Sight fishing is the most exciting form of fishing.
Put simply, it is a way of fishing where you see the fish before you cast to them as opposed to casting blindly in likely spots (known as ‘fishing the water’ in fly fishing circles).
Sight fishing as a way of fishing originated in the world of fly fishing – both on the flats in the salt and trout fishing – but can be done equally as well by lure anglers.
It’s the same concept – see the fish, decide on a way to get your lure or fly in front of it (preferable with your first cast). Watch it eat, set the hook and reel it in!
Sounds simple right? In truth there are many things that you need to go your way, starting with clean water.
We’ve put together our list of 13 sight fishing tips to help you see more fish and catch more fish. These tips are borne out of trout fishing and flats fishing for saltwater gamefish, but can equally be applied to clearwater bass fishing or any other type of fishing where you have sufficient water clarity to see your target.
1.Use a great pair of polarized fishing sunglasses
Without polarized lenses, sight fishing in most conditions is a waste of time. It’s really only blue sky days with sun dead ahead where you won’t encounter at least some glare on the water. Having polarized sunglasses (see here for our round up of the best brands and models) cuts out most of that glare during all those other times, so much so that in Australia and NZ sight fishing is actually referred to as polaroiding.
2.Target shallow water
Even in great lighting conditions and clear water, if fish are sitting in deeper water more than a few yards below the surface, they are hard to see. Sight fishing is most effective over flats or sand banks or other shallow water areas, which includes most parts of a freestone trout stream or spring creek. Fortunately these are often great feeding zones where you can easily find actively feeding fish.
3.Know what to look for
Shape, shadow, shine and movement are the keys. Shape is pretty straightforward, but note that you should look for the fish’s shadow too as it is sometimes easier to see than the well camouflaged fish. Fins too are a giveaway, particularly with brook trout with their white edges on the fins. The flash of light glinting off a fish’s flanks as it turns is a giveaway too, particularly in the salt, but also with trout too. Movement helps you spot fish but also confirm is something fish shaped that might be a rock is actually a fish. Large trout at easier to see than small trout.
4.Your two enemies are cloud and the clock.
Cloud is the number one issue when you are sight fishing (more on how to beat it later), followed closely by the clock. Dealing with cloud first, a cloudy sky reflected on the water surface forms a silvery sheen and that mirrored surface is impossible to look through with the naked eye. Even the best pair or polarized sunglasses won’t help pick out a fish when it is glassed over.
Ways we deal with this is to fish the sunny breaks between cloudy spells. We adjust the way we fish too – we keep moving rapidly when it’s sunny until we spot a fish, whereas in the cloudy bits we fish the water slowly covering all likely lies.
By the clock, we mean time really. Sight fishing is best done with the sun directly overhead. Of course it doesn’t stay like that for long and you can reliably polaroid between 11 and 2pm with that window extending out when you have perfectly clear weather or in summer when the sun stays high overhead for longer.
This is not to say that you can’t see fish outside that time, but you have to be a bit smarter about and operate so the sun is behind you. That will dramatically improve your ability to see fish.
5.Use the natural terrain
While cloud is a real buzz killer when it comes to sight fishing, there is one way to sight fish on a cloudy day. You need a dark, solid backdrop. If you are fishing a stream with a cliff on one side, or a heavy forest, you will be able to see through the water very effectively. Use this to your advantage if it is cloudy and you still want to sight fish as opposed to fishing the water. We’ve had great days of sight fishing beneath heavy cloud simply by choosing a river with this kind of terrain.
Any time you can get in an elevated position, recognise that it will help you spot more fish. Even just an extra couple of feet of elevation you might get from standing on a rock or log will open up a wider expanse of water that you can see into. Be aware, though, that your elevated profile makes you easier to spot too! The same applies on a flats boat when you are targeting redfish, bonefish or other saltwater species – the best view is from the poling platform so that’s why you need to trust your guide when he tells you where to cast.
7.Don’t get too close when stalking
Any time you see the fish before it sees you, you are much more likely to entice it to eat. Trout and other shallow water species are very wary and even an angler’s shadow can easily spook a fish and convince it that it is not safe to feed. The further away you can remain when casting to a fish, the better your chances of catching it. So our aim must be to spot the fish from as long a range as possible.
8.Wear a hat or visor
Another enemy of good polaroiding is light entering between the sunglasses and your eyes from the sides, behind and the top. The best way to cut this out is to wear a hat with a 360 degree brim such as a boonie hat or bucket hat, although a cap will do an OK job (see here for our best Simms fishing caps).
9.Practice makes perfect
People’s natural ability to see fish varies markedly. Seeing a trout against the bottom of a river is not easy – we’ve got friends who’ll walk straight past a fish that others find easily visible. That said, it can be taught – you are really looking for a smudge or a shadow and a hint of movement (there are many fish shaped rocks in a trout stream), something that doesn’t quite add up to the eye. Then you hone in on that area to verify if it is a fish or not. If in doubt, cast! Better to have cast to a rock than scare a big fish.
It is easy to get lazy in sight fishing. Doing it properly takes energy. Typically we’ll scan the area within a couple of rod lengths, but also the area right out to the extremities of your vision. Force yourself to do this and you’ll increase the average distance away a fish is before you spot it and that means more hook ups. This is particularly true of flats fishing either in the salt or fresh where fish are often moving relatively fast. Seeing them from a long distance gives you time to set a trap with your fly or lure.
11.Waves can help you sight fish
Just as the sun affects polaroiding, so too does wave action on lakes. Looking into waves (standing in the direction of the wind) allows for a nice “window” to open up where the clean water up the slope of the wave allows you to see through to the bottom and pick up a fish that might be cruising.
12.Play the angles … with your head
Every little advantage helps with sight fishing and sometimes just shifting the angle of your head will cut a bit more glare and give you the visibility you need. The polarised lenses work like a Venetian blind in shutting out light of a certain type and they work best if they are horizontal to the source of the light.
13.Stay flexible (mentally) to catch fish
The other thing to remember is that sight fishing doesn’t always have to be about spotting fish. When you are trout fishing on some days it is best to focus on spotting rises, if for example you can’t see beneath the surface. This is when you have to flip things around – the mirrored surface that thwarts you for conventional sight fishing is actually great for spotting rises. In calm, glassed off water you can see rises from 50 metres away if the fish displaces enough water when it comes up. Sometimes you’ll see fish noses poking through the film.
Sight fishing in summary
So there are our top 13 tips on sight fishing. Put these into practice next time you are fishing and we guarantee you’ll boost your catch rate. Keep flexible, alert and aware of your surroundings. In many ways sight fishing is very like hunting and use all your senses to get the best result. Sometimes you’ll hear a fish rise before you see it, sometimes you’ll see something that just doesn’t add up rather than a clear fish shape. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a fish. It’s a bit like solving these Magic Eye puzzles – it takes time commitment and practice.