How To Fish Stillwaters

September 6th, 2004

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


Leeches, Part 1

By Philip Rowley

Mention leeches and be prepared for a variety of responses. Most people's faces wince and contort in disgust, like fingers down a chalkboard. Let's face it, leeches suffer from a lousy reputation. Portrayed as maniacal bloodsuckers it's not surprising that most people find them appalling. To the stillwater fly-fisher though, leeches stir a different reaction. When I think of leeches, a sly smirk comes across my face, recalling memories of jarring takes and knuckle-dusting runs.

Leeches have a worldwide distribution and are a favorite trout food. In North America there are over 63 species of leeches. For any angler exploring a lake for the first time, leech patterns are a great place to start even if other food sources appear available. From the evening light to the summer doldrums leeches are an all-day, year-round food source. Leeches are a basic pattern in any stillwater fly box. Never leave home without them.

Leeches are distant cousins to the common earthworm and not all species of leeches are freshwater inhabitants. Some species of leeches are native to both salt water and brackish marshes. Referred to as dorso-ventrally flattened, leeches have segmented ribbon bodies characterized by a narrow head and paddle-like rear end. Located at each end of a leech's body are posterior and anterior suckers. Leeches use these suckers to leap frog their way along the bottom debris and structure. The anterior sucker also serves for feeding. Fully extended leeches can reach over 8 inches in length, although 2 to 4 inches are more common. Trout seem to show a preference for smaller leeches. The leech's muscular body provides support and locomotion. Leeches are powerful swimmers that move with a steady, graceful, rhythmic motion. They swim fully extended but when threatened contract into a defensive ball.

Leeches are blind but have an acute sense of smell and touch which they put to good use when foraging. Like scuds, leeches have no emergence of any kind. Trout become accustomed to this year-round leech dessert. Nobody seems to know for sure how long leeches live, but all agree it is a long time. Many species have life spans of over 5 years. During their life, leeches have many opportunities to mate. Leeches are a big-ticket food item trout seldom pass up.

Leeches are hermaphroditic, possessing both male and female sex organs. Any two leeches can start a family. Mating in pairs throughout the year, leeches coil around themselves in an almost passionate embrace. Once mating is complete the leech places the cocoon eggs on weeds, rocks and other debris. Upon hatching, the newborn leeches are on their own, fending for themselves.

Leeches come in a smorgasbord of colors. Black, brown, maroon and olive are common. I have seen olive-green leeches with yellow spots, black and tan leeches even green with an orange racing stripe. Lateral stripes and mottled color schemes in conjunction with a lighter underbelly are common.

Leeches are hardy creatures capable of surviving in diverse habitats. Favorite stomping grounds include, mud, sunken logs, rocks and vegetation. Leeches often burrow into the mud leaving their heads exposed. Here they undulate back and forth as though being soothed by some mystic snake charmer. Tannic or algae type lakes are prime habitats and often have enormous densities of leeches. These are not places for taking a refreshing dip. Leeches can survive at almost any depth although 10 to 50 feet is normal, making them an ideal quarry to imitate with the fly. Naturally shy and reclusive leeches prefer to sulk in the shadows during the height of the day. They are primarily nocturnal, venturing out to feed once the sun has left the water. Leech patterns are an ideal choice late in the day or during the evening. At times, leeches swim boldly about in full view of the trout. This suicidal bravado does not go unnoticed.

Depending upon the species, leeches have a varied diet. Despite their reputation, only some species are bloodsuckers. These vampire species latch onto amphibians, waterfowl and yes, even unsuspecting humans. Others feed on carrion, detritus, mollusks and snails. Even other leeches. I have seen an immature leech attach itself to the head of a large dragon nymph as a handy food stop. It is interesting to see how fast a snail moves when a curious leech shows up on its doorstep. ~ PR

More on food opportunities for trout in lakes from Phil Rowley's excellent book, Fly Patterns for Stillwaters next time.

Credits: Excerpt from Fly Patterns for Stillwaters By Philip Rowley, published by Frank Amato Publications. We appreciate use permission.

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