Updated: Aug 28, 2019
Spotting trout when dry fly fishing raises the heart rate, amps up the dopamine, and dilates the pupils. It's why we play the game. It can also cause tunnel vision. We pick out a specific fish, stalk him, and present the fly as best we can. We focus on him so much that we miss what’s going on around us.
Often, the first fish we spot are the risers in the main current channels. Those trout however, are just a sliver of the willing takers. Several, and often the bigger fish, are holding close to the bank, feeding in the micro seams and back currents. So how do you pursue trout feeding close to the bank?
Dismiss the one rising in front of you
You must be able to see beyond what’s in your face. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking all the trout are holding in the main foam line. Why wouldn't they be? That’s where the food is, right? The truth is, there are many current seams within a stream that act as “conveyor belts” for food, regardless of the size of water you're fishing. Many of these smaller seams branch off of the main current and end up flowing along the bank. Don’t let the rising fish in front of you distract you from exploring further.
Spot them - think vertically instead of horizontally
Spotting trout along the banks is hard. The rises are subtle and often hidden by shadows and overhanging grass and vegetation. Work your way a few steps at a time and pause. Each change in position gives you a different sightline angle.
It’s best to watch for rises “vertically” instead of “horizontally” i.e. from either straight up or down instead of across stream. By looking straight up or down stream, you can see greater distances of bank side water, and your eyes notice surface disturbances easier because there isn't a cross current moving in front of you.
Stay low and in the water
The deeper a fish is holding, the further away it can see above the water’s surface. Bank risers are usually holding in 6 inches to 1 foot of water and are very limited on how far above the water they can see, so it’s possible to get within 15-20ft of them as long as you stay low. Stalking bank fish while wading in the water vs. on the bank lowers your profile considerably.
Shadows are your friend
Trout see contrast in outlines better than details. They don't care if it's a brown bear or a black bear on the bank, they just know that somethings not right and they need to take cover. Often times banks have shadows provided by nearby shrubs and trees, use them to break up your outline while moving. An angler’s arm swinging back and forth is very noticeable to trout, cast from the shadows if at all possible. Remember, different sections of the stream are shaded at different times of day. If you see a spot that looks promising but is in direct sunlight, make note of it and come back later.
Cast straight upstream
As with any casting situation, sometimes you only have one option, but all things being equal, approaching from below and casting straight up stream has more benefits than casting downstream. Water along the bank is often much softer than the rest of the stream, so any unnatural disturbance from your line, leader, or fly is magnified by the glassy surface. By casting upstream, you have the ability to let your line and fly get well past the fish before picking it up off the water.
Use a sidearm pile cast and keep the line away from the fish
Fly line waving back and forth over a fish’s head causes glare and shadows on the water which can put them down in a hurry. By turning the cast sideways, you can keep the moving line to the side of the trout’s view. It also helps to limit the number of false casts you make.
The same goes for drag. Skate at fly over a trout when he's holding in less than a foot of water and watch him vanish like smoke in the wind. By using a pile cast, plenty of slack is put into the end of the leader, allowing for an absolutely drag free drift while the fly is in the fish’s window.
Practice. Practice. Practice your pile cast. It's one of the toughest close range casts to perfect, but it's priceless in bank side situations.
Take extra caution to make sure your fly and line are far enough downstream of the fish before picking up for the next cast. If you typically use a leader shorter than 12 ft, adding enough 5-7x tippet to bring it to at least 12 ft can make a significant difference.
Net the fish towards you
If possible, bring the trout to you and keep your feet planted. The more movement you create close to the bank, the more likely the fish upstream of you will head for cover. Of course the hope is that he's so big you can't stop him from getting into the backing, but in the real world, try to net him from where you're standing.
To catch trout feeding along the bank, remember to:
Think vertical instead of horizontal
Stay in the water
Use the shadows
Use a sidearm pile cast
Keep your feet planted when netting
Take some time to explore the banks, you might be surprised to learn what's there!