How To Fish Stillwaters

April 7th, 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. Marv Taylor has a wealth of experience in this area and volunteered to write a weekly column to take the mystery out of fishing stillwaters. Stay tuned, you too can master stillwaters! ~ LadyFisher

Rules of Engagement for Stillwater
Installment 1
By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

Many anglers believe that learning to fly fish stillwater is much easier than mastering moving water. If we compare fishing a typical western trout lake or reservoir, to fishing a stream like Idaho's legendary Silver Creek, stillwater is indeed less challenging. While lake fly fishermen don't need the doctorate in entomology, fly tying, and presentation, it takes to be effective at Silver Creek, there are some rules of engagement anglers must understand if they are to develop their stillwater skills.

My introduction to fly fishing for trout in stillwater took place at southern Idaho's Magic Reservoir more than 50 years ago. I was on leave from the Marine Corps and had joined three friends on a weekend camping and fishing trip. We were bank fishing with night crawlers and salmon eggs, and while we did catch a couple of Magic's big rainbows the first morning, the bulk of our catch was yellow perch.

Just down the shoreline we could see a trio of fly fishermen whooping and hollering as they caught and released trout after trout. Although I had taken both rainbow and brook trout in Idaho streams with flies as a boy, I had no idea how to fly fish for trout in lakes. Since I had a small box of dry flies with me, I rigged my fly rod and tried to emulate the three fly rodders down the lake.

One of them watched me flailing away unsuccessfully, walked down, introduced himself, and asked if I had ever fished this type of water with a fly before. When I admitted I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, my new friend offered some tips and gave me several of the flies he and his friends were using.

He told me the trout were feeding near the bottom of the 8-foot deep bay we were all fishing, and since I was using a floating line, I would need to install a split shot on my leader to get my fly deep enough. I did as he suggested and actually caught a couple of rainbows on one of the flies he gave me. That was my introduction to fly fishing stillwater for trout.

Fifteen years later I walked into Ruel Stayner's Sporting Goods Store in Twin Falls, Idaho and recognized the owner as the helpful fly fisherman I had met at Magic Reservoir in 1947. I had heard about Ruel Stayner from other local fly fishermen, but I had never associated the name with the Magic Reservoir fly fisherman who had been so helpful so many years earlier. Over the next 30 years I was to fish with Ruel many times (usually in float tubes), learning something new every time we were together.

Stayner Ducktail

When I entered the field of outdoors journalism, it was Ruel I quoted most often in my newspaper columns. It was in one of my FLY OF THE WEEK newspaper features, that I first introduced the Stayner Ducktail streamer to Idaho fly tyers (and to a national audience when I wrote a column for the original Fly Tyer magazine in the early 80s). While Ruel taught me to use different sinking lines, and to experiment with various retrieves - as well as how to tie many of his most productive patterns - the most important thing he taught me was that fishing in lakes, like Magic Reservoir, could be just as much of a challenge, and just as rewarding, as fishing in nearby Silver Creek.

Not everyone agrees. A well-known fly fishing guru once wrote: "Random fly-fishing in stillwaters, especially larger lakes, has seldom been popular, and is rarely productive." While I have the greatest respect for this author/fly tyer, who is revered by most of the fly fishing community, he would have a difficult time persuading dedicated western float tube/kick boat fly fishermen that fishing their flies in stillwater, sometimes "deep trolling" in large lakes, is uninteresting and "rarely productive.'

A great many western stillwater fly fishermen, like the late Ruel Stayner and Colorado's Del Canty, carved out reputations of legendary proportions by catching large trout in western lakes, combining Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs) and fly rods. Just counting the float tubes and kick boats on places like Idaho's Henry's Lake, Montana's Clark Canyon Reservoir or Utah's Strawberry Reservoir- when the season is in full swing- will make a strong case for the popularity of PFDs.

All successful stillwater trout fly fishermen have one thing in common: They understand the need to follow a "95 by 95 rule." They strive to spend 95-percent of their time fishing water that produces fish 95-percent of the time. Locating high-percentage areas on smaller lakes is not particularly difficult. But when you are fishing, for example, a lake as large as Idaho's Henry's Lake, you had better have some idea of where to begin.

In the case of the Big H it is fairly simple. Due to the popularity of Henry's Lake among western fly fishermen, you just fish where there are large numbers of boats and PFDs. Since just about everybody these days have some type of fish-finder on their water crafts, you can be certain there are fish where there are large numbers of fishermen.


There are a number of things a fly fisherman can do to improve his success rate in stillwater. Like a well-run business, being a really successful stillwater fly fisherman begins with record-keeping. If an angler keeps a fishing journal, he should routinely consult his records and plan his trips to be on the water at the (historically) most productive times.

Marv's Journal

I've kept a fishing diary for nearly 50 years. My records will tell me when to plan a spring bluegill trip when the big bulls are most apt to be guarding nests; I can schedule a trip to my favorite high desert trout reservoir when the damsels are hatching; and I can program my vacation around the red ant hatch at my favorite central Idaho alpine lake.

