Nick considers the merits of two different approaches.
I love sight-fishing for trout, especially with a dry fly. I’d go as far as to say that without at least the possibility of sight-fishing, I would probably choose another hobby altogether. Of course, sight-fishing opportunities aren’t always an option, so when they’re treasured that much, you want to make the most of them.
To me, there are two approaches when a sight-fishing situation presents itself. At one end of the scale is what I think of as ‘attack’: get the fly in front of the fish as quickly as possible. At the other end is the ‘wait’ approach – where you just wait and watch for a bit. In reality, many situations fall somewhere in between these extremes, but it’s worth looking at these different approaches and how they can affect fishing success.
The attack approach is based on the assumption that any window of opportunity may be narrow, and any time wasted might result in the chance being lost. The fish could disappear as quickly as it showed itself, and you’ll be left rueing your failure to act. There’s also the possibility that the more time you spend fussing around and stalling, the greater the chance the fish will become aware of you.
On the other hand, a clumsy rushed cast may ruin your chances too. And you’ll be casting whatever fly is already tied on, which may or may not be what that particular fish wants.
The idea here is that by waiting and watching, you can get a better idea of what the fish is up to. What is it feeding on? Should I change flies? Is my present position a good place to cast from, or should I change it? And if I do hook the fish, is this the best place to land it? The negative of course is that time is ticking, and you may lose your one chance… and there’s no guarantee you won’t screw up the cast anyway!
As with so many flyfishing decisions, there are potential advantages and disadvantages whichever way you go. So how do you decide whether to wait, or to attack?
Most trout movement falls into two categories – fish ‘on station’, and cruisers. While the odd trout in a lake or still pool may be stationary as it waits in ambush, most fish on station are in flowing water, maintaining their position in the current over a small area. Cruisers are what you expect to find in still or slow water; trout more or less constantly on the move. The distance may be as little as a small backwater beat, through to cruising for kilometres up an endless wind-lane.
Sometimes trout will do a little of both. Fish on station may spend time in a particular lie, then cruise a bit or drift and take up a different lie, and then maybe move back to their original spot. Similarly, cruising fish may stop completely for varying periods of time, as per the ambush feeders mentioned above, or even, it sometimes seems, pretty much go to sleep!
Let’s look at fish on station first. This is the classic behaviour written about ever since the chalkstream origins of flyfishing. There are several reasons why the scales tip towards the ‘wait’ approach here. Firstly, by definition, trout on station are in a relatively fixed position, so you know approximately where they will be at any given time. Also, they will mostly be facing in the one direction – upstream – so if you stay downstream of them you can stay behind them, and you minimise your chances of an unfortunate face to face encounter! This gives you some time to watch and see what the fish might be feeding on. If you do decide to change flies, you can look away, and still expect to find the trout where you left it when you’re ready again. You can also assess whether you should move to a better casting location.
I should say that another positive to the ‘waiting’ approach when trout are on station, is it’s just fun watching! I like catching fish, but I really enjoy observing them too. So you can have the best of both worlds: watch them for a bit, and catch them (or try to!).
On that, a subtle benefit to the watching, is learning about trout. The longer you watch, the more you will discover about their behaviour. If all you ever do is attack, you’ll miss interesting and useful lessons about fish behaviour and feeding patterns.
Compared to fish on station, cruisers can be a more complicated proposition. For some, seeing a fish swimming by can invoke a feeling of panic, based on the idea that it will probably swim past and never be seen again.
Thankfully though, experience shows that very often in pools on rivers, and to some extent on lake edges, trout will be on a repeating ‘beat’. In certain situations, you may be able to watch from a concealed point while a trout cycles through the whole beat; in others you might only have a window into a part of it. If the latter is the case, you may have a somewhat nerve-wracking period when the fish will be out of view before it appears again.
This beat-based fishing has some similarities to tackling a trout on station. You still have the opportunity to watch the fish and see what it might be feeding on, and have periods when you can safely change your position, or change flies. You just may not always know where the trout is all the time, and you may have to wait for it to appear again. Interestingly, in some cases when the fish is appearing with clockwork regularity, the best time to put the fly out can be when it is nowhere to be seen, but is expected back in a minute or so. You put the fly out in ambush and just wait for the fish to return.
So, just as with trout on station, there can be merit in the ‘wait’ approach with beat-based cruisers – and the same opportunities to learn about trout behaviour apply too. A bonus here is, if you can get into a sneaky concealed position, you can get really, really close to fish as they come by. It is spellbinding watching these trout mooch along right under my nose, and to me it elevates the whole angling experience.
