Trying to catch a trout in clear shallow water can be a frustrating experience, one that requires stealth, persistence, and skill. The trout feel vulnerable and are understandably cautious about feeding. The strategies listed below should help convince one of these wary trout to strike your fly. If all goes well the trout won’t even know you’re there… until you stick a hook in the corner of its mouth that is.
Stalking The Trout
Approach from down river
Since trout feed facing into the current, it makes sense to approach them from behind to avoid being detected. Not only does this reduce the risk of visibly being detected, but any debris you stir up while wading will be swept downstream, away from the trout you are stalking. The problem with this is that casting directly upstream can make it difficult to manage slack in the line, and also offers some presentation challenges as it makes it much more likely that the trout will see the fly line and or tippet before they see the fly. For this reason, approach from behind and to the side of the trout, which will allow you to cast in front of where the trout is feeding. More details on this further down in the article.
Don’t cast a shadow on the water.
Shadows are perhaps the most obvious indicator to a trout that there’s something dangerous above their pool. With bears, eagles, herons, and an untold number of other predators looming over then, trout are instinctively hardwired to stop feeding a freeze in place when they see a shadow, making them less visible to predators. Approach the pool with the sun either at your sides or directly in front of you. A good pair of polarized sunglasses are a great investment and will make a world of difference when stalking and finding fish.
Another strategy is to fish at dusk and dawn. The trout will have a harder time seeing you in low light conditions. Trout also tend to be more active at dusk and dawn, especially as the days get warmer.
Once in position, the less you shuffle around the better. I know it’s tempting to take a step or two to get a different angle for the next cast, but be mindful that a trout’s lateral line allows them to detect even the smallest amount movement underwater, especially in calmer stretches of water. Once you’re close to a spooky trout, make every step count as that next step could be the one that sends that trophy trout bolting for cover.
Take the type of cast you make into consideration as well. A standard fly cast involves a significant amount of movement above the water, which has the potential to spook wary trout. I often use a roll cast to reduce the amount of rod movement while casting. You could also employ a curve cast in tricky situations to present the fly to the fish before the leader or fly line come into the fishes field of view.
Cast up river of trout
As mentioned above, you want to cast ahead of where you see the trout feeding. There are three main reasons for this:
The first reason is that the trout will not see the fly hit the water, as it will enter it’s field of view after it has already landed in/on the water. This eliminates the possibility of the fly landing excessively hard and spooking the trout. While an aggressive landing of the fly is desirable in some situations, casting to wary trout in clear, low water is not typically one of these cases.
The second reason If nymphing or using streamers, it allows the fly time to sink into the strike zone. If you used weighted nymphs (you should) the amount of time it takes for them to sink into the strike zone is significantly less. Excessive weight for the situation can give the fly and unnatural presentation, however, so it’s important to find the right balance between getting the nymph down fast and accidentally making the nymph move through the water like a rock rather than a bug or baitfish.
The third reason has to do specifically with fishing dry flies. A trout will often rise and hit the surface behind where they are actually holding in the river. This is because as the trout tilts it’s head up and rises to intersect the fly, it often allows itself to be pushed back by the current of the river. After grabbing the fly, the trout will then swim back to its original holding position ahead of the visible take. This effect is magnified in deeper water, so you would cast your fly further ahead of the rise the deeper the water is. This feeding behavior is not the case in all situations, but the behavior is common enough to make casting ahead of the trout a good habit.
Make the first cast count
A common sentiment across many different types of fishing for many different species is that the first cast is the most likely to get a strike. There is probably no situation where this holds more truth than when fishing for shy trout in shallow, clear water. With each successive cast, there’s the risk of spooking the trout, either by fly drag, visible line, excessive movement, or shadows. In shallow water situations, I would say your usually have two or three casts before a trout is spooked if you’re lucky maybe four or five. If you haven’t caught the trout after the fifth cast, it’s time to move up or down the river to find another trout. You can always try for the same trout on the way back after the trout has had some time to itself to resume normal feeding behavior.
There are a number of different presentations that work in clear water. The general rule is that you want to use a subtle presentation when the water is low and clear, and it doesn’t get any more subtle than a dead drift. Dead drift presentations can be used with either dry flies, nymphs, or even streamers and allow you to present the fly as a food item drifting by the trout in the current. When using a dead drift in these situations, it’s important to keep in mind that any imperfections in the presentation will be painfully obvious to the trout.
When fishing a fly in a dead drift, It’s important to make sure that the fly is free of drag. Reducing drag is a much talked about topic in fly fishing that really warrants it’s own article. A few quick tips to help you reduce fly drag include reducing tippet size, not casting over multiple currents, and not casting further than you need to.
Wear light clothing
Trout are always looking up, whether it be for mayfly morsels or to spot predators such as herons and eagles looking for a meal. Humans must look like huge large lumbering predators to trout, and if a trout spots you it’ll be understandable wearing about moving from shelter to grab your fly.
To make yourself less obvious wear light and/or dull coloured clothing to help your blend in with either the sky or foliage behind you. Avoid bright colourful shirts in yellow, orange, or red and instead wear clothes in dull greens, browns, whites, and blue shades. Waders are often tan or brown for a good reason.
I have often heard trout anglers say something to the effect of “you want to use the lightest fishing line possible when fishing for trout” while this statement may not be entirely true in all situations (You want to use heavier line fishing big streamers, hoppers, or mouse patterns for example), it is certainly true when fishing for trout in clear shallow water.
In clear water fishing situations, I use generally use tippet in the four to five pound test range. If I’m fishing small patterns such as midges I’ll use smaller tippet. If I’m using larger patterns such as bombers or hoppers, or targeting trout larger than 16 inches or so I’ll use a thicker tippet.
I wish I could give you a list of half a dozen specific fly patterns that are guaranteed to catch trout in shallow water, but that simply isn’t feasible. Every river is unique. Patterns and techniques that work on one river may not produce any fish on another. On river might be a great stonefly river, while another river produces the best results fishing small midge patterns. Flip a few rocks, take note of the insects buzzing around your head and over the water, and look for any baitfish in the shallows for clues as to what you should tie on.
The single biggest piece of advice I can probably give when selecting flies for fishing in shallow water is to pick the smallest size fly you think is appropriate for the situation, and then go one size smaller.