How To Fish Stillwaters

May 12th, 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

Putting Fish On The Reel
Marv's Fly of the Week - Horsethief Cased Caddis

By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

Someone on the Bulletin Board recently raised the question: When should we put fish on the reel, and not hand-line them? It's an interesting subject.

Several factors influence the decision when to put fish on the reel: The size of the fish; Whether we are fishing stillwater or streams; And, are we fishing from a boat, float tube, or pontoon boat.

Let's talk "size" first. Other than when the hook simply pulled out, many of the really large trout I've lost have been due to one type of foolishness, or another. And the most common "foolishness" has been not putting big fish on the reel quickly enough.

When I'm stream fishing, (almost) every fish goes on the reel immediately. Sometimes, however, it's not easy to keep them on the reel. There have been times when I've put large fish on the reel and they've taken me well into my backing; Then they turned and charged me so fast I ended up with loops of line in the river that tangled around snags, rocks, weed beds...and, at times, my legs. These episodes have cost me a several memorable trout.

Another factor to be aware of when loose loops of fly line are lying around in the river, or on shore, it how sharp some wading cleats can be. I remember buying a new pair of aluminum stream cleats, and on the first trip out with them, when the edges were really sharp, stepped on and cut a nearly new fly line.

If a stream fish is really small, under a foot, I will sometimes hand-line them, release them, and cast quickly to other working fish. But for the most part, I can almost chisel the rule in stone: Stream fish should be put on the reel as quickly as possible.

If I'm fishing from a boat in stillwater, or on a large river, I will try and avoid having loops of line lying around in the bottom of the boat when playing fish. I will put every fish I hook on the reel at the first opportunity. I remember the classic Lefty Kreh video when this legendary angler made every mistake in the book when fishing salt water from a boat. Lefty lost his back-cast several times; stepped on his line a couple times when shooting to large tarpon; and just plain fouled up constantly during the 30-minute video. It was hilarious. But more than proved even the "great one" can make mistakes.

Float tube fishing is another matter. My tubes have always had stripping aprons. My group of tubers from southwest Idaho, were the first to install stripping aprons on our locally manufactured float tubes - sometime during the mid-50s - and I make good use of them. Although it is an arbitrary figure, I usually put a trout on the reel if it appears to be more than 2- or 3-pounds. Smaller fish are almost always hand-lined when I'm fishing from a float tube.

When hand-lining, the fly rodder is ready, after releasing his fish, to make a quick roll cast, false cast once or twice, and shoot his fly to the area where he expects to find another willing fish. I've watched newcomers to the sport, put every small fish they hook on the reel. They then have to take time to strip the line off the reel before they can make the next cast. When I'm tubing a lake with fish in the 10- to 18-inch range, I will sometimes spend an entire day on the water without ever winding my line back on the reel.


Another question I recently received via e-mail, had to do with whether-or-not I would write on any fish other than trout in my weekly column. Although I do spend most of my time float tubing for trout, there are periods of time, particularly during the spring, when I find more than a little pleasure fishing for all of our local warm water fish species. I am particularly fond of the bluegill.

I am fortunate to live in an area with excellent potential for this little sunfish. I get as much pleasure out of sitting in my float tube, tossing nymphs, streamers, surface flies, and poppers, for this most interesting freshwater fish, as I do for any other fish species. Pound for pound, the bluegill fights the long rod as strongly as any other freshwater fish. If bream grew as large as the trout I find in many of the lakes and reservoirs I fish, I'd probably give up trout fishing completely. (While most anglers think of Idaho as a trout state, I've taken bluegill up to 2-pounds, and our state record is 3 1/2-pounds - only a pound shy of the all-time record fish).

I once did a newspaper column on the freshwater fish I would choose if I were limited to just four fish for the rest of my angling career. I stirred up a bit of controversy in the circulation area of the newspaper (southern and southwestern Idaho), by naming the bluegill as my number two fish. For the record, my four fish are the rainbow trout, the bluegill, the brown trout and the smallmouth bass.

I wanted to name two trout and two warm water fish (for diversification). The rainbow and the smallmouth bass are very much alike in their lifestyles. Both are found in either streams or lakes; Both take cold water well; both take surface flies well; and both are extremely strong and acrobatic fighters.

