One of the more common mistakes that guides see is an angler stumbling into a river before taking a few minutes to figure out what’s going on. Observation is an undervalued tool, and too many fly fishermen skip this first step because they assume that they know what’s happening on the water. Maybe they fished the same spot yesterday or perhaps a guy at the local shop explained what to expect, but that kind of information shouldn’t supercede what you can discover with your own eyes.
When you leave the car and walk to a river or lake, don’t jump right in and start casting. Instead, stop well back from the edge of the water and just stand there for a few minutes, watching the water, the air above it, the streamside vegetation, and the like. Give your eyes time to adjust from driving mode to fishing mode. If you’ve been fishing for a long time, you know what to look for; if you’re a novice, you can train your eyes to notice important features and events during this brief period.
Here are some things to look for:
1. Do you see any fish rising?
2. Can you spot any fish holding or moving?
3. Are there insects on the water? In the air? Crawling in the streamside vegetation?
4. How is the water clarity?
5. Is the water higher or lower than normal?
6. Can you identify likely holding spots—behind current breaks, near structure, below riffles, etc.?
7. Do you need to get in the water, or can you fish from shore?
8. Is there a good place to get in the water that will avoid spooking fish and position you well to cast to likely fish-holding spots?
9. Are there any wading hazards you’ll need to avoid?
10. Are there any obstacles that you’ll need to avoid while fighting a fish?
One way to train yourself to look first is to avoid putting on a fly at the car. If you have to stop to right at the water’s edge, you can also use that time to observe, assess, and plan your attack.