A lot of focus is put into tricking a fish into thinking a fly is food. This includes choosing the right color, profile, size, and water depth for a realistic imitation. But another thing to consider is that if the fish are spooked before they even get a chance to see the fly, even the most accurate portrayal of prey won’t work. Being stealthy while fishing is vital to making sure your target is even willing to eat at all.
Now, I’m not the type of person who only wears camo while fishing, crawls to the water’s edge, or refuses to talk to my friends while I fish for fear of being heard. While those things aren’t going to make you more conspicuous by any means, I don’t want to take all the fun out of a relaxing day on the water.
But, there are ways to keep a lower profile that don’t take much effort and can have great results. Here are nine things to keep in mind if you’re around spooky fish.
An easy way to scare fish, but also generally an easy thing to fix, is a visible shadow. Lots of predators cast a shadow, including both birds of prey and anglers, and fish know to react accordingly when one is cast on them. The shadow of your body, or even the small moment of darkness left by a moving rod, can send fish into hiding.
Fixing this issue is simple: keep an eye on your shadow and avoid letting it fall anywhere you’re planning to make a cast. If possible, the best solution is to position yourself with the sun somewhere other than right behind you. If that’s not an option, try to find an angle that allows you to cast to fish that have not yet been passed over by your shadow. It’s generally not too hard to work around it as long as you’re keeping an eye on it.
2. Plan your route
This is something I see a lot of new anglers overlook when they get started. When they’ve gotten to the point of recognizing a good run, they’ll walk right up to it and start fishing. Many times, once they’re done with that hole, they’ll turn and realize they’re standing right above, below, or next to another good stretch that they hadn’t noticed before.
Part of being a good observer on the water is noticing the best way to get around. Usually, the general direction you’ll want to head is upstream. This may not be the case if you’re swinging flies, but for most dry fly and nymph days, upstream will be the most beneficial. Apart from just moving upstream, though, it’s important to look ahead at your route. If you tunnel-vision your way to the best looking run, you’ll probably stomp through a lot of great water on your way. Instead, always keep your eyes on the next run or two. See if there is any fishable water between your spot and that location. If there is, fish your way up to it instead of only looking around once you’ve arrived.
The whole point of mending is to keep fish oblivious to the fact that your fly isn’t a real piece of food. A drag-riddled drift will give it away every time. But on the flip side, a sloppy mend can do more harm than good. At its best, a bad mend might do nothing to either the line or the fly. No harm, no foul. At its worst, a mend will send a giant arc of line into the air carrying the fly with it, or sink a dry fly from unintended drag.
I don’t know anyone who is a perfect mender. I consider myself decent, but I still mess up mends all the time because of erratic currents, nonnegotiable long casts, and flat-out occasional mistakes. Practice makes (almost) perfect, though, so getting comfortable with mends in a variety of situations can make you a sneakier fly drifter.
Indicators have become an essential piece of gear for anyone who regularly fishes nymphs. Even if you prefer tightlining, there are situations that really favor indicator nymphing. But, to group all indicators together as a single item is a mistake. What works well in one scenario can ruin another.
In general, the less “stuff” you have going on between the tip of your rod and your fly, the better in terms of stealth. Not only does the indicator itself draw attention as it flows overhead, but the splash caused by a heavy landing can scare off every fish in sight. In high, brown water, a large plastic indicator might be the right call. You’ll need the extra visibility, and fish are unlikely to spot it. Outside of runoff, though, these gaudy bobbers can easily give you away.
Matching the indicator to the situation is a vital part of remaining stealthy while fishing. If you’re in low, clear water (which many of us are, most of the year), go with the smallest, most discreet indicator you’re able to fish effectively. This could range from a small bobber-style indicator, to yarn, foam, or even just a dry fly.
I’ll start by saying I’m not the type of person who wears literal camo while fishing. As a hunter, I own plenty of it, but I generally want to wear something cool and breezy while fishing (apart from winter, of course), and I also don’t think it matters that much.
That said, I do think color should be considered if you have the opportunity. Giant, bright orange blobs aren’t common in nature. They also are extremely easy to see. So, if you stroll up to the bank dressed that way, fish are pretty likely to both spot you and know you aren’t a normal part of the landscape.
Again, I don’t think going with full-on camo is really necessary, but choosing a grey, green, black, or brown jacket instead of neon anything is never going to hurt when it comes to stealth.
Once on a guided trip, I told a client that we were approaching a calm lake that usually had large, spooky fish cruising the banks. I suggested keeping a low profile and lowering his voice. He proceeded to get on all fours and belly crawl the rest of the way, using hand signals and over-the-top gestures to communicate. I always told that story as a joke later (mostly because he then had to stand up to cast anyway), but the idea that he took too far is still something worth considering.
While fish don’t “hear” the same way humans do, they do detect noise via swim bladders, cilia, otoliths, and other physical characteristics that are adapted to life underwater. So, it’s worth trying to keep yourself fairly quiet around fish you’re trying to pursue. That said, most fish don’t live in silent environments. Rushing water, tumbling rocks, and other underwater sounds are common, so it’s not necessary to be 100% silent. In fast-moving, rough water, sound is often not much of an issue at all, but if you’re fishing a calm farm pond, a glassy spring creek, or other relatively undisturbed body of water, keeping track of your steps and voice is a big part of staying stealthy.
7. False casting
False casting is arguably the most iconic part of fly fishing. When people saw Paul’s “shadow casting” in the movie, they flocked to grab their first fly rods. I’m guessing that many of those anglers were sorely disappointed when they got their first lesson and were told that, most of the time, they wouldn’t be doing much false casting. In fact, they should try to get away with as little of it as possible.
While casting is one of my favorite parts of fishing, it serves one purpose: to get the fly where it needs to be in the most efficient manner possible. Ideally, you’d never need to do more than one or two false casts each time. While this isn’t always realistic, every time you bring the line forward or back, you’re not only casting a shadow and causing movement, you’re also risking losing the cast. Many casts start out picture-perfect, only to collapse under their own weight when the angler lets out more line than they can handle.
If you’re trying to stay stealthy while fishing, limit the casting to only what is absolutely necessary.
8. Slow and smooth
The common theme among everything on this list is “try not to get noticed.” Probably the most basic (but absolutely important) form of this is simply keeping your movements slow and smooth.
This means walking, casting, rigging up, and everything else. When you approach the water, do so with care. When wading, don’t go stomping around. When casting, don’t be jerky. Although you’ll still probably scare off your fair share of fish with any motion at all, keeping things slow and smooth will limit the damage. You’ll also probably notice more fish if you’re totally in control of your movements.
9. Steer your fish
This one isn’t always under the angler’s control, but whenever possible, I try to direct hooked fish out of runs I’d still like to cast to. Some small pockets only hold a single fish. But, many larger runs can hold quite a few, and the first one you hook isn’t always the one you really want to pull out of the drift.
Nothing startles fish quite like the image of one of their brothers being yanked away in complete chaos. While I’ve seen other fish chase the one that’s hooked out of curiosity, I rarely see neighboring fish calmly going about their business feeding.
So, when I hook a fish in a run I’d like to keep fishing, I do my best to direct it out of that hole quickly, even if just to play it somewhere less lucrative. Side pressure is a great way to direct fish, and even just a little brute force to get it out into different water before fighting it more strategically can be a good technique.