How To Fish Stillwaters
May 23rd, 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

From the Bottom of the Food Chain

By Gary LaFontaine

ON SOME high-mountain lakes the food base can be maddeningly simple. The trout swim slowly and open-mouthed, like certain whales, straining minute, suspended food organisms known as zooplankton from the water. If zooplankton can grow something as large as a whale, why should a trout eat anything else? In many lakes the fish spend all summer and fall ingesting animals far smaller than a size-28 hook. Even if a fly fisherman could imitate individual organisms, it would be useless because the trout are not taking them one by one. The only "good" fly would have a hundred incredibly tiny hooks dangling in the water, imitating a cloud of suspended zooplankton.

The zooplankton in high-mountain lakes is a predictable collection, including Copepods such as Cyclops and Diaptomus, Rotifers such as Rotatoria, and Cladocera (or Water Fleas) such as Daphnia. Most of these minute animals feed on algae, which means that populations will be at a peak when microscopic plants bloom in midsummer. That is when trout are most likely to feed on zooplankton exclusively.

The trout follow the zooplankton. Some of these plank-tonic animals have eyespots and, reacting to sunlight, they migrate daily. They reach maximum abundance near the surface early in the morning, but with growing illumination the animals begin sinking, reaching depths of fifty feet or more, depending on the clarity of the water, and stay deep until late afternoon. Then they begin a slow drift upward to the surface again.

THE NEED to understand zooplankton has little to do with imitation and everything to do with tracking the trout in lakes. If you find a shapeless, pastelike mass in the stomach of a fish, you have caught a plankton-eating trout. In clear lakes you should be able to spot these fish cruising slowly at a specific depth, but seeing them is different than hooking them. I logged a relevant experience fishing for plankton-feeders in 1996:

August 7th through the 12th:
Joel Hart is one of those fly fishermen who doesn't hike anywhere just to hike. He's in shape, and he'll walk miles to find an elk or deer during hunting season, but when he goes into the mountains to fish, he wants a sure thing. Four or five times a year he'll come with me to a favorite high lake of mine; and two or three times a year we'll go to a favorite high lake of his.

But he refuses to take me to Cave Lake. "Never," he says, "Throw me in a briar patch. Anything, but not Cave Lake."

Joel is a stillwater specialist, one of the finest, and, like me, he loves a tough situation. Unlike me, he lacks a masochistic streak. He doesn't mind getting beaten by the trout, but he doesn't see why he should hike eight or nine miles uphill to do it.

He never should have told me about the goldens in Cave Lakeóbig cruising plankton-feeders. He shouldn't have telephoned me late one night, saying over and over, "I could see them, but I couldn't catch them."

STILLWATER SPECIALISTS in the United Kingdom learned how to catch plankton-feeding rainbows in their reservoirs, but at first they were baffled by the strange new trout in their country. Soon after Blagdon Reservoir was flooded in 1902, fishermen found that rainbows "disappeared" in midsummer. The normal surface- and shallow-water tactics didn't work for larger fish, especially during midday, on rich, algae-clouded Blagdon, or later on similarly fertile reservoirs such as Chew, Datchet, and Grafham. Anglers worked streamer patterns ("lures" in their terminology) on a full-sinking line. They anchored a boat in deep water and by methodically testing different depths they picked up trout on minnow imitations.

Peter Lapsley, in Trout from Stillwaters, explains the technique:

The solution is to cast as long a line as possible, to let out line after the cast until we are sure that the lure is at the right depth and only then start our retrieve. Even a Hi-D line only sinks about one foot in three seconds and it takes a minute and a half to go down 30 feet. Count or time as the line goes through the water. By doing this we should be able to return the lure to the same depth again and again with subsequent casts. This method was specifically developed for the capture of rainbow trout, especially plankton-feeding ones. By mid- to late-June, the rainbows should have begun their assault on a rapidly growing plankton population. It would be quite impossible to represent daphnia or any other planktonic animal on a hook, and even if we could there would still be little chance of persuading the fish to select our artificial from amongst the vast host of naturals in the water. But, by some extraordinary stroke of good fortune, plankton-feeding rainbows are remarkably susceptible to bright, flashy lures. Gold, orange, yellow and red seem almost always to be the most effective colors, and a Whiskey Fly or a Dunkeld fished at the right depth and retrieved quickly will frequently provide the answer to an otherwise almost insoluble problem.

The pioneers of stillwater fly fishing in the United Kingdom perfected the Count-Down Method with sinking lines. It's a consistent technique for taking trout feeding deep on a variety of foods, not just zooplankton; and it's one of the keys for taking large trout in many western reservoirs in this country. The Count-Down and bright streamer patterns work on plankton-feeders in our lowland waters, too. ~ GL

To be continued, next time: More From the Bottom of the Food Chain

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