Catching fish isn’t just about knowing which fly to use. Before you even make a cast, it’s important to make sure you haven’t scared all the fish away.

Granted, this is easier said than done, and is sometimes out of your control. Trying to stay under the radar on a glassy spring creek is, by default, going to be harder than on a turbulent, tumbling mountain stream.

Regardless of where you’re fishing or what you’re targeting, there are a few good rules of thumb to follow in order to stay undetected by your quarry.

Photo: Kiyoshi Nakagawa
  1. Discreet Indicators

If you’re nymphing, one of the easiest ways to scare off every fish in sight is to use a giant, obvious indicator. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to work around this. First is to just skip the indicator altogether. While tightline nymphing isn’t suited for all rivers and runs, if you can get away with it, it’s a great way to keep fish from catching onto you. 

If you really do need some form of indicator for your style or location, there are still ways to be discreet. One of the best options is a dry-dropper setup. Not only is the dry fly less intrusive than a traditional indicator, it also gives you the chance to catch a fish on the surface. This is one of the best setups for stealthy nymphing.

Still, it might sometimes be advantageous to use a regular indicator. If the water is rough enough that keeping a dry fly on the surface is difficult, a dry-dropper will get annoying pretty quickly. In this case, choose the smallest, lightest, or least colorful indicator you can still see while fishing. Yarn ones work great, but if you really want to use the standard plastic bubble style, try to keep it small and either clear or white.

Photo: Kiyoshi Nakagawa
  1. Work upstream

This doesn’t really apply if you’re swinging wet flies or streamers, where walking downstream is beneficial but is great for standard dry fly or nymph rigs. 

Since fish tend to face upstream, both to get water over their gills and to catch morsels of food, you’re much less likely to be spotted from downstream. If you move upstream as you fish, you’ll always be downstream of the fishing you’re targeting, and the fish will see your fly before they see you.

Additionally, working upstream prevents gravel, dirt, debris, and ripples from being sent downstream right toward the fish. If you’re downstream from the run you’re fishing, anything you kick up will be sent back into the areas you’ve already hit, leaving clear and unobstructed water where you’re casting.

  1. Avoid Excessive False Casting

Casting is one of the most fun aspects of fly fishing, and it’s tempting to fancy yourself a shadow-caster after seeing A River Runs Through It. So, it’s often a bummer to find out that in reality, you should be casting as little as possible while still getting your fly to its destination.

Excessive casting causes all sorts of problems. Apart from risking a line tangle every time you bring the line forward or back, keeping your line in the air too long gives fish the opportunity to notice that something’s up.

Fish may directly spot the line, notice the line’s shadow, or see the fly occasionally tapping the water if you bring your cast too low. All these things will clue them in and may cause them to stop feeding. Additionally, every time you cast a little more line out, there’s a chance you’ll fumble the cast and end up with coils of fly line floating over your target. If you can keep most casts to just one or two strokes, you’re much more likely to keep the line under control and the fish unaware of your presence.

  1. Watch Your Shadow

While many people focus on avoiding bright colors, which isn’t a bad idea by any means, keeping track of your shadow may be more important and easier to forget.

Bright colors may scare fish, but they need to look up and see you directly to notice them. On the other hand, shadows that block the light the whole way down the water column will alert fish regardless of where they’re looking.

You probably won’t be able to manage your shadow all the time, since sometimes there’s only one good way to access a particular run. But, if you have the chance to lay low with the sun in your face, you should take advantage of casting your shadow behind you instead of right onto the fish.

Photo: Nolan Dahlberg
  1. Practice Good Mending

In an ideal world, your fly would land softly and always flow at the current’s speed. Unfortunately, this rarely happens.

Rivers have lots of small currents and seams, and a fly frequently lands across multiple different water speeds. Because of this, mending is a fact of life, especially for dry fly fishermen.

Although you may not be able to control whether mending is necessary, you can control how you mend. Practice makes perfect, and that’s probably the best way to make your mending more subtle. A sloppy mend not only leads to repetitive corrective mending, but also means your line is probably slapping the water and worse, your fly is dancing all over the place.

By practicing your on-the-water mending, or learning to get your line in a good position before it even hits the water, you can make sure fish have no idea you’re there.

  1. Be Slow and Smooth

Maybe the most common sense, but also ignored, piece of advice for stealthy fishing is to simply be more stealthy. This means walking, casting, and moving your body slowly and smoothly.

Fish are constantly on the lookout for predators, and fishermen are included in that group.

Moving quickly or sharply will be a dead giveaway that you’re there, and most of the time isn’t necessary. You may be tempted to aggressively trudge upstream toward your next run to get first dibs, but if you take your time, you’re more likely to actually find fish once you get there.

In addition to being seen while moving, if you’re walking quickly and without care, you’ll probably be making a ton of noise as well. While opinions differ on whether talking and other above-water noises scare fish, banging rocks around while you walk is sure to alert them to your presence. When in doubt, slow down. 

This article was developed by Flylords’ content team member, Katie Burgert.

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