Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fish Vision: Color Underwater

Now that we know what fish see above the water’s surface, what do they see in the water?  Let’s start with color.  

We discussed in the previous article that water has different optical properties than air.  Water is about 780 times more dense than air.  As light hits water, not only does the light bend, it is selectively scattered and absorbed.  Greater than 75% of the visible spectrum is absorbed within about 30 feet.

Here’s what you need to know and think about.  In clear water, the colors we see as red, yellow, and orange are lost first.  “Lost”, meaning scattered and absorbed.  The colors we see as violet, blue and green reach farther, with blue penetrating to nearly 500 feet.  How far light penetrates on a given day depends on the angle of the sun, the roughness of the water’s surface, and how much sediment is suspended in the water (turbidity).

Light intensity plays a big part in how a fish perceives color. Fishing on a sunny day will allow light from the sky to penetrate much deeper through the water column than on a day with clouds. Shiny colors like silver and gold are less effective when cloud cover rolls in, and can become almost invisible without the sun shining, even in clear water. The reason for this is that they reflect the grayness that is surrounding them, instead of the bright rays of the sun. Casting darker colors (like blues and purples) in low light (whether due to cloudiness, early or late in the day, or water with a high amount of suspended sedimentation) often work best by giving your fly the greatest contrast and silhouette. 

***So remember, as the sun sets (or at sunrise), cloudy days, or in stained water, colors like red, yellow, & orange will disappear the quickest. Blue, violet, and green are seen by fish much better in these low light conditions.

Now, what about all of these shiny materials and UV enhanced materials we see for files these days?  Great question!  Glad you asked.

First, there is some research that suggests that fish can sense polarized light (where we humans cannot separate polarized light from regular light).  Polarized light is unique in that it only vibrates in one plane.  I know, blah blah blah, but stick with me here.

When light is reflected off many nonmetallic surfaces, including the water’s surface, it is polarized to some degree.  Your polarized sunglasses block horizontally reflected light from the water’s surface, permitting only vertically reflected light through…thus reducing glare.

What does all of this have to do with fish vision?  It’s thought that fish that can see polarized light use the ability to help them find food.  When light reflects off of surfaces like fish scales, it becomes polarized.  A fish with polarizing vision can more easily make out baitfish and not lose them in the background of the plants and or rocks in the water.  It is also thought that fish with polarizing vision can see objects as much as three times further away.  AND, polarized light is most abundant at dawn and dusk.  Way back in 2001 a great study was done that showed in Oncorhynchus mykiss (our beloved steelhead), polarization sensitivity may provide these salmonids with an improved means of locating prey.  (That’s as crazy technical as I’ll get in these articles. I promise!) Now, this study was in juvenile fish.  There is some research that suggests that mature salmonids lose the ability to see polarized light.  And there is other research that suggests that salmonids regain that ability for a time when they reenter the rivers and streams to spawn.

Now you understand why many companies that make materials for fly tying are manufacturing “Polar” products.  Steelhead may be able to see them better, from further distances, and in lower light.  And this is how they look for food, at least as juveniles.  Think you might want to use this stuff in your flies?

What about all of this “UV” stuff (UV = ultraviolet light)?  It’s similar and pretty simple.  There is research that shows that colors that fluoresce in UV light are visible and distinct for longer distances than regular colors.  BAZINGA!  UV light is most is dominant on cloudy or gray days.  On sunny days, the fluorescence is much less.  So, under the right circumstances, we can take advantage of materials that fluoresce under UV light to gain a more visible and vibrant presentation.

All of our flies are used to imitate something fish feed on.  And at times, it can help to add in materials that can be seen by fish that can see polarized light and it can help to add fluorescent or “UV enhanced” materials to make the fly stand out.  Of course you must also understand that these enhancements could work against you when chasing fish that are in areas with abundant forage.  Fish key in on “hatches” very specifically at times because they are safe.  It is against their instinct to eat something unusual in those situations because it presents more risk to them.  So, you have to chose wisely for each situation.

Hopefully this gives you a concise little primer on why and when we use the colors and materials we use for various fishing conditions.  If you need more help drilling down your steelhead game…call me!  LET’S GO FISHIN’!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Fish Vision: Above the water

What do fish see?  I was asked this question at a steelhead exposition a few weeks back.  My initial answer was, “That is a much broader question than you might think.”  How fish see out of the water, in the water, and how light effects what they see is has been the topic of study for many many many graduate students and other researchers around the world.  It’s a great question.  And if you can have a basic understanding of a few of these concepts, it really can impact your fishing.

Let’s start with: What can fish see above the water?  First, you have to understand that fish live in water and water has very different optical properties than that of air.  Depending on the angle  light hits the water, a calm water surface can reflect up to 80% of the light hitting it.  And in rough water surfaces, there is tremendous variance in the transmission of light no matter what angle the light hits the water. 

