Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Woodbury MN

The bottom line is that water visibility is an important factor dictating where and how aggressively fish will feed. Most of the time under high water visibility conditions, when you can see the bottom of the river clearly, it is unlikely you will catch a fish in that area. While under medium or low visibility conditions the same stretch can be a fish factory. This does not mean you should only fish deep holes. It means different areas of the river will be more productive than others depending on water visibility. Pay attention to different portions of the river and try to fish them when the water visibility is low or medium.

Remember, there is always an exception to every rule in fishing. If an area looks fishy and you can clearly see the bottom go ahead and take a cast or two. If nothing happens move quickly to another spot. Try to focus on shallower (less than two feet of water) fishy looking areas where you cannot see the bottom. Under those conditions it is medium or low water visibility. If you consistently do this, your fishing success rate will increase dramatically.

The concept of water visibility is not a guarantee for catching fish. But if you pay attention to the water visibility conditions and adjust where you fish, it should raise your success rate substantially. The table below is based on my on-the-water experience. These are generalizations – there will be exceptions. I share these with the hopes that it will help you increase your fishing success. It assumes there are no active hatches occurring at the time you are fishing (I have found that when there is a prolific hatch, fish will feed regardless of the water visibility).

Where and How to Fish Based on Water Visibility

Water Visibility Water Clarity Available Light Depth the Bottom Can Be Seen Where fish are likely to hold*/Suggested Fishing Approach(es)
High High High Light, Sunny 2 or more feet of water Fish will tend to be deeper (2 feet or deeper) and relating to nearby submerged structure or edges.

Usually this a “finesse situation” calling for longer leaders with smaller tippets (4-5X) and flies (#14-20). I like to go with a 2-fly set-up1 in these situations; either 2 dries (larger lead fly, smaller dropper fly), or a dry-nymph combination (depending on the depth of water a bead head or tungsten bead head may be needed to get the fly down where the fish are holding.)

Medium High Low Light, Cloudy, Sun Up, or Sun Down between 1 to 2 feet Fish will tend to be tight to any structure that is between 1-2 feet deep. The fish may move a short distance to take something, but usually the fly must be within six or less inches of the holding structure.

These are standard conditions. I usually use a 9-12,’ 3-4X leader with a 2-fly set-up. Lead Fly: I like using either a larger attracter style fly (#6-#12) or a #14-#18 parachute fly that imitates a fly that has been hatching recently. Dropper Fly: should be at least one size smaller than the lead fly. For dries I like emerger patterns of what has been hatching recently or a terrestrial. For nymphs, I use the smallest weighted or unweighted fly that will occasionally tick the bottom.

Medium Medium to Low High Light, Sunny between 1 to 2 feet Same as above
Low High None, Dark Less than 1 foot Fish can be anywhere next to shallow cover or shorelines. Concentrate on areas that have slower water for holding next to current.

These are big fish conditions. No sissy stuff here. Shorter (7 ½’) and heavier leaders (0X-2X, or even straight leaders of 10-15 lbs.) are needed to cast the heavier flies and handle the larger trout. While you can use a 2-fly set-up, I find using a dropper generally leads to more snags as you need to get within 6” or less of the structure you are fishing. Large streamers (weighted or unweighted) or big dries work best. The fish are looking for a “meat-eaters-delight!”2

Low Low Cloudy, Sun Up or Sun Down Less than 1 foot Same as above

*The chart assumes there is no active hatch occurring at that time. If there is a hatch, most of these generalizations would not hold as well, if at all.

1 If you need some guidance on using a 2-fly set-up, I provided a chart for various 2-fly set-ups in one of my previous articles, “The River Will Teach You: “Bobber Fly Fishing,”” You can find it towards the end of the article.

2 I covered fishing in cloudy water in a previous article (Handling Cloudy Water). Flies and areas to fish at dark are similar.

Hopefully this series on water visibility has equipped you to use this concept to your advantage and will increase your fishing success. Feel free to let me know if you have any questions. In the meantime, I hope you catch a big one soon with the help of this article!


  1. GREAT write-up Joe. Great topic, and I liked all the anecdotes you added from experience to illustrate each point.

    I envision a dumbed-down but useful “take-away” that I can carry easily in my head, which consists of a few simple tenets and a mental diagram:

    1. Trout (almost all fish in fact) are always keen to feed–somewhere.
    2. For their own safety; trout recede from being visible even when they feed.
    3. The shallows can be rich in food–small fish, crustaceans, bugs.
    4. To feed the shallows, they wait for when they’re less visible.
    5. They dial in the depth and location of their feeding wrt a “spectrum.”

    Then I imagine such a graphical spectrum, with water being impossible to see through on the left of the diagram, and clear as the air itself on the right. Factors that diminish or enable visibility–that is, factors that determine where a given piece of water is on the chart–would be anything including light source intensity, water cloudiness, refraction factors like shoppy or breeze-swept surface, cover such as logs or overhead branches or forest shadows, and of course how deep the light has to go to get to this particular piece of water we want to fish.

    On the left of the diagram would be fish feeding there readily. On the right would be fish having abandoned that water for places where visibility is less. In between the far left and the far right is…some hybrid behavioral mix of the two extremes.

    There are other ways to imagine what you say, but a simple graph like that seems to be something I can take with me to the stream, in my mind. As a morning or an evening changes and new conditions unfold, I can simply adjust where I think a patch of water is on that spectrum.

    This is a simple and yet really powerful topic you have presented. Thanks so much for reminding it, and for all the examples that prove the points.

    – Mike

  2. Hi Mike,
    Nice job, you nailed it. That is exactly the point the blog was shooting to make.

    It is unfortunate that some of the original charts I made did not translate well into the blog due to formatting shifts. I would be happy to send the originals if you would like to see them. Send me an email at [email protected] if you would like to see them.
    Hope this translates to more and bigger fish for you in the future!
    Tight Line, Joe

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