How To Fish Stillwaters
April 4th, 2005

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

Ice-Out Strategies, Part 2

By Gary LaFontaine


There are a lot of reasons one part of a lake thaws before the rest of it. Springs create open holes; internal lake currents weaken ice cover; a prevalent wind frees selected areas. Typically, the northwest corner of a lake gets the early season sun, but in rugged mountains heavy shade can mess up the natural progression of the melt.


Lakes formed in soft, fissured sedimentary rock, such as limestone or dolomite, usually have spring holes. Most high-mountain lakes, at least in Montana, don't have spring holes, because they are formed in areas with hard rock, basic igneous and metamorphic rock. There are exceptions. Two of my favorite spring-fed, high-mountain lakes are Rat Lake up Squaw Creek in the Gallatin River drainage (made famous by John Gierach in his classic, A View from Rat Lake), and Rainbow Lake up Gold Creek in the Clark Fork River drainage. Naturally, because they have springs, they are rich waters.

Springs are important at ice-out because trout try to spawn around them. The best approach for spring areas is one of the most basic stillwater techniques, the count-down method. Cast and let your fly sink, counting off the seconds. With each cast, keep counting longer and longer before you start retrieving, until your fly snags weeds, and then back up the count by one or two seconds. The best patterns include the Woolly Bugger, of course, but if there are springs with rich, alkaline water you'll find scuds, and a good scud imitation may be the most consistent fly.

How do you locate springs? Look for steam coming off the water on a frosty morning. Or look down in the water for areas that green up earlier and heavier than the rest of the lake.


Natural Lakes, without dams, usually have a broad, shallow lip at the outlet. At ice-out these outlets fish better than outlets in man-made lakes. The shallow shelf, where the current picks up speed, provides good spawning habitat. On lakes with too small or blocked-up tributary inlets, the outlet is often the only spawning area. On lakes with good tributary inlets, the outlet shelf is second choice. It gets numbers of trout, but not the biggest ones.

It would seem that the best fly for spawners at the inlet would also be the best fly for spawners at the outlet. Nothing could be further than the truth. A streamer, the best fly at the inlet, is a lousy choice at the outlet and this includes the generic Woolly Bugger. No pattern comes close to the dead-drifted egg imitation at the outlet.

It's easy to spot the spawning redds, lighter patches of gravel in the algae-rich outlet bottom, and with good light it's even easy to see the mating pairs of trout. The best casting angle is upstream, not across stream. Hang your egg pattern under a yarn or dry-fly indicator and let it drift drag free just off the bottom.

I've seen the egg work many times, including the trip to the Little Blackfoot detailed in this log entry:

Steve Gayken and I stayed high on the bank, spotting and kibitzing, and Justin Baker covered the mating pair precisely. He put a Woolly Worm, Hare's Ear nymph, and a scud imitation within inches of the male rainbow's nose, both with retrieves and dead drifts, and that fish never even nodded acknowledgement. Justin tied on an Orange Glo Bug and on the first drift the male bolted two feet ahead to grab it.

There's an obvious reason for the difference in response between the outlet fish and the inlet fish. At the outlet the trout are actually spawning, and while they're not actively feeding they'll still instinctively snatch eggs. At the inlet the trout are not spawning yet. They're staging to run up the creek. Not only are they feeding hungrily, they're aggressively fighting each other.

Ice Shelf
The ice shelf on a partially thawed lake, and how trout orient to it, fascinated me so much that we horse-packed scuba diving equipment into Hamby Lake, a 3 5-acre pond at 8,000 feet in the Big Hole drainage.

Bernie called me, "The ice is one-quarter off the lake, and with this nasty weather it won't clear for a week."

We rushed up the next day and prepared to answer two questions:

    1) Are trout aware of a fly "crawling" towards the edge of the ice?

    2) Are some areas of the shelf more productive than others?

Jenny Koenig did the scuba diving. Bernie was calling her the Blonde Ice Maiden until she splashed him. She submerged and the rest of us strung up fly rods. Bernie, Ken Mira, and I cast weighted Woolly Worms fifteen feet back onto the ice and dragged them steadily towards the water.

I hooked a 15-inch cutt-bow hybrid as soon as my fly plopped into the lake. It wasn't a surprise. It happens too often to be random luck. Jenny bobbed up in open water and confirmed it, "Your fish tracked that fly for the last five feet, and I'm not sure but I think he came up from the bottom when it hit the ice."

So question number one was answered fish are aware of a fly moving towards the edge of the ice. To get their attention, use a heavy, large fly that makes an impression as it rasps across the ice. Even put a split shot or a second fly eighteen inches above the tail fly to increase the effect.

Jenny continued to swim along the rim of the ice, staying deep and moving slowly to keep from scaring fish. After twenty minutes she was chilled in spite of the heavy dry suit and extra insulation and came into shore. She told us, "Some trout cruise long stretches of the rim, moving back and forth. The best concentration of fish are where the ice edge is closest to the lake bottom, ten feet maximum. Over there," she pointed to a large curve of open water over the center bowl of the lake, "it's pretty barren."

So, the answer to question number two? Fish where the ice edge is over the shallowest water.


Both trout and grayling stay at the inlet mouth until the ice cover breaks up. They linger there for as little as a few days or as long as a month before migrating to their spawning sites. What determines when they go upstream? It's when the current running from the lake slackens.

Bernie and I camped for six days on Cliff Lake, a well-known big-fish water off the Madison River. We hoped to hit breakup. The rim of ice melted back a little bit each day, but we never got a warm and breezy afternoon that would have swept away the ice cover. We worked the outlet and along the ice shelf and caught nice cutthroats and rainbows steadily.

On the last day, when it was obvious we weren't going to hit breakup, Bernie said, "I'll show you a trick," and we pushed through slush piles up to the Antelope Creek inlet.

Bernie dropped a weighted bucktail into the rushing stream and stripped off thirty feet of line, letting the current take the fly under the ice. As soon as he began retrieving he hooked a large fish, so large that he couldn't pull it in against the current and he lost it.

Who says you can't ice fish with a fly rod? Anyone with any pride might have refused to catch trout like this. There wasn't anyone like that on this trip. We took turns, feeding the bucktail under the ice and hooking a fish on nearly every retrieve. Even with 3X leaders, we could only land the smaller ones. ~ GL

To be continued, next time: FISHING A LAKE AFTER BREAKUP

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