8 Tips For Figuring Out The Trout

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

How do you find and catch trout on days when there doesn’t seem to be much action?

When the river looks like it’s boiling with rising trout and you’re having to wipe the BWOs out of your eyes just to tie on a fly, it doesn’t take a degree in entomology to catch fish. Sadly, days like that are few and far between and we spend plenty of days on the river scratching our heads and guessing what might get a favorable response.

Most days there is a combination of fly pattern and technique that will put a couple of fish in the net. If you’re struggling with finding that combination, you may just need a method of narrowing down the variables and making an informed decision.

Here are 8 tips for figuring out what the trout want.

Take a few minutes to watch the water.

Try to resist the temptation to jump in and start casting. I know, it’s hard. You’ve driven a couple of hours and you’ve been thinking about fishing all week, but take a few minutes to watch the water and see what you can learn.

Are there any bugs at all? If there are adults but no fish rising to them, try the nymphal form. If fish are rising, pay attention to the rise form. Splashy takes may mean they are eating emergers, while lazy sips might suggest spinners. What about water clarity? Stained water might require larger or more brightly colored flies. Higher or lower than normal flows might affect where fish hold.

Look for fish, too. It’s much easier to narrow down choices of patterns and techniques when you have an actual fish the test them on. Before you start blind casting to pockets and seams, see if you can spot a good dance partner.

See what the birds are doing.

Birds and fish have more in common than many folks realize. Most birds eat insects in the same way fish do. If swallows are buzzing the surface of the water the hatch is on, even if you can’t see it. If they are circling high above, you may have missed the hatch but those bugs will be back later in the day to lay eggs and fall. Other birds like herons and osprey are professional fishers and know exactly where to find fish. Keep a close eye on them too.

Sample some bugs.

It’s never a bad idea to take a few minutes to see what’s on the menu. Especially when fishing new water or as the seasons change. Turn over some rocks in a riffle and see what’s clinging to the bottom. Look around rocks and plants on the edges of the water for shucks or adults. Shake some bushes and kick the grass to see what’s hiding there. Run a bug seine along a foam line, especially if you see fish rising but don’t know to what. A little investigation will at least give you a starting place, if not an answer.

Use searching patterns and tandem rigs.

Sometimes you just need to get their attention. If you’re not finding any clear signs of what the fish might be eating, try something big and juicy, even if it seems crazy. I remember a day in Wyoming when my friends and I just couldn’t find a fly that worked. I ended up catching several nice fish in the middle of the day by throwing a mouse pattern.

Often the best way to find fish is to offer them options. Fishing tandem rigs with very different flies can help you narrow down the choices. Try big and small flies together, bright and natural patterns, realistic flies and junk. Some days it’s the right combination that works and not any single fly.

Cover more water.

Don’t turn into a scarecrow lording over a good looking piece of water. It may look perfect but if that tasty run doesn’t produce fish, move on. Cover the water methodically and if you’re not finding fish, try water you might normally overlook. Sometimes it’s not what they want, but where they are. Sometimes it’s just about finding the right fish. Often, swinging a Woolly Bugger is a great way to search the water more thoroughly.

Change weight when nymphing

When fishing subsurface, depth is usually more important than fly pattern. Change your weight a couple of times before you cut off your flies. I like tungsten putty for this. You can start off with a split shot and easily add the putty to fine tune the weight. Sometimes you even need to lengthen your leader.

Size down your tippet.

This is one of the most fundamental rules of trout fishing. If you’re not catching fish, size down. Lighter tippet may give your fly that extra bit of natural action needed to turn fish on.


When you’re not catching fish, don’t be afraid to try something new. Skitter a dry fly or swing a nymph. Vary the retrieve of your streamer. Whatever you’re doing, if it’s not working, try something else.

Next time you hit the water, don’t just tie on what worked last time, or worse yet, what you want to fish. Take the time to figure ’em out. With a little detective work and some trial and error you’ll be on fish in no time. That’s half the fun.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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10 thoughts on “8 Tips For Figuring Out The Trout

  1. Good article.

    I’ve been wondering, more specifically, what do you do when streamer fishing on tough days (high pressure/post front, low water, clear water, inactive fish, etc). Do you size down the streamers, go more natural, or are you better off hanging the the streamers up for a day?

    • Brian, From one streamer junkie to another… I don’t say this to preach at you, but here are a few lessons from experience and the mental checklist I go through when streamer days are tough(and I’ve broken every one of these rules, so… you’re not alone!!!!!!)… Here’s a few ideas. Change is your friend!! Don’t keep doing something that isn’t working, and don’t keep fishing a fly that isn’t getting action. Change retrieves, retrieve speed, Fly color, Size, Style, weight; and if you can, fish the whole river, not just where you left the fish last time… I have a handful of different streamer patterns that I have absolute confidence in, I’ll have those patterns is a couple sizes and a range of colors, and if I can both articulated and single hook. One other thing, especially in low water and/or clear water, I go to fluorocarbon. Personally, I fish P-Line 8-12lb 100% fluorocarbon conventional leader material depending on how large a fly I’m pitching (12lb for bass and heavier for pike).

      Especially for areas you fish frequently, keep a fishing journal. Take mental notes throughout the day and put it to paper that night (the details will be fresh…). What worked, what didn’t, weather, wind, water conditions, fishing pressure, everything that comes to mind… Go back over the journal once and again and you may start to notice patterns that you’d otherwise miss.

      Lastly… Don’t fish frustrated. If the day starts to grind along, take a break, eat lunch, enjoy the scenery, watch the water for any clues as to what might be going on and get back after it with a clear head.

      Hope it helps, and tight lines!!!

      • Thanks for the reply Mike, all great advice, especially carrying several sizes of your best streamers. I carry weighted and unweighted of the same pattern but definitely think I’ll tie some minis and jumbos of my best patterns.

        At the end of the day it’s just fishing, but I can’t help but always question what I could have done differently or better to coax a few more fish, especially on those days when it’s tough.

        • At the end of the day Brian, Jot down how things went, and look for patterns, speculation after the fact (unfortunately, since we all do it) doesn’t really make us better anglers.

          FWIW, I also carry lots of lead eye/conehead stuff that you can get swimming up and down in the water. Big trout chomp crayfish… Don’t overlook them either, if they are in your local waters…

  2. The key word in the title is “Seem”

    In the words of Kelly Gallup: “Stalk more, cast less”

    Trout have to eat – every day. Stay positive because the fly you cast can always be their next meal.

  3. Could have used this Monday 15 August. A bunch of critters with a brain the size of a pea kicked my butt! The deer coming out of the woods 5 feet away and suddenly deciding it was bad idea to be that close to a human and EXPOLDED the water and brush as it made a hasty exit didn’t do my heart or B/P any good either!

    • Richard, hang tight dude. Louis went down with a detached retina and won’t be able to even look at a computer screen for several weeks to come. We posted about this before his surgery which went well. Prior to his surgery we scheduled many of our “greatest hits” to recycle while he recovers. Lots of stuff going on behind the scenes as well so unfortunately coming up with new content and plugging it in last minute just wasn’t feasible. We’ll be back on track with plenty of new content soon though. Thanks for keeping up!

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