What I Know About Fishing, Part 1: Be Observant

What I Know About Fishing, Part 1: Be Observant

I have been asked by many people to put down on paper my knowledge of fishing. In my mind, there is a direct correlation between knowledge and experience. The keys there are to identify the experience and remember it for future use.

At the top of my list of things to do is to be observant. The number of times that my being observant has resulted in fish is literally countless. I’ll give you an example of what I think might be the first time I applied that theory.

Everything happens for a reason

It was the summer, and I was fishing with my father on the Assabet River in the Maynard/Stow area of Massachusetts. I was probably 13 years old at the time.

The Assabet was notorious for becoming carpeted with small algae that the locals referred to as duckweed. (The ducks did love it, by the way.) It would be so thick on the surface of the water that it would support the weight of many non-metal lures.

On this day, we were drifting downstream when I noticed a disturbed spot in the duckweed. Logic told me that it happened for a reason, and I assumed it was brought about by a fish. So I cast my recently purchased 6-inch black Creme plastic worm towards the spot. I was careful to cast slightly past it and bring it on top of the algae to the slightly open spot.

BOOM! A nice largemouth bass grabbed the worm. My father got so excited that I could not believe it. We landed the fish, which we kept to eat. After that, we caught a few more, but we missed more than we caught. The next time we went fishing, my dad had his own supply of plastic worms.

Later, I would apply the same principle to bait fish. My friends and I would go down to the river downtown with little pea-sized dough balls to catch shiners. We couldn’t keep them all alive so we would wrap them in tin foil and freeze them. Before we put them in the freezer, we would bend them into about a half moon shape. That way when we put a hook in the frozen shiner and cast it like a lure, they would spin on your retrieve. They worked in open water, but they worked best coming across the algae.

Stop and look

There are many obvious instances of being observant when it comes to fly fishing, but here is an unusual one. I was wading at Menemsha Beach on Martha’s Vineyard one fall day while fly fishing for bonito.

I was having no luck, despite knowing that I was casting a fly that was a perfect match to the small baitfish that we call “spearing” that were schooled right in front of me. The bonito were crashing within arm’s length of me, at times even splashing me. To say that I was frustrated was an understatement.

The next time a bonito crashed close to me, instead of casting at it, I simply observed exactly what was going on. A crash came, and I immediately noticed a dozen stunned spearing just quivering and slowing sinking from the shock of the strike. Suddenly, below the surface and out of anyone’s view, these flashing streaks darted in all directions and picked off every one of the stunned spearing. When the next explosion occurred in front of me, instead of retrieving my fly after casting, I simply left it there and twitched it a few times…BOOM! I was on!

Sometimes, things are not what they appear

Many times, early in my fly-fishing life, I would get frustrated by casting at rising fish and not getting a take. What I learned was a simple principle that applies to all forms of wildlife, “The less energy expended, the better.” In other words, “Take the easy way out.” Or, “Why kill yourself for a meal when you don’t have to?”

As it turns out, more often than not, those rising trout were not taking the already emerged dry flies, but rather the emerging ones. Those nymphs lay helpless in the surface film for several moments as they dry their wings. They are so easily picked off, like the spearing on Martha’s Vineyard, why not take the easy lunch?

Take it all in

Being observant can also mean exactly that, in that you want to take in all that is around you.

If for example you aren’t catching fish in your favorite bass pond, but you occasionally hear or see a large splash in the lily pads you can assume that the bass are looking on top for lunch, for something like frogs perhaps.

Trust your senses. If you thought that you heard a splash to your right, you no doubt did, and splashes don’t happen for no reason.

If you notice the slightest movement by a lily pad that seems out of place, you can bet that it is a fish, probably a big one.

Watch the loons and mergansers. There life depends on finding fish. That said I would never crowd either of them. Wait until they move off before fishing that spot. When you are there, take note of the depth and water temperature (when applicable) where they were fishing.

Water temperature isn’t that important at certain times of the year. For example, in a shallow lake in late July, the temperature is going to be pretty uniform throughout. However, if you are fishing a few weeks after ice out, a one- or two-degree temperature difference from one spot to another is huge!

I kid you not

Don’t forget the little boy or girl in you. When you went to a pond or river as a kid, what did you do? You looked for all the neat things that lived and grew there. Keep that in mind the next time you launch your boat. If you see many pollywogs, for example, you can bet that the game fish are fully aware of them too. 



If you are fishing a body of water that is next to a ripening corn field, you can bet that little rodents are making many trips to that corn and are in need of a drink or a swim.

Look at what is under those rocks. Are there nymphs or leeches? Neither is pleasant to most of us, but they’re high on any game fish’s menu.

Dragonfly Nymph

Observe the elements of your success or failure

For example, August is without a doubt the toughest month to catch trout, especially on a fly *most* of the time.

Many years ago, I fished a heavily fished trout pond on a rainy, foggy, muggy August morning, and I had a spectacular day. Now every August I head to the pond on days just like that. In fact, that pond, which had long been one of my favorites, I have yet to fish this year. It has received much publicity, and it is very popular with kayakers so fishing it in good weather is no longer pleasant. Fishing it in unpleasant weather is much more relaxing and productive.

On a similar note, my very best days there have been in early season snowstorms; I kid you not! 

In fact, one of those days is a perfect example for this topic. In late April of 2011, we had a very cold snowy opening day of trout season.

Ian and Your Guide in the Snow on Opening Day

Ian and Your Guide in the Snow on Opening Day

I had my grandson Ian in my boat, and Tony had my grandson Sam in his. The pond had at least a dozen other boats on it when we got there.

We started by trolling close to shore to try to locate some fish. We did in less than 10 minutes, and we stopped at that spot to cast. A couple of hours later, we had the place to ourselves, and we had landed 77 trout that we released.

Sam's First Tiger Trout

Sam’s First Tiger Trout

It seemed that we could have caught fish all day, but I insisted that we leave because Tony and both of my grandsons were wet and shivering. When we got to the launch, the local warden was waiting for us.

Dave asked how we did. He was shocked. He said none of the other boats had landed a single fish. He said that he was called all kinds of names including a liar when he assured the other fishermen that it had been stocked.

Why did we catch fish when no one else did? We were observant and smart. After the very first hit that we got trolling, I stopped the boats for two reasons. First, I knew that this early in the season the fish would be schooling. Second, I knew that they would seek “structure,” meaning rocks, logs, etc. for protection.

That is exactly what happened. My very cold and wet grandsons were very happy.

It was a memorable day for sure.

Another example that you might remember from my August 2014 blog post called “Rapid River: A Challenge and a History Lesson” is when Tony spotted a backwash that no one else spotted. He learned about the benefit of backwashes from fishing the Cape Cod Canal, where we often catch schooled striped bass who target bait fish caught up in backwashes.

The fishing at the Rapid River was challenging, and the banks were crowded with fishermen. I can count at least nine fishermen in this one photo that Tony took that day. 

A School of Rapid River Fishermen

A School of Rapid River Fishermen

If it weren’t for the nice backwash that Tony spotted and many other fishermen missed, our success would have been very different. We caught most of our trout and salmon on dries, which is preferable, but with the river so properly named, every fish was a challenge to land. Why were the fish attracted to this backwash? Like in the Cape Cod Canal, the backwash traps food. In this case, insects.

Tony caught what was then his biggest native brookie (16 inches) along with several others and several nice salmon. He earned them because he was observant enough to spot that nice backwash that was holding so many fish.

Tony's 16-Inch Brook Trout in 2014

Tony’s 16-Inch Brook Trout in 2014

Keep your eyes open, and think about what you are looking at.