Skills: Vision

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September 23, 2015

Humans rely very heavily on their fishing on everyday activities. Perhaps because it is such a natural part of our lives, when it comes to working on the skill of seeing things we may not give it much thought. However, I have found that the ability to see things when we go fishing, whether it be seeing fish in the water or detecting strikes, is an acquired skill. Only by spending time observing can we improve our ability to see the subtle signs of fish.

Transcript for the Tenkara Cast episode, :Skills: Vision”


This is Daniel Galhardo and you’re listening to the Tenkara Cast, a podcast about the simple Japanese method of fly fishing, tenkara. In the Tenkara Cast, we’ll be sharing information on techniques, history, philosophy, and tenkara stories from anglers all over the world. This podcast is brought to you by Tenkara USA, introducing tenkara outside of Japan since 2009. It’s only possible we create content such as this podcast and videos because of your support. So we thank you so very much for purchasing Tenkara USA rods, lines, and flies. I hope you enjoy learning more about the simple method of fly fishing.

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Today, I’m gonna be talking about what I consider to be the most important fundamental in fly fishing. And that is, the skill of vision, the skill of seeing. I think this is something that doesn’t get enough attention from people that are talking about techniques and that kind of thing. And I probably don’t talk about it enough. And the reason we don’t talk a lot about it is because vision or the ability to see things, in general, is considered to be a very natural thing to all people. So we might not be talking that much about it because most of us can see and if we can see, we assume that other people can see the same things that we do. But I think this is something that has to be taught, and it’s something that has to be trained upon each person who is fly fishing. And it becomes natural over time.

The beautiful thing about the topic of seeing things is that, to train, it doesn’t really take that much of an effort. It’s not something that you have to constantly work at. You don’t really feel tired, but I do think you have to be conscientious of when you’re practicing the skill of seeing. I’ve been told in the past that I’m really good at seeing things when I’m going fishing, and I don’t think I have any unnatural or supernatural abilities whatsoever. I really think it’s just a matter of spending a lot of time in the water. I’ve been out with anglers that I consider to be incredible at seeing through the water and they see things that I don’t. And I’m always amazed when that happens. But it’s just something that I like to teach people as well, when I’m going out and trying to point out the things that they could or should be seeing in particular spots.

Somebody once told me that I’m also pretty good at seeing things that are very subtle that might be happening in the water or maybe on the line and reacting to that very quickly. And again, I don’t think that’s an unnatural or supernatural skill. I think it’s just something that happens when you spend a lot of time in the water fishing. But as human beings, we depend a lot on our vision. Our eyesight is really kind of what allows us to process the world in a quick manner, and again it’s something that we probably just don’t talk about enough. But in this episode, I’m gonna be talking about several different aspects of seeing things when you go fishing. I’m gonna start by talking about how to spot, how to identify places to fish. And then I’m gonna be talking about spotting fish. If you’re walking by a bridge, how do you see the fish that are going through the water.

Very often, I’m going out with friends that are new to fishing or we’re just gonna go for a hike and I start pointing a fish to them and they’re always like, “How can you see that?” And it’s just something that I do very often for fun and I think over time it just becomes… It’ll click and you’ll start seeing things in a different light. I’m also gonna be talking about seeing through the water when you’re fishing and kind of trying to identify things that are a little bit unusual in the middle of fishing which might be indications of fish. In my opinion, when we’re talking about the basic skill sets of fly fishing, I think it all starts with vision. It starts with identifying the good waters to fish, with seeing things that are a little bit different.

After vision, we can get into the fundamentals of casting and then we can get into the other fundamental, in my opinion, which is detecting strike, which goes back to this vision topic, and then the skills of applying techniques to the fly, and finally in landing the fish, keeping the fish on and landing the fish. So out of those, spotting places and fish, and then we have casting, we have detecting strikes, and then we have landing the fish, a few of those depend on our vision very much. So, I think it’s important to talk about it. Also, I’m gonna recommend that if you don’t already, get yourself a pair of polarized sunglasses. Maybe that’s the reason I can see fish very often with friends because I always have polarized glasses on. And polarized sunglasses are kind of like your x-ray vision in fishing. You become… You kind of acquire super powers when you have it. Not really, you still have to identify things, you have to know what to look for, but they help a tremendous amount.

