight color changes in the water can be EXTREMELY subtle, so scan slowly and methodically. When I pick up on a discolored area in the water and I'm unsure if it's "fishy" or not, I'll often fixate my eyes a few feet away to try and see if I can detect any subtle movement towards or away from that point. No movement? It could still be a stationary fish.....or perhaps just crud on the bottom. If nothing is happening but it still interests me, I may fire a couple casts at it simply to try my luck — I've been surprised more than once!
Silt Clouds: Fish like bonefish and carp often root along the bottom looking for food and kick up clouds of silt in doing so. A dirty area not caused by things like wind, waves, or water inflow is a sure sign that something is there, or at the very least was just there. Depending on the circumstances, blind-casting into these silty areas may yield results, but many times the better option is to wait in hopes of seeing the fish so you can start with a more accurate and effective presentation. If you do decide to stake a spot out for a minute or two, still keep your profile to a minimum because if a fish emerges and spots you, it might be instant game over.
Surface Disturbances: Every once in a while when sight-fishing, a fish will cause a surface disturbance long before I ever physically see the body shape. This can be a really big help since a surface disturbance can often be seen further away which gives me even more time to focus and prepare for a possible encounter. Now, I'm not talking so much about fish jumping clear of the water or blasting a school of baitfish on the surface, I'm speaking more of the subtle signs. Signs like fluttering water, a gentle bulge or v-wake being pushed in the shallows, a boil, or the tip of a tail fin barely breaking the surface. When signs like these are witnessed in a sight-fishing situation, it helps me to not just know where fish are, but it can also signal the direction of travel.
Of course, sight-fishing can be impossible without a hat and polarized sunglasses to cut glare and help enhance what's below the surface. I've worn polarized sunglasses with plain grey lenses for most of my life and have found that they've worked well for me when fishing in a huge array of situations. With that said, after years of hearing anglers talk about how good sunglasses with amber lenses are, I finally branched out and grabbed a pair. I do find the amber lens color makes fish and other objects below the surface pop more, especially when there's less sunlight penetration. I don't claim to be a lens expert of any kind, so you may want to experiment and stick with whatever you feel offers an edge. With so many different lens colors available today, I'm sure you could really fine-tune things if desired!
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