On the Fly: Seeing and understanding fish behavior is an art

Scott Spooner
On the Fly
Roaring Fork River rainbow trout.
Shannon Outing Photography/Courtesy photo

If we boil it down, there are two ways to approach fishing the rivers here in the Valley. The first approach is known as “fishing the water” and the other style is called “sight fishing.” 

Fishing the water simply means searching likely holding areas with the appropriate flies, assuming there are trout in those spots.  Sight fishing is the art of seeing a particular fish and presenting your flies to it.  For most of us, when we can, sight fishing is particularly thrilling.

We don’t always have the opportunity to sight fish, especially during non-hatch periods. This is the case most of the time right now, especially on the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers. The fish in these bigger rivers tend to pile up in the deep runs and pools in fall and winter; primarily because of oxygen content, food resources, and especially to escape from predators such as eagles and blue herons. Hatches will draw these fish out, and they start transitioning to pocket water and shallow riffles as hatches intensify.

The key to sight fishing with success depends on a few factors. Up first is a quality pair of polarized lenses, if not two pairs for different light conditions. Polarized glasses take away surface glare on the water and allow your eyes to pierce through this glare and down into the trout’s habitat. I never look for an entire fish, usually what alerts me to the fish is an outline, a fin, or even the shadow on the bottom of the river. Rising fish can be “sighted” as well, and if you pay attention, you will notice a feeding pattern that results in the fish breaching the surface every 10 or 20 seconds for example. Simply count down and present that dry fly.

Sight fishing is fun because we are choosing which fish to cast at, and yes, it is usually the biggest fish in the run. Sight fishing also gives you specific information. Some fish simply aren’t eating at all, others are focused on emergers stuck beneath the surface film, or adults poised for takeoff. What we choose to do with this information can make or break our day on the water.

This report is provided every week by Taylor Creek Fly Shops in Aspen and Basalt. Taylor Creek can be reached at 970-927-4374 or

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