How to Catch a Sea Trout

Advice on sea trout fly fishing at night

Sea trout may be caught during daylight hours in a falling river following a summer spate. In such conditions sea-trout often behave much like salmon and may be caught using similar tactics. Indeed, many sea trout are caught on flies and lures intended for salmon. But, following the spate, when the rivers have dropped back to near summer level and again run clear, it is the hours of darkness which present the best opportunities of catching sea trout on the fly on British rivers.

River Tyne Sea Trout
                                                                              Tyne Sea Trout

For those yet to experience the great thrill of catching a sea trout on the fly in the dark, I present here some tips on how to go about it with a reasonable chance of success. Of course, success in sea trout fishing depends on a whole series of factors coming together in the right way, at the right time and in the right place. Not all of these factors are within our control but the following guidelines might serve to optimise our chances of success.

Be in the right place at the right time

Generally, the best months on British rivers for night sea trout fishing are June, July and August. Peak runs and catches will vary from river to river and with weather conditions throughout the season, but the most propitious times can be judged fairly well by an examination of recent seasons’ catches. For rivers in England and Wales the Environment Agency publishes yearly salmon and sea trout catch statistics (view them at Recent Salmon and Sea Trout catch Statistics ). A thorough examination of these statistics will show the most productive sea trout rivers in England and Wales and the best months to fish them.

For example, if we look at the 2016 Catch Statistics , we can see that the top ten sea trout rivers in England and Wales in 2016 were as follows:

Tywi – 1743, Dyfi – 1696, Teifi – 1543, Lune – 1462, Ribble – 1365, Tyne – 1214, Border Esk – 1111, Wear – 976, Conwy – 962, Clwyd – 777.

The most productive months on most were July and August. It is worth noting that, on many sea trout rivers, the bigger fish often run earlier in the season. So, if fishing in June, you may find sea trout of larger than average size and they may also be more ready takers of a fly (given suitable night conditions), while later in the season, say in August, although there may be more sea trout present in the river, they may be of a smaller average size and generally not so fresh as the earlier run fish. On the other hand, there are fewer fishable hours during the short June nights.

The 2016 E. A. report also shows the salmon and sea trout catches on all English and Welsh rivers for every season from 2006 to 2016.  A study of these statistics will pay dividends when deciding where and when to go fishing for sea trout.

If no national statistics are available, for example for some Scottish rivers, the fishery you intend to fish, be it a privately let beat or club/association water, should have catch records for you to consider when planning your sea trout fishing trip.

Only the top rivers in England and Wales are mentioned above. Sea trout may be caught on many more, both north and south of the border. The River Spey , in particular, is one of the very best sea trout rivers in the British Isles. The Spey has, historically, been one of the most productive sea trout rivers in the UK, with a ten year average annual catch (1992 to 2001) of 4,590 rod-caught sea trout. By comparison, only the Rivers Tywi and Teifi in Wales have caught more fish. Catches over recent seasons have been lower, in line with the general downward trend throughout the country. The 2016 declared rod catch for sea trout was 1,318, which was a 39% reduction on the 2,175 caught in 2015. The 2017 season, however, has shown a vast improvement, with the Kinchurdy beat alone ending the season with a catch of 340 sea trout, three times the number recorded in 2016. The two major angling associations at Grantown and Abernethy have also shown a significant improvement on the 2016 catch (currently awaiting publication of 2017 total sea trout catch for the river, which I would expect to be well in excess of 2000).

For a graph showing catches for the period 1952 to 2011, see Spey Sea Trout Catches . It is worth noting that the best months for sea trout night fishing on the Spey are June and July, with June generally being the more productive month. Other Scottish sea trout rivers worthy of consideration are the Earn, South Esk, Nith, Annan, Border Esk (Scotland and England), Deveron and Allan, to name but a few.

