The Importance of Observation in Fishing

When I was a little girl, I spent most of my summer time standing on a large rock in the middle of our local river casting lures to smallmouth bass. I’d be entertained for hours, despite my usual lack of success. Any fish caught was a big deal, and each needed to be documented in the form of an announcement to every member of the family upon my return. I learned a lot about fishing as a child, like what “fishy” water looks like and the fact that if it felt like I was reeling in a log, it was probably a walleye. One thing I never got great at, though, was the art of lure selection, which probably explains the aforementioned lack of frequent success.

Sure, when I was old enough to start earning my own money, I bought the biggest tackle box I could find on Walmart shelves and every type of lure I could think of: spoons, spinners, crankbaits, jerkbaits, soft plastics, you name it. But, despite my overflowing assortment of tools, I had about four to five go-to lures that I would use. Most of my collection served its own important purpose: the feeling of satisfaction I’d get as a sifted through my box. But observing the conditions of the day and choosing an appropriate bait was not on my agenda. I’d caught fish on this lure before, right? So why not use it every time I go?

This is a habit that has persisted into adulthood for me. Now that I mostly fly fish, it’s happening in my fly box, but it’s the same old pattern. While I thoroughly enjoy learning about entomology and the flies that represent each prey item, the learning process on that side is almost a separate hobby for me. I’ll read bug books all day, and then throw that knowledge out the window when it’s fishing time.

I have a few favorite flies, and while I’ll consult hatch charts when choosing between my favorites, at the end of the day I often know what I’m planning to fish before I even arrive on the water. That thing is often one of the following: a Parachute Adams, a zebra midge, a pheasant tail, a hare’s ear, a woolly bugger, an RS2, or a Tungsten Salvation. The fact is, these flies have caught me more fish than all others combined. The problem is that it’s most likely not because they’re the best flies; it’s because you can only catch fish on the flies you throw.

This is a habit I know is detrimental, but I convince myself of the “confidence fly” theory, that you’re more likely to fish a fly well if you have faith in it. This is a pleasant thought as I mentally tie on my next fly driving down the highway, but I know it’s not the most effective method.

This was a roundabout way of saying that if I want to be a better angler, I need to take observation more seriously on the water. And most people probably do, too, even if it’s in a different form.

From the moment you arrive in the parking lot to the moment you get back in the car, you should be observing and adjusting. From choosing a fly to choosing a run, the decisions you make after noticing your surroundings can make or break your trip.

1. Prey species

The first and easily the most obvious sort of observation (and the one I needed as a kid) is the observation of prey species where you’re fishing.

Pete Stitcher with Ascent Fly Fishing (podcast episode 8) has a great method for this that he calls PAUSE. Here’s what it stands for:

  • Parking lot
  • Above the water
  • Under the water
  • Spider webs
  • Edges and Eddies

The PAUSE method acts as a reminder to check all these places for clues as to what the fish may have available to eat. Check which bugs are flying over the parking lot, which are hatching and flying above the water, which are crawling under the rocks, and which are getting trapped in holding areas like webs and eddies.

Instead of using my method, the highway decision, take some observation time on the water to choose the best tool for the job. It may not be what you had thought, but that’s the power of on-site observation.

A stonefly case on a rock.

2. Life stage

The identification of a prey species is only as good as your ability to identify its life stage. If you get the life stage wrong, species often doesn’t matter much at all when fishing.

While hatch charts can give you a good idea of the daily schedule of bug life on any given day of the year, they can’t predict weather or pinpoint your location on a map. Therefore, it’s up to you to keep an eye on the progression as you fish.

In the morning, it’s reasonable to assume that many fish will be feeding subsurface. That’s a good place to start, especially if you don’t see any insect activity or rises. By late morning, it’s time to start looking for changes. The most likely thing you’ll see next is fish taking emergers. These fish may appear to rise, but if you observe closely, you may notice their backs breaking the surface instead of their noses. If this is the case, fish are approaching the surface but snatching up insects just below, making a ripple as their backs arch to dive back down.

If you keep your observation sharp, and with a little luck, within an hour or two you may notice the backs turning into noses at the surface, meaning fish have started to truly rise. It is time to tie on a dun (or perhaps a spinner, later in the evening).

A hatch chart can tell you this progression will happen, but it can’t tell you when to change your fly.

3. Weather

The observation of weather covers a vast variety of scenarios. It could mean observing the weather for safety, observing how the fish change as the weather changes, or how the seasonality affects the fishing.

