How To Fish Stillwaters

November 24th, 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


By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

I think everyone can agree that this web site is loaded with extremely knowledgeable fly fishers (among its readers). But, having said that, one needs only to go to the Bulletin Board to find cries of help from both beginners and veteran fly fishers looking to try a new discipline. This glossary will not be an "end all" when it comes to stillwater fly fishing information.

Although most of the information in this article will concern itself with traditional fly fishing equipment, I will begin with tackle that youngsters and disabled anglers can use to fish flies in stillwater with bubbles.


SPIN-CAST OUTFITS - Closed face spin cast reels are fitted to simple bait casting rods; perhaps the easiest method of fishing flies in stillwater with a bubble. It is the method of choice for youngsters and (perhaps) disabled oldsters. While purist fly fishermen may look down their noses at bubble fishing flies, one of the most successful stillwater "fly fishermen" I ever fished with, was physically unable to fish the long rod (he had MS). But he used a water weighted bubble and wet flies he tied himself, and almost without exception outfished those around him. After once losing to him three days in a row, I was sorely tempted to switch to spinning tackle and weighted bubbles.

I'm not sure I ever did beat my friend. Most of the time I would try and fish as far away from the "bubble fisherman" as I could. I just wasn't interested in knowing how successful he was.

OPEN FACED SPIN-FISHING - Usually fished on a rod longer than bait casting equipment, spinning allows the use of very small lures on light monofilament. But with spinning gear in the appropriate size, I have taken steelhead to nearly 20 pounds, and sturgeon well over 200. Once the beginner has mastered closed face spinning tackle, he usually moves on to open faced reels.

BAIT CASTING OUTFITS - The reels are level wind, on rods similar to spin cast outfits. Heavily used by bass and other warm water fishermen, I've also caught steelhead and sturgeon on this equipment. It does take some practice to master. Bird's nests are fairly common, even among more advanced bait casting anglers.

NOODLE RODS - Designed for salmon, steelhead, and brown trout trolling in the Great Lakes, these 12- to 15-foot super soft rods are capable to landing 15- to 30-pound fish on 4 or 6 pound monofilament.


DRY FLY RODS - Fast action rods that usually flex most in the top 1/3, with the butt and mid-section relatively stiff. This allows the angler to maintain tight loops, thereby making several false casts to help dry his fly. While I do at times use floating lines (and flies) when fishing from a float tube or kick boat, I must admit I spend 99-percent of my time fishing sinking lines and sinking flies. And...I do use a fast-action rod most of the time.

NYMPH RODS - These rods are designed to flex throughout their length. This allows for fewer false casts, with wider loops. When I'm casting this type of line, I roll cast to get the fly on top, make one false cast, and shoot the line. Actually, I use the same technique with either a fast rod or a slow one. If the angler is used to a fast action rod, the slower, softer, nymph rods are often difficult to get used to.

SPEY RODS - A much longer, two handed fly rod, from 10- to 16-feet, designed to "roll-cast" a floating line with dry fly long distances. It is traditionally a salmon and steelhead rod and used mostly in moving water.

SINGLE ACTION REELS - Fly reels that require one revolution of the reel handle to put one revolution of the line on the spool. Available in a wide range of prices, from less than $30 to over $500. Some features the buyer should look for when buying single action reels: Extra spools for different fly line; A good drag system, usually disc drag; And machined from aluminum block stock.

MULTIPLYING REELS - Designed similar to single action reels, but has a ratio up to 3:1 on line recovery. Although the numbers sold are fairly small, there are anglers who prefer multipliers when fishing over larger game fish.

AUTOMATIC REELS - While not particularly in favor with latter day fly fishermen, my first pure fly reel was an automatic. I used it exclusively until I lost a steelhead on Idaho's Little Salmon River, when I couldn't feed line fast enough to keep up with the fish. I fished off and on at Henry's Lake with several top-notch fly fishermen from Alabama and Georgia who used only automatics. While they caught a lot of fish, I also remember times when they also lost large fish because their reels wouldn't yield line fast enough.

