How to catch smart trout

A pinpoint 40ft cast (with a wooly bugger) was needed to tempt this midge obsessed trout.

Smart trout don’t exist. Trout are not smart. Smart trout are a myth. Smart trout are a myth made up by anglers trying to explain away how we get beaten by an animal with the brain the size of a pea time and time again. Trout are not smart. Calculus will always be well beyond their mental capacity. This does not mean they are not worthy adversaries.

I get out-smarted by trout all the time.

Trout are not smarter than I am. I don’t think I’m blowing my own trumpet too much by saying I am a lot smarter than a trout. A LOT smarter. Trout are not smart.

I get out-smarted by trout all the time.

Trout are not worthy adversaries because they are smart. Their brain power of a trout is completely unimportant. Trout are worthy adversaries because they have been honed by millions of years of evolution to survive. This has given them a set of heightened senses and innate behaviours that mean as anglers we often have to be at the absolute top of our games to fool them. Our adversary is not the dumb trout, our adversary is the millions of years of evolution that has allowed trout to survive and thrive, that has sharpened their senses, honed their innate behaviours and survival instincts. Those things allow them to avoid predation and threats, to distinguish twigs and other debris from food. To survive.

I get out-smarted by trout all the time.

Trout can also learn. The myth that goldfish have a four second memory has long since been dispelled. Goldfish learn. So do trout. To survive trout need to learn to avoid unpleasant experiences, unpleasant experiences like being hooked in the mouth by anglers, unpleasant experiences are a threat to the trouts survival. Trout that have experienced the threat of the angler many times will indeed be very hard to tempt. They will have learnt that people, fly line and strangely drifting insects are threats. They will be tuned into those threats, they will notice them and they will seek safety. Those are smart trout. They are not really smart, they have small brains and could never hope to read Dickens. They can still be very hard to catch.

I get outsmarted by trout all the time.

Unlike trout, I am not perfectly adapted to the environment of the stream. I do not instinctively read currents. I do not instinctively know exactly where the best lie in the stream is. I do not instantly recognise a floating mayfly. I do not instinctively recognise a healthy mayfly from a cripple. I have to constantly learn and acquire those skills. There will always be more to learn. The stream holds many many lifetimes of lessons within it. Unlike the trout these skills aren’t built into me. I have to learn each one. I am able to do so because, compared to a trout, I am smart. I am a lot smarter than a trout, I can begin to understand the environment of the trout, even though it is not my realm. Sometimes I can understand it well enough to fool these fish perfectly adapted to inhabit that realm. But I am not a trout, I am not born with those skills, I have to learn them.

I get outsmarted by trout all the time.

Generally the hardest trout to tempt will be the big old trout in waters that are regularly fished. They will have seen many anglers, they will have learnt many lessons. They will have learnt to associate you and any sign of you as danger. To fool those fish can be very difficult. To fool the old wise trout you need to have a plan of attack. Without a plan, pitted against millions of years of evolution, well honed survival instincts and a learnt aversion to being caught, our big brains can be made to feel tiny and insignificant by a creature with the brain the size of a pea. It wont matter that you are a lot smarter than a trout. The trout will win.

I get outsmarted by trout all the time.

The best way to fool smart trout is to have a plan. You might fool one fishing without a plan, but it wont happen regularly. To fool smart trout regularly you have to have a plan. Smart trout will have the best real estate in the stream. Close to cover and safety. At the very least you have to focus your attentions on the areas where those trout are likely to spend most of their time. Fishing big streamers close to undercut banks, log jams and the like sometimes works. Big meals can be hard to pass up, even for smart trout.

By far the best way to fool a smart trout is to spot them first. Once you have spotted the trout find a safe place to watch. Watch the trout. Don’t cast, just watch. Observe whats around you, the insects popping off the water or floating by. Observe the currents. Observe the stream side vegetation. Observe the trouts behaviour. Is the trout feeding? If it is what is it feeding on? Is it feeding on the surface, just below the surface or is it down deep munching on nymphs? Once you have an idea of what it might be feeding on, or at least which part of the water column it is feeding in, its time to tie on a fly. To chose which fly to tie on make your best guess at what it might be eating by using the information garnered watching the trout and its surroundings. Often you don’t need to exactly match what the trout is feeding on. You only need to get close enough. Trout, even very smart trout, are normally opportunistic feeders. Unless there is a hatch and they are fixated on one particular insect or stage of one particular insect, close enough is usually good enough. As long as you get the rest right.

Now you have a fly its time to make the approach. Its time to get the rest right. Once again observe the trout, observe the currents. Think hard about them. Think about where the best possible place to make your presentation is. Think about the cast you will throw. Think about the back cast. Think about drag and how you will avoid it. You might need to utilise a reach mend or some well place slack line in the system to get a good drag free drift. Formulate a plan of how and where you will cast and how you will fight the fish if you are lucky enough to tempt it. Once you have a plan move to the position you have chosen to make your presentation. Do it stealthily. If you give even the slightest hint of your presence the game is over.

You are now in position. Hopefully you didn’t spook the trout. You have a fly that you think will work. Its time to make your cast. Execute the plan you came up with to the best of your abilities. Make your first cast count. Short is better than long, erring on the side with fast water better than slow. If it all worked out, your cast was good, you avoided drag, the trout then ate your fly and your plan for fighting the fish worked (or you got lucky). You have now caught a smart trout. Congratulations. Its nice when you execute a plan and it all comes together on the first cast. It doesn’t happen all the time though.

If the trout sees your fly but refuses it and then goes back to feeding, you’ve done everything right. You would have caught that trout if it had thought your fly was food. It didn’t. Congratulations anyway, you fished well. Change flies. The new fly might be the right fly, maybe this time you will get lucky.

If the trout sees your offering and spooks or stops feeding you alerted the fish of the danger. Your fly probably dragged at the wrong time. Maybe it was something else. If it spooked find another one. If it only stopped feeding wait for the trout to start feeding again or at least until you get bored before you make another cast. While you are waiting, change your fly, lengthen your tippet, think more about the currents, how you will avoid drag and where you might need slack. Once the trout is ready, try your new plan. Maybe this time you will fool the trout. If you fail, so be it, you probably learned some valuable lessons. Fooling smart trout can be hard. You will be outsmarted by them regularly. With enough practice though, you will eventually start to fool smart trout.

Even though trout are not smart, I get outsmarted by trout. Not all the time though, sometimes I fool them.

Carp on the other hand, carp ARE smart. I get outsmarted by carp all the time.

Cheers

Hamish

Note: Just after I finished writing this I read this article about fish intelligence and how smart Archer fish are. Maybe I was a little harsh on the trout.

flickandflyjournal.com

Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

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