Having reviewed the available catch statistics, you now need to arrange access to your chosen river. This might be done through booking a private beat or by either joining or buying a visitor’s permit to fish on the water managed by one of the many angling clubs and associations throughout the country. For some ideas on accessible fishing clubs and associations with good sea trout fishing, see Sea Trout Angling Associations

For more information see British Sea Trout Rivers

Pray for a low clear river

Given the opportunity to choose the timing of your sea trout fishing trip, be sure to go when the river has dropped, cleared and settled to a fairly steady low level, generally no more than about six inches above summer low level (the fishable height will vary from river to river – the main essential is that the river should be running clear) ideally several days after a summer spate which will have cleaned out and freshened the river and hopefully brought in a run of fresh sea trout. Hope also that the weather during your visit will remain on the dry side, so that the river level will remain at that crucial steady low level and continue to run clear.

Hope for favourable weather

We all have to take what comes weather-wise but sea trout success often depends very much on nocturnal conditions. Generally we will look for settled weather with temperatures remaining in double figures (centigrade) throughout the night, with a good bit of cloud cover. A little rain now and again will do no harm, provided that it does not cause the river to rise and colour. The chances of catching sea trout at night on a river running with any colour are very low. You may catch sea trout during the day, and maybe at dusk, in coloured water but, for successful night fishing with the fly, the river should be running as clear as crystal. Sea trout will generally be most active, and most catchable, in the first hour or two of darkness, rarely before darkness has fallen. On mild nights, they may be caught throughout the night. If the night turns cold, you may have to work harder for a fish.

Select a suitable stretch of river to fish at night

On arriving at your chosen beat, hoping that recent weather conditions have allowed the river to drop and settle to a steady low level, you should devote a good part of your first day to walking the beat, discovering where you may safely enter and exit the river (look out for well trodden entry and exit points for clues to the most popular fishing spots, also for popular riverside parking spots where the road runs near the river), where you may wade safely etc., but, most importantly, trying to identify places where the sea trout are likely to take a fly at night. In the absence of an experienced local advisor, this may not be easy. I would look for places where the river shallows or narrows, increasing the speed of flow. On small rivers in particular, it may be possible, even necessary, to concentrate on the main pools, fishing them quietly, thoroughly and methodically from head to tail, as these pools may be where the sea trout are to be found at night. In general though, particularly on a medium to large river, I would tend to concentrate my efforts elsewhere. I would not choose to begin on the deeper, slower parts of a pool. Nor would I favour the rougher streams you will often find at the head of a pool. Instead, I would hope to find places, often above, below or between the deeper holding pools, where the river shallows and / or narrows, causing the flow to quicken, but with a fairly smooth surface. This kind of water may be found towards a pool tail but not only at the tail.

On mild nights, I have found that sea trout will often move, from the sanctuary of their deeper daytime lies, into such streams and glides, sometimes little more than a foot deep and, more importantly, will be prepared to take a fly in them. Another benefit of the quickening stream, in a river running at low summer level, is that it allows the fly to swing round at a good pace without the need for much, if any, hand lining. Stealth, of course, is essential in such shallow clear streams, which brings us to the next point.

Don’t begin fishing before dark

In the low clear water of our summer rivers, sea trout tend to hide away during the day, seeking sanctuary in the deeper pools. Other than in spate conditions, they are very wary, easily spooked and very difficult to catch during daylight hours. At night, they will often emerge from their daytime lies, to revel in the safety and security of the darkness. Once it is dark enough, they may move around within the pools, or run into the next pool upstream. They may move into shallower streams, sometimes showing their presence by leaping in the air or making bow waves in the pool tails. This activity is more likely, and may last for a longer period, on mild nights. Generally, sea trout are most active during the first hour or two of darkness. It is then that we have our best chance of persuading them to take our flies. But not before it is properly dark. To begin before the riverside greens have turned to grey, though tempting, is likely to put an end to your sport before it has begun. Sea trout are less wary at night than during the day, but they may easily be put off if the angler betrays his presence by careless casting or wading. Fish as stealthily as you would in daylight. Move slowly and quietly, keep off the skyline and seek background tree cover, especially on bright nights. If there is a moon, try not to fish with it at your back.

