Stillwater Made Easy!
Trout fishing is defined by streams. Moving water represents purity far more than a saltwater flat or stagnant lake. Rivers and creeks also contain definable targets – riffles, seams, eddies, structure – that are easy to identify as prime holding water for fish. Rightly or wrongly, trout fishing is overrepresented in the fly fishing world, and the vast majority who fish for trout do it on rivers.
The distain so many of us have for stillwater is understandable. Lakes lack the riffles and seams and current lines we associate with healthy trout water. You are basically on a vast piece of stationary liquid where the holding water is measured vertically more so than horizontally. This can be intimidating. If you are casting away with no hookups and no change in scenery, it can be downright boring as well.
But fishing lakes has its upsides. They can harbor incredibly large specimens, typically larger than what we average on streams. Stillwater also offers a needed break from constantly fishing for trout on rivers. All streams are different, but rarely are their streams that are anything like a lake. Fishing stillwater gives us the chance to develop different skills and attain greater knowledge of trout behavior and how they interact with their ecosystem. There are also times when the streams we fish regularly, due to anything from congested conditions to inhospitable water temperatures to runoff, just don’t present a worthwhile experience. A nearby lake just might give you what you are looking for.
Living in eastern Idaho gives me access to a ton of stillwater. I get the opportunity to guide on a few of them each year. It is rarely a popular choice for prospective guests. That is, until they actually come out with me and we “break the code.” They immediately discover just how rewarding stillwater can be. For many return guests, especially those I guide a number of times throughout the year, lakes become a part of our repertoire.
“Breaking the code” requires focusing on key elements required for successful stillwater fly fishing. These elements include targeting the right water at the right time of year, finding the active part of the water column, determining the forage trout are focusing on, and determining the right presentation. Once these factors are understood, stillwater becomes far less intimidating.
Holding Water on Lakes
Part of the problem with most stillwater bodies is the lack of classic lies like the riffles and eddies we find on streams. Most novice stillwater fly fishers don’t know what to look for. Nevertheless, lakes have a plethora of water to target. It’s just different.
My favorite stillwater target are flats. Essentially this is relatively shallow water – typically three to eight feet in depth and close to littoral areas like islands and shorelines. Flats are often the first parts of a lake to melt out during spring thaw. These ice-out events can offer some of the best stillwater fishing of the year. Flats warm quickly. As a result, trout forage lose their lethargy or come out of winter dormancy and move around more consistently. This makes them more available to trout. Flats will continue to produce after ice-out and for the next few weeks before the upper portion of the water column becomes too warm for trout to feed in comfortably most of the day. When these warm water conditions take over, flats will be worthwhile target only during the first few hours after sunrise.
Flats become worthwhile again in autumn when water temperatures at the top of the column cools again. On the lakes I fish in the Greater Yellowstone region, this is typically from equinox until ice-over occurs in late November.
Drop-offs are another worthwhile target. These are areas where there is a noticeable change in gradient from a flat to deeper portions of a lake. Some are abrupt. Others are more gradual. Drop-off typically offer good activity after ice has come completely off a lake and for the next several weeks. I consider the top 15 feet to be the best water to fish. Drop-offs warm slowly, so they can be productive well into summer. Trout forage become more active as deeper portions of the water column warm. This gives trout ample opportunity to feed.
Tributary inlets are yet another good choice. Steams flowing into lakes create seams and currents that are arguably the closest type of holding water to what we find on rivers. Inflow brings forage into lakes, supplying them with nutrients in the form of both aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates. Trout sitting at tributary inlets get the first crack at this forage. Tributaries also bring in cooler water that fish find hospitable as stillwater bodies warm. They can produce later into the summer when the top portion of lakes become too warm.
Forage, Presentation, and the Water Column
When I discuss lakes with novice stillwater anglers, I try and hammer home the importance of three factors that work together in a synergistic fashion– 1) finding the portion of the water column where feeding is most active, 2) determining the forage trout are keying in on most, and 3) discovering the presentation that produces best. Linking up these three factors is crucial to having success on just about every lake I fish regularly.
Where fish are feeding in the water column is typically influenced by environmental factors like water temperature, natural light, barometric pressure, and precipitation. I divide the water column into three distinct zones. The top portion is from the surface down to the six foot level. This is debatably the most enjoyable part of the water column to fish, as trout are visible. Follows and chases are easy to see when conditions are right. Fish are active in this top portion when water temperatures are ideal or close to ideal, around 39 degrees to 58 degrees. This temperature range is comfortable and wide enough to include activity by a variety of trout forage, including everything from chironomids to damsel flies to baitfish. There are times of production when water temperatures are higher. These include periods of cloud cover, precipitation, and/or a transition in barometric pressure from high to low. These periods often produce hatches of mayflies like gray drakes, callibaetis, and midges. If these bugs are active, trout will be as well.
Below this top portion is an equidistant zone from the six foot level down to the ten foot part of the water column. Like the top portion, this zone is most active between 39 degrees and 58 degrees. The equidistant portion produces when there is intense sunlight or there is low barometric pressure (two conditions that are not generally associated with each other).
The lower zone extends from the 10 foot level down to the 15 foot level. This piece of the water column provides the best action of the three zones when there is extended periods of warm temperatures at the top 10 feet of the water column or extended periods of low barometric pressure. Water temperatures reaching the 60 degree-plus mark (an event common on lakes in mid-summer even at high elevations) are uncomfortable for trout. It has less oxygen and can put metabolism into overdrive. It’s rare to find water temperatures above 60 degrees in this lower zone. Low barometric pressure can also be uncomfortable. Trout will often descend to lower depths when there is low pressure to equalize and balance their swim bladder. I find that depth to be below 10.
