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Do Fish See the Fishing Line?

A father and son fishing on a rock.

Growing up fishing with my dad, I often wondered whether the fish see the line. After all, they have eyes, so I knew they could see. But, over the years of fishing trips, I thought less and less about this, coming to the conclusion that it really does not matter if they see the line, so long as they take the bait and I can catch them.

However, now, as I plan my own fishing trips with my own son, I want to be ready to answer that inevitable question from him. So, I did some research, which I am willing to share with all of those parents whose kids ask.

The Easy Answer

A fish with a lure out of the water.

The easy answer to the question of whether fish see the fishing line is: “It depends.”

As with everything, there are a number of factors that go into whether fish see fishing line. Fishing is everything from a sport to a pastime to a way to get something to eat. Depending on your perspective on this time-honored activity, you may or may not want to know the details of what, if anything, will allow the fish to know you are hunting them because they see your line. And to help satisfy your curiosity as to what those factors may be, I will make an effort to explain some of them.

Type of Fishing Line

A roll of green and silver fishing line.

There are a number of different ways to fish with a line. Me, I am partial to fly fishing, but I think I would like deep-sea fishing if given the opportunity. That said, for just about every method for fishing with a line (meaning, not net or spear fishing), there is a specific type (or types) of line. And some of these lines are easier to see than others.

For example, when I am fly fishing, my line is actually multiple different lines tied together. I have the thick line that floats on the surface; connected to that, I have a tapered line; and connected to that, I have the leader (to which the fly is tied).

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Now, the floating line is usually some bright color, which makes it easier for me to see. The tapered line and leader are both the “clear” color that a lot of fishing line is, which makes it a little more difficult for me to see (especially when I’m out on the water with the sun reflecting in my eyes and trying to tie a new fly onto the leader).

Now, one would think that if I can see the line, the fish can see it, too. Well, of course the thick, brightly colored floating line is going to be easier for the fish to see, but, as alluded to, there are more factors than just the type of line.

Lighting Conditions

A man on the boat with a catch on his fishing rod.

As with everything that is seen, a fishing line reflects light to the eyes. In the case of fishing, that is usually sunlight (or moonlight, which itself is reflected sunlight). You can download apps for your phone that will tell you the best time to go fishing based on the position of the sun and the moon, and there is actually some science behind that kind of thing.

But what always surprised me about those apps was the time of day that was most often recommended for “the best fishing”.

I was always taught that the best fishing was early in the morning. With the sun barely over the horizon (or mountains), we would head out to try and catch something. The thinking was, at least as far as I could tell, that the fish were just waking up and going to get their breakfast, something that I was supposed to be providing them in return for them providing me with a meal sometime later. However, the best times to fish are really based more on lighting conditions (and other weather-based phenomena) than on the time the fish want to eat something.

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So, how do lighting conditions play a role in fishing?

Under the “ideal” lighting conditions, it is more difficult for the fish to see things like the line. That is not to say that they are unable to see anything, because they see the bait or lure and respond (hopefully) to that.

But, with the angles at which the light is reflecting off of the line and off of the water, it is harder for the fish to see the line. You have probably noticed something like this, yourself, as you try to follow where your line is floating along on the surface of the river.

The way that the light is reflected off of things plays a big role in how those things are “seen” (or whether they are even noticeable). We do not want the fish to take note of the line because the thought of something slicing through the water (as the line will do) is prone to scare the fish.

By fishing at times when the reflected light is such that the line is less noticeable, you are going to be setting yourself up with something working in your favor.

Do the Fish Care?

A school of freshwater fish in the river.

Now, let’s assume that you have not set yourself up with the proper lighting conditions and the proper type of line. You may be wondering if the fish actually care about the fishing line. With all of the things that are part of fishing (those things that make it “fishing” not “catching”), there can certainly be situations in which the fish absolutely do not care about the line. They may have something more important on their mind.

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The number of things that can make the line visible to fish is relatively small, and through the years of perfecting the art of fishing, mankind has worked diligently to minimize the chances that something like the line will detract from the catching of dinner.

That is not to say that we have succeeded in making it impossible for the fish to see the line. Of course, if you go into a good tackle shop you will find all different sorts of lines that tout their “invisibility” to fish. And that very fact, alone, should indicate that yes, it is possible for fish to see the line.

Of course, if you go out with a big rope and try to catch trout in a lake, the “line” you are using is going to be a problem. But you would not go out deep-sea fishing for tuna with a 10-lb test trout line, either.

What it All Boils Down to is…

A person holding a trout and a fishing rod.

It all comes down to the overall experience – both for you and for the fish. When you make plans to head out for a day of fishing, you are hopefully going to prepare yourself with the tackle that is appropriate for the type of fishing you are going to be doing.

This includes the line on your reel. But also, there are a lot of other things that are likely to be more important than the line, and whether the fish can see that line. The complete set of tackle for any fishing trip is put together with the aim of successfully catching fish, which means that everything together is designed to make your experience on the water one in which the fish’s experience includes getting caught.