Fish in the water

"Give the fish a chance, put the fly on, or in the water"

Barry Hickman
Fly fishing, by definition, must involve a genuine attempt to capture fish. Armed with a balanced outfit and adequate casting skills the final element, fishing the water, is still not without it's challenges. This is particularly so for our ever increasing, urban based, aspiring fly fishers who, more than others need this type of outdoor activity, but have little experience to draw on to understand the aquatic and marine environment of the fishes. It is most likely unfamiliar and the mirror like surface of the water, denies vision of the fish habitat and behaviour below.

Eliminate areas where there are no fish
Before focusing on where the fish are, maybe it is helpful to eliminate where they are not. As simple as this may sound, many otherwise skilled anglers seem not to fully recall the importance of this when fishing. The fish live in the water, with only very brief and explosive excursions into the air. Trout jumping for dragonflies in the heat of a summer's day are not the norm.

Fish do not walk.
Do not spend most of your day walking along deserted beaches, bush bashing and walking cross country, if you want to catch fish.

Fish don't ride in cars or boats.
Do not spend most of the day motoring from one location to another. Most locations of similar type, and in the same geographic area, are likely to experience similar levels of fishing activity. If you are having trouble finding fish move around in the immediate environs, do not start moving across the entire countryside or ocean.

Fish do not live in the air.
False casting has many purposes. Trying to drive them into a feeding frenzy, by endlessly casting an, out of reach fly high above, is not one of them. False cast as little as possible and then, get the fly down onto the water where the fish have at least the opportunity to take it.
Fish will not jump out of the water to snatch a fly from your hand, contrary to eternal, hopeful speculation. While you wait for a fish to rise, put the fly on the water. Many is the day that the only rising fish we have seen, are to our flies. When you are polaroiding, put the fly on or in that part of the water, under which you can not polaroid, due to circumstances of light, shadow and wind. You will probably see the take with your peripheral vision or, hear the lustier takes. If you miss it, you have lost nothing. Rather, you have learnt that there is at least one interested fish about. More often than not, you will bring the fish to hand.
As a new comer to fly fishing, you will need to find water to which you can gain ready access. This normally results in fishing waters that have few, or no, bars to access and are also located conveniently to where you, and a significant number of other fly fishers, live. If this is so, you are fishing waters that will have had a huge amount of pressure on them and the fish still remaining in the water, have probably escaped the diligent efforts of some very fine anglers. Realise this is tough water and either be happy to fish it very regularly, with poor results while learning it's secrets, or find easier water which is under less angling pressure.

Do not push the fish away
Fish have vision over a large range, but lack the human depth of view. This means that if they are cruising and looking for food a short distance in front of themselves, they are unlikely to see an angler until they are very close. However, if they are stationary and on the alert for danger, they will see an angler a considerable distance away. They are particularly sensitive to any potential danger from above, the realm of predatory, fish eating birds. Use cover, where possible, and keep your silhouette off of the fish's skyline
Fish can perceive sound through their lateral lines. If you can hear yourself wading around in the stream or lake, the noise will surely be deafening to the fish. Move slowly and quietly.
Fish can perceive your presence in still or slow moving water. If your presence in the water produces a widening ripple, the fish will detect this. Fish from the bank whenever possible.
Varying species have different responses to the presence of the angler. Fly fishers have preyed upon brown trout for about 1,800 years. The brown trout you pursue are the progeny of the survivors, of the survivors. If they sense the presence of a human being, they will go into a non-feeding survival mode. Saltwater species, ranging from sharks to tailor, seem yet to have learnt to avoid contact with humans. They appear to learn little from watching their brothers and sisters being dragged struggling to an unknown fate above the surface, at the hands of an enthusiastic angler.

Forget the fish, find the food
In streams, fish occupy two types of locations, sheltering lies and feeding lies. Sheltering lies provides concealment and a measure of protection for the fish. Feeding lies provide food.
In a sheltering lie a fish is normally remote from any reasonable drift with a fly and will seldom, if ever, break cover to take the fly. However, when there is food on the water, the fish will move out into a feeding lie underneath it. Fish the food or bubble line and you will cover most of the fish in the stream.
In lakes, food is not brought to the fish by the current but rather, they must move to the food. Lake fish will by preference avoid the vulnerable daylight shallows or uncomfortable warm and/or icy edges. If there is no food about, they will drift off to the safety and comfort of deep water. They may elect to occupy a particular thermocline but in our shallower lakes normally hold very near the bottom. Remember this when you contemplate the wet fly. Once food appears in or on the water, the fish will cruise and feed in that area.
With the right breeze on the water a lake can be converted into the equivalent of a stream. When the breeze pushes the food onto and along a shore, a food line is established and fish will feed in it while moving upwind. Wind lanes, which set up off points or in the middle of a lake, may result in a similar food line.
In estuaries and on the flood plains the small inflowing streams bring food to the predators and the confluence provides a habitat for prey species
In the ocean, hovering birds indicate the presence of bait fish. When the predators drive the bait fish to and above the surface it is time to get a fly into the water. Bait fish will also move into and out of shallow estuarine areas with the rise and fall of the tide. Look for out flowing baitfish dragged by an ebb tide into the jaws of the predators. Find the areas where the bait fish or other food is concentrated or funnelled past and you will find the fish.
Food and food species occur in very distinct location. When you chance upon fish strive to understand why they are in the location. Do the shallow seagrass beds provide food, are the mayflies hatching from the black peat mud bottom, are the pike working the channels on tide change. Then take your evolving knowledge and seek out these specific locations.
The ocean also provides the opportunity to put the food, or more precisely the scent of the food, into the water. Berley is an extremely valuable asset to draw fish onto the fly from an ever increasing slick across the sea.
You must always be trying to find the food. Will the insects be hatching in the calm lee of a shore? Will the beetle drop be pushed along a quartering, windward edge? Will the post dawn chironomid hatch lay dead and dying, in an early morning, food slick in the middle of the lake? Will the bait fish be drawn onto the flood-lit jetty? Answer questions such as these and you will find the fish. If there is no obvious food about, you need to seriously consider moving about the water in a fairly quick manner. Do not continue to fish one small area for hours on end when, just around the corner, the fish may well be in position and feeding.

