How To Fish Stillwaters

April 21st, 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 3
By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID


I learned a very valuable lesson on a central Idaho trout reservoir early in my float tubing career. The fishing had been extremely slow, so I was experimenting with a hi-density sinking line as deep as I could get it in the 40-foot deep lake. I thought perhaps the fish were lying on the bottom with their eyes closed and if I bumped their heads with my fly, I might just wake them up.

On my third cast I had counted my fly down to the bottom, and was just beginning a handtwist retrieve when a "light" suddenly blinked on and I knew exactly which fly I should have been fishing. In order to tie the new (hot) fly on as quickly as possible, I began a super-fast retrieve, and had ripped in about half of my line when I had a smashing strike. I landed a fat 2-pound rainbow. By the end of the weekend, I had hooked and released more than 30 fish, all on this super-fast retrieve. At the time I really didn't know why the trout in that little lake were taking my flies so enthusiastically on this quick retrieve. I now think I do. I don't think it was the speed of my retrieve that turned the fish on, as much as it was the angle of emergence of my pattern (a small Zug Bug I was fishing because of the midges I had seen hatching). By letting my flies sink deep, I was retrieving my patterns almost vertically; the way the midges were probably emerging.

Over the past 15 years that I've been teaching classes in aquatic entomology and stillwater theory, I've lectured my students that "the difference between catching trout, and not catching trout, may be the angler's grasp of what 'angle of emergence' really means... and how to imitate it."

It doesn't make much difference which aquatic insect order we're talking about, angle of emergence applies. Damselflies emerge by swimming towards a shoreline or some other structure they can crawl up on and shed their shucks. Their angle of emergence is mostly horizontal; and they are not in any great hurry. The angler, therefore, should use a line that allows him to present his damsel nymph imitations horizontally, with a fairly slow retrieve. And he should move his flies in the same direction the naturals are moving. Callibaetis mayflies in lakes, on the other hand, tend to emerge in a somewhat erratic motion. They may emerge straight up; They may swim in circles to the surface; Or they may swim towards the surface, then spread their legs and drop back to the bottom, before finalizing their hatching process by continuing to the surface. It usually takes a bit of experimenting before we can come up with the right angle of emergence for mayflies.

Midges and caddisflies are more reliable in their hatching process. Both tend to understand that if they dawdle, they may end up in the stomach of a fish. Their emergence is on an angle that most fly fishermen have trouble imitating when they are fishing stillwater. Our chironomid and caddis pupa patterns should, whenever possible, be fished from the bottom of the lake straight up.

Here's how you fish a chironomid or caddis pupa emergence. In 15 feet of water, for example, use a deep-sinking line like a Type III full sinker, and a fairly short leader. Make a 25-foot cast, instead of the more normal 50-footer, and let the fly sink all the way to the bottom. Work the fly along the bottom for about 6-feet, then retrieve it as vertically as possible. As the lake deepens, use a deeper sinking line and extend the cast in accordance.

If I'm using a caddis emerger, I lift the fly from the water with a continuous motion as it nears the surface. Trout are used to seeing caddis split their shucks and fly off quickly. We should take pains to closely imitate that type of emergence.

Chironomids take a bit longer to shed their outer skeleton and fly off to mate. I like to "worry" a chironomid pupa around a bit on the surface before I lift it clear and cast again.

Regardless of the insect order you're trying to imitate, the angle of emergence of your imitation is one of the most critical factors that you have control over in your day to day fishing. Study how each aquatic insect order emerges; then duplicate their angle of emergence with your imitations.


When all else fails in the day's campaign, consider restructuring the leader. Leaders are a somewhat controversial component of the fly fisher's tackle. How long should a leader be? How thin at the point? How thick at the butt? And...what material is best?

The correct formula is really quite simple. Long enough and thin enough at the point to fool the fish...and strong enough to land it. Since there are so many quality brands available, I will not make any recommendations on which material is best, or whose leader to buy. That's another entire article.

To fool a wary trout, you might need a 10-foot leader one day, while the next time out a 3- or 4-foot leader will do the job. Some days you can use 2X tippets and hammer the fish, while on other days you may have to go as light as 7X just to get a strike.

Clarity of water, wind, light and associated conditions usually dictate leader length and tippet strength, but not always. I fished a lake on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation a couple of years ago, when all of the rules went out the window. The little lake was colored with a thick algae bloom and I wanted to use a fairly heavy tippet because the lake contained rainbow trout up to 15-pounds. I started with a 6-foot leader, a 3X tippet, and a size 12 Stayner Ducktail. A combination that I frequently use with a great deal of success.

