Fly Fishing: 6 Sight-Fishing Tips for Shallow Water Trout

5 comments / Posted on / by


Sight-Fishing Tips for Shallow Water Trout. Photo Louis Cahill

Fly fishing during the fall and winter months can really open the door to some great sight-fishing opportunities for fly anglers targeting trout.

Generally, most of our wadable trout streams run low and clear from the lack of rainfall this time of year. If you keep your eyes peeled for trout and wade with extra stealth, there’s always a good chance to sneak up and sight-fish to the biggest trout of your life. With the brown trout moving up many watersheds in preparation for the spawn, and the rainbows or cutthroats aggressively feeding to put on weight for the cold winter ahead, the fall can provide fly fisherman the best trout fishing of the year. My clients and I catch some of our biggest trout during the fall and winter by wading in close to the big trout we’ve spotted and then making precise presentations to our targets. That being said, just because you can see the trout, doesn’t mean they’re always easy to catch. Some days, the trout will make you want to pull your hair out as you painfully watch your flies ignored over and over, as they drift within inches of the trout you’re sight-fishing to. Below are six tips to help fly anglers catch more shallow water trout while sight-fishing during the fall and winter months.

1. Proper Angler Positioning

When trout are holding in shallow water that’s calm and clear, it can make them extremely difficult to catch because the water conditions allow trout to hear and see very well. One of the biggest mistakes I see on the water by novice fly anglers when they’ve spotted a trout holding in shallow water, is they position themselves too far downstream (from the fish they see and want to cast to) when they make their initial presentation. The smaller the angle one casts to a trout, the more precise and accurate the presentation (angle and distance) needs to be. Too long of a cast, and you’ll risk spooking the trout by lining the fish (laying fly line over the back or too close to the fish) . On the other hand, if you cast at the wrong angle, your flies will often not drift close enough to the feeding trout, and will fail to enter the strike zone.

When I’m sight-fishing to trout in shallow water, I always try to approach the trout from the side as much as I can (I get as perpendicular to the trout as possible) without spooking it. Doing so, it makes it much easier for me to present my flies to the trout with my leader only, not my fly line, and I find that I spook far less fish this way. Furthermore, when I approach the trout from the side, it usually decreases the distance of the cast needed to drift my flies in front of the spotted trout. Shorter presentations also improve my ability to lay out softer presentations, and in most cases, I find it much easier to also maintain a drag-free drift to the fish with my flies, because I don’t have to fight different current seams between me and the trout I’m targeting.

2. Approach Slowly and Quietly

Just remember, the closer you get to trout, the more risk you have of alerting and spooking them. For anglers to be successful, they should move twice as slow, and take extra precaution to be as quiet as possible when wading into position. I like to take my time getting into position and then wait an additional couple of minutes before I make my first presentation. I call this the “cool off period” which allows me to continue to observe and keep a bead on the fish that I’ve spotted, but the main purpose is to allow any fish that may have been alerted during the approach to calm down and resume feeding. If you’ve got multiple trout scattered out along a run or pool, sometimes all it takes to ruin your chances at success is spooking one or more of the other fish in the area, which can in turn, alert all of the other fish.

3. Choose the Appropriate Fly Fishing Rig and Fly Patterns for the Water You’re Fishing

It’s really important to match the type of fly fishing rig to the water you’re fishing, and take additional effort to fine tune it so that you can precisely control the depth of your drift. You want to be able to maintain a drag free drift and have your flies drifting in the correct water column at the moment they reach the trout you’re fishing to, in order to maximize your chances of catching the trout. A few inches here or there can make all the difference in whether a trout will eat or not eat your fly. Sometimes, that means going with a dry/dropper rig, instead of a weighted tandem nymph rig. Other times, if the current is faster you’ll have better luck if you use a tiny split shot or a dropper nymph with a tungsten bead. In slow moving water, you may find that a beadless nymph will work more in your favor. The point I’m trying to make here is that choosing the right rig and fly pattern can be crucial for catching shallow water trout, and anglers should read the water and observe the trout’s position before they set the rig up and begin making presentations. I also like to add that I experiment using a Leisenring Lift as my flies approach a trout’s position if a drag free drift isn’t getting the job done and I’ve tried multiple fly patterns.

