Anytime you can get a high vantage point on the body of water you want to fish on, you’ll be ahead of the competition.
Photo by Sandy Hays

One of the most common mistakes seen by guides is for an angler to stumble into a river without taking a few minutes to figure out what’s going on. Observation is an undervalued tool and too many fly fishermen skip that first step, assuming they know what’s happening on the water. Maybe they fished the same spot yesterday or maybe a guy at the local shop explained what to expect, but this kind of information shouldn’t replace what you can see with your own eyes.

If you exit the car and go to a river or lake, don’t jump right in and start throwing. Instead, stop some distance from the water’s edge and simply stand for a few minutes and observe the water, the air above, the riverside vegetation, and the like. Give your eyes time to switch from driving mode to fishing mode. If you’ve been fishing for a long time, you know what to look out for. If you’re a beginner, you can train your eyes to pick out important features and events in that short amount of time.

Here are some things to look out for:

  1. Do you see fish rising?
  2. Can you spot fish holding or moving?
  3. Are there insects on the water? In the air? Crawling in the riparian vegetation?
  4. How clear is the water?
  5. Is the water higher or lower than normal?
  6. Can you identify likely breakpoints – behind power cuts, near structures, under guns, etc.?
  7. Do you need to get in the water or can you fish from the shore?
  8. Is there a good spot in the water where you won’t spook fish and are well positioned to cast to likely fish spots?
  9. Are there any wading hazards that you must avoid?
  10. Are there any obstacles you need to avoid while fighting a fish?

One way to practice looking first is to avoid tying a bow tie to the car. If you must stop by the water to upgrade, you can also use that time to observe, evaluate, and plan your attack.