Having the ability to spot fish will become important, if not vital to the level of success you will achieve when fly fishing rivers in New Zealand, particularly in the South Island.
Our waters are famous for big fish, but not surprisingly there are not masses of them, nor are they easy to catch. You need to prepare yourself for possibly the toughest fishing you will encounter anywhere and in addition to having a decent cast, being able to spot them before they spot you will be the difference between bliss and blanking.
The S&M method (not what your thinking) is something I came up with a few years ago and use to spot fish on any river I fish. Most of these points have been discussed before but I find this is a system that gives me a clear sequence to follow when fish are not in plain sight. In some instances the sequences may change depending on the particular conditions I face, but generally I follow the steps: S-S-S&M
S = Structure
Trout have an efficient mindset, some say lazy, when it comes to the places they choose to live and feed in a river. It is therefore essential to look for where the fish will be, rather than just looking for the fish itself. Trout will look for a break in the main current in which to shelter whilst picking out food, this may be in front or behind obstacles such as boulders, trees, cut banks or just the softer edge current or eddy at the eye of a pool. When feeding a fish will venture out from this structure before returning and may remain for a considerable length of time unless disturbed, this gives you time to watch and observe its feeding pattern and decide how you will approach. When no current exists trout will happily cruise in search of food, so keep an eye out for this in backwaters/still waters
S = Shade (shimmer/smudge/shaddow)
Browns and rainbows vary in colour, behaviour and will depict different shades of colour against different river bed material. In my experience a trout will never be 100% camouflage into its surroundings (or I haven’t seen one that is!). I’m always looking for something that doesn’t look ‘quite right’, whether this be colour, shade or shimmer. Because a trout has unique colour and body characteristics compared to its surroundings there will be some irregularities to hone your sense on. Sometimes all you will see is a smudge, just a small irregularity in colour in the water that doesnt look quite right, this can often be a ‘ghost’ like rainbow that can come and go out of sight like an optical illusion, especially in when feeding fast water.
S = Shape
The shape of a trout is unlike anything else in a river, although at times rocks and sticks can be very (very!) close. Analysing shape is the best way to be sure wether a shade you have spotted is actually a fish or just a fishy looking rock (these are more common species). It is good to understand the average size and proportion of the fish you are targeting as this will allow you to recognise if a shape you see is too long and skinny, short and fat, or a mix of either. Sometimes you will be faced with something that goes against the norm, this can happen when you have mix of currents, poor lighting/glare or you just cant believe how big it is! Most of those ‘fishy’ looking rocks/stick/weed in a river will give themselves away if you look closely enough, and if your really not sure it may be worth showing out a ‘hail mary’ cast.
M = Movement
Most information on spotting I have come across puts this first however unless movement is clearly obvious, I look for it last or remain aware of it during the other steps. This is because movement can be too subtle to pickup at first glance, especially with brown trout and it will not be noticed until you have zoned in on the target. Movement can come in many different forms and you need to keep an eye out for Trout that may move up, down, sideways and all around to intercept food, or in some cases actually chasing it down. It is also import to watch for surface disturbance, a telltale sign of fish feeding on, or just below the surface. Depending on your angle, actually seeing a fish on close to the surface can prove difficult. In faster currents, after recognising shade, movement is what will give a fish away, especially if it is hard to make out it its exact shape.
I believe the key to successfully spotting fish and getting more chance in a day is the ability to work out what is not a fish as efficiently as possible so you can move onto the next, I have found that these steps allow me to do this quickly without too much thought.
This system works well for me, but all eyes are different so when you are out on a river be open to trying different methods and experimenting to see what suits you.
Just remember the name of the game – See it before it sees you!