Lessons Without A rod

Nick expands his fishing knowledge while leaving his fly rod at home.

Can you catch a trout without a rod? Actually, yes you can. The age-old method of ‘tickling’ trout involved feeling for one in an undercut, and just lifting it out. But that’s not what this article is about.

Nine months ago, I moved from Australia to New Zealand. My house and workshop are literally above the banks of a trout stream. I can see fish feeding from the window pretty much every day. Aside from the obvious distraction from work, to any trout angler, this probably sounds like heaven. But realistically, how long do you think it would take for the novelty to wear off for you? For me, it’s been an interesting experience. I moved here in the middle of winter, so by the time the trout season opened, I’d already spent plenty of hours just walking the banks and observing fish. I’d gotten to know several of them as individuals, and felt a little guilty fishing for even when I was finally allowed to.

The distracting new view!

Don’t get me wrong, I have fished for them, and educated quite a few, but they’ve also educated me quite a bit too. Some of these lessons have come while holding a rod, but many have occurred without one. I can still recall the times when I, like most anglers, wasn’t in the position I am in today, so maybe I can share some rod-less lessons. Here are my five top lessons learned without a rod.

  1. Learning from someone else

While not strictly relevant to my recent experience, it’s worth starting out with this lesson, especially for beginners. Flyfishing isn’t straightforward to learn. There are so many skills needed to be regularly successful. Casting is a challenge in itself. But that’s only part of the story. Finding fish, stalking, wading, presentation, mending, retrieves, striking, and playing and landing fish, are only some of the tasks you need to combine to become a competent angler. While practice is essential, watching an experienced angler can be an invaluable way to come to grips with the individual elements, as well as putting them all together. I’m not suggesting a six month apprenticeship before you’re allowed to try for yourself, but a day here and there dedicated to watching, without the temptation to rush off with the rod, can pay off in the long run.

Watching Miri is a lesson in heron-like stalking – and the result.

I’d also extend this idea to include more experienced anglers when it comes to learning a new technique, or when utilising the services of a guide in an unfamiliar environment. I realise it’s often considered a ‘no-no’ for a guide to actually fish, but I’ve learned crucial lessons from asking guides in Japan and Kiribati to demonstrate techniques, even if it led to them accidentally catching a fish or two…

  1. Locating fish

Even if, like me, you’re a dedicated sight-fisher, the urge to have a cast or keep moving, can be too great to simply watch for the required period. This was really the first big lesson I learned at my new home. Usually, while carrying a rod, I would have a good scan and analysis of the water in front of me before moving on. This seemed to work okay; I spotted fish, and invariably spooked the odd one. But now, having spent more time on the water without a rod, I realise I’d been moving much too fast. Without the rod and the pressure to catch a fish, I’ve located far more trout, and spooked far fewer, by waiting and watching longer.

This has been reinforced in places where I now know there’s a trout. Often, a short look won’t reveal anything, but wait another two minutes and…there it is! This is particularly true of cruising fish on a beat, but it also works on fish on station that only show themselves occasionally. I think this is a reason why many of us have favourite ‘honey holes’ on streams we fish regularly: “I always find one here.” Maybe that’s because having seen one there before, we wait longer at these spots, and success becomes self-fulfilling.

Give them time. A previously invisible fish moves into the light.

How long is long enough? That’s a tricky question and it depends on all sorts of factors including the quality of the water in front of you. The method I’ve employed for my own fishing, is a minimum of an additional slow count to 30 when looking at marginal stretches of water, or 5 minutes extra on a really nice pool or section. The only time I’d spend longer, is if revisiting a place where I already know there’s a trout I want to catch.

This extra time needs to be spent meaningfully though. It’s much harder to notice slight movements if you are moving yourself, so stay still and in a concealed position. Try and get comfortable if you can – it’s easier to stay a little longer that way. If you do need to move to get a different perspective or better angle with polarised glasses, do it s-l-o-w-l-y. Even when turning your head, do it slowly! And really interrogate the water. Do some wide-angle stares, looking to pick up a hint of movement to hone in on, and some broad scans. But also look really carefully along edges, shallower areas or narrow chutes, where fish might have to pass from one deep section to another.

Also, remember that trout don’t always reveal themselves in full profile. You’ll have more time to recognise subtle movements of water and differentiate between wind, current and that all-important fish movement.

  1. Observing fish behaviour

When holding a rod, once you’ve found a trout, the focus can shift very quickly to making a cast to it. It does for me anyway! On my rod-less adventures however, watching a fish for even a little while longer, has improved my strategies for catching them later. One example of this, is how the best browns often put themselves in the trickiest positions to cast to. However, if you wait long enough, you may find that once in a while, they venture out from their comfort zone to feed. You can take advantage of this knowledge to make an easier (or even just a possible) cast, rather than an all-or-nothing glory shot that’s more likely to end in putting the fish down.

A brown rises amongst its impregnable logjam. But eventually, it may move out into a more fishable spot.

