Trout are influenced by their surroundings and we need to get to know what these influences are and how they affect our prey. Firstly, let's look at the various influences and then we can start to understand the reason the fish do what they do.
Obviously temperature is a major factor. The colder it is, the less active the fish will be. Indeed, the trout family have quite a narrow comfort range when it comes to temperature. That range is from 14ºC (57ºF) to 18ºC (65ºF). There are, as ever, exceptions to this rule. The brook trout and other members of the char family prefer colder waters - from 10ºC (50ºF) to 14ºC (57ºF), but for the majority of the trout that you are likely to encounter then the first range of temperatures is the norm. Any hotter than this temperature range and the trout become stressed and will seek the coldest waters available - which will usually be in the deepest parts of the lake or reservoir.
The next consideration is light. It may have escaped your notice, but trout don't have any eyelids! Have you tried staring into the sun recently? Trout will steer away from high light intensities and will only approach the surface when the light is sufficiently subdued for them to do so without harm. This reduced light normally means at dawn and dusk, but very overcast days will see them at the surface too.
Because trout live in a highly dynamic environment we must take into account anything that will affect that environment and a big factor is the wind. A dead calm day will permit more light into the water and will send the fish deeper. Exactly the same day but with a light wind to put a ripple on the water and the fish will venture into much shallower water. The ripple not only breaks up the light but also gives the fish a sense of security as they cannot see through the surface and neither can anything looking down at them. A strong blow will stir up the bottom sediment which will affect the trout's gills and its ability to extract oxygen from the water, as well as their ability to see through the murky water and they can’t feed if they can’t see. So there comes a time when too much wind causes too much disturbance and the fish will seek the calmer upwind waters or will again go deep, away from the turbulent waves.
One mystery that I have never understood is how much the direction of the wind can affect the fish. You may have heard the old fisherman's verse "When the wind's in the west the fishing's best, when the wind's in the east the fish feed the least." My years of experience have shown this old saw to be true time and time again. I still don't know why and I have never heard a convincing explanation. There are theories about easterly winds bringing high pressure which the fish dislike, or that west winds presage bad weather and the fish feed in anticipation of this. But it has never stopped me trying to catch them when the wind was easterly!
Rain seems to send the fish scurrying and I think it may be the noise of the raindrops on the surface that disturbs them. I do know that a previously productive spot turns barren as soon as it starts raining. A little exploration with the fish finder located them sitting in much deeper water again. So it seems that rain acts a bit like the sun and sends them seeking sanctuary in the deeps. Equally, I have found them back feeding hard as soon as the last drops of rain have fallen. So it's worth being patient when the rain starts to fall.
Once we have examined all of these variables we must alter our tactics accordingly. These changes are not only on a seasonal basis but sometimes can vary from day to day or even hour to hour. While all of the following are suggestions based on years of observation and success in practice, you should always be prepared to experiment and find what works for you.
The easiest way to describe the many ways of fishing for trout is to divide it up into the four seasons - although, as I have pointed out, these methods may work at different times if, for instance, the weather is unseasonably warm or cold. It's all down to observation and I cannot count the number of times I have seen fishermen set out to hunt their prey without giving any consideration to where the fish are likely to be today. They simply go to the place where they were last successful, without giving a thought to why they were successful in that place at that time. They seem to think that the trout will pitch camp and wait there for them to return, so that they can surrender to the fisherman once again!
While each season provides its own challenges, they equally offer opportunities to try out new techniques. Each chapter provides a detailed method of fishing that I have found to be highly effective at that time of the year, but there have been days when I have tried all the methods as the day's conditions varied. Don't just cast and hope! There are always tell-tale signs about what is going on beneath the surface. You just have to realise what those signs are and how to react to them.
Fish need to feed and they will find the vast majority of their food in the margins of the lake or reservoir. Indeed, it is my experience that there is in fact a depth which almost always seems to contain fish - and this is one of the most fundamental pieces of fishing lore that I have learned.
The following will seem to be common sense to those who already know it, but someone has to point it out in the first place for it to become obvious! Trout are generally omnivorous, feeding on whatever happens to be available at that time. The majority of fauna in a body of water - bugs, larvae, fry etc. - will be found hiding in the weeds and vegetation. But that vegetation needs one essential factor to grow - and that is light. The deeper you go, the less light and therefore the less vegetation there will be, until you reach a point when there is virtually no more plant growth. That depth will depend on the clarity of the water but as a general rule of thumb you can say that plant growth falls off when you get to a depth of around ten feet. This area of greatest life is called the littoral zone and that is a good depth to start from when working out where to fish.
I know... you can't tell from the top how deep the water is! But you can easily resolve that problem if you are in a boat. Simply use the anchor and its rope to measure the depth of water you are in. Judge what ten feet of anchor and rope is (remember how to measure five feet from the chapter on Leaders and double that length). Now GENTLY lower it over the side of the boat and see how far adrift you are from your desired depth. Too shallow - move offshore a little and vice versa. You'll need to take into account the direction of the wind as well. If you are fishing with an onshore wind then you need to anchor deeper so that you end up facing the ideal fishing depth. Equally, an offshore wind demands that you anchor shallower so that you end up attacking the right piece of water. The section on Going Afloat will give you more information on boat techniques.
That all sounds pretty obvious now that I've explained, but you would be amazed at how many beginners just go out into the middle of the lake and start thrashing the water in the hope of netting a bagful! Adopting a common sense approach is part of the process of working out where the fish are and what they are likely to be feeding on - a process that I'm hoping will be made much easier for you once you have worked your way through the rest of these chapters.
