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Reading the Water

By Nick Curcione


In my younger years when I did a lot of tuna and bill fishing in Southern California and Baja the standard directive issued to someone who was about to pull lookout duty on the boat’s tuna tower was “keep your eyeballs on.” That’s sound advice anytime you go fishing but staying on the alert for fish activity involves much more than simply keeping a sharp eye. You have to know what to look for and how to look.

It’s part of a process referred to as ‘reading the water’ and similar to the dedication involved in becoming proficient with one’s tackle, learning to interpret the vast array of signs nature presents us takes repeated practice and experience. In what follows I will deal primarily with the marine environment, but much of this applies equally as well to the freshwater realm.

In terms of ‘how to look,’ the first consideration is appropriate eyewear. For safety’s sake I always advise novice fly fishers to wear glasses when casting or fishing even if they aren’t needed to improve vision. You need to protect your eyes. Polarized glasses will shield your eyes from flying objects as well as the sun’s harmful rays but they serve an additional function for fly fishers because they cut through surface glare and make it possible to more clearly distinguish objects in the water. If you’ve never experienced this before try looking into the water with a pair of non-polarized glasses, and then do the same with a pair of polarized lenses. You will be amazed at the difference. If you are the least bit serious about fishing, polarized lenses are a must. Be advised however that one particular shade or tint will not satisfy all conditions. If you have to limit yourself to one pair try to select a color that is best suited to the type of fishing you do most.


A good pair of polorized glasses can help spot even the stealthiest of species, like this Hawaiian bonefish.


Blitz! Wherever you find concentrations of bait, there are inevitably schools of larger predator game fish ready to dine on them.

If you spend considerable time fishing clear, shallow water flats, amber tinted lenses are the way to go. But as I was advised by one of the representatives from Typhoon Polarized Optics, be aware of the fact that different manufacturers label what I am referring to as amber with a variety of different designations such as brown, tan, and even bronze. What these tints all have in common is that they enhance contrast and make it easier to see fish in shallow water. Bonefish are a classic example. They have a bluish tint and the amber lens blocks the blue wavelength giving it more contrast against the bottom background. Of course, all flats are not the same and you should try and choose lenses that accommodate these different conditions. For example, I’ve found that a pair of glasses I used in areas like the Bahamas with broad expanses of sandy bottom were not ideal for spotting bonefish on Hawaiian flats where there is a lot of coral and sea grass. I recently changed to a pair of amber lenses that have a brownish tint and now it’s much easier to distinguish these ‘ghosts of the flats’ when I fish the Aloha State. In deeper water like the offshore grounds where the bottom is not visible you typically are not sight fishing trying to pick out individual fish. In this respect, compared to the flats the situation is not quite as complex and you can generally expect optimum visibility in open water with grey or blue tint polarized glasses. In both locales wear a hat with a dark under brim in conjunction with the glasses and you’ll see even better. Since polarization does not provide optimum visibility at every angle, regardless of the color you choose one useful trick when you’re having difficulty discerning a particular object or form is to tilt your head slightly to one side. This helps alter the polarization and can provide a clearer picture of what you are looking at.

Whether you’re on the flats or fishing the deep blue open ocean, you want to train yourself to scan the water in a methodical pattern. The strategy is similar to that used by rescue operations on search missions. If you glue your eyes to one spot or randomly gaze at the surroundings in a haphazard fashion you are likely to miss a lot. The fish themselves or various signs that may indicate their presence are likely to go unnoticed. To minimize this possibility begin your search close to the boat or wherever you may be standing. Then at approximately 30-foot intervals start looking further and further out to just about the limit of your vision. Once you reach this point start the process all over again.

If you are in shallow water and can clearly see the bottom that is what you want to try and focus on. With the possible exception of barracuda, most game fish are constantly swimming and any movement above the bottom can usually be easily detected. If there is only a couple of feet of water you’ll also have to be alert for surface signs like small wakes and fins protruding from the water. These provide some of the most exciting moments on the flats and you have to learn to deliver the fly quickly and on target. One of my favorite lines for these conditions is the OutBound Short floater. The front taper is designed for quick presentations with a minimum of false casts. The name of the game here is speed and accuracy.

In deeper water most of your searching efforts will be directed at the surface. Aside from the fish themselves, perhaps the most telltale sign to be alert for are sea birds like frigates, terns, jaegers, sea gulls, and pelicans. One of the laws of nature is that life form follows life form, and birds foraging and diving on the surface are typically sure signs that they are feeding on bait. And wherever you find concentrations of bait, there are inevitably schools of larger predator game fish ready to dine on them. If you are fortunate enough to experience it, you’ll agree that the sight of large pods of baitfish being pursued by the birds above and the fish below is an event that can blow your emotional circuits. Other signs may be less dramatic but do not underestimate their importance. Any type of unusual surface disturbance can be a tip off that fish may be in the area. For example, bait may reveal themselves by means of small wavelets or ripples on the surface. This is often referred to as “nervous water.” Color changes can indicate temperature breaks and fish like tuna are known to congregate near the edges where these changes occur. Any type of floating surface structure is worth looking at because in open expanses of water they often serve as havens for a variety of bait that attract larger predators. I’ve experienced some incredible offshore action on species like yellowtail and Dorado that were congregating under kelp patties not much larger than a doormat.

In open water when you’re casting to general areas you think might hold fish the object is to cover as much water as possible and long probing casts are generally the order of the day. This is where the RIO Shooting Heads and integrated lines like the OutBound come into their own. For most open water and offshore applications I generally opt for fast sinking lines. Most of the action is down in the water column but even under those circumstances where fish are breaking the surface, commencing the retrieve immediately after the fly hits the water at the conclusion of the forward cast will normally have your offering tracking through the fish’s feeding zone.

Occasionally shore bound anglers witness dramatic scenes like diving birds and breaking fish but more often than not the signs of the surf tend to be far subtler. Reading the water in this environment is primarily based on learning to interpret wave action. The way waves behave as they roll into shore serve as an indication of what the bottom is like. Waves tend to break or crash over shallow areas whereas they roll over deeper cuts or troughs in the bottom. Therefore if you observe what looks like a relatively flat spot in the surf with waves crashing on either side, you are most likely looking at a patch of deeper water that is rolling over a depression in the bottom. In most cases this is a prime spot to fish because a variety of small creatures ranging from crabs and worms to diminutive baitfish are swept into the calmer water of deep pockets and larger predators establish feeding stations along the edges.

To the untrained eye one stretch of water may look pretty much the same as any other. However, with a little practice you’ll begin to see that this is not the case. You will also begin to experience a significant improvement in your hookup ratio vs. the time you spend on the water.