One of the greatest developments in finding fish has been the skilled use of polaroid glasses. With a little bit of light, a kind breeze and a lot of practice, you can see through some of the water, to find the fish. Be warned, a lot of anglers go to pieces when confronted with a seen fish, the bigger the fish, the greater the demise. Put a fly in front of a polaroided fish and success usually follows. If it is unsuccessful, you will learn from observing the fish as he fails to see, ignores or inspect and then rejects your inadequate offering.

Searching versus seeing
So you can not see any feeding fish. Always have a few casts to make sure that they are not about.
Fish will normally feed at dawn and dusk. This is because most prey species will take advantage of the low light conditions in an attempt to avoid being taken. Predatory fish seem to understand this strategy. If there is no food about, you may not see them feeding but put a fly out, and it may well lift an unseen fish. During the day you may arrive in an area in which fish have been feeding freely but have recently stopped. If you cover the water appropriately you may find a significant number of fish still remain in the area prior to ghosting off into protective deeper water or in search of food elsewhere.
The tide plays a huge part in the movement of food and bait fish. Get to know the local environment and the part that the moving water plays in providing food. River mouths are best fished on a falling tide as baitfish are washed out to or passed the waiting predators. In the wider ocean a rising tide normally provides the best of the fishing. Note when the fishing starts to improve and relate it to the state of the tide for future reference.
On bad days when there is no food on the water, and circumstances do not permit polaroiding, there is only one thing for it, work the water. The number of fish you bring to the fly will be directly proportional to the time that the fly is on, or in, the water.
And, within reason, move, move, move. Cover calm water and windswept water. Cover first the shallow water and then the deep water. Fish over a rocky bottom and then fish over a muddy bottom. Know in your heart that they can not get out of the stream, lake or ocean, and will take on the very next presentation.
"Is it not amazing, how luck always
accompanies the hard working angler?"
Trevor Hodson

Put the flies in the right level of the water
Mostly fish have an expectation of where they are going to find food, and specifically search that level of the water. Sometimes they will lock onto a particular food species and will totally ignore anything, natural or artificial, which is not in the appropriate level. The levels and appropriate fly types are:

Above the water;    Dry Fly
Air side of the meniscus    Emerging Dun and Poppers
Water side of the meniscus    Hatching Nymph
Sub surface        Nymph, Wet Fly or Lure Fly
Substrate            Nymph, Wet Fly or Lure Fly
It is a good idea to fish two or even three flies and cover simultaneously, multiple levels of the water. Use fly line of varying specific gravity (floating, intermediate and sinking) to get flies rapidly, to the right level in the water.
Trout respond to the rhythm of the season and in early spring will usually feed below the surface. As summer approaches the water warms and insects start to hatch. Predictably enough the fish will now start to feed on or near the surface. Needless to say the reverse happens as the cold hand of winter starts to grip the water.
Saltwater species come and go with the changing of water temperatures and the coastal currents. Get to know what species occur, at what time of the year.

Convert opportunities into fish to hand
Whether you find the food, fish or neither, always anticipate a take in the first ten seconds of the first presentation. As time passes, the likelihood of a take declines but at no time does it ever reach zero. Similarly, multiple presentations in the same general area have a declining likelihood of success but never reach zero.
Once you fly is on or in the water never take your eye off of it if you can see it, or the general area of water it is in, if it is below surface.
Fish without excessive curves in your fly line and with your rod tip down, to eliminate any slack line. Know the precise second a fish takes the fly so that you can set the hook, at a time of your choosing. If you have not been watching your fly when a take occurs, and then have to play catch up before the fish ejects a fly, you risk missing the fish or striking too hard and breaking a fish off.
Play the fish out by letting it run when necessary but always maintaining contact with the fish as it swims towards you. Get the line onto the reel at the earliest opportunity. Bring the fish to hand sooner, rather than later. Too long a fight may excessively stress a fish destined for release or worry a hook out of position. Wet your hands before picking up a fish to minimize the harmful effects of your hands on the fishes skin. Lift and turn the fish upside down to eliminate any struggle. Do not run your hand down the length of the fish when you release it, this removes valuable, infection defeating slime. And most fish slime has an equally detrimental effort on human hands, albeit you look forward to the experience.

"Good luck with the fishes'
Barry Hickman

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