LARGE ARBOR REELS - The large hub allows rapid retrieve of fly line, reduces pressure on the tippet, reduces line coil, and improves line control. These large arbor reels are fast becoming the standard among discriminating fly fishermen.


FLOATING LINES - Designed in either double taper, weight forward, or shooting tapers. DT's are usually thought of as lines for smaller flies. Since one of the most important aquatic insects in stillwater are midges (specifically chironomides), fished often in the surface film, DT lines are preferable for soft presentations.

Weight-Forward lines are for larger flies, both wet and dry; and Shooting Heads (Tapers) for anglers who prefer to make a quick loop to loop connection when changing lines. You can carry a half dozen different shooting heads in your shirt pocket; much more convenient than having a spool for each different line.

FULL SINKING LINES - A wide variety are available: Type I, slow sink, sink rate about 1.50-2.2 inches per second; Type II, fast sink, rate about 1.75-275; Type III, very fast sink,. rate 2.50-3.50; Type IV, super fast sink, rate about 4.00-5.00; Type V, extra super fast sink, rate 4.50-6.00; Type VI, extremely fast sink, rate 6.50-7.50.

Although I usually carry several full sinking lines, when I'm fishing a fairly deep lake, my most used lines are a Type I, Type, III, and a Type V or VI.

I prefer full sinking lines over sink-tips because the line creates more of a straight line from the rod's tip to the fly, thus making subtle takes easier to detect. The sink-tip creates a large belly, any take that doesn't rip the rod more difficult to answer.

SINKING TIPS - This is essentially a floating line with a sinking taper on the first 10- to 30 feet of the line. I use this type of sinking line in my stream fishing, seldom in stillwater. My reasoning is mentioned above. My favorite sink-tip for larger streams, is a Type 6. It is 10 foot in length, and flat gets my sinking flies down on the bottom. I definitely catch larger fish in streams with a Type VI sink tip.

SHOOTING HEADS (OR TAPERS) - These are 30-foot lines, either floating or sinking, designed to go loop to loop with a running line (either monofilament or level floating line). Ted Trueblood was using this type of setup long before any companies were manufacturing them. While I could certainly understand the merit in the idea, I've never been an advocate. I much prefer traditional full sinking or floating lines. The late Peter Barrett, long time fishing buddy with Trueblood, spent the last 6 years of his life trying to convince me to use shooting tapers. I don't know if his frustration with me had anything to do with it, but he finally told me I was a lost cause and moved from Idaho back to Cape Cod. I still miss fishing with Pete, and I also miss his fishing column in Field and Stream magazine.

TAPERED LEADERS - These fly fishing leaders (usually 6- to 12-foot long) are designed to be an extension of the fly line. They are usually about the same diameter at the butt as the fly line is at the butt (where they are joined). They are built with or without knots, to the final two or three feet, which is known as the tippet. Selective fish might require a two-pound tippet one day, a six- to 8-pound tippet the next.

In stillwater, I use mostly short leaders on sinking lines - from 3-feet to 6-feet (I build my own). I want my flies to begin their upward movement just inches from the bottom. An unweighted fly, for example, on a 10-foot leader, will still be searching for the bottom when the fast-sinking line has reached the bottom. Unless it is weighted, it will seldom get deep enough.

In recent years, I've been lightly weighting most of my lake flies.

DRY FLIES - Any fly that floats is technically a dry fly. They may imitate mayflies, caddisflies, and midges, in lakes.

POPPERS - Bass and bluegill surface lures usually constructed of spun deer hair or cork. A super productive method of fishing for both largemouth bass and bream.

WET FLIES - These patterns may be similar in appearance to standard dry flies. The hackle will usually be softer, and the wing slanted back. They may simulate drowned insects or emergers.

NYMPHS - These flies are dressed to imitate the underwater life cycle of mayflies, caddisflies (pupas), stoneflies, damselflies, dragonflies, midges (pupas) etc. Some species spend up to three years on the bottom of the lake or stream.

