Shallow thinking for trout
  |  First Published: August 2007

New Zealand South Island, February 2006, and after three days stalking thar deer high up on the cliffs and crags of the Ahuriri Valley, I needed some R & R. Down the valley from the hut was a small flooded backwater that I’d been meaning to explore with the fly rod.

When I arrived, the nor’-easter was steady and the surface of the water carried a heavy ripple. Good conditions to try a cicada pattern, I thought, and with a suitable imitation tied on, I crept through the flooded tussocks and crouched down to watch the water.

Every now and then the wind gusts dropped away and for an instant the surface of the tarn became a window. Soon I spotted a cruising fish, finning parallel to the shoreline and only a couple of rod lengths out.

The fly landed with a distinct plop half a metre to the fish’s left and instantly it turned to investigate. For a breathless moment I watched the brown hang beneath the fly and then, delicately and precisely, it rose and inhaled the pattern.

When I set the hook with a strip strike the fish exploded into a cartwheeling run across the shallows but soon I brought it to the net. It was a handsome wild brown over 2kg and as the released fish disappeared, I rose from the tussocks and let out a war whoop.

It is a sad matter of fact that most impoundments throughout New South Wales are at all-time low levels, even after recent rain at long last. Certainly many traditional trolling runs are non-existent or crowded.

However, this does not necessarily mean that our trout options are reduced and, in fact, the combination of lower water levels and colder conditions really does expand your angling choices.


One of the major keys to successfully targeting shallow-water trout is to remain outside their window of view. By the very nature of the shoreline, it is not uncommon for trout to appear quickly, seemingly out of nowhere.

But successfully spotting fish before they spot you is not difficult. If you want to get a handle on it, watch a wading bird hunting the shallows – move slowly and scan well ahead!

During bright conditions trout will be relatively easy to spot. The key is not to look for the whole fish.

Scan the water ahead quickly, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Often it may simply be the flash of a tail or the smudge of shadow against the light bottom. Once you see something, focus on that area intently until you either spot a fish or decide you’ve been tricked by another rock. Believe me, it happens.

Fishing in pairs greatly assists here. One person should get onto a high point well back from the water. The angler is positioned low on the shoreline and ready to make the critical cast.

The spotter can direct their partner to a suitable location from which to ambush the trout. Wherever possible, attempt to put yourself in a position where the fish is coming to you rather than you having to chase the fish. This minimises the amount of moving you do and lessens the chance of you being spotted.

Under cloudy conditions or when dealing with discoloured water, trout will often be at very close range and the chance of spooking fish is more likely. If you can’t see the fish, there’s a chance they cannot see you and sooner or later you will bump into each other.

If the lake has a choppy surface, try to develop the habit of looking into the faces of the waves. These act as windows into the water and you will often spot fish that others walk by.

Visual penetration into the water is greatly aided by good quality polarising sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. You don’t need to spend the Christmas budget on your glasses but ensure they offer quality polarising to cut down on glare. A brimmed hat is better than a cap because it cuts down side glare.

A compact pair of binoculars is a great aid under these circumstances. They allow you to identify objects without getting too close to a possible fish.

Most anglers walk past fish. Get into the habit of finding productive-looking shoreline and working it over. This is a patience game and success is not measured by the kilometres of bank you walk, but by the square metres of water you watch.

Despite the obvious lack of current on a lake margin, it is not unusual for fish to hold stationary. More than once I have been fooled by thinking a still brown smudge in the shallows was a rock but then, at my approach, the ‘rock’ has suddenly made for deeper water!

A great practice session for this style of angling is chasing inland carp. I’ve written about the benefits and indeed fun of stalking mud puppies before but get competent on the carp and you’ll be deadly on the trout. Carp are widespread throughout the state and you’ll not have to drive far to find a suitable carp hole.

Depending on conditions, not all shallow water trout need be stalked on foot. Drifting from a small boat is a deadly method when water along the flats is chest-deep.

The added height offered from a boat allows you to spot fish that walking anglers would miss. It also offers a silent approach and, amazingly, fish will often allow boats to drift very close.

In the water depths often associated with boat drifting, you’ll want to use fly patterns with a deal of weight that will sink quickly down to the trout’s level. Similarly, up the weight of your jig heads if you’re spinning but still keep the plastics in smaller sizes.


Shallows worth searching can be broken into two major types. The first are broad, gently sloping bays and shorelines. These generally fish better at first and last light, after dark and on days when the breeze ripples the surface. Under these conditions fish feel comfortable about exposing themselves in the shallows.

The second type of situation occurs where drop-offs and channels lie adjacent to small onshore flats. Here fish will often patrol just along the margin of the deeper water and explore the neighbouring shallows for brief periods.

Often these cruising fish will follow a beat and reappear at regular intervals. So if you spot a fish drifting back into the deeper water, hang back and watch the same spot for a while. Chances are that fish or a mate will return to explore it again.

The nature of the bottom is also worth noting. Barren, sandy stretches are generally less productive. Trout don’t come into the shallows for shelter, they come there to feed, so locating potential feeding grounds will greatly enhance your chance of success.

