Nick describes the many ways to spook a trout – and how to avoid them.
When I was growing up, I can remember reading a book by Lance Wedlick called ‘60 Ways to Fool a Trout’. Over the years since then, I’ve often thought I could write a sequel called ‘60 Ways to Spook a Trout’. Thankfully, I’ve managed to catch some fish as well during that period. And if you’re not spooking fish from time to time, you probably aren’t fishing.
Of course, the aim of fishing is to catch fish, so not spooking at least some of them, is a prerequisite to success. There’s no point having the right fly, on the right tackle, if you’ve already scared off all the fish.
At the outset I need to make the usual disclaimer: for everything I say, there will be an exception. The odd trout that doesn’t follow the rules will always pop up from time to time, but the general principles do apply.
Also, local conditions can have a significant effect on trout behaviour (more on this shortly) which at least partly explains some very different views on how spooky trout are. For every angler who advocates running up to a fish and smacking a fly on its head, there will be another crediting trout with X-Ray vision or even ESP! Regardless of these variations (real or imagined), as Snowy/Monaro guide Paul Bourne says, “There’s no better teacher than a spooked trout.”
What spooks trout?
While trout fishing can seem a complicated and intricate sport, trout have fairly basic needs. They need to eat, and they also want to avoid being eaten. (Trout are in the middle of the food chain.) For us, fishing is recreation, but for them, it’s life and death. Once they perceive they’re under threat, the need to feed will usually be set aside for some time. That’s my working definition of ‘spooked’ – a fish that stops feeding or won’t take a fly because the fear/self-preservation instinct has taken over.
Predators such as birds and other animals from the outside world prey on trout, so the sight of an angler represents a direct threat. Additionally, secondary signals can suggest something up to no good is nearby. These include vibration from footsteps on the bank or streambed; or waves and wake on glassy water from wading. Then there are other sudden, unexpected surprises like flylines, leaders and flies crashing onto the water above them, or flylines snaking through the air overhead.
Trout also have a decent sense of taste, and an exceptional sense of smell; both of which can be used to detect danger as well as food. There are credible examples, particularly on pristine New Zealand backcountry rivers, of anglers or hunters crossing well upstream from a feeding trout (out of sight and sound) and putting it down.
Another element that comes into play, is when trout spook at an actual fly, or the unnatural behaviour of a fly – drag for example. How this relates to the wild instincts of fish, and how much it relates to their education through angling pressure, is open to debate. Through reading, and my own experiences in places like Japan, I’m left in no doubt that there are situations where fish have learnt to work around anglers and angling. To me, this is another fascinating element of the incredible interaction between anglers and trout; part of what has made trout fishing a lifelong passion for so many.
As trout anglers, we have the full spectrum of ‘spookability’ available. Wild, backcountry fish: innocent but nervous; through to hard-fished for, educated trout in catch-and-release sanctuaries: safe, but unforgiving.
Maybe it’s like the old joke… A man goes to see the doctor. The doctor asks, “What’s wrong”? The man says, “It hurts when I do this”. The doctor responds, “Then don’t do that”. Arguably, we should find the 60 ways to spook a trout, and simply avoid doing any of them. As silly as it sounds, discovering the point at which your actions spook fish, is very useful. Part of that is recognising when a fish has been spooked (more on that later), and then analysing what you might have done to cause it. There’s a balance between staying so far away from the trout and low down that you can’t make a decent presentation, and getting so close that you spook them.
In broad terms, we don’t want to do anything to make the fish aware of a threat. What does this mean in practical terms?
Stay out of sight
This is maybe the most obvious way of being noticed, so a good place to start. It’s worth reminding yourself that if you can see the fish, then there is a line of sight from them back to you, so hiding behind cover, staying low, and (if possible) behind the fish will minimise your chances of entering their field of vision. This is the primary reason we tend to approach fish on station from downstream. For cruising fish, it’s more difficult, as they will be changing direction. However, you can use the times they are facing away to move into position and conceal yourself; or at least to get as low as you can before they turn to face you.
If you can be seen, don’t be noticed
This is a crucial distinction. It may not always be possible or practical to be out of a trout’s field of vision. If that’s the case, you need to take extra precautions. Stay as still as you can, and if you have to move, move very, very slowly. Watch a heron stalking its prey and you’ll get the idea. Try and move so slowly that it’s hard to gauge that you are actually moving. Even when scanning the water to find a cruising fish you’ve lost sight of, try to scan with your eyes rather than turning your head. If you do have to turn your head, do it slowly.
Keep as low as you can. Get comfortable; even sit if possible if you’re waiting for a cruiser to reappear. Learn to cast with minimal movement and keep false casts to an absolute minimum. Wear camouflaged clothing; for example, neutral colours that match the bankside vegetation. Broken patterns like camo or check shirts can help to break up your profile. Do everything you can to avoid being silhouetted against the sky or an open backdrop. Use available cover like shrubs, tree-trunks or tussocks to hide behind. A splash of ink on a blank canvas is easy to notice, but a splash of ink on a Jackson Pollock painting blends in with all of the others.
Don’t be heard
Shout and scream all you like – the trout can’t hear human voices. However, they’re supersensitive to vibration, so tread gently on riverbanks, and try not to walk on the edges of undercut banks at all if you can help it. It’s the same when wading – wade as gently as you can, both in terms of crunching on the bottom, and minimising sloshing the surface or creating a wake. In shallow, flat water, practice wake-less wading. Again, herons make good role models. Slowly and carefully lift each foot out as you wade and before gently placing it back in the water.