4. Don’t Make Repeated Presentations Over and Over

If you want to consistently catch shallow water trout when sight-fishing, you have to maintain some discipline in your fly fishing. For example, if you spot a fish and make one cast after another, over the fish, chances are the fish will eventually get spooked or get lock jaw and won’t eat your fly. I stress to my clients that they should focus on the quality of their presentations not quantity. It’s ok to make a few presentations to a fish, but if you don’t get any interest, you’re usually going to be much better off to give the fish a break for a few minutes before you resume your presentations. Always remember if you’re drifting the fly where you need to and the trout’s not showing any interest, it’s usually that you’re fly isn’t at the correct depth, it’s not drifting close enough to the trout, or your fly pattern is wrong. Try experimenting in these areas when your working a fish and not having luck. Often, by troubleshooting and making adjustments in these areas, you’ll end up catching the trout.

5. Shallow water trout usually have small strike zones

Most of the time, the closer a trout is to the surface, the smaller the feeding lane and strike zone is going to be. This means that anglers have to be super accurate with their presentations if they want to catch shallow water trout. One problem I have with clients is they often lack the ability to make repeated presentations at the same distance. One cast will be spot on, and the next one will be five to ten feet off target. To catch shallow water trout consistently, you need to be able to make repeated casts accurate to less than a foot in distance and angle to your target. One tip I tell my clients is to move in close and pinch the fly line in their rod hand against the cork grip when they make a good presentation. Doing so, it makes it much easier to duplicate the cast over and over when strike zones are only inches across. I can’t end this tip without bringing up the importance of fly line management during the drift.

Many fly anglers believe that line management only deals with managing the slack between your rod tip and your fly during your drift. Properly timed fly line mending, and manipulating the location of your flies during the drift (ex. Making slight adjustments of the fly/flies location or action by: pulling (bringing fly towards you), skating/twitching to add action, raising rod tip or briefly adding a belly in front of flies (to raise your wet flies up over a shallow spot), or adding slack (to sink, improve or extend drag-free drift) during the drift are all very important to get your flies in the strike zone and to trigger trout to eat. This is especially true when you have irregular bottom depths and/or challenging currents to manage from the beginning to the end of your drift.

6. Trying fly fishing spots at different times of the day for shallow water trout

The other day on the water guiding my client and I spotted several big trout in a shallow, slow moving run. The sun was high and the fish were really spooky. We only managed to get one bite, and the one we got, broke us off shortly after the hook up. We tried for several more minutes to get another one of the trout we’d spotted to bite, but we got the shaft. Rather than continuing to strike out, I recommended we move on and come back when the light conditions were more in our favor. In the afternoon, the sun was not beating down on the water and the entire run was shaded. This time when we fished the spot, the fish seemed more aggressive and less spooky. We ended up landing three fish out of that run that had previously kicked our butt. Make observations about how certain areas of a trout stream fish during different times of the day. Sometimes, all it takes to find success, is fishing spots at the right time of the day, when the light conditions are more favorable.

Keep it Reel,

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!

Follow Gink & Gasoline on Facebook:

5 thoughts on “Fly Fishing: 6 Sight-Fishing Tips for Shallow Water Trout

  1. Another tip is WHEN you fish, which you touched on briefly. Your chances increase in low light times – early morning and late evening. I also like overcast days and light rain – the trout are sometimes a little harder to spot, but they’re less inhibited. A little “stain” in the water clarity is another plus that can tilt the scales in your favor.
    Thanks for another great, thoughtful article, Louis. Your tips are greatly appreciated. They’ll certainly improve my fishing.

  2. Pingback: Tippets: Planning for The Driftless, Shallow Water Trout | MidCurrent

  3. Excellent article of spot fishing. I went out and took some pictures of an aeration system on a frozen lake. That is as close to fly fishing that I will get for about the next 4 months.

  4. I didn’t know that too many presentations could spook a fish. Next time I go fishing I need to keep this in mind, and not be so stubborn. The last time I went was my first and I didn’t catch much of anything and this may have been why.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...