One time where the attack approach usually gets the nod, is for open water lake cruisers. With few reference marks for where the fish is located, I think it can be a good idea to take your chance as best you can when it presents itself. Examples include fast-moving trout in wind-lanes or foam lines (particularly rainbows) or when wade polaroiding.
One factor to account for is personality: yours, not the trout’s! If you’re an intense Type A personality, you’ll probably be tempted to attack as soon as the opportunity presents. If you’re a more relaxed Type B person, it might be more natural to wait and see. To some extent, it may be pointless to completely fight these tendencies, but it is worth considering moving out of your comfort zone a little, and watching how others approach the same fishing situation.
I’m lucky that my wife Miri is a way more patient person than me. I’ve learnt a lot by watching her success with the ‘wait and see’ approach – which she’s naturally more inclined to adopt than me. While Miri is a very competent angler and caster, she fishes a lot less than I do: continuous practice means my casting and presentation skills may be significantly better than Miri’s. Yet when I look at our many shared fishing trips over the decades, I can see she has been at least as successful as me on tricky fish. This observation has led me to shift the balance of my approach to less attack, and more wait. It’s true that too much pause has occasionally led to a missed opportunity, but these instances have been far fewer than trout chances wrecked by being too attacking.
Skill, and knowing your limitations
Knowing your abilities and working within them, is actually a skill in itself, and takes a significant amount of experience (and honesty) to understand. In close to 20 years as a full-time rodmaker, I’ve watched a lot of people casting, and the average level has had plenty of room for improvement. I’ve seen some moderately-skilled fly casters who are very competent anglers, but there is obviously merit in anyone improving their casting and fishing skills.
The framework of the FFI (Previously FFF) Casting Accreditation has made a significant improvement to the overall casting baseline out there. It’s a no-brainer that learning proper casting dynamics and how to load a rod is a fundamental starting point… but I’ve also seen some really good park casters with only modest streamcraft and fishing skills. One without the other is only half the answer, and it’s never too late to improve both.
A recent case in point is my local friend Fred. I’ve known Fred for a while. He’s a very experienced angler of the Snowy-Monaro streams, and a better caster already than most. Well into his 70s, Fred decided to take on the FFI Casting Skills Challenge. This is a tiered (Bronze/Silver/Gold) series of casting tests, set out to verify skills that vary from basic casts and rod loading, to some fishing-based casting scenarios. Fred has passed his Bronze and Silver levels, and is working towards the Gold. Having spent some time with Fred, both on the water and at the park, I can see the advances in his casting already, and I can imagine what it will do for his fishing in the future.
Of course, these structured systems are not the be all and end all, but taken in context, they can be a great way to improve skills. Personally, with the small to medium-sized stream fishing I mostly do, I would place more emphasis on closer targets and more accuracy than the FFI Challenge. So my approach would be a to pass the FFI tasks, and then to also come up with some additional tasks relevant to my own local fishing. For example, to set out a range of targets at closer fishing distances, from pretty much the rod tip out to 40 feet or so, and at a full 180 degrees spread. Then, starting with a yarn fly in hand, I’d present to the targets in random order, with a focus on minimising the time and false casts from fly in hand to hitting the target. It’s also important to be able to pick the fly up from one target and present to any other target with a minimum of time and fuss.
And needless to say, you need to practice with the wind coming from any direction – try not to favour casting to where the wind helps you, unless you have supernatural powers to control wind when on the water! A cast with a single rod length of line, which completely and accurately turns over a 12 foot leader into a moderate headwind, would bring a lot of people undone.
It’s fun to come up with your own challenges which will really sharpen your casting and fishing skills, and which have greater benefit than just the old ‘cast as far as I can downwind’ session at the park. There’s no substitute for time on the water, but in the absence of that, regular time with rod in hand and meaningful practice at the park or in the backyard, will certainly help when you do get to lake or stream. In fact in some ways, the backyard can often be a better venue for realistic fishing practice, with more obstacles to work around than an open park. (And in the backyard, you won’t get the constant ‘Have you caught any yet mate?’ taunts from passers-by.)
And the answer is…
To sum up, you really want to have the skills to attack if you choose to, but that doesn’t mean you have to attack. Experience will help you decide how long to watch and wait. The best way to build that experience is to try both methods and find the right balance for the places you fish, and that your personality can cope with! For me, I feel I’ve improved by rushing in less and watching more.