How To Fish Stillwaters

April 14th, 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 2
By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID


There is a divergence of opinion on how many lines a stillwater fly fisherman needs in his day-to-day fishing. I remember a conversation on a T.V. outdoors show, when two nationally known fly fishermen were having a slow day catching trout at Wyoming's Monster Lake and decided to enlighten the audience on the subject of fly lines. During a very short discussion they agreed that all they really needed to fish stillwater was a floater and an Intermediate (super slow sinker).

Those two lines might have been enough for the (pay-to-play) lake they were fishing at the time the cameras were rolling, but not for many of the lakes I regularly fish. I would love, for instance, to compete with those two experts on Idaho's Henry's Lake with the family farm at stake. If they used only floating and Intermediate lines, it would be no contest.

The most successful stillwater fly fishermen, in my opinion, are always prepared to fish different depths in the water column. Unless I'm fishing an extremely shallow lake or pond, I carry several different sink-rate lines in the pockets of my PFDs. In order of importance I carry the following assortment: A Type I slow sinker; A Type III hi-density, extra fast sinker; an Intermediate; a Type II fast sinker; a Type IV super fast, hi-density sinker; and a Type VI Super deep, hi-density sinker. My least used line in stillwater is a floater.

While I don't use the super-sinkers on every trip, they have saved the day for me on a number of occasions. An example occurred on Montana's Hidden Lake (near West Yellowstone) some years ago. My partner was fishing a Type III fast-sinking line and found it just didn't get deep enough (he didn't own any faster sinking lines). My Type VI super sinker took a dozen trout before my partner put on a lead-head jig and finally got deep enough to catch fish. The key wasn't the pattern or the retrieve; the fish were 30 feet down and just wouldn't come up for a fly.

While some will argue that my partner could have let his Type III line sink long enough to reach where the fish were holding, it has been my experience that most stillwater fly fishermen do not have that kind of patience. There is also the advantage of making more casts per minute with a super sinker. All things being equal, the more times you run your fly through good holding water, the more apt you are to have a fish eat your fly.


It takes a fairly high degree of concentration to consistently present our flies to fish correctly. I can't count the times I've been fishing a fly on a slow day without remembering just which pattern I had on after a few casts. While I may have caught a few fish on some of these occasions, they were mostly "flukes." While I may have moved my pattern properly, it was probably just blind luck.
This happens more with some aquatic trout forms than others. From the time the caddisfly hatches, until it lays its eggs as an adult, the caddis is a bundle of inconsistencies: It may, or may not, live in a shell it builds with sticks or stones; It may, or may not, emerge faster than a speeding bullet; And it may, or may not, lay its eggs on the surface (some species dive to the bottom to deposit their eggs).

While current-day fly fishers are becoming more and more aware of the caddisfly's importance in our sport, many are catching caddis-eating trout by accident: A dead-drift of an adult mayfly pattern, that suddenly goes wrong, may be just the motion that trout expect from a caddisfly. We catch a fish and believe we have selected the correct pattern for the mayfly species that is hatching. We keep making attempts to float our dry fly correctly, keep making mistakes, and keep catching fish. The final judge of our technique as fly fishermen lies, obviously, with the fish.

As important as the study of entomology, and the dressing of fly patterns may be, presentation of the fly will always be more important that what the fly actually is. Quite often I see nymph and wet fly fishermen so hung up on a favorite retrieve, that they forget that not all aquatic trout forms move in the same manner. While they often use these pet retrieves on every pattern they fish, it won't always work. Leeches require one type retrieve; dragonfly nymphs another; scuds still another.

While it may inflate our egos to think we know exactly what's going on down under at any given moment, we rarely do. Often we are just making educated guesses. PFD fly fishermen fall into two major categories in their "searching" strategies. There are those who are good at reading a lake for the high-percentage water. They stop and spend most of their time casting to specific locations they believe to be "fishy." They spend time working out any pattern and presentation problems they might run into.

A second group spends most of their time trolling around a lake, perhaps picking up a fish here and there. They rarely focus on potential hot spots and are what I refer to as "mud on the wall" anglers. They are willing to troll a mile to catch two or three fish. They certainly don't spend much time fishing 95-percent water and working out presentation strategies.

Now there is nothing wrong with trolling from a PFD from time to time; especially when you don't have any idea where the fish are. I use the "long retrieve" method now and then myself; usually getting from point A to point B. Sometimes it is the only way to locate fish when you don't have a fish-finder on your PFD, or a prior history at a particular lake.

I will acknowledge up front that there are anglers who can't physically handle the fly rod well enough to sit still and make long casts to potential hot spots. But for the most part, trolling from a PFD can be a waste of time on many trout lakes. While the troller might hit a fish here and there, on a typical lake the troller is often spending much of his time moving his flies through he 5-percent water he should be avoiding.

Even when the troller has his PFD in 95-percent water, he may still be making a huge mistake. Most of the PFD trollers I see tend to make their casts directly behind their float tubes or kick boats. In so doing they are usually trolling their flies through an area they have just riled up with their water craft and fins. Early in my float tubing career, I believed my tube and fins did not disturb trout. I've changed my mind over the years. PFDs may not disturb the small, juvenile fish, but I guarantee they will usually cause larger, trophy fish to have second thoughts about accepting our flies.

When an angler finds what might be a hot spot, he should sit off to one side and broadcast his casts in a fan-like pattern. Using the clock, for example, he should make one cast to 10 o'clock, the next to 2 o'clock. Then he should come back to 11 o'clock, then to 1 o'clock, etc. The immediate area of a missed take should be rested for a couple of minutes. It has been my experience that my first cast to a prime spot (perhaps identified on a previous trip), or one that just looks fishy, is often the cast that attracts a dominant trout. The more casts and angler makes to a specific area, the less apt he is to fool mature fish. ~ Marv

About Marv

Float-Tubing The West, shown in this article, along with 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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