I’ve talked in another episode about my favorite gear. I like to have polarized glasses that have lighter color lenses, like a copper lens. I’m not crazy about yellow but copper or very light brown. I find that I don’t change colors a whole lot and… Yellow lenses are okay too, but I don’t like the ones that are bright yellow. So either I like to have a very light gray or kind of a light copper lens when I’m fishing. Because they don’t change colors that much. It kinda keeps the world a little bit more natural. But in any case, let’s talk about the first thing that you’re gonna be looking for when you go in and go fishing. And that’s gonna be the number one thing you’re gonna look for is spots where to fish.

And this is a whole another episode in itself, the skill of reading water. But when you learn just the basics of reading water, we know that the mountain streams, at least, the currents are bringing food to the fish but the fish they wanna be fighting currents a whole lot, so typically the scene of calm water with fast water tends to be a really productive kind of place to look for. In tumbling kind of streams, very fast kind of streams. I just like to look for some of the calmest water is in foam lines. But once you kinda know the basics of how to read water, there are certain things that I think you can train your eye towards, or your eyes towards, I should say. And one of them is gonna be, just kind of picking those spots where currents are kinda gonna go in different directions, in different patterns. And that takes a little bit of acquiring the skill because when we go to a stream, we just tend to assume that all the waters are flowing downstream and we tend not to look quite as carefully at the water.

But one of the things that I love to identify when I’m fishing, and I can talk about features another time, but you’re just gonna notice the subtle currents that are going on because, of course, there’s places where it’s clearly going in one direction. But there’s gonna be places where the current is making a very subtle whirlpool and it’s actually going upstream in some places, and those are really good places because the food is kinda getting scoured, and then taken to the fish that are most likely facing downstream. Now, when it comes to practice and training how to see things when you’re reading water, this is the one part of the episode I don’t have a huge amount to add because it’s more looking for certain things, certain features and you just have to learn how to read them. But when you go fishing, maybe like when you’re on a hike, just kind of get into the practice of pointing to spots where you think the fish are gonna be like. Here’s a good one, here’s a good one, here’s a good one.

And typically, people that are just starting, especially in fly fishing, they’re gonna very quickly identify the very obvious spots. The places that are very calm, pool was next to fast water, places to have foam lines as the saying goes, “Foam is home.” So we quickly learn how to identify those. But here’s a little challenge for you. When you go fishing, try to find this little dinner plate-sized pockets that are a little bit calmer than the water around them and start looking at those and start pointing them out. And all of a sudden, you start kind of acquiring the sense of quickly identifying places. And then when you go fishing, you’re not gonna be skipping those less obvious spots. That’s a very important skill in my opinion because especially if you’re fishing pressured waters, you might have places where anglers have been throughout the day, and everybody hit the same exact pools.

But if you start getting into the habit of identifying what I like to call the invisible waters, those little tiny pools, very subtle, skinny kind of feeding lanes between fast water. Sometimes you see two lanes that are a little bit faster and then you have this, maybe 8 or 10-inch wide seam of water that is just a little calmer. Just pay attention to those. That’s a skill and look at the water, and try to see through the water. So this is gonna be something I’m gonna be talking quite a bit in this episode. The idea of seeing through the water rather than seeing the water, the water surface. When you go fishing and you’re reading water, you’re gonna be very quickly reading the surface of the water, you’re gonna see the foam lines, you’re gonna see the whirlpools and all this stuff. But take a look especially in the places that have like little plunges and water gets a little faster.

And if the water is clear, see what might be happening underneath the water. Are there bubbles? Is there like a little channel, especially in plunges, you might be able to see that. Where the water plunges down to the pool below, sometimes you kinda see the turbulent water on the very top. It looks like it’s kind of rolling in a horizontal fashion, if you have a rolling pin, for example. But if you can see through the water, very often you see another little current, like a sheet of water just cutting through and down. So that’s kind of all I have to share really about the vision skill in regards to reading water. Get in the habit of seeing the invisible waters, because that’s something that you kinda have to train.

