How To Fish Stillwaters

September 29th, 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

Variegated Chenilles for Wet Flies

By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

There were a dozen float tubers working the northern bay at Nevada's Sheep Creek Reservoir that autumn morning several years ago, and while most had gone fishless, one angler had routinely been catching trout. So many trout, in fact, that he had the other tubers talking to themselves.

I watched this obviously skilled fly fisherman closely. The first thing I noticed was his patience. Working pockets in the bay, the angler would cast, lift his rod high and use a reverse "Leisenring Lift". He would count to 15 as he slowly dropped the rod tip to the surface (I timed the sequence).

If he hadn't made contact with a fish at that point, he would begin a very slow hand-twist retrieve until he either hooked a fish, or his fly snagged in the few weeds that remained in the lake. If it didn't release easily, he would jerk it free, retrieve quickly, clean it off, and cast to another spot, repeating the process.

When I finally got a chance to talk with the angler, I didn't need to ask what kind of fly he was fishing, only the precise pattern. I've fished snail flies long enough to recognize another snail fisherman and I was curious to see if we had similar patterns. It turned out that he had read a newspaper column I had done on using variegated chenilles for snail patterns, and our snail boxes looked as if they had come out of the same catalog.

Certain patterns, backswimmer and snail flies, for example, can be a great deal more effective in early spring, and late fall, when the weed beds are much less dominant. With less cover to protect them, these aquatic life forms are much easier to capture by foraging trout.

My favorite snail pattern is actually a combination scud/snail fly. It started out as a very successful shrimp (scud) pattern, but because of its chunky overall shape has also been my most productive snail fly in recent years.

The evolution of this pattern took place over a number of years. With the acquisition of a wide variety of new variegated chenilles (more than one color in the chenille), I narrowed the most useful color combinations to what I call my "big eight" (listed later in the column).

I tried the gold/dark olive combination in several of nondescript chenille-bodied patterns, such as the Tex Favorite and Sheep Creek Special, and found it actually improved their over-all effectiveness. The standard Tex became a light olive Tex and finally evolved to the Taylor Shrimp. The pattern is now a solid member of my DEADLY DOZEN.

While the commonly used animal and synthetic dubbing materials construct effective nymph and wet fly bodies, the variegated chenilles give the tier another option he/or she should consider. Variegation can create the illusion of depth better than most other materials because it is less opaque than solid colors; and because most aquatic life forms are also multicolored. It is my opinion that this "depth" is the primary reason these variegated chenille flies work so well. Almost any fly pattern that utilizes chenille can be improved when the tier uses these multicolored chenilles instead of solid colors.

The ubiquitous Woolly Worms and Woolly Buggers are prime examples. These flies can be dressed in any of the variegated colors. My favorite color combinations include: Black and brown; Brown and gray; Peacock and brown; Gold and dark olive; Olive and grey; Black and tan; Black and orange; and Black and burnt orange. By using different colored hackles, the tier can considerably broaden his Woolly Worm and Woolly Bugger assortments.

The angler who has his own ideas about variegated chenilles, can order any colors the manufacturer (Danville) makes, blended into any of the sizes they make (except 00). He must, however, place an order through his favorite materials department for five skeins of each size he needs (that's enough chenille for about 10 life times. He will need a few buddies to share with).

That brings me to the question of chenille sizes. Although Danville lists their sizes from #00 (the smallest) to #4 and #5 (the largest), for our urposes we will consider only sizes #00 to #2. When the tier buys chenille in a fly shop, he will usually find them marked small, medium, and large. Small will usually mean either #00 or #0; medium either #1 or #2; and large number #3 or #4. (Fly tying materials distributors seem to arbitrarily decide their medium is Danville's #1 or #2. My primary distributor uses #1 as medium; most other distributors I've dealt with use #2).

I have a tendency in my tying to use smaller chenilles than most tiers. I believe a key to a good fly pattern usually leans towards "sparseness." On size 6 and 8 bugger (type) patterns, I use #1 chenille. On my 10s and 12s, I use #0 chenille, and on my 14s and 16s, I use #00 (available in only solid colors. If the pattern I'm tying in size 16, for example, requires one of the variegated chenilles, I use size 0 and trim it). If I have any doubts about which chenille to use, I go with the smaller size.

I've gone through several phases in my stillwater fly fishing/tying career. The first several years I used chenille and saddle hackle almost exclusively. I used only the solid colored chenilles, usually in (Danville's) size 2. Then I "discovered" animal furs (muskrat, beaver, otter etc.) and mohair, and pretty much strayed away from chenille for a number of years.

When the late Ruel Stayner began selling the variegated chenilles in his Twin Falls, Idaho fly shop, I tried them with a great deal of success. I remained loyal to the mohairs, particularly the legendary Canadian Brown, Blood, and Olive series, but I now began to tie more and more of my wet flies with several of the variegated chenilles instead of fur.

In his book Naturals, Stackpole Books, 1980, Gary Borger writes:
"Leeches are every color of the artist's pallet. As a rule they are spotted, mottled, streaked, or striped, often in reds, oranges, and yellows. The background color is usually gray, brownish, olive or black."

Are the variegated chenilles useful in tying leech patterns? Does a bear sleep in the woods?

I also successfully switched many of my fur-bodied caddis pupas to variegated chenilles.

If the manufacturers of chenille would blend their size #00, I would also switch many of my medium-sized chrironomid patterns (sizes 12 through 16) to chenille.

I receive letters and e-mails all the time, remarking how simple most of my stillwater patterns are. I usually respond by telling them: Simple flies from simple people.

(Wow! I've left myself open there, haven't I?) ~ 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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