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Within sight of victory

28 January 2016
Within sight of victory

You’ve seen a big guy and you want him on the hook. what’s your next move?

For me, the summer period is the premium season of the year to go fly fishing. The weather is fine and the rivers have ample visibility. Low river levels allow you to explore sections of the waterway that are too difficult to navigate for most of the fishing season. The clean rivers that summer brings along with fish feeding from the surface let the sport become visual; this is the main reason I fish. It is exhilarating to have the opportunity to cast to a sighted trout, then watch it move to intercept the fly (a dry fly or nymph) or casting streamers to fish that are smelting along the lake edge.

No matter how many fish someone has caught, casting to a sighted fish makes my heart pound faster and often it turns very competent anglers into a fumbling mess, especially if the fish is large. It is amazing how quickly people crumble when the prize is so close at hand.

Making a move

Your first cast is always your best chance to hook the fish and every subsequent cast afterward makes it harder to catch; many people struggle with the extra pressure.
In any environment, the single most important thing any angler can do is slow down and observe the fish’s behaviour once it has been located. Depending on the time of year, the fish moves varying distances to intercept food.

The depth of water the fish is sitting in and the velocity it is travelling (as well as the type of water being fished), has a bearing on the style and size of fly that you choose for the job. This is especially true when comparing the different structures of a riverbed; lowland rivers have small amounts of sand and gravel while back-country rivers are generally made up of larger rocks making them more stable.

An approach which camoflages your presence is more likely to succed than one where you are in full view.

In an ideal situation, we come across a trout that is oblivious to our presence and is moving freely to intercept food. Keeping this in mind, we must be calm as we approach each situation. If you are not fishing alone, the angler should drop back carefully from the elevated position where the fish was spotted and try to get down toward river level. Elevated positions are great to spot from, but it leaves the angler very vulnerable and easily seen by the fish. Dropping down to river level will hopefully keep the angler out of sight of the fish.

The angler may find visibility difficult because of the excess glare at river level, especially if the sun is lower and reflecting straight at the angler. If this happens you may then need to rely on your partner for directions on where the fish is located. If you can position yourself where there is a bush backdrop the visibility will remain clear.

Unless fishing pocket water, avoid getting too close to the fish as a heavy footstep or a dislodged rock will surely see the fish bolt from the area or become alarmed by your presence. Most people attempting to get a chance at casting to a sighted fish will accidently spook it, often because they spotted the fish at their feet and had been clumsy in the approach. As a rule, they are not scanning the water far enough ahead. It is a difficult skill to learn, but once it is mastered it is the best tool any angler can have.

Don’t be a fool

Once I spot a feeding fish (especially if it is up off the bottom), my first choice is to try and fool it with a dry fly. This is often when the fish is in shallow water, less than a metre deep. If the water is deeper it becomes very difficult to tempt the fish to rise much further through the water column. The exception to this is in the middle of the summer and large terrestrial insects, such as cicadas and beetles, are active in the food chain. The excess energy used in reaching the surface to capture its prey is not more than the reward.

In areas of the river where the water is deep, nymph fishermen should be very successful. The biggest problem facing nymphers is judging the depth of water with the speed of the current. Many people do not use flies that are heavy enough to achieve the required depth needed to reach the fish. If the fish is in very deep, fast moving water it may be necessary to cast up to five or six metres upstream of the fish to get the flies down deep enough.

Tungsten flies are worth their weight in gold because they are very heavy for their size (up to three times heavier than lead beads). Tungsten beaded flies give the angler the opportunity to fish using smaller flies in situations that were not possible previously.

It is very important to wet your nymph before you cast them so they sink faster, especially when using lightly weighted flies in shallow water. This way they will not get caught up in the surface scum on their decent.  

In deep water, the angler will have to consider what length of leader is required to reach the depth needed for the fish to see the flies available. The longer the leader used, the lower the drag of the water giving a longer drag free drift. Sometimes two flies of medium weight are used to achieve the required depth, which looks more natural in the water than one heavy bomb with a smaller fly trailing it.