Now, the next thing, and this is the one that I really like to talk about is seeing fish, how to spot fish? I have been out with a couple of anglers that are incredible at seeing through the water, and they see things really well, and that’s something that I feel like I do really well at as well. Just kind of identifying fish when they’re in the water. But when you’re just starting off, I think you have to know what to look for and that’s one of the challenges here. So there’s gonna be fish that are gonna be obvious and everybody can see it, but there’s some fish that are a little bit harder to spot. That’s… I think, trout, in particular have evolved to camouflage themselves to become invisible to predators. And if we’re talking about evolution, only those trout, that were colored and moved in a way that made them less likely to get caught by a predator would survive. So over time, they’ve kind of evolved to be really good at hiding. And we have to be a little smarter than most of their predators in order to see them.

So, what do I look for? So, there are certain things that are telltale signs of fish and… But first, let’s talk about different water levels and I’m talking about different water columns, more specifically. So let’s say we have a very typical kind of 4-foot deep stream, which is fairly deep for a mountain stream in some places. There are gonna be different water columns, there’s the surface, the middle one, and the bottom. So that’s something to keep in mind, and this is really important because very often we’re trained to look at the water. And that’s something that comes naturally to most people. You have the turbulence on the top and you have all this stuff going on at the top and our eyes kind of stop right at the surface at the first thing that we see, very often. It’s a little bit like getting a camera with a manual focus, for example. Or I should say with an automatic focus. So if you have a camera with an automatic focus and you’re trying to take a picture of the river, the focus is gonna be down right at the surface of the water and the camera is not gonna be seeing through the water.

If you have a manual focusing lens or manual focus capability on your camera, you can adjust your ring and go past the surface and see through the water. And to me, that’s the most important, but probably one of the hardest things to do, is kind of acquiring the habit of seeing through the water. So, when you go fishing, or just when you go on a hike, try to see through the water a little bit more often, instead of focusing on the features on the surface, see if you can see rising fish. What is on the bottom? Are there rocks down there, or is there sand? Can you see little whirlpools of dried leaves that are on the bottom that are getting kind of caught up in the currents. What can you see through the water? ‘Cause this is gonna play a big part in the rest of this episode, seeing through the water.

Now, let’s go back to the stream that’s about 4-feet deep, and there is gonna be different water columns. There is the top, the middle, and the bottom. Most people when you go fishing, you’re gonna be looking for rises. But then the next thing, the easier thing to see, especially if you’re new to fishing is gonna be the fish that are kinda swaying right on the surface, and maybe once in a while, they can come up a little bit and sip or they go and chase a fly. That’s the easiest fish for every one of us to see, a fish that is close to the surface of the water. To see the fish that are on the surface, they can be a little tricky sometimes, of course, because they’re not moving a whole lot in every case, but let’s say the water’s clear and you’re trying to identify where the fish are. There is something that you can look for and the main thing is gonna be probably shape.

Is there something that is like slender that would look like the top of a fish that is kind of on the top of the water? Sometimes you might confuse it with a branch or leaves or the currents themselves, it can be a little tricky to see them. But is there something that’s slender, that is solid, and can you see something a little unusual close to the surface. But pretty much, that applies to any water column and you can apply this to each one of the water columns that we talked about, top, bottom, and middle. The next thing, and this applies more to the top fish, the fish that are close to the top as well as in the middle. See if there’s a shadow on the bottom of the river. Sometimes on occasion, I’ve actually looked at a shadow and I thought it was a fish but then I realized it was darker, was blacker than it should have been.

So I kinda traced it back, if your brain kinda calculates where, depending on where the sun is, where the fish would be. And so, you trace it back up the water columns at the top and then you see this fish swaying up somewhere, perhaps upstream or downstream or even to the sides depending on where the sun is. So we look for shades, we look for the narrow shapes. Also looking for slightly brighter kinda spots. On occasion, you kinda see a slightly reflective thing happening under water when you’re looking through the water, those are indications of fish.

So the skill of seeing through the water is really important, but that skill in general that we’re talking about of spotting fish. As I mentioned in the beginning of the episode, the skill of identifying where the fish are, that’s something that it really just kinda comes through practice and all you have to do is get in the habit of watching the water and get a pool and in the beginning, spend a good amount of time in the pool until you kinda see the fish. And I think that’s probably a good thing because in mountain streams most pools are gonna have fish. And if you get in the habit of spending some time, may be sit down for a while, it’s possible that you might have spooked a fish, but you sit down there or stay very still for five minutes and then the fish might start coming out of their hiding a little bit.

