How To Fish Stillwaters

December 22nd, 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

Alpine Lake Fishermen Seek Solitude

By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

I spent the spring and summer of '03 with my trailer parked in my favorite RV park in west central Idaho. I fished eight of my favorite drive-to trout lakes and spent time revisiting four alpine lakes I had fished in the past. Although I had an enjoyable season, partly because the weather at Donnelly is about a dozen degrees cooler than the Boise area (which was plagued with one of the hottest summers in history), the fishing in general was below par.

My favorite trout lake in the area, Horsethief Reservoir, produced less than 50-percent of the fish it did a year ago. Several other important drive-to trout fisheries in the area were off also. Brundage Reservoir and Little Payette Lake, both managed for trophy trout, were extremely spotty. The alpine lake fishing, on the other hand, fared much better. According to the guides I talked with in the area, fishing at a number of the high lakes they regularly took clients, was up considerably over last season.

But alpine lake fishing is a sport unto itself. Catching fish is only a small part of the equation. The scenery is a big part of the allure. Just getting to some of the better lakes is a challenge, making later rewards all the more heady.

But if I were to pinpoint the single most important reason most alpine lake anglers are so devoted to their sport, it would be one word: Solitude. Thinking back over my many treks to the high country, it occurs to me that for the most part my party contained the only fishermen at the lake. Since most of my active alpine backpacking took place between 1944 and 1980, I decided to revisit some of my favorite alpine lakes this summer and see what's happening in the area of solitude in 2003 (more about my findings later).

My initial experience at high lake fishing took place on a fall hunting trip. We were camped at central Idaho's Riordan Lake - on a 1944 deer hunt - and part of my camp chores was providing trout for myself and three other hungry hunters.

The legendary Lafe Cox (owner of Cox's Dude Ranch in Yellowpine, Idaho) had packed us in and we had traveled very light. Dad had allowed me to take along a telescoping steel fly rod, a fly reel, and a small selection of snelled flies. As I remember they consisted mostly of Black Gnats, McGintys, Gray Hackle Yellows, and Brown Hackle Peacocks.

I fished mostly where Riordan Creek enters the lake and had little trouble catching all of the trout my group needed. While the other members of the party were strictly deer hunting, I had my first taste of what would later be referred to as "casting and blasting." (I did manage to bag my first mule deer on the trip).

My most productive flies were the McGintys and Black Gnats. This trip was my indoctrination into alpine fishing and for years these were the only patterns I used in fishing high lakes. I probably caught fish more because of my persistence than because my flies were the right patterns. It probably also helped that in 1944 Lafe said we were only the third party he had packed into Riordan Lake that season. We were in the middle of WWII and travel for recreation was somewhat limited.

Although many fly rodders fish dry flies exclusively in high lakes, they should keep open minds on the use of sub-surface patterns. When I'm able to use my float tube in my high lake fishing, I've found the techniques I use at lowland reservoirs are most effective.

The mental image most anglers have of high lake fishing is of floating lines; and I will admit I use one much of the time. However full sinking, high density lines will put my sinking flies down where the big ones are more apt to be feeding. These sinking lines are difficult to fish from shore at alpine lakes and some type of floatation device - a float tube or raft - is necessary if the method is to be successful.

Contrary to what many alpine lake purists believe, the entomology of high lakes is similar to the more productive lowland reservoirs of the west. The hatches in high lakes will be sparse, because of a short growing season, but we will see mayflies, caddisflies, damselflies and dragonflies. We will also see scuds, snails, leeches and backswimmers; as well as terrestrials such as grasshoppers, beetles and ants.


In the area in central Idaho where I summer, we have an awesome cinnamon ant hatch through most of August and part of September. I was float tubing one of my favorite trout reservoirs on August 10th, catching a fish now and then on a deep sinking damsel nymph. At about 1pm I noticed an ant or two on the surface. While I normally have my cinnamon ant box in the pocket of my float tube, on this particular day it was 20 miles away in my 5th wheel. I had taught some locals to tie my favorite ant pattern the night before, and forgot to load the fly box back in my tube. Within 15 minutes the lake was absolutely covered with size 16 flying cinnamon ants. Since it was the first ant hatch of the season, I knew the fish would go bananas.

And they did. I managed to trim down a black and orange woolly bugger pattern I carry in size 14, and had marginal action. The following day I went back to the lake armed with my ant box, and low and behold, the ants failed to make an appearance.

I've done a fair amount of research on this type of problem. How can we have an absolutely massive hatch of ants on one day, then with the same weather conditions, clouds temperature, barometer, etc. etc., on the following day, nothing hatches. I've observed this phenomenon many times with mayflies and caddisflies.

Another phenomenon I run into all the time: The weather conditions are identical on two consecutive days. On the first day, every fish in the lake seems to be trying to eat my flies. On the following day, every fish in the lake seems to get the message "not" to eat. It's like a wall switch has been turned off. I've never been able to figure out how every fish in a lake can get this same message. You would think a small percentage might either miss this "signal" not to eat...or become obstinate and refuse to comply. When I can figure this problem out, I will be able to write a best seller on when "not" to go fishing.

But, back to my alpine lake theme. I managed this summer to fish the lake mentioned at the top of this column. Where in 1944 Lafe Cox said he packed only three parties to Riordan Lake all summer, I saw more than two dozen anglers there on the weekday I fished this past summer. And it is still a 3 or 4 mile hike to the lake.

I fished three other (nameless) blue ribbon alpine lakes in August and found similar pressure. Oddly enough, I found less pressure during the same time frame at several of the drive-to trout lakes I regularly fish in the area.

I still love the alpine country. But after my experiences this past summer, I must admit, I will probably spend more time with my cameras on future trips than with my fly rods. I can almost always find some scenery and/or game to photograph on my high country trips, but I find it is more and more difficult to find back country lakes that aren't dotted with float tubes.

Since I have authored two books on float tubing, I guess I have only myself to blame for part of the pressure. ~ Marv

About Marv

You can reach Marv by email at or by phone: 208-322-5760.

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