Fly fishermen often give little thought to how they approach fish and because of this the game is often lost. Fish may not be intelligent but they quickly learn the danger signals, which either alert them or cause them to flee to safety. Experienced anglers go to great trouble to insure that the fish they seek are unaware of their approach. There are a number of things the anglers do to accomplish this.
The color of clothing worn can be important. This lesson was impressed upon me the first time I fished with John Goddard of England—perhaps the best all-around trout fisherman I have known. I was his guest on the Kennett a famous chalk stream in England. This is a slow moving limestone type stream, bordered by huge, ancient trees and lush, grassy banks. Getting out of the car I donned my fly-fishing gear and John very politely asked, “Is that the only vest you have with you?” I answered, “Yes, is there something wrong with it?” John emphasized that my khaki colored vest would alert fish. That day I did not do nearly as well as John. The next day he lent me one of his dark green vests, which blended with the surroundings and I scored so much better. It made me more aware of clothing to match the background.
I am convinced that when a saltwater flats fish looks upward at someone wearing light colored clothing such as light blue, light green or white matches that it somewhat the sky. Dark clothing creates a silhouette that may alert the bonefish, tarpon, redfish or permit. I think you lessen your chances of a good approach seeking freshwater trout if you are wearing a brightly colored hat. I am also convinced that shiny objects such as zingers, hemostats and other bright objects fly fishermen wear will give off reflective flashes when the angler is moving or casting.
When approaching a stream and you have to climb a fence don’t jump from the top to the ground with a thump that tells fish someone is coming. If you are in a boat, be very careful about making noise. A boat is somewhat like a drum and will resonate sending the sound to nearby fish. Numerous times I have seen an approach spoiled on a saltwater flat when someone opened a boat locker and then let the hatch cover fall to a close. Many experienced small boat captains will place carpeting on the bottom of tackle boxes to deaden the sound when moving them. Electric motors attached to the hull give a perceptible “hum” when engaged—and a section of rubber or carpeting between the motor clamp and the bracket will reduce that alerting sound.
Once I was bonefishing in a small, 16-foot skiff with a good friend at Andros Island in the Bahamas. He weighed about 280 pounds and was more than six feet tall. The guide poled near some bonefish tailing in less than 18 inches of calm water. My friend began casting and the fish flushed. This happened several times and he asked why. I took his place at the front of the skiff and began swinging my upper body back and forth as he did when casting. The boat began rocking sending small waves pushing away from the skiff. I explained that to the bonefish they were like small Tsunami’s.
Water transmits sound about four and half times faster than air. If you can avoid getting into the stream you reduce the chance of sound reaching your quarry. A common mistake fly fishermen make when fishing small trout streams is to wade—but you increase your chances if you can fish from shore If you need to wade a stream there are some tips to help in an approach. One of the most difficult places to wade is a calm pool. There is no noisy, rushing water tumbling over the rough bottom to mask your approach. When wading a quiet pool any waves that you create tend to radiate outward from you. You may notice surface ripples but understand that these waves are moving VERTICALLY—not just on the surface. A good comparison is for someone to hold a balloon filled with water and you push against one side. The entire opposite side of the balloon will flex away from you. As you wade look at the waves moving away from your legs. If there are visible ripples more than 18 inches from you legs—trout in much of the pool will know and be on their guard. Wading slowly wading is important.
The type of bottom you wade on makes a difference. If the bottom is sandy or soft and free of small gravel or stones, you can wade more effectively. But if your boot soles are crunching on the small stones—they are sending sound to the alert trout and you need more stealth when approaching fish.
There are places where wading is unsafe on some larger rivers and you need waders or hip boot soles containing aluminum or metal caulkers to grip the bottom. But, you can imagine the noise they make as the metal spikes scrunch on the rocky bottom. I avoid using these metal caulkers unless it is a mater of safety.
Another good wading tip is to use a wading staff. It helps you keep your balance so you don’t stagger—or worse fall. The staff will aid you in working through the water much slower and in full control. Like the caulkers on our boot soles, I do not like wading staffs with a metal tip that engages in the bottom. I prefer a wooden staff (it floats if you fall down), which has a rubber crutch tip that makes no noise contacting the bottom.
As you approach streamside try not be elevated above the bank so fish won't see you. Possibly the finest natural dry stream in the United States is the private section of the upper O’Dell Creek in Montana. Wealthy Herb Wellington for years owned it and allowed only a handful of anglers each year to fish it. The stream holds huge trout that feed mainly on small insects. The banks are grassy with no upright vegetation to help hide your approach.
My close friend publisher Nick Lyons and I were fortunate to be Herb’s guest to fish O’Dell Creek. The first morning he drove over the grassy pasture to streamside where we could see some big trout sipping flies from the surface. I insisted on Nick Lyons trying first. In his writings Nick always implied that he was an amateur fly fisherman but now he proved he lied. Nick began to crawl on hands knees as he approached the stream. Nearing it he began to crawl on his belly. Arriving at the stream he rolled down under the bank, made a perfect cast and hooked a beautiful, big trout. It was the only approached that would have been successful.
I began to fish the Letort spring creek in Carlisle, PA in the 1950’s with Charley Fox, Vince Marinaro and Ross Trimmer. These three local experts were teaching me how to fool these super-smart trout. After several years I taught myself a good lesson. Everyone fished from the same side of the Letort. The other side was often lined with tangled brush and dense vegetation. I began to fish that side and was able to fool smart trout that were not expecting an angler from that direction. Fishing the opposite bank from the norm will often add to your catch.
Use of a small pair of field glasses will also aid in your approach to a trout stream. By staying well back and observing the water the fish and what they are eating you can better plan your approach.
One final thought. It is important when you think you may catch a big fish such as a steelhead or Atlantic salmon consider from WHERE you will make your cast. Many times an angler will hook a fish and then be at a disadvantage when fighting or landing the trophy. Always think about not only how you approach the stream, and your quarry but also will I be able to land it from this position.
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