Stealth when fly fishing for trout and steelhead (yes, I know steelhead are trout) in rivers is often seen in two ways. The anglers using stealth are either looked upon as a ninja/elite military force or a ballerina. Stealth is often seen as silly or unnecessary or even meant for only those who are inept or incompetent. Chico Fernandez in his fabulous book Fly Fishing for Bonefish* tells an amusing scenario where fishermen go into cast a fly rod and instantly rip off all the fly line, sweat pouring, buttons flying off, testosterone flowing, all while forgetting to actually cast the fly rod at close ranges. In other words, there’s more at play than simply being the best angler. Distance casting skill (often tied to ego) frequently overrides fishing skill in the minds of anglers, and distance casting skill is often seen as a substitute for stream craft. Gary Lafontaine also tells an illustrative story in his book The Dry Fly.* Gary got stuck with a beginning fly angler, Tad. Tad could not even cast ten feet, but he and Gary crept along with stealth, using trees, rocks etc. to make the proper approach. They caught 50 fish while the rest of the group, including several guides, caught one nine-inch rainbow. His entire chapter, “Why Anglers Fail”, is dedicated to the topic of stealth and its lost art. Lafontaine, focuses on Harry Ramsay’s Ten Commandments of Stealth and shows how relevant they still are. Although the chapter is focused on dry fly fishing, the “Commandments” still apply to nymphing in clear water and small streams for steelhead and trout. Here’s how we can keep the legacy of Ramsay and Lafontaine alive through stealth for steelhead and trout.
STOP AND WATCH
We all get in a rush to keep our flies in the water as long as possible. What usually happens is we spook lots of fish that we never even see. Two main negatives come from this: 1) you don’t catch the fish and 2) you don’t get the sight fishing experience you could have had. In places like New Zealand or saltwater flats fishing in general, sight fishing is a huge part of the experience. For all of the best nymphing anglers I have known, sight fishing became a huge part of the fishing experience years ago. In fact, the biggest fish in the river got that way by being able to detect danger first. A thousand anglers tromping through the same spots condition fish really fast. There is far too much to cover when it comes to spotting fish to be discussed here, but for the best information in one place, Landon Mayer’s first six chapters in Sight Fishing for Trout* are dedicated to this very topic. If you find yourself very rarely stopping and watching through the day, you’re missing out.
LIMIT WADING AND BE A HERON
Fish have a very sensitive lateral line. It is responsible for detecting the smallest changes in the water. It enables fish to find prey and detect danger. Once you step into the fish’s world, they can detect your presence very soon by seeing your body in the water, but also by feeling the wake you are pushing with your feet, legs, or body. Just watch the water any time you wade. Just as you can hear a deer moving through the brush, fish can feel you coming. It’s always best, when possible not to even enter the water. Fish can still feel vibrations from the shore, but at least you are not sending them a memo that you’re there. If you have to wade, then be the heron. Lift your feet completely out of the water and dip them back in quietly. It’s not just trout or steelhead that feel this wake of water, it’s more or less every species that swims. In the same book mentioned above, Chico Fernandez tells the story of how a guide and his son had to remove their shoes and do the heron walk through the water to sneak up on Exuma bonefish. Chico watched until his son had landed his third bonefish before he was ready to “look silly” with this walk. On that day, it made all the difference, and it often is the difference with steelhead and trout. There are plenty of situations where you don’t have to wade like this, like when the fish are far enough away or used to commotion in the water etc., but the rule still applies that you stay out of the water as much as possible and then wade like a heron when approaching fish or likely holding water. Only if you want to catch more fish though.
MOVEMENT, SOUND, AND BLENDING IN
Movement is one of the worst offenders when it comes to spooking fish. In some situations, you don’t really have to worry about this as much, but really only with heavily conditioned fish. Even in these fisheries, you still need to limit your movements and make them as fluid as possible. If you’re skeptical at how well fish can see out of the water, take a look at the video below. It shows brown trout catching damselflies out of the air. Sharp movements alert fish; that is certain. Color and flash on the other hand are a little more debated. It may be difficult to eliminate all flash on your body, and it’s safe to say that we don’t want to look like a disco ball, but removing glare is a little more a faith thing, since it’s impossible to know what a spooked fish saw. Color seems a little more intuitive, in that blaze orange is much easier to fix on than tans, greys, and greens (when in vegetation that is), so I go for the more natural approach myself and so did Ramsey and Lafontaine. Also, don’t underestimate sound. Sound travels much faster and farther in water than it does through air. So feel free to smack rocks and clomp around in the boat if you want to alert fish to your presence. There is a reason many of the guides in Mexico don’t wear shoes while guiding. Just wear some clunky boots in the boot and listen to the sound difference. Many snook and tarpon have been spooked by sounds coming from the boat, but the same thing goes for trout and steelhead.
