How To Fish Stillwaters

September 15th, 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

High Lakes and Float Tubes

By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

Overwhelming frustration can come to hunters and fishers in many forms. A bird hunter is working a brace of dogs in an Idaho sugar-beet field. The dogs set and flush a trio of Chinese rooster pheasants and the gunner discovers he had forgotten to load his Model 12.

An elk hunter tracks a herd in deep snow - in a bulls only area - and after long hours, walks up to a large group of cows and calves.

An angler hooks a steelhead that appears to be in the 20-pound range. It takes him nearly a quarter mile downstream. Just as his partner is set to tail the fish, it spits out the fly and swims off.

No, dear friends. These three episodes are not fictional. Ask my wife. She was there on all three occasions.

These are indeed examples of genuine frustration. But if I had to pick my most frustrating outdoors experience, it would be something that happened to me on one of Idaho's alpine lakes. The scene: Ten acres of lovely emerald-green water, liberally laced with high-country moss beds and dotted with lily pads. The sun is setting and a heavy hatch of mayflies stimulates a good population of rainbow trout into frenzied feeding.

Two- to four-pound fish begin cruising the shoreline, feeding at predictable intervals on the tiny evening sulphers. I pick a strategic casting station. A peninsula from which I can cast to rising fish in three different directions. Using a 7X tippet, I offer size 20 and 22 dries and stillborns to the feeding trout (with as much skill as I possess)...

I cast...and cast...and cast. Four pounders feed to my right. Four pounders feed to my left. I cast...and cast...and cast.

Sixty minutes later, after changing flies half a dozen times, I am completely wilted, drenched with perspiration, fishless, and completely frustrated. I've had two such experiences on this same little mountain lake, I'm not sure my blood pressure could stand a third.

There are side benefits to such experiences. At least that's what I wrote in my Humble Sportsman's Handbook, (in very fine print). Besides making occasional moments of success sweeter, my yet to be published book says: "Frustrations like this tend to deflate super-egos and provides tons and tons of humility." Which according to some psychologists is a good thing ( unless you're a fly fisherman, in which case it wouldn't be relevant).

The major problem fly fishermen encounter in fishing high mountain lakes, is how to make a decent back-cast. It isn't often we find a casting station, such as the one described above, that allows for easy casting.

Since many alpine lakes require hikes of several miles, it is not practical to carry a boat in. Sometimes we find log rafts, or are able to build one, allowing us some degree of mobility. But the angler who hasn't fished from a crudely-built high-country log raft, has a unique experience awaiting him.

The first raft I used was on a beautiful jewel of a lake near the central Idaho Primitive Area. The lake had a reputation of producing rainbow trout as big as seven- or eight-pounds, so I felt lucky when I located a reasonably seaworthy log raft, and a fairly decent paddle, along the shallow end of the lake. I was surface trolling, exploring the fringe of the little lake, when a large trout inhaled my bait.

The fish grabbed my fly and pulled my untended rod over the end of the raft and it began to sink. Since it was the only equipment I had with me, I didn't hesitate. Diving over the side, I managed to grab the sinking rod at a depth of about four or five feet. The fish was long gone, but at that point I wasn't especially concerned with losing the fish. I swam to the raft and threw my rod up on the platform. I was about to discover my problems had only begun.

The raft's logs were covered with a thick layer of algae (slime). I had trouble getting the grip on the platform I needed, to swing my knees up and climb aboard. I mentally compared my predicament with climbing a greased pole. After five minutes of heavy exertion, I ended up towing the raft to shore.

From that day forward, I have carefully cleaned the slime off any raft I use. Although I've caught some nice trout in several Idaho and Montana high mountain lakes, I believe the fish I lost that day on Honeymoon Lake, might have been the best of the lot.

The float tube may not have been designed with alpine lakes in mind, but it could have been. It can be deflated, stowed comfortably aboard a pack horse, or personal packboard, and carried with comparative ease. It is easily inflated with a simple bicycle pump.

In fishing high mountain lakes before I became a float tuber, I had always used tiny dry flies, Mepps-type spinners or salmon eggs. Once I learned something about tube fishing nymphs - and began tying flies - I changed my thinking about mountain lakes. I discovered that in addition to taking high country trout on small dry flies, I could also catch them on many of our lowland reservoir patterns.

The entomology of a high lake is more in tune with lowland desert reservoirs than I once believed. Besides the obligatory mayflies, midges, and caddis, almost all high country lakes also contain populations of dragonflies, damsel flies, leeches and scuds. It may offend some high lake purists who insist on fishing with 7X tippets and size 24 dries, but the deeper sinking lines with leech patterns, for example, will take fish. In many cases, the larger fish.

I had a "lesson on leeches" on another central Idaho alpine lake early in my fly fishing career. We were fishing Loon Lake, near the Secesh River; a lake full of average sized brook trout and some very large bull trout. I had spent most of an afternoon wading bare-legged where the main creek flows in. The fishing had been steady, and I had not bothered to go ashore in over four hours.

Around the campfire that evening, one of my companions noticed some blood flowing below the cuff of my levis. When we examined my legs to find out why I was bleeding, we found a dozen fully fed leeches on each leg. We tried salt, a burning cigarette, and everything else Boggie tried in African Queen. Finally, I had my friends pull the leeches off, one by one. I carried scars for the next 10 years.

The only real difference between fishing crystal-clear alpine lakes and lowland reservoirs, is the length of the leader and the length of the typical cast. I fish high lakes as if I were fishing a spring creek. I'll often lengthen my leader to 10 or 12 feet and work with a long distance casting technique.

Day in and day out, lowland reservoirs may produce larger trout than high mountain lakes, but not larger rewards. The contentment a float-tuber can experience on a crystal-clear high mountain lake will more than balance the scale (assuming it isn't central Idaho's Barnard Lake).

My basic equipment for alpine lakes now includes a float tube, waders and fins, a 9-foot, 4-weight graphite fly rod, a collection of lines that include a floater, a Type I slow sinker, and a Type III or IV fast sinker.

My high lakes fly boxes are stuffed with standard dry fly patterns like the Adams, Gray Fox, Elk Hair Caddis, Blue Duns, and an assortment of midges. My nymphs are Gold Ribbed Hare's Ears (in a wide range of colors and sizes), Pheasant-tails, Peacock Emergers, and some small midge larvae and pupae. I also carry scuds, leeches, damsel nymphs, dragonfly nymphs, and my favorite all around streamers patterns, the Stayner Ducktail and the Blonde Stayner.

As a general rule, I tie my alpine patterns one or two sizes smaller than I do for my typical lowland reservoir boxes.

I spend most of the summer with my 5th wheel in an R.V. park within 3-hours drive of Bernard Lake. I have a friend with horses who has invited me to fish "frustration lake" with him this summer. He knows my history at the lake, but thinks "third time might be charmed." I'm not so sure. ~ 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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