On a fishing trip, I record a great deal of data: Where I fished and who I fished with; the most productive hours; air and water temperatures; whether the barometer was rising or falling; phase of the moon; identification of insects that hatched and fly patterns that caught fish; stomach contents of any fish I use a stomach pump on; maps of areas I fished; how many other fishermen were on the lake, and how they fared; and any other information that might be useful in the future.

Filled in Journal page

Of all of the records I keep, water temperature may be the most important. Aquatic insects hatch, for example, when water temperatures are in a specific range. If we take water temperatures on a particular lake when the callibaetis mayflies are hatching, we will know when to fish the lake with our emerger and adult mayfly patterns. Damsels hatch when the water temperatures reach a certain level, and fishing can improve dramatically.

There are other benefits in knowing water temperatures on a lake. On two of my favorite central Idaho trout reservoirs I've discovered underwater springs, by taking water temperatures, that attract fish when the lakes begin to warm during mid-summer. I also catch fish in these "cold spots" in the spring and again in the fall because the water in that area will actually be a few degrees warmer than the surrounding water. Much like the tail-water below dams, these springs remain a constant temperature year-around.

Trout anglers should know that the ideal temperature for rainbow trout, for example, is from 55-degrees to 70-degrees. If the water is colder than 50-degrees, or warmer than 75-degrees, fishing can be tough; and in the case of temperatures over 75-degrees, the angler should probably avoid fishing because of possible stress to fish.


If the angler is fishing a lake or pond for the first time (and hasn't hired a guide), he or she should stop by a local fly fishing shop and ask about the mayfly, caddisfly, and chironomid hatches on the lake he is planning to fish. He should find out if scud, snail, and forage fish are present in good numbers. He should ask to see the top five or six local fly patterns for the lake and if he doesn't have similar patterns in his fly boxes, he should buy (or tie) the recommended patterns in the sizes the local pro recommends.

While fly shop personnel might not be willing to give away their favorite fishing holes to a stranger (who doesn't hire one of their guides), the newcomer should try and find out which general area he should begin fishing. One of my fishing friends doesn't ask locals "where" he should begin fishing; he asks them about specific areas he should avoid. He says he rarely has difficulty obtaining this type of information, and knowing which areas "not" to fish can save a full day of scouting on some of the larger lakes.

My friend also asks the names of two or three of the "top guns" for the lake he is going to fish, and makes some phone calls. I was with my friend in Reno some years ago, when he called one of the local Pyramid Lake experts. We not only got some great information on how and where to fish, but the local pro invited us to stay with him, and fished with us on the weekend. A few years later he was featured in a magazine article as one of top Pyramid Lake fly fishermen. We learned more in two days on the water with this expert than we would have learned in half a dozen "unsupervised" trips.

The angler should find out if the lake produces best in the morning, afternoon, or evening. Many fly fishermen mistakenly assume fishing will always be more productive at dawn or at dusk. Many of the trout lakes I fish are "midday" bodies of water, and while the fishing may be fairly good early in the morning and late in the evening (usually for short periods of time), the most productive fly fishing will often occur at midday.


Gamefish in lakes and ponds are attracted to "edges." Edges of weed-beds, points of land that forms structure-ridges, and shoals. Another common edge is the old creek channel usually found at the upper end of man-made reservoirs. Since this end of a typical reservoir is usually somewhat shallow, there are often large weed beds lining the old creek channel. One of my favorite examples of this type of trout habitat is found at northern Nevada's Sheep Creek Reservoir, on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. The old creek channel meanders about half a mile down into the reservoir. It is easy to find because the weed-beds do not develop in the channel because of its rocky bottom.

I use two basic strategies in this type of habitat. I either position my PFD a few feet back in the weeds and cast to the weed-beds on the opposite side of the channel; or I work my PFD along the edge of the channel and fish my flies parallel with the weed beds.

Here and there I will find deeper spots in the channel that seem to attract large numbers of trout. These spots were probably pools in the creek before it was flooded. I once spent two hours photographing Ruel Stayner catching 8 or 10 nice rainbows from one from one of these "honey holes" (mentioned earlier in this article). I went back 10 years later, searched for and found Ruel's hot spot, and hooked another 8 or 10 fish from the exact same casting station that Ruel had used earlier. I probed the channel with my depth-finder and found there was indeed a 15- by 15-foot hole, right where Ruel and I had caught fish.

Not all anglers view weed-beds with a positive mental attitude. Several years ago I talked with another fly fisherman at northern Montana's Mission Lake. He was vehement in his disgust with the lake's massive weed-beds.

"Wouldn't it be great," he argued, "if these (blankety blank) weed beds would just die off?"

When I pointed out that we might then be fishing over mostly two pound trout, instead of the 3- to 10-pounders we had been hooking, he told me he would rather catch 2-pounders in open water than 10-pounders in the weeds. He said he had been losing too many (blankety blank) big fish to the kelp.

I was speechless (for one of the few times in my life).

As I tubed away, I hooked another heavy rainbow that took me 50-feet into my backing before breaking off in a heavy weed-bed with a wild, head shaking, three-foot high leap.

"See what I mean?" my antagonist shouted with misplaced glee. ~ Marv

About Marv

The Successful Angler's Journal, shown in this article, along with Float-Tubing The West, 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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