There is a reason, hundred-pound tarpon or large carnivorous browns swim for cover when a three inch baitfish swims right at them; it doesn’t happen in nature. So, if fish see line waking across the surface, see droplets come raining down, or feel our line ripping off of the water, then you’re limiting your success on the water for a bunch of reasons. I’ll highlight two: 1) you’re alerting fish to your movements and actions, and 2) you’re distracting them from feeding or relaxing (see more below). In general, be smart about how you’re presenting at every stage: casting to, mending, taking line out of the water, and presenting unnaturally over or on top of the fish.
SQUAT AND HIDE
Using what is on the bank is a fantastic way to blend in with the natural surroundings. Use whatever you can to make yourself a part of the fish’s surroundings. That includes a rock, tree, bush, or even a lamp post, which I use all the time fishing for urban carp, both to spot and cast, without alerting them as much to my presence. Fish roll with the punches, so don’t make it harder than it has to be.
One of the most important aspects of stealth, in my experience, is staying low. Use what you need in order to stay comfortable like a chair or bit of padding. This is such a natural part of my fishing, since I grew up hunting with my family, although I don’t hunt anything but fish these days. In hunting, anything tall sticks out like a sore thumb. You don’t stand straight up in a goose field and expect that flock of geese to fly to you as if you’re some modern version of a Disney princess. With respect to my own low-profile, it’s probably comical to people watching me. At times, I roll around on the banks, trying to move fast enough to intercept fish while maintaining a low profile. Even this doesn’t always work, and educated fish will react to unnatural objects even if they are low to the ground. I remember army crawling to try and cast to a forty-pound grass carp. I was quite close, dead still, and looking right at the fish. It stopped its natural movements and, I swear, looked right into my eyes. It gave one huge swipe with its huge tail and was gone forever.
I have done this so much with Great Lakes steelhead that I now plan on doing it on most fishing spots with clear water and small to medium streams, especially when the water has little current. What’s amazing is that very few Great Lakes anglers ever do this. Many tromp right up to the fish and commence flailing away. Sometimes you can still catch fish like this amazingly, but at other times you won’t catch crap, to be blunt. As a prime example, steelhead will commonly move into the tails of runs and flats when they are happy and active. When they are spooked they will flee to cover or the depths. On one trip, there was a group of about a dozen steelhead sitting in the tailout of a run. When anyone would approach these fish, they would bolt into the deep water. I sat down and let the fish come out of the hole and then slowly move back to the tailout. I was probably fifteen feet away from these fish in very shallow water. I commenced to catch five to six steelhead out of the group, just by staying low and relaxing the fish. As I fished here, typical crowding Great Lakes steelhead anglers would move in and stand straight up. The fish would move into the deep water, and they would catch nothing. I would just take pictures or chill out, still sitting, as they haplessly flogged the water. They would leave and I would catch a couple more fish. This is just one example of hundreds in which keeping a low profile was hugely important for me. I’m no Lefty Kreh, but staying low has increased my catch rates dramatically in my twenty-five years of fly fishing.
RELAX THE FISH (HARRY RAMSAY’S SECRET)
Relaxing the fish was Harry Ramsay’s secret commandment, and it has been amazingly true for me in all situations for trout and steelhead. Lafontaine found that a minimum of seven minutes was required to calm fish down enough for them to become receptive again after being disturbed. This will vary with your water, since some fisheries condition fish to ignore humans more often and to even use them, such as with the San Juan shuffle, where fish pick up the nymphs stirred up by anglers walking. The idea is to relax the fish by blending in with the natural surroundings and movements of the fish’s environment. If you’re in a place long enough and you don’t affect the fish, the fish relaxes and will begin to feed normally. You can get very close to fish if you blend in and let them get used to your figure and position. It’s better to just stay out of the sight of fish as much as possible, but relaxing fish can be so effective that you can even catch multiple fish from the same place if you continue to relax the fish. Couple this with keeping a low profile, and you will see a dramatic increase of fish, even if you’re a wizard nympher.
These ideas were around well before Ramsay and Lafontaine, but they are so fundamental and still neglected that it’s always good to keep them on the brain. I get lazy, and so do plenty of the anglers I’ve fished with over the years. Many of them are plenty skilled to still catch a boatload of fish even when not following these guidelines. However, like with Chico Fernandez or Gary Lafontaine and the newbie Tad, angling adaptation comes in the form of time-honored fundamentals once forgotten. Now, put on your ninja outfit, ballerina tutu, or both and take your stealth to the next level. If nothing else, you can supply your fellow anglers with a bit of entertainment! Feel free to share your experiences with stealthy fly fishing below in the comments.
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