Sometimes the angler concentrates on casting at a specific target, so when a fish is spotted in a real situation the natural thing to do is to cast the fly directly at the fish. This is a fatal mistake because the fish sees the danger and flees.  Many people cast too short and end up with the flies landing on the fish’s head, which is an unnatural scenario if the fly was a natural insect.  Fish are often startled and lie motionless or disappear. We are trying to present our flies as naturally as possible. Giving the fish plenty of lead, the fly comes at the fish in a natural way drifting down in the current. The response is usually a hooked fish, or the fish at least moving to inspect the fly.

River resident fish in clean water with good visibility will usually move a long way to inspect flies to absolute accuracy is less important. The only time this changes is if you throw dry flies at fish that are off the bottom in large pools with slow current. In this case do not give the trout time to inspect the fly; only a one-metre lead. The fish will not hesitate and will engulf it, especially on a mayfly or caddis hatch.

Match the hatch

Riverbed structure has a bearing on the types of aquatic insects found nearby. Things to think about are the stability of the river bottom, rocks and boulders breaking up the surface and the cleanliness of the water. Clean fast flowing rivers lend themselves to larger insects such as stoneflies and mayflies. Using larger flies to imitate the insects is great as the fish see the fly coming from a greater distance this will give the fish a greater foraging area to feed on.

An elevated spotter can greatly assist your fly placement, especially when glare is obstructing your vision.

Studies show that New Zealand’s large average fish size is an accumulation of optimum water temperature for growth and clear, clean water that gives the fish a greater distance to see its prey. As a general rule the bigger the rocks and boulders found in a waterway, the larger the river insects that will be encountered.

Keeping still

When sight fishing in a still water situation, many people cast out and set a trap. The idea is to wait patiently for the fish to swim past while it is completing its beat. Once you have an idea of the fish's approach, cast the fly out and let it settle in the sandy bottom along the approximate line the fish swims past. When it approaches the fly, give it a couple of twitches and wait for the fly to be eaten by the fish. While the technique is time-consuming, ambushing fish in this fashion is very successful. This method lends itself well when chasing large brownies that cruise in long pools and can often be seen facing or swimming back downstream in rivers instead of facing upstream.

If you enjoy actively moving around and spotting the edges of shallow lake margins and spotting trout, lakes such as Aniwhenua or Otamangakau are perfect. In the right conditions, many fish are encountered feeding on insect hatches in the first and last hours of light. Typical hatches on these insect based lakes are often made up of midges and damselflies. Sometimes in early summer rafts of beetles are noted as thick mats spreading across the surface along the windblown lake edges.

When stalking insect-rich lakes be sure to walk the exposed lake edges, especially just after or during a blow. In these conditions it is usual not to see the whole trout. You will only see a sign of a fish's presence, for example, a swirl or a dorsal fin and tail sticking out of the water as the trout are travelling in a certain direction. When a swirl is seen, pick the direction you think the fish is swimming towards and give it a couple of metres lead with the cast. This gives the fish time to spot the offering. Only give the fly a couple of short pulls and let the fly hang. As the fly is dropping through the water column, the fish will usually accelerate towards the offering and either accepts it or swerve around it.

Similarly, when chasing smelting fish always cast well ahead of the fish and strip the fly away from the fish like it is trying to flee the area. Small bait fish never swim towards the predator, therefore it is very important that we cast to the correct path of the fish so our flies are presented and act as natural as possible.

The key points to remember are once your quarry has been spotted is to slow down and observe the situation. Concentrate on the fish's movements and body language to give you signs on what the fish is doing. From there, a plan of attack can be devised in fooling the trout to take your flies once they have been cast. Most importantly, do not cast directly at the fish and always allow for some lead so the flies can sink to the required depth to be most effective and presented in the most natural fashion.

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