The question of whether to wade at all versus fish from the bank, is usually dictated by the local conditions. In flowing water with a firm base, wading can help you to stay behind the fish and keep low, but in still water like pools, one step in the water can unsettle the water and trout in an instant.
Avoid alarming presentations
Often, you need your fly to land without the fish noticing, or just noticing it peripherally. You might want grasshoppers or other terrestrials like beetles to land with a plop, like the natural ones do, but they are exceptions to the rule. Even then, you want the fly to make the impact – not the whole flyline and leader. Fishing with as long a leader and tippet as practical will help to keep the thick flyline from being noticed.
I’m in two minds when it comes to bright fly lines. For a lot of my fishing I like a visible line, and try to keep it out of sight of the fish, in part by using a long leader. However, some New Zealand anglers swear a neutral-coloured line is a must on their streams. There are also different views on whether fish spook on tippet thickness, but thinner, longer tippet will definitely allow more natural movement of the fly and help to minimise drag. In still water, it can help to sink the tippet right up to the fly (though that’s in the crossover realm of getting a fish to take the fly as opposed to actually spooking it).
Recognising spooked fish and levels of spooking
A fish fleeing for cover at high speed or dropping down to sulk on the bottom are both instantly recognisable as ‘uh-oh’ moments. However, there can be much more subtle signs that a fish is spooked to some degree. Actively feeding fish – both on station or cruising – usually have a dynamic look about them. On station, this might mean they rise frequently, or move freely from side to side to take subsurface food. They may also be up in the water column in a position suited to taking food with minimal additional movement. Their fins are often animated and extended, ready to move immediately to intercept prey.
Any change to this body language is an indication that something has alarmed them. A minor change might mean the trout has noticed something, and become more cautious. It might rise less frequently, move down a little in the water column, or just seem to ‘flatten’ or stiffen a bit in its fins or overall motion. Trout like this can be catchable, but with their heightened alertness, they are susceptible to further spooking, and are generally less likely to take. It can be worthwhile waiting for a few minutes to see if the fish returns to active feeding before putting a fly to them. Even if they do, these fish still tend to have an element of nervousness about them, so it won’t take much to turn them right off.
Cruising fish can display quite a range of movement while still happily feeding. Some move slowly, or even stop in preparation for ambushing prey. They might accelerate for a short burst to chase something down, briefly fooling the angler that they’ve been spooked.
Overall, as with fish on station, a happy, cruising trout will have that dynamic, ‘interested’ body language. Another sign that all is okay, is when they keep cycling around the same beat. Cruising fish that are spooked will usually swim away: sometimes fast, sometimes slowly, but in a deliberate retreat off the path of their beat. Some will stay in sight, but stop in their tracks on the bottom or in the cover of shade or weed. It can be frustrating if you only have a small window of visibility to a fish’s beat, and you have to wait for it to pass through each time while you hatch a plan to present a fly. Often, you won’t know if the fish has spooked and isn’t coming back at all, or if it’s just taking its sweet time getting back to where you can see it.
Cruising trout can also exhibit ‘partially’ spooked behavior. One scenario I see is when a fish changes its beat to avoid coming past you. That seems to be a bit of a giveaway that they are onto you! Another is after a refusal of your fly, a fish continues to feed, but your subsequent presentations aren’t even given the dignity of a refusal. The trout goes out of its way to avoid the fly with subtle changes in direction. Or worse, they don’t even change direction, but don’t acknowledge your fly at all (I call these ‘ignorals’). Educated Monaro fish seem to love doing this.
The type of water can affect how spooky fish are. Boisterous, broken water and dirty water can help conceal you from the trout. Waters with lots of bankside cover and high banks to hide your silhouette, can also keep you from being noticed. In both cases, the angler being more difficult to notice, is added to by the fact that the trout themselves seem to sense they are safer and harder for predators to locate.
Flat, clear, slow flowing water with open banks can be a lot tougher – it’s easier to stand out and the trout are more wary and alert anyway.
The light can make a big difference too. Soft, even light lets the trout see easily, so I’ve spooked fish from miles away in these circumstances. Uneven, dappled light can help to hide you. And of course, a trout in the sun, with you in the shade, is preferable to the opposite!
Trout going nuts during a heavy hatch or other food-rich event are usually much harder to spook than fish taking the occasional tid-bit here and there. Recently, during a termite fall on a usually ‘spook-prone’ Monaro stream, I had fish rising all around me and right under my rod, even though I ended up standing in full view beside the water. Similarly, I’ve noticed when a couple of fish are having a territorial stoush, they often both get distracted and are less prone to spooking by the angler. It’s the same with spawning trout, though the ethics and legality of fishing to spawning fish is a subject in itself.
As touched on earlier, backcountry trout can be more sensitive to spooking from the mere presence of the angler, but more forgiving of bad presentations than fish accustomed to high angling pressure. Fish which see a lot of anglers can be surprisingly tolerant of our presence, but they can be hyper-alert to lines and leaders; and even the smallest fault in the fly or presentation.
Spook and Learn
For as long as I continue to fish, I know I’ll spook my share of fish. For me, the important thing is to try and learn from each experience, so I can add to my anti-spook strategies when I next find myself in that particular situation. I know the trout will soon tell me whether or not I got it right!