Look for shallow areas with a vegetated bottom. These are often newly flooded backwaters and fish will definitely move into these areas when lake levels are rising. If the rate of increase in dam levels is slow then get a topographic map and seek out bays with broad flats. Often an increase of only a percentage point or two in dam capacity can turn an area into a rich feeding ground.

When dam levels are static, focus on even the slightest area of structure. For trout in particular, standing reed beds and drowned timber are great choices. I remember pulling two sizeable browns from a Eucumbene backwater that were continually cruising around an old drowned tractor tyre. Any structure attracts invertebrates and minnows and these in turn attract hunting trout.

Yabby beds are another classic target area and anyone who has ever spent time on the Snowy impoundments will have surely noted the occurrence. The heavy concentration of yabby holes are generally associated with the clay seams so skip the sandy shores when looking for yabbies.

Fishing the adjacent deeper pockets with a large yabby imitation around size 4 or 6 is a great alternative with the fly. Learn the figure-of-eight hand retrieve if you’re serious about fishing yabby patterns; slow and steady is the key here.

Lures such as the old Rebel Crawdad are an excellent choice for spin anglers or ‘bunny hop’ a crawfish soft plastic up the shelving lake bed.

Soft-bottomed or silty shorelines and bays usually come into their own at dusk with good midge hatches. These can be frustrating times to fish when large numbers of finicky trout are active but locked onto the profuse midges. Pick a section of water with the most activity and fish it deliberately. Avoid the temptation to chase rising fish.

Midge pupae and small dries are obvious choices for the fly angler but lure-tossers will find such periods difficult.

One option is to suspend a small nymph fly such as a pheasant tail under a clear bubble float. Alternatively, cast and retrieve small, dull-coloured bladed lure as slowly as possible without fouling on the bottom.

Even once the hatch apparently stops and rising fish vanish, there will still be plenty of sub-surface action so fish for at least another half-hour or so. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Mudeye hatches are another well known impoundment occurrence which draws anglers from far and wide. These often occur well into the night and, just like good jewfish anglers, it is those who persevere that get the best action.

Stalking the flats at dawn and dusk is also beneficial and more fish will usually be on the move. A preferred tactic is to get down to the water at first light and watch before setting out to explore. More often than not, the single swirl of a tail or a porpoising fish will alert you to its location as it mops up after the previous evening’s hatch.


Fly anglers would be well advised to use a rod and line combination suited to short, accurate casts. Now don’t go trading in your old favourite for a fancy rig but practise quick casts with a definite ability to place a fly where you want it.

Some of you may find an advantage is using a line weight higher than the rod’s rating because this can facilitate loading for tight casts when little line is beyond the top runner.

Here presentation is much more important than pattern choice. Remember, shallow water trout are hunting trout and an accurate cast and well-manipulated fly will usually draw a response.

Patterns which will probably do most damage are medium-sized Woolly Buggers or small Matuka-style flies. Additional options such as some Buzzers and a few generic nymphs will round out the lake hunter’s fly box. Most patterns should be lightly weighted although I’d include a couple of ‘bombs’.

When the action goes quiet, heavier patterns can be fruitful for exploring the deeper margins once the sun gets up. Where the shoreline becomes rocky or steeper, try working a diving lure or weighted fly through the tight, drowned gullies. In places like Lake Eucumbene these often contain drowned timber and trout will pull out of the shallows into such pockets during the day.

Likewise, lure choices can be kept to a minimum. For early morning and after dark, the likes of small Celtas or floating Rapala trout minnows are excellent choices. For high noon angling, consider small, and I mean small, soft plastics in natural colours. Use the minimum jig weight that will allow you to cast out. Remember, we are looking for little disturbance.

Flick sticks should preferably be soft in the tip for two good reasons. Firstly, a little bit of whip is handy when making short casts with light lures. More importantly, shallow water trout generally go ballistic when first hooked. This is probably because they don’t have the benefit of deep water to dive for cover and initial struggles can be strong.

The softer rods cushion hard fish a little better and it goes without saying that a smooth drag is also a priority.

A slow, steady retrieve away from the fish with either fly or lure is the key to consistent hook-ups. Natural prey would be highly unlikely to swim directly towards a cruising trout and you’ll find fish much more responsive to an imitation which appears to be fleeing rather than attacking.


Most saltwater anglers spend a fair bit of their time exploring the estuaries. Often fish such as flathead, whiting and bream are taken from shallow pockets adjacent to weed beds, rock walls and over the nipper flats. Hunting shallow water trout is not all that much different from how you probably hooked your last flathead.

Many of the points discussed here also have applications to other species. The Windamere golden perch are an obvious comparison when stalking yellows along the margins of the Summer drop-offs. Similarly, the backwaters of Glenbawn are, I believe, a widely under explored option for shallow water bassing.

While it may be some time before our lakes fill again and you start dusting off the downrigger, consider stretching your legs along the shallows. The trout will hate you for it!

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