I like the brown trout better than the two other major trout species. The cutthroat and brook trout are almost too easy to fool with flies. Cutts and brookies rarely jump when hooked, and neither fight as hard as the brown trout. The only department where they are superior to the brownie is on the dinner table. And...that's not really important in my scheme of things (I hope my cardiologist is not reading this column).

That leaves the bluegill. It is easy to catch, it fights the rod well, and it is great table fare. Another real plus, is that the bluegill needs to be thinned out in most of the lakes and reservoirs I fish, therefor the limits in Idaho are very liberal (actually there are no bag limits).

Understanding how to fish for any fish species, is a study in lifestyles. Where does the fish in question spend most of its time? At what time of the year does it spawn? Is it an insect-eater, or a meat-eater? In the case of the bluegill, anglers often tend to complicate what should be a simple equation. Just understand the type of aquatic foods bream key on (almost everything)...and offer them some fly patterns that "suggest" whatever it is they are eating at the moment.

I've been a dedicated bluegill angler for more than 30 years. I have two fly boxes filled with flies I've tied expressly for the species. There's nothing wrong with bluegill (only) flies. I'm living proof of that. I have dozens. Both wet and dry.

But before new bream fishermen tie up dozens of bluegill flies, they should understand that any of the more productive stillwater trout patterns they have in their fly boxes, will take bluegill. Until they become "mature" fish (8-inches and up in the waters I fish), bream are primarily insect-eaters. Anglers should fish for them as they would for trout. Some of the best wet flies and nymphs include: Damsel nymphs, mayfly nymphs, caddis pupas, midge pupas, leeches, and backswimmers.

When bream are surface feeding, almost any dry fly will take fish. They feed opportunistically not selectively. Since a good day on my favorite bluegill pond might be 50 to 100 fish, my preference on a standard dry fly includes either the Irresistible and the Humpy in sizes 10 or 12. Both float well and are sturdy patterns; they will account for a lot of fish before they wear out.

My favorite bluegill surface pattern is a floater I call my bluegill spider. I tie the pattern in white, black, yellow, orange, brown, and green floating rubber (ant) bodies. Instead of using the more common rubber legs, I use saddle hackle in the same color as the body.

The best bream fishing is during the spawn. Males are guarding nests, and will attack anything they feel might threaten the nests, whether it is on the surface, or down near the dish-sized nests. After the spawn, the adults may retreat to deeper water and anglers can fish for them as they would for large trout. I use streamer patterns and work them near the bottom.

As I said earlier in this column, bluegill are great eating. The recipe Vina and I use for our bluegill is one the late Ted Trueblood gave me many years ago. At the time we were using various beer batter (type) recipes to flavor up our fish. Ted said bluegill (and crappie) are best cooked so as not to "hide" their delicate flavor. Trueblood told us to simply dip the fillets in egg batter, roll them on soda cracker crumbs, and deep fat fry them. I'm still really not much of a fish eater...unless, that is, I 've got a freezer full of bluegill fillets.


    HOOK: Mustad 9671, or equivalent, sizes 8 - 14.

    THREAD: Black 6/0 prewaxed.

    BODY: Underbody of medium olive marabou, overbody dark-olive chenille. The chenille is wound so that some of the marabou shows through the wraps.

    HACKLE: Dark-olive dyed saddle hackle, palmered, and clipped short.

    HEAD: Black 6/0 prewaxed.

About 25-years ago, I was attempting to "improve" a Woolly Worm pattern that had been successful at Horsethief Reservoir, when I came up with the idea of using marabou, or philo, as an underbody. I thought it created a more natural looking cased caddis. One of my best fly patterns for Horsethief at the time had been a dark-olive Woolly Worm, with clipped dark-olive hackle.

At the time, the lake had a decent population of large caddis that built cases of twigs and weeds. Often these cases would be ragged and uneven. The marabou and hackle sticking out of this chenille pattern offers this uneven appearance. Although I still use the pattern elsewhere (it has been especially effective at eastern Idaho's Island Park servoir over the years), the Horsethief caddis that caused me to develop the pattern, have been much less numerous in recent years.

While I usually fish this pattern deep, I have at times fished it with a floating line. Every now and then we will find these case-builders floating around dead-drift.

I also tie this design in brown, gray, light olive, and black. Variegated chenille also works well for this pattern. ~ Marv

About Marv

Marv Taylor's books, 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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