If you are fishing from the shore or wading, then you should acquaint yourself with the depths around your fishing location before you start fishing. This information should be available from the managers of the fishery or from local fishermen. It is worthwhile investing a few moments seeking this advice and avoiding a lot of wasted time and effort. Besides, it is dangerous to go wading in water where you are unfamiliar with any potential hazards, so finding out this information is a safety issue as well as a fishing detail.
This ten foot depth will vary somewhat depending on the clarity of the water and the consequent density of underwater plant life. The trout will patrol up and down the edge of this vegetation line, always keeping a route of escape to deeper water open for themselves. This flight response is very strong in most animals and you should bear this in mind when moving about in the boat. Remember that sound carries very much better in water than it does in air, so every bump and knock in the boat will alert the fish to your presence. Equally, wading should be done stealthily too.
The very best fishing technique for this "ten foot zone" - the littoral zone - is to be able to fish an offshore wind so that you are facing deeper water (in fly fishing you always try to have the wind blowing onto your back - see the section on Casting). Cast out into the deeper water and retrieve your fly so that it follows the contour of this shallowing area. This is a real killer technique, which will work with a booby on a sinking line as well as wet flies on an intermediate line. Many strong takes will come just as the fly arrives under the boat and starts the final ascent to the surface. It is this change in direction from following the bottom to a sudden rise towards the surface that the trout seem to find irresistible.
All this reasoning falls down in winter when the vegetation has died back. But don't despair - we can still work out where the fish are likely to be. Deep water will hold its warmth longer than shallow water. In the depths of winter the fish will tend to sit in the deepest parts of the lake, until something happens to change that. When the winter sun does show itself there is often a hatch of fly that will take advantage of the sunlight to complete its life cycle. And you can bet the trout will be around to take advantage of that feeding opportunity. I have seen monsters caught in just a few feet of water in the middle of winter. You just have to be aware of the fact that these events occur. Look for that small cloud of flies over the water as they hatch and take to the air. It is always worth a look in the shallows when that winter sun breaks through and warms the water. The shade of an overhanging tree or bush will add to the chance of finding a fish as it will protect the trout from the direct glare of the sun.
Take this reasoning to the opposite extreme. The depth of water that held the warmth in winter is the same water that will stay coolest in the middle of summer. This is where to look for your prey on those long hot days when everyone else is struggling to find a bite! The truth of the matter is that there is only one way to be sure that you are not fishing empty water and that's with the aid of a fish finder. I am a strong proponent of these machines where they are permitted - which these days is virtually everywhere, provided that you are not fishing in a competition! You'll find more about my views on fish finders and how to use them in the section on Accessories.
Spring brings the opportunity to re-acquaint yourself with the water after the hardships of winter and the fish will be feeding on whatever they can find to make up for the privations they have endured. That "ten foot zone" will be the first port of call when the weather begins to warm and the vegetation starts to re-grow. If the fish cannot be found in that area on the upwind shore - i.e. the shore that the wind is blowing from, then the next place to try will be the downwind shore at the same depth. I have never been able to work out why the fish seem to prefer the upwind shore at times and the downwind shore at other times without apparent reason.
Interestingly, a fishery that I used frequently was known for its upwind fishing. The upwind shore was always the first port of call and frequently the only place you needed to look to find the fish. Then they just seemed to disappear. No matter what the weather or wind conditions they just never seemed to be at those upwind fishing areas any more. After a few weeks I began to realise that I was now catching the majority of my fish in downwind fishing areas.
This was all very strange. Why should the fish have changed their preference? One day I was talking to one of the fishery bailiffs, who mentioned that the fish they were now putting in the water were coming from a new supplier and, after telling him about my upwind/downwind discovery, we came to the conclusion that the only apparent change was the change of fish stock. Whether fish have a genetically programmed preference for where they feed is beyond my knowledge. But it goes to show that you can never take anything for granted.
In a strong wind it will be much safer to keep to the upwind shore as this is the area on which the wind has the least effect - and the place most likely to be holding fish. You certainly should not be trying to anchor and fish a downwind shore in a strong or gale force wind - that way spells near certain disaster. When the anchor starts to drag, which it almost certainly will, you will be in the dangerous position of having to move around the boat in a hurry before you find yourself washed up on the shore.
Autumn will find another change in the trout's feeding habits. They seem to know that the cooler days presage the oncoming winter and that they need to pack on as much weight as possible in anticipation of hard times ahead. This is the time when they become carnivorous (as they are eating fish does that make them piscivorous?) and will actively hunt for fry. Again we find ourselves back at that "ten foot zone", but with different fishing techniques. This time we are pulling a fry type pattern at speed - give them something to chase! This is known as lure fishing, not to be confused with the wooden, plastic and metal lures of other fishing methods. These flies are large, often glittery and sometimes made using tubes and traces. More information is in the Flies Section. Takes will be hard and the fights monumental from fish who have had a whole summer to get fit.
And so the seasons turn and the fishing techniques change. Reading the signs will ensure you have an answer to whatever conditions are presented to you on arrival at your fishery. This watercraft is a combination of weather analysis, biology science, botanical examination and common sense. The sport takes five minutes to understand and a lifetime to master. But one thing is certain - even on the hardest of fishing days - it's still the best place to be! A bad day's fishing is still better than a good day's work!