How To Fish Stillwaters

June 30th, 2003

Stillwaters, lakes, ponds and reservoirs are the most underutilized fisheries in the North America. Why? Because the average fly fisher doesn't know how to fish them, or where to start. Stay tuned, you too can master stillwaters! ~ LadyFisher

Single Species Flies

By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

I've always prided myself in my well-organized fly boxes. For years I carried my 'trout' assortments, my 'bluegill' assortments, my 'bass' assortments, my 'crappie' assortments, and my 'steelhead' asssortments. While I admit to some overlap, for the most part I used the appropriate box when fishing for a particular fish species.

But is it really necessary to separate flies by fish species?

Not really. While certain fly patterns should be dressed for specific fish species, it is more appropriate to separate our flies by general type: Nymphs and wet flies, streamers, large and small dry flies (including traditional deer-hair poppers), and one of our most important categories, in my opinion, leeches and Woolly Buggers.

In order to fish the correct type fly patterns, the angler must have a solid understanding of the life style of each fish species and the aquatic foods that seem to turn them on. Is the target species primarily an insect eater, or does it feed more on forage fish? Does it feed more on the surface, or does it spend most of its time raiding the aquatic pantry nearer the bottom of a lake or stream?

Some species are more similar in their dining habits than others. Juvenile Bluegill and trout, for example, are primarily insect eaters. As they grow larger, both may turn more and more to forage fish to satisfy their caloric needs.

Bass and crappies are also similar in lifestyles. From the time they are about three inches long, they will begin to feed on small fish. While I have caught four- and five-pound largemouth bass on size 12 scud patterns, the angler who fishes a #2 Woolly Bugger will usually catch more bass. I've had two-inch largemouths take a fly larger than they were.

Of the two major black bass species, the largemouth is more a surface feeder than the smallmouth. The smallmouth prefers to scratch out a living on the bottom, searching mainly for crawdads. I generally think of poppers when I fish for largemouth and weighted crawdad patterns when I'm after smallmouth.


Non fly fishermen must also be aware of the best "types" of baits for their target fish. Most of the members of the trout family are, in fact, garbage disposal units in their dining habits. Most will eat everything you throw at them.

Trout baits include angle worms, Velveeta cheese, corn, marshmallows, salmon eggs, bread balls, maggots, grasshoppers, crickets, mousies, mice, and dozens of other natural and unnatural food items. Before I converted strictly to flies, my favorite trout bait was Velveeta cheese. With all of the processed baits now on the market, I doubt that anyone uses my "favorite" bait anymore.

But even though trout (particularly rainbow trout) will take about everything they can swallow, they still spend the bulk of their time eating natural foods such as invertebrates, crustaceans, snails, leeches etc.

As with fly fishing, the baiter who best presents his baits to fish, is the angler who will take fish under tough conditions. Many worm fishermen will just let their bait (commonly a large glob of worms) lie on the bottom, waiting for some dumb fish to come along and vacuum it up. They would usually do better if they used just enough bait to cover their hook, and a bobber to keep it off the bottom; often just inches beneath the surface.

The best time to fish on the bottom is early in the morning, before the daily insect hatches begin to occur. After the nymphs and larvae begin to emerge, trout will move off the bottom, intercepting the bugs as they swim towards the surface. The fish are far more likely at this point to eat a worm-baited hook that is dangling somewhere between the bottom of the lake and the surface, than they are a bait that is lying benignly on the bottom.

Bobbers and (small) worms can also be an effective technique for small to medium sized bluegill. But if you are looking for trophy-sized bream (fish larger than 10-inches), you'd better switch to some type of baitfish imitation, such as the Stayner Ducktail, Muddler Minnow, or Black Nosed Dace.


Of all of the fishes baits, crayfish are potentially the most effective. But they are also the most over-looked. While bass fishermen are usually knowledgeable about crayfish, most trout fishermen pretty much ignore them.

Halloween Leech

Or do they? Some of our popular leech and Woolly Bugger patterns - like the Halloween Leech - are excellent crayfish patterns when they are fished right down on the bottom. While I tie several excellent crawdad reproductions, it is usually my simple woolly bugger type patterns in the appropriate colors that take the most fish (bass or trout).

Instead of separating our fly patterns by fish species, fly rodders should organize their flies by types. I doubt that the most discriminating trout will be offended if his pursuer is using what some anglers would call a "bluegill fly."

I have a friend who is one of the best dry fly fishermen in southwest Idaho. He has several boxes containing most of the traditional dry flies: Adams', Light Cahills, Blue Winged Olives, Royal Wulffs, etc. etc. One of his favorite dry flies for our South Fork of the Boise River (a true blue ribbon rainbow trout fishery) is a pattern I sold him when I had my fly shop. It was a black rubber bodied ant, hackled, bluegill fly. I prefer this hackle version for bluegill instead of the more common rubber legged variety.

When I first sold it to my friend, I did tell him it was one of my favorite bluegill patterns. He didn't admit he wasn't going to fish for bluegill. I knew he was a trout purist...and he knew I knew he was a trout purist...and I knew he knew I knew...Well you get the picture.

I'm not exactly sure what trout take it for (possibly beetles). But I will guarantee...when my friend fishes it...they take it. I suppose if somebody told the fish they were eating a bluegill fly, they might be offended. But, I'll bet they would still take it. ~ Marv

About Marv

Marv Taylor's books, Float-Tubing The West, The Successful Angler's Journal, More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume I) and More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume II) are all available from Marv. You can reach Marv by email at or by phone: 208-322-5760.

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