The first, and most important by far, is for safety. Anytime you’re on the water, but especially if you’re above treeline, staying ahead of storms is vital. Luckily, it’s not hard to observe this while you fish. Thunder, a suddenly cool breeze, or a change in the clouds could warn of an impending storm. Keeping an eye (or an ear) on these things could save your life.

But more commonly, observing the weather will clue you in on fish behavior. On cold, winter days, you’ll be looking for slow, deep pools and adjusting your techniques to match. On a sunny day, a period of cloudcover might trigger the bite. If a rainstorm passes through, fish may react to the change in pressure, or take advantage of the prey that has washed into the river afterward.

Even if you don’t know what fish are “supposed” to do with each type of weather, simply observing patterns in fish behavior compared to the current conditions can help you make choices later in the day.

4. Fish location

Observing where the fish are hanging out is one of the most important ways to improve your success rate.

One of the most basic, yet important, things to learn every time you fish is where in the water column the fish are holding. I’ve had days completely turn around after adding or removing a single split shot. Getting your flies just a tad higher or lower in the water can trigger strikes, and observing that depth is a must.

A cutthroat trout in a fishing net.

If size is your goal, it’s important to keep track of where big fish are in comparison to their smaller counterparts. Often, the larger fish will set up at the head of a run, getting first dibs on prey items washing down. Bigger fish could also be holding in runs of a certain depth. Keeping track of the size of each fish you catch, and where each was sitting, can tell you a lot about which areas to target.

Other things you could observe related to fish location are water speed, structure, tributary inlets, and areas of shade. All of these things play a role in where fish choose to spend their time, and the more you notice, the better equipped you’ll be.

5. Water qualities

I keep a fishing log where I record some brief notes about each outing. While some people get very creative and descriptive with their journal entries, I mostly keep mine for practical reasons.

First and foremost, I want to be able to look back on previous trips to plan future ones. Although I do keep track of the species I catch and the flies I was using, I also observe the water qualities, which are often the most useful notes I have.

These include the flow in CFS and the turbidity. While I don’t actually measure turbidity, simply observing whether the water is gin-clear, cloudy, or chocolate milk is helpful. And flow, which I record from local gauges, is important not only for the fishing itself, but also for wading. I’m able to notice patterns over time, such as which rocks were exposed at a given flow rate, where the fish like to hang out, and where I can access each run.

6. The Unknowables

Most of the other observations listed can tell the angler something logical about the situation. If you observe that the water is turbid, it makes sense that larger, more visible flies might be necessary. If you observe that fish are rising, it’s clear why you’d want to use a dry fly.

However, there’s also another type of observation that’s important that I’m calling the “Unknowables.” Sometimes, you really have no idea why the fish are behaving the way they are, but observing and adjusting still works just as well.

These include things like noticing the fishes’ preference for a purple fly, even though purple is most certainly not what they see in their natural prey.

It could also be that you always get strikes when your dry flies are tied together via the bend of the hook instead of the eye, or vice versa. Maybe it’s other rigging choices, like using a tippet ring, or placing your split shot six inches up instead of eight.

While you may be able to come up with theories about why these things work, often you’ll never really be able to figure it out. In that case, what’s important is just noticing what works and adjusting accordingly. Although I’d always rather know the ins and outs of a fish’s mind, sometimes it’s okay to settle for the next best thing.


This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Gary

    WOW, great article. I’ve fished for over forty years and still when I go to the river to fish at the car I’ll tie on an elk hair caddis and drop a pheasant tail nymph about 2-1/2 three feet below. No matter where I’m fishing. Unless it’s hopper season. As far as purple, I fish a purple PT that I tie, a purple haze, a purple caddis, and since I’ve been Czech humphing purple perdigo. A friend tied me a purple grasshopper as a joke that I’m wanting to try. Can’t go wrong with purple. Great article!

    Stay safe,

    1. Katie Burgert

      Thanks Gary. 100% agree. Even though I know I need to observe, it’s so easy to get sucked into rigging up at the car where you usually have a nice place to sit and a cooler full of cold drinks. That said, there always seem to be those confidence flies that work regardless of what’s hatching. So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

  2. Dwight Norris

    Matching the hatch is a very important thing when fishing. I have learned through my years that you have to pay attention to the local forage if you want to catch fish consistently. It has work for me almost everytime. I particularly do this when I need the right color, shape, and size.

    1. Katie Burgert

      Absolutely, thanks for reading!

  3. Yussef Edwards

    I recently started reading your articles (in the past 2 weeks) and I have learned more from your articles than in all the YouTube videos I have watched over the years. Great work!


    1. Katie Burgert

      Thanks, Yussef! That’s wonderful to hear.

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