So get in the habit of seeing like what does it look like? Is it swaying? Is it very still? Which is something that the fish are gonna be doing. Sometimes when they’re very still, particularly on the bottom of the river or creek, that’s because they’re not feeding. If they’re kinda like hanging, suspended a little bit above the bottom of the creek, maybe they’re a little bit more active. Not always, but sometimes they’re a little bit more active and you can see them swaying a little bit more.

So the fish that are in the middle and in the top, I think, are the easier ones to see because you can depend a little bit on the shadows that they’re casting. You have something that’s a little bit closer to your eye so you can focus on that a little bit more, but then the last one, the last water column is gonna be the bottom of the creek. And we’re assuming here, clear water, for all intents and purposes, and I’ll talk a little bit about murky water, too. But the bottom trout, in particular, they’re gonna be the hardest ones to see because, first, there’s not gonna be a shadow that are casting, second, especially in rocky kind of terrains, they’re gonna be really good at camouflaging themselves. And those are the ones that take a lot more practice to start seeing because they can easily be confused for a rock or a branch and that kind of thing.

Now, just get your eye, first of all, to focus on the bottom of the creek, instead of getting in the habit of watching the rocks and the sand moving along and just seeing what’s happening on the bottom. As you scan a pool, kind of going up and down and from one side to the other, are there objects that stand out a little bit? Most of the rocks are kind of round, are there some rocks that are a little slender? Because they might not be rocks, they might be trout. So, just seeing through is a very important skill again.

Now, when I go fishing, people have asked me, and this is probably one of the most common questions that I get, “How do you detect a strike?” We should talk a little bit about strikes, and back to the last two points, it’s just a matter of practice and it’s easy to practice for spotting the places to fish, as well as spotting fish because every bridge that you come across, you can spend 10 minutes there trying to see the fish in the water. Detecting strikes, and that’s probably one of the harder ones to practice because it’s not like you’re always getting a whole lot of strikes, but still practice, of course, makes perfect and that kind of thing.

But when people ask me, what do you depend on to detect a strike? Am I feeling the fish? Am I seeing the line? Am I seeing fish? How do I know that a fish might have taken my fly?” There’s all kinds of answers, but me personally, I’m gonna estimate that about 75% to 80% of my fishing is done based on visual cues. I’m an incredible visual person and that’s just how I probably trained myself, so I tend to see probably 75% to 80% of the strikes. Either I’m seeing a fish, I’m seeing a flash, I’m seeing a shadow, maybe I’m seeing the line moving. I’m seeing something that makes my reaction happen. An then another day, we’ll talk about reaction time. Just getting in the habit of reacting is an important thing, reacting to anything that is gonna be unusual when it comes to actually hooking the fish.

Well, let me talk about what I’m looking at when I’m detecting strikes and what I think you could be looking for as well. When you’re fishing, you identified a spot, maybe you might have even seen a fish, and you notice fish in a creek, and then you cast and your cast went out just nicely and you got a really good drift. Now your fly is kinda moving downstream. How do I know if a fish might have taken but first of all, just a little reminder, when you’re fishing with tenkara, try to keep the line tight. That’s gonna help a lot with your hook-up rates once you see something happen. As long as you keep the line tight, move your rod tip up or downstream, or just up and down on a vertical axis to keep the line tight, then whatever you react to, it could be a fish, and you’re gonna hook it.

But what I’m looking for is, as the fly is drifting downstream or whatever I’m doing with my fly, I’m looking for shadows, flashes, or anything unusual, and this last one is a little bit harder, and I’m also looking for line movement. So the way that I look at things when I cast a fly out, usually I know where the end of my tenkara line is, I know that from there about 4 feet away is gonna be my fly because I use a 4-feet diameter tippet. So what I tend to do is, I’m not sure if it’s something that I trained myself or exactly how it happens, but I tend to look at the end of my line and I think we all have a field of vision where things might get a little bit blurred or outside of that field of view, but when you’re looking at the line, kind of focusing on the line, a few inches above and a few inches below are gonna be that focused spot.

And then the water, the space below it, a few feet beyond it, we could think of it as being just out of focus a little bit if you’re focusing. But they’re still within your field of view. So I tend to look at the end of the line, but at the same time, I’m really keeping this very attentive concentration on about 4-foot diameter or 4-foot depth, I should say, and perhaps at 2 or 3-foot diameter around the main… At the end of my main tenkara line.