Nothing happened. Not a strike for nearly an hour, even though I went through several of my most dependable patterns. I considered all of the variables, and lengthened my leader to 8-feet, and reduced my tippet strength to 4X; Again changing patterns several times. Still no action. I figured the fish might be off their feed, but decided to again change my tippet. I went to 5X.


I caught two fish in three casts, on a number 12 Stayner Ducktail. I now knew the proper pattern and size, and since I had three more weeks to fish the lakes on the Blackfeet, I decided to use the little lake as a laboratory. I went back to my 6-foot leader and 3X tippet. Nothing happened. Even with the Ducktail tied on with a Duncan Loop.

I returned to the 8-foot leader and 5X tippet and caught two more fish in about a dozen casts. I dropped my tippet strength to 6X and had strikes on almost every other cast. I still had a problem. The fish were running between 3- and 5-pounds and I broke off a fly on about every third hook-up. In order to be able to turn some of the fish, I went back to a 4X tippet.

Nothing. make a long story short, I compromised with a 5X tippet and had fairly decent fishing for the rest of the afternoon. Until, that is, I lost all of my size 12 Ducktals to the larger fish and heavy weed-beds. It was the only size the fish would accept. This was a totally unusual situation. When fishing Ducktails, with the standard fast retrieve, I usually get by just fine with 4X tippets on 6-foot leaders- even in bright water.

When fishing stillwater, I usually begin a day's fishing with a 6-foot leader and 6-pound tippet. I call it my "6 X 6 strategy." My first change, if the fish aren't cooperating, is to lighten the tippet to 5X. If that doesn't work, and I'm convinced I have the right fly on, I usually go to 6X. If I haven't produced results by this time, I will lengthen my leader to 8-feet. I rarely go longer when fishing stillwater, unless I'm fishing a crystal clear high mountain lake.

If I'm fishing over really large trout, like I was on the Blackfeet, I will often start with a Through-The-Eye-Twice Clinch-Knot for my fly. If the fishing gets tough, I will go to my favorite knot, the Duncan Loop. Although not as strong as the two times through, the open loop of the Duncan allows for a more natural movement of the fly and will often spell the difference between success and failure when the fish are really fussy.

Under some conditions, usually in crystal-clear water, the fly rodder may need to lengthen his leader. But when fishing extremely deep lakes, with high density sinking lines, my strategy with leaders is usually to shorten them. A 5-foot leader, for example, will usually put the fly deeper than will a ten-footer. Unless I'm fishing dry flies on the surface, or emergers near the surface, I try to put all of my sinking flies right on the bottom before beginning my retrieve.

There are those who disagree with my short leader theories. Some years ago I ran into some fly rodders at central Oregon's Davis Lake- mostly from the Portland area- who were exponents of the long leader and strike indicator techniques. Their leaders were more than 20-feet long, and they were all using floating lines. They were fishing from boats and having only minimal success with chironomid patterns.

My group, from the Boise area, were all using float tubes, full sinking lines, short leaders, and various fur and chenille wet fly patterns; all much larger than the flies the Oregonians were using. After a week on the water, we had beaten them by a wide margin. I believe the secret of our success was that we were putting our flies nearer the bottom than were our competitors. We were no doubt imitating something "down under" with our sinking lines that the guys from Portland could not duplicate with their floating lines.

We were camped in Davis Lake's East Campground, at the mouth of Odell Creek, and the Oregonians were camped in the West Campground (just across the creek). One night we could hear them plotting and planning how they were going to beat those "damned Idaho belly boaters." They were quite loud as they plotted their strategy (probably buoyed by a few rounds of old John Barleycorn). They were going to swim across Odell Creek, when we were asleep, and "cut our float tubes to ribbons."

When I joked with their leader the next day about the midnight swim that didn't take place, he laughed and admitted they had become pretty frustrated. "We have some really well respected fly fishermen in our party," he told me with a laugh. "And they don't cotton much to having a bunch of 'Idaho potato farmers' beat them so badly.

"And," he added, "they don't have a very high regard for float tubes."

When I published my first book, Float Tubes, Fly Rods and other essays, in 1979, one of the first orders I received was from a group of fly fishermen from the Portland area. In a note they said when they recognized my mug shot on the book, they just couldn't resist buying a copy. They felt that if they ever bumped into me and my "gang of spud farmers" again, they might end up with a level playing field.

Who knows...they might also have ended up buying float tubes. ~ Marv

About Marv

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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