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Tactics for Wary Trout

by Philip Monahan

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Question: I’ll be fishing some western spring creeks for the first time. I live in Maine, and I’ve never fished for really wary trout before. Do you have any tips?

M. Brill, Cumberland, ME

Wary Trout Fishing

M. Dilsiz photo

Answer: Those of us who live on the East Coast are not accustomed to fishing in very clear water for really spooky trout, especially ones we can see. When I first went out to Montana to guide, I was astonished by how different the fishing experience was when you could actually spot individual fish.

Your question calls to mind an excellent 5-step strategy devised by Bill Tapply, who sadly passed away last week. He was an extremely methodical angler who paid attention to all the details on the water, but he explained his approach very simply.

Step 1: Locate the Fish.
If you can spot a fish or see rises, this is simple. If there are no visible trout, you need to focus on the most likely holding water. Tapply notes that the largest, wariest fish often hold in places that are hardest to cast to or where it’s very difficult for an angler to get a good drift. This is no coincidence. Look for big trout in slower water, in shadows, and close to obstacles, such as weeds or wood.

Step 2: Approach with Stealth.
When you spot a good trout, your first impulse will be to cast to it immediately, before it disappears. Tapply argues that you must resist this temptation. Instead, study the lie, the river currents, the bankside vegetation, and the stream bottom to figure out the best place to cast from. You probably won’t get more than a couple shots at a spooky trout, so you want to ensure that you make the cast and drift as easy as possible. If you cast from too far away or across too many conflicting currents, your fly will most likely drag and scare the fish.

Once you’ve picked your spot, make your way to it very slowly. If possible, get out of the water and creep along the bank, keeping a low profile. Pay attention to where your shadow—and the shadow of your rod—fall on the water. Since most predators come from above, trout are acutely aware of shadows.

Step 3: Study the Fish.
Once you’re in position, don’t cast yet! First, take a few moments to interpret the trout’s behavior. Is it rising steadily? Is it sliding side-to-side to pick off nymphs in the drift? If it is rising, try to figure out what it is eating. If the trout’s nose never breaks the surface, he’s probably eating emergers, for instance.

Step 4: Tie on the Right Fly.
Contrary to common wisdom, Tapply says, even wary trout usually don’t require anexact imitation of what they’re eating. So make your best guess, based on what you see on the water or what you know is in season. If you get a refusal on the first drift, don’t assume that the fly is wrong; it may be that it dragged at the wrong moment. Only after you’ve made several good drifts, should you change your pattern. If you can’t figure out the “right” bug, try throwing an ant or a general attractor pattern.

Step 5: Make Your First Drift Count.
Even considering the above, your best opportunity to trick a trout is on the first cast, before he’s been put on notice that something is amiss. So before you cast, visualize where the fly will land and how it will drift toward the fish. Anticipate any line adjustments you’ll need to make. If you are positioned far enough downstream, you may be able to make a practice cast that lands below the fish; then you can see how the fly will act on the water. Once you think you’ve got everything figured out, try to make your first presentation the best one possible.

Although Tapply created this strategy to deal with wary trout, following these five steps wherever and whenever you fish will help you become a better angler. If you haven’t already read them, his books on fly fishing—A Fly Fishing Life, Bass Bug Fishing, Pocket Water, Gone Fishin’, and Trout Eyes—are full of great stories and plenty of great advice.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at You can email your fly fishing questions to us at
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  • tyler

    great advice

  • CS

    This is great stuff, and every sight-fishing trout angler should study it. I disagree with the contradictory advice in Step 4. The first two sentences of this are right on, but, I fish to tough brown trout every day all day long (in season) and I have learned: get close and make your first cast perfect. If the fish doesn’t take, then change the fly. It gets ONE LOOK ONLY at each fly. A second good cast of a refused pattern will put finicky fish down, and then that is it for that fish for that day. Make a mental note of where it is, move on, and come back tomorrow and do it right. The bigger and more experienced the trout is, the truer the “one cast only” rule is.

    • Chris Dore

      I find here in the south island of NZ, in gin clear water on wary browns if a trout doesnt eat your fly, put it back in front of him. Did he even see it? Remember, lets say you got it right (to the trout, not from the anglers viewpoint), and the placement, presentation, drift, depth (important one for nymphs) are all perfect. Your fly may then become one of a dozen or more food items within the trouts foraging area with that given time. Did he even notice it? Did it stand out from the crowd? On the gin waters of the upper mataura, where food is in major abundance and the trouts foraging range is wide, you sometimes have to present your fly 20+ times before it gets noticed / eaten.

      If he’s feeding on mayfly, and youre giving him a mayfly, why change? The trout doesnt know the difference between one small dark item and another. If it looks like food and behaves like food and he sees it, fish on!

      If a fish refuses a fly I believe it’s due mostly to the presentation / drag. Trout arent curious, they are efficient feeders. If they move towards your fly they want to eat it. If they refuse, then somethings happened in the drift of your fly by the time they get close to warn them.

      Putting the fly back out there often works: simply switch your presentation.

      My approach anyways


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  • Nymphermaniac

    Well written. You read my mind. A couple of other things I find important: 1. Don’t false cast anywhere close to your intended target.–Reflections off the rod can put the fish wary.
    2. Determine the feeding lane. Often, the biggie is lying on the bottom in a crevice, below the swiftest current, and any properly drifted scud #20 or smaller will get a take.

  • BH206L3

    Well written, I also live in the North East, a good set of sun glasses is a must, I been able to spot fish regularly here, you just have to know what you are looking at, and the fish can be just as spooky here as well, especially in the late summer and on into fall with low water conditions, The West Branch of the Farmington is a good example, wear dull cloths and keep the false casting to one or two, and don’t cast 60 feet when 15 will do, and make sure your leader turns over for the fly you have tied on, I spend most of my time looking a lot, since I learned this, I have very productive days, and not so sore from casting all day! Above all you have to be able to adapt!

  • jack

    good article !

  • Ron

    Experience is the best teacher, which obviously Tapply has. Thanks for the pertinent tips of how to catch Wary Trout. I agree the first cast is the most important one, once trout are spooked you won’t see again for hours. Practising your cast before hitting the stream helps a lot if you haven’t fished in a while. Tight Lines!