Spring is on the way, and that means increasing sight-fishing opportunities.
Speaking of which, sight-fishing is bar none my favorite way to fish. There's nothing like stalking your quarry, making a perfect presentation, and watching the fish eat the fly......pure magic! I've caught species ranging from trout to snook to tarpon while sight-fishing and it truly never gets old no matter how many times I do it. Sometimes the fish are totally obvious to just about anyone, while other times their presence can go completely unnoticed by those with an untrained eye. There really is a certain knack to getting good at consistently spotting different fish in different conditions, so experience here is really key.
Why is it important to quickly be able to pick up on the most subtle sign of fish? First off, time can really be of the essence when sight-fishing. This is even more true when targeting fast-moving fish where you may only have a few precious seconds to get a single presentation off before they scoot by. Spotting fish as soon as possible also helps prevent you from spooking them by unknowingly wading too close or casting on top of fish that are unseen.
Here's some of the most subtle things I look for when sight-fishing:
Slight Color Changes: Often, the first sign of fish you'll see is nothing more than a little patch in the water that has a slightly different coloration to it. I say "patch" because many times it really won't look much like a pronounced fish shape, but more like just a discolored area. 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 color changes or dark spots 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 not sure if it's "fishy," I'll often fixate my eyes on a spot 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 it still interests me at that point, I may fire a couple casts in there 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 to actually see the fish so you can get a handle on the number and direction it or they are facing for a more accurate and effective presentation. While fish in this dirty water may be too tough for you to spot right away, if you keep focused on that silty cloud you're likely to eventually see a head or tail become visible, or the fish may swim out of the dirtiest area and come partially or fully into view.
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, 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 often times also the direction of travel. I then know what area of water to scan if I’m wanting the fish to come fully into my view.
Of course, sight-fishing can be all but impossible without polarized sunglasses that cut surface glare and help enhance what's below.
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 receiving some amber lenses a couple years ago and reading about how many anglers prefer this color, I've recently branched out to wearing these as well. Thus far in the waters I've tried them, I find the amber lens color makes fish and other objects below the surface pop a bit more. I still like my grey lenses plenty and find them easier on my eyes in really bright conditions, so right now I'm switching between amber and grey. It works for me. Some anglers carry multiple pairs during a single day of fishing—experiment and do whatever is comfortable and whatever you feel offers up a worthy edge!