FLYMPHS - Legendary Pete Hidy coined the word flymph, to describe the aquatic insect when it is in a stage where it is neither a fly...or a nymph. Hidy convinced Jim Leisenring to put down his ideas in book form in the 1941 classic, The Art of Tying The Wet Fly. Hidy added chapters in the 1971 version, The Art of Tying The Wet Fly & Fishing The Flymph. I never had an opportunity to fish with Pete, but I did enjoy several weekends at his home learning to tie his flymphs. I also had an opportunity to examine the display of Leisenring flies, shown on page 14 of both editions.


MAYFLIES (Order Ephemeroptera)- The little up-right, veined-wing insect with the forked tail, looks like a little sail-boat on the water. It has an incomplete life cycle consisting of egg, subimago (dun), and imago (spinner). They range in colors from light tan, to the big dark green and dark brown drakes; in sizes from 2's to 26's.

The most important stillwater mayfly is the speckled-wing callibaetis. The best dry to imitate his species is the Adams; the best nymph pattern, the Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear.

CADDISFLIES (Order Trichoptera)- The little "herky-jerky" flyer, whose wings are folded back like a tent when at rest. Caddis pupas are the case builders that trout grow so fond of. Caddis hatches are usually less spectacular than mayflies, but very important to trout. Since caddis are much ore tolerant of polluted water, they are less vulnerable than mayflies.

While there are dozens of caddis dry fly patterns, in my opinion the Elk Hair Caddis, developed by Al Troth, is the most effective. I fish a wide range of caddis larvae and pupae. Size and color are more important than specific patterns.

MIDGES (Order Diptera...true fly)- The three species in this order are Culicidae (mosquitoes), Tipulidae (Crane Flies), and Chironomidae (Common name midges). While tyers have been fashioning mosquito patterns for most of this century, it is the Chironomidae that is most important to anglers. Available to fish in a wide range of colors: light cream, tan, brown, green, light and dark olive, black, and red.

In Westerm Hatches, Hughes and Hafele write: "It is questionable whether mosquitoes are more important to fishermen than fishermen are to mosquitoes. Most water inhabited by mosquitoes is poor habitat for trout. There is little doubt that many mosquito imitations have been created for incorrectly identified Chironomidae. But mosquitoes can be important in alpine lakes, especially just after ice-out."

STONEFLIES (Order Plecoptera)- The big "salmon fly" which Ernest Schweibert described as flying Like a wounded helicopter, are important in rivers, but the hatch occurs only once each season, progressing upriver as temperatures climb. The Stonefly hatches on the Henry's Fork of the Snake in Eastern Idaho, and on the Madison in western Montana, are heroic in size. Idaho fly fishermen can't agree on what to call the stonefly. In western Idaho, they are "salmon flies," while in the eastern part of the state they are called "trout flies."

Since stoneflies require highly oxygenated water, they are rarely found in stillwater.

DAMSELFLIES (Order Odonata.....Suborder Zygoptera)- This very important trout food, in stillwater and in slow moving streams, is easily recognized, both as nymphs and adults. Their slender bodies contrast sharply from the robust bodies of dragonflies. Damselfly nymphs have three flattened, tail-like gills, and lack internal gill chambers. They swim slowly, with laborious back-and-forth undulations of the abdomen. The adults are these blue, brown, tan, or green "darning needles," that fly just inches above water's surface, constantly searching for mates.

There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of good damelfly nymphs patterns. I have found simple patterns with a medium brownish-olive body, and brownish-olive tail work best. Better than the more realistic "eyeballs and arsehole" patterns.

The dry patterns are mostly tied in blue materials, and all seem to look alike.

DRAGONFLIES (Order Odonata...Suborder Antisopotera)- Although a much sparser hatch than damselflies, they do hatch throughout most of the season. Where the damselfy might live only days, before mating and dying, the dragonfly might live for weeks or months. They are also speedy flyers, and very aggressive predators. The fat-bodied nymphs (species Aeschna Constricta) swim, in jet-like spurts, by swallowing water and expelling it out their anus. Gomphus Stygiatus (Common name: Riffle Burrowing Dragonfly Nymph) spends most of its time rummaging around on the bottom.

My pattern for the Aeschna Constricta is called the Taylor Dragonfly Nymph. It is mostly dark olive chenille. I use the legendary Canadian Brown for my bottom dwelling Gomphus Stygiatus. ~ 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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