Tackle and Tactics

Keep it simple! Unless you are fishing a very small river, where a 9 foot rod may suffice, I would recommend a rod of ten feet, fitted with a short butt extension of up to two inches long. This keeps the reel, which should be large enough to accommodate the fly line plus 100 yards of backing, away from clothing when fishing and playing fish. The rod should not be stiff and poker-like but should have a middle-to-tip or “through” action, flexing through much of its length when casting and playing fish. It should be rated for a number seven line but used in conjunction with a number eight line. This slight overloading will make it easier to feel what is going on in the dark and load the rod more easily for short to medium casts. Even on large rivers, you will rarely need to cast more than about twenty yards.

For most night fishing in shallow water, I would recommend a floating line, either double tapered or weight forward. To this I would attach a leader consisting of eight to ten feet of 8lb or 10lb Maxima Chameleon, treated with an application of fuller’s earth mixture to allow it to sink more readily. I would suggest a single fly or lure. You might begin with a single fly in size 10 or 8 and perhaps change to a longer lure later in the night, maybe a slim stainless steel needle tube fly dressed on a tube of 25mm to 35mm in length.

Lure size may depend to an extent on the river level, temperature, degree of darkness, distance from the sea, time of night, time of year etc.. A high river and a cold, dark night, for example, might require a longer lure. The colour of the fly is of little importance, as sea trout cannot distinguish colour at night any more than we can. Black and silver is as good as anything, perhaps with a dash of white or other lighter shade just to provide a little contrast. A normal cast, even on our larger sea trout rivers, need be no more than about twenty yards, i.e. a leader of up to 10 feet, 30 feet of fly line outside rod tip when casting, 10 feet of rod, plus 10 to 15 feet of line retrieved at the end of fly’s swing, to be shot again on the forward cast = a cast of over 60 feet (twenty yards). Often a much shorter cast will suffice.

After retrieving the few yards of fly line shot on the previous cast, the next cast should be made, with no false casting, to a point near the far bank at an angle varying from 45 to 90 degrees to the flow. You will normally be fishing from the shallow side of the river casting to deeper water on the far side. Where there is sufficient flow to work the flies, the line and fly may be allowed simply to swing round to the dangle (the rod angled slightly above the horizontal with the fly line trapped between the rod handle and the index finger of the casting hand) before the few yards of shooting fly line are retrieved and the line recast. The speed of the fly may be varied by casting at varying angles and/or performing a retrieve of varying speeds by pulling in line with the non casting hand via the index finger of the casting hand, which will be used to trap the line momentarily, to set the hook when a fish takes. The whole pool, stream or glide can be covered in this way by moving, often wading, slowly and carefully downstream, casting as you go.

You will need a pair of chest waders fitted with studded or felt soles. You will also need a landing net, which can be carried comfortably while fishing and employed conveniently, while wading in the river, when a fish is caught. A “gye” net of 24 inch diameter, slung over the back, is ideal. A good waterproof wading jacket is essential, as is hat and warm clothing, particularly if you intend to fish late into the night. Another essential accessory is a torch for making your way to and from the river and for changing flies by the riverside. Head torches are now popular but their use should be kept to a minimum and care should be taken to avoid the torch beam shining on the river. Carry a spool or two of nylon, a handy pair of scissors or snips for changing flies, and forceps for removing hooks, perhaps a camera for a quick shot of the catch and a mobile phone. Food and a warm drink to taste complete the list of essentials ….. Oh, nearly forgot the midgie repellent – don’t leave home without it and apply it liberally on leaving the car.

Tight lines,

John Gray

For more sound advice on setting out on your first sea trout fishing expedition, see this article by the late Dave Wallbridge: Starting Out