Closing the distance on the trout of a lifetime is easy if you just keep a few things in mind.
[by David Bertsch]
THE SPORT WE SO LOVE IS FIRST AND FOREMOST AN EXERCISE IN KNOWLEDGE. The more information you possess before that split second when a fish makes its fateful decision, the better chance you have of success. So it stands to reason that if you careen into the river like a big rig with no brakes, some percentage of the available fish will always spook or stop eating before you even get a chance for them to inspect your fly.
Imagine fly fishing as tennis or volleyball; success or failure comes down to mindful footwork. The striking of the ball—the strike of a fish in our analog—is the culmination of decisions made before that heady moment. Moody trout rarely forgive a serious mistake in your approach, so do it right the first time, and every time.
As my man Ralph Waldo says, “Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.” When wade fishing for mercurial trout, time is on your side. Use it to arm yourself with knowledge—study holding lies, food sources, a fish’s orientation, water clarity, and so forth. Even the general demeanor of the fish will play into your final decision on how to present a meal.
Approach slowly, begin downstream and farther away than you think necessary. Eye the holding water as if you’re looking for Waldo. (No, the other one, in the children’s books.) Remain patient, thorough, and open-minded. That donkey of a fish you saw last week in a plunge pool may have slid over into an eddy line. Don’t blow an opportunity while your fly is still in the hook keep.
On the whole, wading anglers have few advantages over wary trout. We can’t cover water as effectively as a boat angler. Backcasting space is limited and there are times when you can’t beat the crowds. Time is an angler’s biggest windfall, so use it wisely. Be patient. So long as you don’t rattle a trophy fish you desire, it will continue doing what it did to get so big: eating bugs.
Here Comes the Sun
It’s the soggy-day mantra in any trout town: “It would be a good day to be on the river.” While it’s true that trout, especially mature browns, lose their inhibitions in low light, the reality is on the majority of days, you’ll want to consider the sun’s effect on your position and presentation before you make your first cast.
In fact, the sun’s direction is so important when wading, it’s one of the first variables you should account for. Remember, the sun is truly overhead for only a short portion of a day, and that period is probably best spent sipping a cold beverage or eating lunch anyway. Thus, the angle of the sun is almost always in play, giving both advantages and disadvantages to a wading angler.
4 Great Wading Tips
- We’ve all made the mistake of approaching water too fast and/or misread the best holding water and sent resident fish into a mass hysteria. If that happens, you can allow the pool return to a fishable state by remaining completely still. (Don’t retreat to the bushes or fall to your knees.) If the fish are still anxious after five minutes or so, then it’s time to move on.
- High-stick presentations are a wading angler’s ace in the hole. If you approach a fish carefully from the proper angle, you can get much closer than you think and present a fly on a nearly perfect drift.
- An angler’s nightmare is hanging a nymph on a snag a few feet above a trophy trout. You’ve already spent some moola to get to this point. What’s an extra $2.50? Put your rod tip in the water, point it at the snag, and smoothly pull until the tippet breaks. Retie and try again. Don’t thrash the water and spook the fish.
- If you spy a titillating trout lie but there’s little chance of effectively drifting a fly through it because of the distance or current, switch to a streamer—it will allow you to swim a fly through the lie without fretting about a deaddrift presentation.
The first question you need to ask yourself is the following: Do I need the sun to spot the fish? If the answer is yes, take a cue from the salty anglers down South and approach the holding water with the sun at your back, at least to start. When the sun is high and behind you, its rays cleave deeply through the glare. With a good pair of polarized sunglasses, you’ll have the best advantage for looking at what’s beneath the surface. If you can step up a foot or two onto a rock or log, all the better.
But beware—every silver lining has a shadow. When approaching with the sun at your back (particularly in early morning or late evening, when the angle of the sun is at its shallowest), you are casting a cloud onto the water you want to fish. Trout are genetically programmed to fear death from above. If you want to see a doomsday reaction from a fish, all you have to do is wave a shadow over its head. It will flee like there’s no tomorrow. Always note the direction and distance your shadow reaches before you get close to the holding water.
A general rule is to use the sun at your back from long distances to spot fish or holding lies—call it your “preliminary” scouting phase. At a distance, there is less risk of spooking a trout with your shadow. Note the lie based on some water feature or landmark; then do your best to keep your shadow off the holding water as you get closer.
Play the Angles
You’re getting there. You’ve found a fish or the most likely holding water. You’ve used the sunlight as X-ray vision to learn everything you can about your quarry’s habits and exact location. Now you’re cautiously stalking him with your shadow tucked behind you, where it won’t send the fish into a wet stampede.
The next factor you need to consider is the orientation of the fish. In a vacuum, trout face upstream, period. Therefore, the best way to present a fly is from downstream and to the fish’s side, say at either 130-degree downstream angle from its nose. At these angles, you can simultaneously remain hidden from the fish and avoid lining it. But like all rules, the most important part here is the exception. It’s not unusual for large trout to have a different take on where the best holding water is and how to orient themselves in it. The “why” is still a mystery, but I’ve found an unusually high percentage of big trout finning all akimbo in backwaters or hydraulics. Maybe, like the millennial generation, they just want to be different. Regardless, this is the perfect example of why it is so important to patiently approach a lie and learn the most that you possibly can before presenting your fly. Like any predator, trout don’t like their food sneaking up on them from behind.
After that, consider the water itself. To wit, how the water will effect the presentation of your fly. Obviously, the major consideration here is drag. Generally, when wade fishing, the less fly line on the water, the better. Always cast the shortest distance required, or highstick when possible. The guy walking up to the next hole might be impressed with your double-haul, but the trout couldn’t care less. Save it for the salt.
Big fish in tricky lies are incredibly attuned to how their food makes its way to them. Luckily, every current type has some ideal angle where you can present a fly for the longest possible drift. Current speed, depth (if fishing subsurface) and eddy lines all play into how you pick a landing zone for your fly. This skill can become instinctual, but finding a similar current or seam downstream and watching how your flies react to it is a good start.