Ughhh....a tough bite. Being outdoors and on the water is pretty awesome and all, but if the fishing is slow, it's definitely kind of a drag. It doesn't matter how great of an angler you are—at some point, the fishing is going to suck. Two of the main reasons why fish get skittish or aren't willing to feed aggressively has to do with weather changes and high fishing pressure. An even worse scenario is a combination of the two! When everything seems to be against you, it's time to change your tactics.
A tough bite can happen on any day of the year. While thinking way outside the box can get results during these tough times, often just a few minor adjustments is all that's needed. One problem here is that many anglers give up way too quickly when the rewards don't come fast enough. This is really a time to get smart, maintain your patience, and try harder. Easier said than done for sure—even for an obsessed angler like myself—but those who are willing to stick it out will obviously have much higher chances for success.
Let's roll through some easy tips to help you outsmart shy or inactive fish:
Watch Yourself- Maintaining a stealthy presence is often important in fly fishing, but even more so when the fish are skittish. If you're facing difficult conditions like low, clear water and a lot of competition from fellow anglers, you've gotta operate under the radar. These fish are totally accustomed to being on high alert for both predators and anglers, and they obviously want to avoid both at all costs!
When fishing from shore and making close presentations, try walking slowly and staying back several feet from the immediate bank. Don't be opposed to spending much of the day crouched down or even kneeling while making presentations. Sight-fishing can make things tough as a higher vantage point is often needed to spot fish, but moving slowly and using your surroundings to hide or blend-in while you scan for activity are good ideas. In any situation, wearing natural-colored clothing that matches the sky or streamside brush works well to help conceal yourself.
For folks wading or fishing from some type of watercraft, move slowly and don't splash the water or slam hatches. Something I'm also really conscious of when it's flat calm is how much water I'm moving. Take wading for example. Wading quickly is not just noisier but will push more water as you move. This can cause a large ripple or wake on the water that might alarm super-wary fish even far ahead of you. Moving slowly is quieter and minimizes this push of water.
Distance- I always put more emphasis on accuracy over distance, but making longer casts can be a huge advantage when fish are shy. I'm not talking about crazy-long presentations here, but the more separation you can put between you and the fish the better. Maybe that's just an extra 10 feet or so. Even if you're typically making presentations that aren't super close to begin with, hang back a little further and try those longer casts to see if that makes a difference.
Fly and Presentation- Just because you caught them last week a particular way doesn't mean that's going to work now. The mood of the fish can change quickly, but changing your presentation style can trigger strikes. I think this is especially critical when doing some "social fishing," meaning there's a ton of other anglers out there! Often, other anglers are all doing and using pretty similar things. Even if everyone has a good idea of where the fish are hanging and what they're likely feeding on, success isn't guaranteed. If what others are doing is working well then by all means duplicate it, but if little to nothing is happening for them it might be time to set yourself apart.
Being different in both fly and presentation style can go a few different ways. Regarding flies, try fishing a different size, color, or a totally new pattern. If stripping the fly, you can try going faster or slower (depending on what you're imitating), use a more varied/erratic retrieve, or even try attacking likely zones at different angles. Whether dead-drifting, swinging, or stripping, making repeated presentations to the same area may also be necessary to coax or simply even irritate a fish to strike.
Line- First and most obvious, a longer, lighter leader is much more natural than a shorter heavier one. If the situation allows, just slightly lightening and lengthening a leader (or maybe just the tippet) can make your flies look just a bit more natural compared to others. Lighter line also offers a better sink rate, and lines that are lighter and/or more supple flow and move with currents more naturally over stiffer, heavier lines. If you're a dry fly angler you know all about this—a light, supple tippet really aids in that perfect dead-drift.
Secondly, using a lighter fly line in conjunction with a longer, lighter leader can sometimes be a very worthy pairing. Not only will you have a more natural leader setup, but the line that's delivering it will land on the water slightly softer, too. Just making a subtle change like merely dropping down one single line weight may not seem like it would make much of a difference, but through personal experience I believe it can at times.
Also, don't forget about fluorocarbon for those leaders and/or tippets. While it's a little stiffer and sinks better than typical mono line, it's not as visible underwater. I have plenty of fluorocarbon spools in my line bag and prefer using it for both my surface and subsurface streamer fishing when the water is on the clear side.
Time of Day: Conditions seem impossible—lots of angling pressure, low, clear water, hot temps, and clear skies. Nobody is catching fish, and you're starting to get uncomfortable. At a time like this, it can be in your best interest to knock off for a few hours and come back later on. Time of day can be a really big deal when conditions are tough. Early and late when the light is low are often thought of as the very best times, but if the water is cold then fishing under the afternoon sunshine can be best.
You'll also want to pay attention to any weather changes. If the afternoon is supposed to be windy, coming back later on when that wind is cranking can really activate the fish and help hide your presence. There's a particularly popular creek I used to fish out west quite a bit in summer and wouldn't even go there until the late afternoon/evening. Not only was the sun's angle lower, but the wind was pretty much always howling that time of day. Rather than struggling for much of the day, I threw terrestrials for a couple hours in that stiff wind and enjoyed some awesome action!
During challenging fishing conditions, bring PLENTY of patience. Be prepared to go for long periods of time in-between bites, or maybe even catch nothing at all. However, keeping tips like these in mind can definitely deliver extra bites, and with those extra bites comes an increase in confidence that can help you power through those occasional tough times for years to come.