So, when you find a trout in an impossible position, give it some time to betray the full extent of its feeding zone. Even if it doesn’t, the extra time can be useful to work out alternative angles of approach for the best possible cast.

Aside from tactics for individual fish, standing with my hands in my pockets instead of holding a rod, has expanded my overall understanding of fish behaviour. Seeing the change in movement and position of semi-spooked fish – laying low for a short period and then resuming feeding (though often with reduced gusto) – has been informative. It’s also been useful watching how some fish love to rise, while others prefer to feed below the surface – even when the same food is available; not to mention the quirky behaviours of individual fish. It’s also been really enjoyable.

Putting rod-less learning to good use later!

Don’t get me wrong, I still like catching fish. In fact, for me I think the built-up anticipation from watching fish without a rod, makes it all the more exciting when I have a rod with me.

  1. Stalking fish

A truly astonishing rod-less revelation has been the improvement in my trout stalking. Watching my wife Miri has always been a positive example. She is incredibly patient, and moves like a heron when working a trout. Try as I might though, I’ve never been able to match her glacial approach. But without a rod and the lure of making that cast in haste, I’ve been able to stalk almost within touching distance of fish, and then watch them for as long as I want. From a fishing point of view, that’s too close. But it does demonstrate what is possible in regard to approaching a trout and your desired casting location.

Without the pressure of catching fish, or any consequence from spooking them, I’ve been free to experiment with the limits of what spooks trout and what doesn’t.

Applying the value of waiting and staying still. 

The lesson isn’t a new one, but more a reinforcement. The key is low, and slow. (Or perhaps that should be lower and slower). Low means staying below silhouette level, preferably on hands and knees, or even on your stomach. (Yes, a little less risky in snake-free NZ!) Slow means really slow! Literally try to move so slowly that someone watching couldn’t actually see you move. The heron example is an obvious one, because it obviously works for them! Even with limited or no concealing cover at all, I’ve been able to move to literally within an arm’s length of trout.

The question for me has been, what to do after that? Do I stand up and spook the fish? I’ve had as much fun stalking back away from fish without ruining their day. It’s trickier than moving towards them but possible, and I can go back to the workshop and still see them rising. Or once in a while, in the interests of science, I’ll stand straight up in front of them, with the inevitable result!

  1. Entomology and the fish’s environment

In the past, I’ve been something of an entomologist by necessity only. I’ve fished a mix of generalist flies, and really only got interested in actual trout food and imitative patterns when the fish were rejecting my regular favourites. Over time, it became obvious that some waters were more demanding than others when it came to fly selection. Notably, places like the Monaro region in Australia, with large cruising fish in slow water, and the hard-fished central Pennsylvania limestone streams in the USA, have both proven particularly unforgiving in regard to having the right fly.

A common factor on these waters is diverse and abundant aquatic life, where quantities of individual food items are high enough for the trout to focus on one type to get a decent feed. In contrast, fish in some faster Snowy Mountains and similar streams seem happy to eat almost anything that passes by. Often, there isn’t enough of one food item to provide a meal on its own.

Water boatman – observation without a rod has taught me they are an important part of the early season diet of local trout.

Even without the need to become totally imitation-focused, when I moved to New Zealand, I made the decision to reboot my fishing around a relevant food approach, based on observation. So I emptied out my fly box and have started from scratch. As much as they are great flies, out went the Red Tags and Royal Wulffs. It’s certainly made me better prepared for tricky fish, which are the ones which give me the most satisfaction to catch, as well as feeling much more connected to the trout and their overall environment.

With the luxury of water on the doorstep, I’ve been able to spend more time walking up the river with sample dishes and small aquariums instead of a rod and fly boxes. It’s still early days, but I’m enjoying the process as much as the actual fishing. For me, it’s been much easier to have a dedicated rod-free session looking at the trout food present (as well as what the fish are actually eating) than trying to juggle a rod and fishing while turning over a few rocks.

Of course, I’m hardly paving the way on this. I’m in awe of books like Norman Marsh’s ‘Trout Stream Insects of New Zealand’ and other similar works worldwide. These are fantastic references to apply when you visit a water, whether you have a landing net or entomology net in your hand.

The river here, being very slow by virtue of being slightly backed up by an old hydro weir, has led to some very selective fish and a fascinating ‘laboratory’. Most fish fed heavily and steadily on water boatman before the season opened, and then moved on to red and green emerging midges early in the season.

Galls on the streamside willows were a sign of things to come…

The far bank is covered in willows, and the countless willow grub galls forming on the leaves in spring were a sign of things to come. As soon as the grubs started to fall, nearly every fish was onto them and wanted nothing else. It’s into March and they are still going!

…willow grubs.

Summing up

All these lessons are possible to take in on actual fishing days, but for me, the absence of a rod has really driven them home. It has also made me enjoy my hours on the water more overall, and made me appreciate the times when I do have a rod to catch a fish.