Identifying the active part of the water column can take time and focus. Take environmental factors into consideration, but be vigilant in probing the water you are fishing. Once you find a zone of production, keep hitting it. And be ready to make a change if the action comes to a halt.
Most fishing-worthy lakes have a wide variety of forage available to trout. I have not fished a body of stillwater yet that does not have a healthy population of chironomids. Scuds and Mysis shrimp either occur naturally or have been planted a number of lakes in the Rocky Mountain region and the Pacific Northwest. These high protein food forms are essentially steroids that provide plentiful nutrients to pack on weight. Swimming mayflies like gray drakes and Callibaetis are also common, as are dragonflies and damselflies. And, of course, there are other fish like minnows, scuplins and daces that provide trout a lot of nourishment in one bite.
I have found stillwater trout to be far more selective in their feeding compared to their stream resident counterparts. Trout on lakes have more time to study their prey and detect imperfections in size, silhouette, movement, color, and even smell. Knowing the basics of stillwater forage can go a long way to having success and cracking the code.
Going hand-in-hand with knowledge of stillwater trout foods is knowing how they move. Their movement dictates how you present your imitation.
Arguably the most effective patterns for stillwater fly fishing are chironomids and scud or mysis imitations simply because they exist almost everywhere and in vast numbers. They are a massive part of any lake’s biomass. Many of the stillwater trout I catch have both midges and Mysis lodge in their mouths. The downside is that much patience and focus is required to fish these imitations. The majority of takes I experience is while my patterns are suspended. Others occur with slow pinch retrieves (no more than two inches per line strip). Sounds easy enough, but novice stillwater fishers find it incredibly frustrating to move a fly so slow, or not at all. The breakthrough comes when they actually start to get consistent action. They realize it is the presentation and the portion of the water column they are fishing, more so than the fly, that is key. That is when these newbies really begin to focus on “how” they are fishing.
Swimming mayflies are the next most effective patterns on the lakes I fish regularly. Again, proper presentation – essentially movement – is critical for success. Lakes are the perfect environment for Callibaetis and gray drakes, both of which swim in their nymphal stage. Their abdomens perform rapid up-and-down motion to gain propulsion. This be best imitated with moderate to fast pinch retrieves with line strips of two to three inches at most. Three second pauses after a 15 to 20 line strips is the most important step in the retrieve. Takes most often occur during the first few line strips after the pause.
Damsel and dragonfly nymphs follow closely behind swimming mayflies in consistent production. Both move briskly, although in different manners. Damsels move their abdomens horizontally and with a lot of effort. This is best achieved with the traditional hand-twist or figure-8 retrieve. Dragonfly nymphs, on the other hand, propel their bodies by expelling water out of their hind ends. Rapid pinch retrieves consisting of four to five inch line strips is the most imitative movement. As with swimming nymphs, hesitations after one or two dozen line strips are important.
Baitfish imitations in the form of streamers are less consistent than aquatic invertebrates, but they are incredibly easy to fish, primarily because novice anglers are far more comfortable imitating their movement – typically line strips of one two to feet in length at a moderate tempo. When I am guiding someone new to stillwater fishing and they just can’t get the presentation down required for most aquatic invertebrates, I will always put them on a small streamer. Even though they are generally less effective, they still catch fish.
Stillwater lines: Your Most Important Tackle Choice
Stillwater junkies typically go with 6wt to 7wt rods. They go up in weight only if they are fishing deeper than 15 feet and and/or targeting truly large lake dwelling fish like mackinaw.
Your rod choice is important, but it pales in comparison to your choice in line. I almost exclusively fish full sinking lines of varying sink rates, the latter of which is determined by what portion of the water column I am targeting and the speed at which I am retrieving my line. The only time I us a floating line is when I am fishing a surface pattern and a suspended invertebrate imitation like midge larva, scud, or Mysis shrimp. Floating lines are too often impacted by surface winds, bowing the line in ways that make takes difficult to detect. The natural hinge than occurs at the line-leader joint doesn’t help, either.
My go-to line for fishing flats down to the four foot level are hover lines with a sink rate of approximately .5 to .75 inches per second (ips). These are great for fishing slow retrieved flies line swimming nymphs. When I am fishing flats of drop-offs and targeting four to ten feet in the water column, I use a clear or camo full sinking intermediate line (1.5 ips). They are also ideal for fishing damsel and dragonfly nymphs and streamers, all of which will be are retrieved faster than swimming nymphs or scuds. Fishing below 15 feet in the water column generally requires a line with a sink rate of 3ips or greater, especially when using baitfish imitations (something I generally do when fishing at this depth). At the same time, fishing at this depth can be achieved by allowing your slower sinking lines to sink (the countdown technique is best) before initiating your retrieve. Basic, yet confident, knowledge of your line’s sink rate is something I stress to novice saltwater anglers.
Go in with Confidence
What I outlined above seems like a lot of material. In reality, these are just the essentials. There is a heck of a lot more information out there. Gaining that knowledge can be interesting and a lot of fun. It will also makes you a better stillwater fly fisher.
At the same time, these essentials can take you pretty far on most lakes. Targeting the right water – flats, drop-offs, tributaries – at the right time of year can help you catch more trout and gain more conviction in your abilities. Using the right tackle – primarily lines – for the tactics you are employing is important. It can take some time to develop the skills to fish these lines. But it is also gratifying once you develop those skills, just as it is when using a new line or technique on a stream. Detecting the active part of the water column, as well as the forage trout are eating and the proper presentation for that forage, takes time and focus. Once you crack that code, however, stillwater fishing becomes much more enjoyable. Cracking that code gives you that confidence.