Seeing the Fish: Tips on how to focus and see more fish 

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Louis Cahill Photography

Louis Cahill Photography

By Owen Plair

Sight fishing is by far the most exciting and exhilarating way to target fish with a fly.

Whether you’re combing the flats looking for cruising bonefish or walking a river looking for that big Brown sipping on the surface, sight fishing brings out that true primal instinct in both fresh, and saltwater anglers. The feeling of watching a fish feed in its natural environment, presenting a fly in that environment and watching the fish make that gorgeous mistake of eating it, is simply amazing. Fly fishing is fly fishing no matter how you catch a fish but when sight fishing, there are a lot of things that have to come together just right. Seeing the fish is the very first piece of the puzzle and the most important.

As a saltwater guide, the most important part of my job is finding the fish and then being able to get my angler to see them. Looking for fish is fun and one of my favorite things about guiding, but it’s not always easy. There are so many variables. Obviously the most aggravating and unpredictable variable is mother nature. Sometimes I wish I could take mother nature out to dinner a few times a week just so she would always be nice. The other main problem is the angler not being able to see the fish. If you don’t see the fish, then the difficulty of catching that fish is raised 10 times. This article is a brief summary of how to open your eyes to your surrounding, not just using sight but all of your natural instincts to find that fish and present a fly.

When I go on a trip to a new fishery, I always ask my guide or friend, “What are we looking for?” 

Two sets of eyes on the boat are always better than one, even the guy sitting on the cooler drinking a beer should ask what to look for. I find that one of my favorite feelings is when I step on the bow, strip out my line, and start studying the water. It allows you to be ready and most of all aware what’s around you. Even certain sounds like a tarpon rolling or a fish busting bait can tell you what direction to look.

We have all had moments when we don’t see a fish and all hell breaks loose trying to find what the guide is looking at. The bow clock was created for sight fishing and is one of the most important tools for understanding where to look. Talk with your guide or friend and point your rod from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock so that you both are on the same time zone. The bow is 12 o’clock and always 12 o’clock, no matter what direction I’m spinning the boat. Always look directly at the nose of the boat to find 12 and adjust from there.

Getting an idea of distance is very important. Knowing when to look 40 feet at 11 o’clock or 80 feet at 11 o’clock can be crucial. Most fly lines now have a weight-forward belly around 30 feet. Some lines even have colored sections to show that belly or certain distance. The Orvis Hydros Redfish line is what I use on my boat rods and conveniently the belly of the line is yellow and then turns to green after about 30 feet. The leaders I use are always around 9-10 feet long. So right off the bat my angler knows what a 40 foot cast looks like. From that cast they can then get a gauge of distance and know what to add or take off on the next cast. A lot of anglers also mark their line with a sharpie marker to show different distances if they have trouble understanding distance on the bow of the boat as well. These colored lines have helped many anglers, and I always highly recommend them if you have trouble judging distance.

If the clock doesn’t work for you, and you can’t see what I’m seeing, then I always ask you to point your rod. Pointing the rod is one of the easiest ways for you to see something because your looking down the tip of the rod and pointing at exactly what I’m talking about.

Me: ”Left, left, left, left, stop! Li’l right, li’l right, stop! Okay look down the rod about 60 feet and you’ll see it, Got it?!”

Angler: “Yes!”

Don’t swing the rod 10 feet left or 10 feet right when pointing; move it slow, and steady, so you’re able to stop at the right moment. Now you have visual on the fish and can make the right presentation. Pointing the rod is a great way to see fish if you are having trouble. I use this method around 70% of the time when my anglers are having trouble seeing what I’m seeing. It’s truly the best way to help you see the fish if your eyes are not in sync.

Constantly scan in the direction you want to look, don’t just focus on one small area, look at everything so that your eyes can adjust to the environment. I find when I relax my eyes and look for something just a tad different than everything else, that’s when I start to find fish. Ask your guide for a distance so you know how far you should be looking. Some days I’m looking 200 feet from the boat or literally 20 feet from the boat.

