From the poling platform I spotted the dark shapes—five or six of them—milling over light-colored bottom.
“OK Dad,” I said, “I’ve got a group straight ahead, 90 feet.”
I poled the skiff quietly, keeping my eyes on the black backs of the tarpon. They resembled suspended logs, except that every once in a while one would tail-kick or turn in a slow, daisy chaining pattern. Otherwise they hovered in place, motionless and unaware of our approach.
“Got ‘em,” he confirmed. I poled to about 60 feet away.
“Whenever you’re ready, go for it,” I whispered.
Dad made the cast, landing the crab a few feet from a pair of tarpon. One of the fish rose, sucked in the crab, then turned to rejoin the group. It all unfolded as if in slow motion: I could see my father’s braided line tighten and he set the hook with a sharp, sideways rod sweep.
“Got her!” he shouted.
Thirty minutes later, the 80-pound ‘poon chewed through our leader boat-side, but not before a few gill-rattling leaps and a blistering run that nearly emptied my father’s spool. We were not disappointed.
Sight fishing is the ultimate fish hunting experience. Forget about waiting for the fish to come to you. Anglers who are proficient at spotting fish can go find them. Many people associate sight fishing with saltwater flats, but any fish that lurks in relatively clear, relatively shallow water is susceptible to sight-fishing techniques at certain times each season—you just have to know what to look for.
Light & Lenses
Sunlight is crucial. High sun penetrates water and gives the angler the best opportunity to spot his or her quarry. Clouds—especially high wispy ones—create the surface glare that makes it harder to see through water of any clarity. That said, spotting a snook or a bass suspended over sand is possible on cloudy days, you just have much less range of vision.
The magic window for sight fishing typically occurs from 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. or so. Before and after that window, angled light creates glare and a mirroring effect; you’ll still see surface disturbances that indicate a fish’s presence, but don’t expect to see well into the water. The same general window applies to freshwater sight fishing.
Plan your route. Whenever possible, you want to keep the sun at your back. In the morning, you’re best off working your way in a westerly direction, and after the sun passes its zenith, you might want to double back and try heading toward the east. This isn’t always a possibility, but having the sun behind you can greatly improve your vision. But at the same time, be cautious about casting your shadow near the fish you’re trying to catch.
You won’t see much of anything without polarized sunglasses. There are many options out there, but I prefer amber or brown lenses for fishing the tropics, and they’ve served me well stalking bass, pike, and muskie, too. An investment in quality polarized lenses is an investment in your angling future—the more you see, the more you learn and catch.
Elevation & Movement
The higher you are above the surface, the steeper the angle between you and the fish, and the better you’ll see into the water. An angler sitting in a kayak sees less than one standing in a canoe, who sees less than one standing atop a skiff, who sees less than one on a poling platform—you get the idea.
Standing in a canoe can be tricky or downright dangerous in current or wave action, but most large canoes are stable enough for sight fishing in calm conditions. Keep your feet spread wide and slightly bend your knees. Think of it as getting your freshwater sea legs. It’s best to fish this way with a buddy system—a paddler in the stern positions the canoe so the angler in the bow can scan and take shots at fish. If you have access to one, fishing kayaks are often more stable and some are even designed to allow anglers to stand. Both kayaks and canoes draft next to nothing and allow you to explore backwater shallows that motorboats don’t dare enter.
Trout anglers have leveraged elevation for as long as people have been fishing for trout. Find a big rock or high bank from which to scan the water, particularly in spring creeks or other gin-clear waterways, and look down for feeding browns or rainbows. Not only is this pastime an effective way to find and catch trout, it’s also a crash-course on fish behavior. Watch and learn.
Another thing to remember: fish, particularly large ones, are especially spooky in shallow water. They might feel exposed or vulnerable to predators like birds of prey. On sunny days, anglers are not the only ones who can see well into the water. Since fish are evolutionarily wired for immediate flight, it’s important to move slowly when sight fishing—quick, jerky movements will send them bolting for the depths. Duck down to make your cast, and minimize false-casts when chucking flies.
Large northern pike and muskie are particularly spooky in shallow water. Their lateral lines sense disturbances they can’t even see. Don’t expect to motor into a shallow cove and find fish—that’s why canoes, kayaks, low-profile bass boats, and skiffs with push poles are so effective. Stealth is key when sight fishing the shallows. If a fish sees or senses you first, it’s game over.
What to Look For
Don’t look for the whole fish. Look for pieces. When I started sight-fishing for tarpon about 15 years ago, I had no idea what I was looking for. I figured the fish would be obvious—how could a 6-foot creature blend in? Fishing the ocean, I’d see strings of 20 to 50 fish approaching over sand-pocked bottom and there was no doubt about it. But over the backcountry grass flats, fish blended in—I was amazed how quickly a 100-pound fish could disappear. When scanning for suspended or laid-up tarpon, I expected the entire fish to materialize. Instead, I learned to look for a fin, or a tail, or a glowing coloration that didn’t match its surroundings. Similarly, when fishing snook in muddy waters around Flamingo, I learned to look for their black lateral line rather than the entire fish. For silvery wraiths like bonefish, permit, and even steelhead, it is sometimes easier to spot the fish’s shadow than the reflective body itself.
