Station Shifters

Adam Priest deals with shifty New Zealand trout

Ifirst encountered station shifters at a young age when learning to fly fish in the small streams of the Taranaki region of New Zealand, where I grew up and now guide. I learned how best to fish for them by trial and error, and years of observation. Back then, my good friend Kyle Adams and I would be keen to get to the head of the pools where we knew the fish would likely hold. We would, at a pace too fast, wade through the tail and centre of the pool, only to realise the expected fish was cruising downstream towards us before inevitably spooking. Other times Kyle or I would spot a trout and set up or change rigs while standing in mid-stream, ready to cast, only to have the target turn from its station and head straight for us. Later on, when fishing more pressured fisheries of the South Island, I also encountered station shifters. For example, I would often spot fish sitting in odd places away from available feeding lies. After watching these fish for a while they would move, circling part of the pool or run before returning to the same odd spot. Other times fish would drop downstream (still facing upstream) from their lie, until they were alongside. They then appeared to look at me as though they were thinking, “Ha! I’m on to you; now I’m going to tell all my mates.” The fish would then start heading upstream, sometimes in no particular hurry, and I would see other fish in the run become agitated. I knew then it had just become a lot harder to catch any other fish in that particular run or pool. The trout in both cases seemed to exhibit this shifting behaviour for no apparent reason I could decipher at the time I was observing them. I have also, as would most anglers, encountered station-shifting behaviour in early and late season when there are a number of fish in the runs or pools. These fish are often easier to catch, as they are preoccupied (see below) and seem less aware of potential threats. ON THE MOVE Over the years I began to understand why they moved and learnt how to predict when trout are likely to shift station. This improved my skills as an angler. Trout in the small streams of Taranaki moved from their lies at the head of a pool during long periods of stable flows, and I believe that with little food coming down in the current they were in search of any terrestrials that may have fallen into the pool, or bully/inanga (small native fish) that may have moved into the open. The fish in the pressured waters that ‘circled’ or ‘dropped’ were obviously wary of anglers, and their behaviour is probably the hardest to understand. I have come up with several theories. I believe they are either exhibiting a learned behaviour, and actually checking their territory for potential threats, or they are exhibiting an instinctive erratic behaviour that serves the same purpose, or a little bit of both! I would not describe these fish as active feeders, though they were feeding very cautiously. I think that the fish sitting in ‘odd spots’ are conserving energy and may have been caught recently, or perhaps caught or hooked a few times already that season. These fish were not spent or old. The fish that dropped downstream would often do so after the first cast (perhaps to confirm the threat), though they would also show this behaviour for no apparent reason as mentioned earlier. It is likely in both these cases, and in general in pressured fisheries, that trout become more active and move into the available feeding lies at night when it is safer. They can afford to do this in plentiful waters. The shifting fish in early and late season are easiest to understand. Early season fish are competing to re-establish their favourite pool, run and lie after spawning. Late season fish are getting ready to spawn, and jacks are often trying to see off a rival and align themselves with a hen. You will also find station shifters in rivers that have high populations of fish. I experienced this when guiding for Cedar Lodge in central Otago. They are just competing for favoured feeding lies. APPLYING THIS KNOWLEDGE With all of the above in mind, when approaching a run or pool, always stand well back in a concealed position, and wait and watch for a few minutes. If a station shifter is identified, decide where you want to fish for it — tail, middle or head of the pool. In my experience if there is only one fish in the pool, its prime lie in most cases will be at the head, so this is likely to be the easiest option to catch it. They can be caught in the middle or tail when they are cruising, though it is often more difficult and requires different tactics, but is still fun. Watch to see if the fish shifts regularly. Sometimes they can be timed and have a beat that they use like clockwork before returning to their lie, and other times their movements are completely irregular. Set up your rig when you are still out of the water in your concealed spot. If nymphing, use a sliding indicator so you can adjust for different depths quickly. If the light is difficult on the water, have your mate spot for you and let you know if the fish is on the move. Two pairs of eyes are better than one. Watch the fish cruise and when it turns back upstream and heads towards its lie, make your move! Quickly but cautiously follow the fish from directly behind. Have some line out ready to cast. When the fish settles in its lie, make your cast immediately. I have caught many fish using this tactic. If you don’t like your rig or your fly gets refused, move way back or right out of the water to change it, or let your mate have a go at the fish. If the fish turns while you are in casting position you have two options. The first and best is to quickly and quietly move to the bank and try to merge into the surroundings. Stay frozen still, watching the fish until it returns to its lie, then resume your casting position. Sometimes the trout will sense you and spook, sometimes not. It depends on the river and the individual fish. If you don’t have time, the second option is to quickly put a cast in front of the approaching fish and hope it becomes fixated on your offering and doesn’t see you until you’ve set the hook. This only works a small percentage of the time. If you’re targeting a fish in the tail or middle section of the pool when they are cruising, you can use ambush tactics. When the fish is at its station, creep into a hidden spot where you can cast to an area where you’ve seen the fish cruise. A dry dropper rig is a good option, or you could settle a streamer pattern on the bottom. Remember to take into consideration the current when making your fly placement. Never cast at the fish; have your trap set well in advance. When this tactic works it’s great to watch! When fishing for station shifters in pressured fisheries, the approach to your target is as critical as a long leader and a thin tippet diameter, or even more so. You have to be stealthier than any other angler that may have come before you. As soon as the fish returns to its station, move into casting position directly behind or as close to behind it as possible. Make your cast quickly with no unnecessary false casts. Angling for station shifting trout adds variety and challenges to fly fishing. It involves a great mix of extreme patience, stealth and fast-paced action, and we are all wealthier anglers because of their existence. True, at times these fish can be difficult to catch, and frustrating, but it wouldn’t be much fun if it was easy, would it?

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