So, if you were to imagine a kind of a cone starting a few inches above the end of your main tenkara line, and the cone kinda goes down into the stream and through the water and the beginning of the cone is gonna be just a few inches, it’s gonna be like a 3-inch diameter. The end of your cone is probably about 2 feet of diameter, 2 to 3 feet, and the cone is about 4 feet longer. So, that’s what I’m trying to concentrate my attention to when I’m fishing. And then from there, essentially there’s a pattern that’s kinda happening underwater when things are not moving, the water is flowing, it might be dark or light color, but there’s not much going on and if something unusual happens, something kind of breaks that pattern for a split second, it’s a real quick little thing. Get into the habit of just kind of reacting to it.

So this is a little bit into the skill of vision as well as the skill of reaction time. But I think they both go along because they’re kind of self-reinforcing. If you’re just seeing things and you’re not reacting to it, you’re not gonna… I don’t think you’re training yourself, you’re not giving yourself a positive stimulus to train yourself because this is all very, in my opinion, very reactionary, very instinctual. It’s something that you have to build into your instincts. It’s not something that you train yourself and it’s like, “Oh, when the fish flashes I’m gonna react,” and then, you react. It’s something that you have to build into your muscle memory and into your reflexes. So I think it’s important to react to your vision. But now let’s say, we’re looking at the cone, a little bit past the end of the line and one of the things that I see the most when I’m fishing brighter days and clear water is gonna be what we call a flash and that’s essentially when something gets a little brighter, than the surrounding pattern.

So a fish might turn a little bit to the side and it might sway a little bit, it might get into a slightly different position from when it was before. And that indicates that the fish has done something. It might have taken your fly and sped it out before you saw it, but something just happened, so you can react to that. So, number one is a flash. The second thing might be a white and it’s kinda similar to a flash but it usually doesn’t really… It’s not like a such a quick blink, it’s more of the white just kinda shows up and the white that I’m talking about is the fish’s mouth. So a lot of times when we’re going after trout, the inside of the mouth or what we might call the lips of the trout. When they open their mouth to take a fly, they might reveal the white stuff, the white skin in a flash, and react to that, that could be a fish.

The third thing is gonna be shadow, or a shaded spot, like a dark spot. Depending on the lighting condition, the flash actually might be a little bit of a shadow, but let’s say we have a stream that is kinda clear and the bottom is kind of a light color like a sandy kind of bottom and a fish comes to intercept your fly and that might reveal itself in the form of a shadow, like in the form of a dark spot. So react to the dark spot as well. I think you can probably deduce a pattern here. I’m just talking about reacting to anything that kind of breaks the pattern of what’s happening. So you’re following the line and everything looks kind of even, something happens, react to it. So again, reaction time and vision, I think go really well together. We have to talk a little bit about both at the same time. And it’s all about practice. Just get in the habit of pretty much reacting to anything.

That’s mostly what I wanted to share with you today. There’s probably a lot more that we can talk about in terms of vision and seeing, but the message of this episode, not to make it any longer, is for you to get into the habit of practicing seeing things. And the number one thing that I like to recommend people is practice seeing through the water, get into the habit of focusing on beyond the surface. The other thing is get into the habit of observing pools, if you’re new to it, spend some time at a bridge looking for… Trying to see as many fish as you can and there’s gonna be some fish in there most places. And also just kinda get into this habit of reacting to pretty much anything that you see.

So that’s it. It’s kind of a simple topic, but I think it is the foundation of good fly fishing and you’ll be rewarded for getting your vision trained. If you have any suggestions, any tricks or any tools that you’d like to recommend to folks that are listening to this episode, leave us a comment on and you’ll find the episode about vision and seeing and just leave us a comment there, so other people can know what you do, what your tactics are, in terms of seeing things a little bit differently.

Thanks so much for listening guys, and until next time on the Tenkara Cast.

Thank you very much for listening to the Tenkara Cast. I’d like to extend a special thank you to Nick Ogawa also known as Takenobu. Check out his music at We’ll be posting links to any references we made in this podcast such as Takenobu’s music on our website, And until next time on the Tenkara Cast.

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