Don’t pull out your phone or fiddle with the fly in your hand; constantly look at the water and stay aware of what’s going on. Most of all, don’t aimlessly flail your fly line around smacking the water or doing a bunch of needless false casts. That one second you take your eyes of your surroundings adds at least another 5-15 seconds of re-adjusting to see the fish, and that short amount of time is the difference in making the shot count or missing it because you never saw the fish.

Being able to notice a dark shadow appearing or a new color in the water means your eyes are adjusted.

DSC_4684Spotting a shark, stingray, or even baitfish swimming is a good thing, because it shows you’re ready when the fish appears. When I’m guiding, I like to point out things for clients to look for — like sharks and the shadow of grass on the bottom or small oyster beds — because it makes them actually look for something and helps us get in sync. When I’m fishing with a guide, one of my favorite things to do is try to see the fish before the guide, because it shows I’m focused and ready. I absolutely love when my anglers spot fish before I do because I know they are on the same level.

I go snook fishing in Chokoloskee, FL, a few times a year and my favorite sight fishing scenario is a laid-up snook. They are hard to see and hard to present a fly to, when sitting completely still under a mangrove in 6 inches of water. My great friend, mentor, and guide, Jeff Legukti explained the laid-up snook to me as a log sitting under the water. As we are poling the edge, I start to look for logs under the water so that my eyes can adjust to what the shadow and color look like. Sure enough moments later Jeff will spot the first laid-up snook of the day and, low and behold, the damn thing looks just like all the other logs under the water Jeff was pointing out to me. Sometimes it’s the little things that can give away the fish but it’s also key to know what you are looking for.

Obviously sunlight is a pretty key factor for sight fishing.

You can always adjust to clouds or overcast conditions; it just makes it harder seeing fish from a distance, but in most cases allows you to get closer to the fish. I could go on for days how to adjust to different lighting situations and how the fish adjust to different lighting situations but that’s all something you have to see in person and experience to understand. Hell, they even make sun glasses now that I wear for different lighting.

Wind is another factor. It makes the water choppy, so it’s hard to see movement and it can also stir up the bottom and make the water quality worse. So what do you do when you can’t actually see the fish swimming under the surface? That’s when you change your tactic of spotting fish to spotting movement on the surface of the water or what we call “Nervous water”. There are plenty of days when just a little movement on the water can open your eyes to seeing a fish, or a lot of fish. Whether it’s a tail, a push, or even just a few shrimp popping out of the water. Scanning for movement is something that will always keep you in the ready position.

Most important, spend the money on a good pair of polarized sunglasses. Don’t buy that $20 pair at the gas station or wear your wife’s $300 Prada shades. Get a quality pair of Costas, Smiths, or other top name brand companies because a good pair of sunglasses makes a huge difference in your vision. Again this is a subject I could talk about for days, but those are a few key words of advice that will help you immensely when looking for fish. It all comes down to experience on the water and knowing what to look for. You don’t learn if you don’t go.

What happens if all else fails and you don’t see the fish? Just lay out a cast in the direction and distance your guide is telling you and pray for good luck!

Owen Plair
Gink & Gasoline
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8 thoughts on “Seeing the Fish: Tips on how to focus and see more fish 

  1. Your comment on the Snook reminded me of Barra fishing in Oz as they sit in the snags and roots of the mangroves and quiet often all one can see is the black tips on their fins. If they are in the shade right up in the snags they are very hard to see.

  2. I guess time on the water is important because I always catch and see more fish the last three days of a 5 day trip. I wish a boy from inland could adjust sooner, yes I have costa but it is time that seems to work. I notice that the experienced guys like Louis point to the clock before they cast, my “bonefish fever” kicks in and I forget. Maybe that is why Louis catches many more fish than I in a day.

  3. Pingback: Three Good Articles | Fly Fishing Articles from Other Websites

  4. This article is great for the salt guys, but doesn’t say much about seeing fish in freshwater other than the quick reference to the Brown at the beginning.

    Would Kent or Luis please write an article to address this issue? I’m the proud owner of my first pair of Costas and am very pleased with them, but still could use some pointers in finding fish.

    Thanks, Guys!

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