Sometimes bass or pike will materialize—they’re just there all of a sudden, finning or sliding over a sandy strip. But more often than not I’ll see a piece of a fish—the eye or tail or back, rather than spotting the body in its entirety.
This is especially important when fishing in current. Moving water will often obscure your vision, and you’ll have very little chance at seeing a whole fish. The upside to current, however, is that fish have to move to stay in place. Trout anglers who sight-fish often will usually tell you that they spot the waving tail first.
Focus on spots where a fish will stand out. When bass fishing, I target sandy banks or stream mouths with silty deposits. Post-spawn bass often cruise these spots looking for baitfish. Gravel bars are also prime areas to surprise unsuspecting gamefish. In rivers and streams, focus on patches of sand or light-colored gravel.
Sight Fishing Seasons
Spring and early summer are prime times to sight-fish in many places. Florida’s flats are famously prime in the spring, as that’s when tarpon migrate through that area, but that same window can be excellent all over the country. May through mid-June in my neck of the woods, trout, smallies, and pike cruise shallow, warmer areas and sometimes suspend in the sun. Post-spawn bass often hang on mud flats or over rock piles in 2 to 5 feet of water—perfect sight-fishing targets for fly or spin fishermen.
Summer brings the longest days with the best light, but as water warms, many fish seek cooler deeper water. That said, sight fishing is not out of the question in summer, you just have to find places and species that allow sight fishing, so either find fish that tolerate heat or water that remains cool. Bass can be a good option. Largemouth blend in well over weedy bottoms, but I’ve spotted them plenty of times as they cruise the shallows, pushing water or scattering baitfish in the mornings and evenings.
Though less common, late fall and early winter can offer sight-fishing opportunities. Bonefish the world over can be good this time of year, as can permit. Trout will feed in very shallow, slow water this time of year and offer great sight fishing in the right conditions. I’ve sight-cast to and caught pike in less than a foot of water as late as December. These fish were likely warming in the sun and I’d never have noticed them if I hadn’t been intentional in my searching.
Let’s face it: watching a big fish crush your fly or lure is about as cool as it gets. Finding a fish is only half the battle—now you have to feed it. Where should you cast? How close to the fish? What type of action should you impart? Each fish reacts differently, but there are some basic rules to follow.
First, once you find a target, it’s important to identify head from tail. “They don’t eat with that end,” my guide buddy said once, when I cast behind a tarpon.
Bait doesn’t fall from the sky onto the flats. Throw a plug on top of a tarpon and you’ll send it into the next zip code. That said, food does fall out of trees, or off logs, in places bass, muskie, and pike inhabit. I’ve thrown floating Rapalas and frog flies right on top of largemouth suspended beneath trees. On more than one occasion they ate my offering before I even moved it.
If a fish is suspended or laid-up (meaning it’s just chilling, not actively feeding or moving), land your offering a few feet away rather than plunking it on the head. With moving fish, give it a longer lead—as far in front as you can while still getting in the path of travel. Don’t risk spooking a fish with the splash if you can possibly help it. Some predatory fish like pike will respond positively to a splash in certain conditions, but sneakier ones like trout and snook will often bust if you slap your presentation down too close. Flies land generally land softer than lures, which is why many flats anglers choose that method.
Slow Down and Commit
A wise hunting axiom says, “It’s not how much country you hunt, it’s how well you hunt the country.” Same goes for sight fishing. If you rush, you will inevitably spook fish and blow shots. Learning to spot fish is no different than learning to spot distant game; you have to train your eyes, and that takes practice. If you want to get good at hunting fish, dedicate a certain percentage of days to that. Tell yourself before you hit the water that you will only cast to fish you can see (or think you can see). Select places you think offer a good chance to find fish and scan those places meticulously. Eventually, you will start to see them.
The most satisfying component of sight fishing is feeding a fish that might not otherwise eat. By watching the fish’s body language, the angler can manipulate his or her retrieve—speeding up a jerkbait in front of a trailing pike, dead-sinking a crayfish jig to a lurking smallie, or wiggling a streamer past a brown trout. It’s just like teasing a mouse with a string—you have to sell the charade.
If the fish seems interested, consider speeding up the retrieve to mimic fleeing food. If it’s losing interest, change it up—let the presentation flutter and fall or perform a different motion. The feedback response is immediate, so adapt accordingly. But always remember to wait for the fish’s mouth to close before you set the hook. It’s really easy to jump the gun.
Sight fishing is especially like hunting in that regard. The jitters hunters refer to as “buck fever” is often on full display among anglers too. It’s one thing to get excited by spotting a good bass in the lake by your house, but it’s a whole different beast when you’ve traveled a thousand miles and spent a thousand dollars and suddenly there’s the first muskie or tarpon you’ve ever laid eyes on. Even the best of us can fall to pieces.
Spend enough time sight fishing and you’ll learn what the fish want. Then, on cloudy days when you can’t stalk the shallows with your eyes, you’ll use this information to adjust your retrieve and catch more fish. Sight fishing may be the pinnacle of the angling experience when you can pull it off, and it informs your efforts when you can’t.
Feature image by Tim Romano.