That may sound technical, but it matters.  You are already starting to get an idea of why you can easily approach fish in some water and they are very spooky in other waters.  Surface movement of the water and the angle at which light hits the water plays a big role in what fish see out of the water.

The next concept you have to understand is that light bends (or refracts) when it enters the water.  So?  So, that allows each eye of the fish to see a certain area above the water that works in a different way than we normally see things.  Nearly everything a fish sees above the water appears in a circle (more of a cone really).  This circular window is smaller for fish close to the water surface and becomes larger the deeper the fish is in the water.  Outside of the window, the surface of the water appears as a mirror, reflecting the bottom. If the surface is choppy, the mirror effect is reduced.  In rough water this circular window is broken up and light is transmitted through continuously changing patterns. 

Yes there is a lot going on here. But you just need to be aware that fish see in a circle or cone above the water.  The circle is bigger for deeper fish and smaller for shallow fish.  You want to stay out of that cone.  To do this, you need to be back away from the fish and low to the horizon.  And there are other things that can help.  Low light conceals you even more and rougher water is further helpful.  And now you can see why fish in smooth water on a sunny day just scatter as you approach them.  

I tell folks everyday, “Know where the fish should be for the day’s conditions and fish for them in those places.”  Do not get fixated on fish you can see, rather fish the places they should be.  And those are places you cannot normally even see the fish.  Now you better understand why the fish also struggle to see you if you approach them correctly in these places.  That is a combination that makes for a great day on the water.  It also helps you understand how precise things have to be on those occasions when you are sight fishing.

Are you ready to take your steelhead game to the next level.  I can help you with that.  Call me.  LET’S GO FISHIN’!

Monday, October 13, 2014


   a. One who shows the way by leading, directing, or advising.
   b. One who serves as a model for others, as in a course of conduct.

I tell people all of the time, "In life, you either are a guide or you are not."

Some folks gravitate towards teaching others, no matter what they are doing. That certainly has been the case for me, whether it was coaching wrestling, teaching students & residents, guiding patients, or guiding fly fishing adventures. One either lives to teach or they don't.

I was talking to a young man just getting into the guiding business a few weeks ago. It was a great conversation. He has all of the tools be be a great fishing guide.

Even if you are not a guide, stay with matters to all of us in the end.

The young man was concerned about the actions he had observed in other guides. The first thing I told him was that you cannot control the actions of others. So spending time losing stomach acid over things you cannot control will only make you sick and not help the situation.

Most importantly, we discussed the role of servant leadership. The way to change the world is not to scream, yell, and bully others into your view. In fact, the way to change your world is to lead by example.

I told him we all make mistakes along the way, but what matters is that we pick ourselves up and get better tomorrow from today's failures.

A most important concept for a guide of any type to embrace is that it is NEVER our job to judge clients (or other guides for that matter). Clients come to us with a variety experience and backgrounds. Some have never picked-up a fly rod. Some have traveled the world. Some are just easy to be around. Some are difficult to spend a day with.

Whatever their experiences and attitudes, our job is not to judge them, but to guide them. Our job is to lead the way and find a way to lead them. Our job is to find common ground to reach them and relate to them so that they get out of the day what they need.

Our job is never to compare our experiences and worry about whether we could have caught more fish, handled fish better, or just had a better attitude in general. Our job is to gently lead.

One of the hardest notions to get past as a guide is that the client should meet our expectations. We have to enter every day with only one expectation and that is to meet the clients needs for the day. A client will likely never meet our expectations because they do not have our experience. Spending your day irritated because a client does not know everything you know should leave you considering a different vocation. In saying that, quite often it is important to be able to reset a client's expectations for the conditions of the day as well.

There is a joy in servant leadership. There is nothing better than watching a client start feeling the load of a fly rod and then begin moving line efficiently. It is so satisfying to share a moment with a client when they land that fish they have been after for years. Sharing in someone else's journey is simply satisfying.

As I shared these things with the young man, he said, "You should write this stuff down and share it." I hem and hawed around about it for awhile and decided to do so. While I hope it will help others refine their thoughts on guiding, I hope it will help fishermen in general.

One of the things I see on the water all of the time is fishermen judging other fishermen. We spend way too much time worrying how others fish and if we are better or could have caught "that" fish...when we should really just be enjoying the day. 

My encouragement for the day is live and let live on the stream. No one else on the stream needs to meet your expectations. If they fish a certain way, why do you care? Let them be. There are many ways to catch fish and they are all valid. If folks are doing something illegal, call the local authorities. Otherwise, take a deep breath and enjoy your time on the water. That time is far too limited to be irritated about how others fish or be worried about whether you are a better fisherman.