How To Fish Stillwaters

May 19th, 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

Henry's Lake - A History
Marv's Fly of the Week - Henry's Lake Renegade

By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

Every self-confessed fly fishing "expert" would do well to visit Idaho's legendary Henry's Lake every now and then. The Big H can dish up buckets of humility whenever the fly fisherman becomes overconfident I can't count the times I've thought I was in complete control on the lake, only to discover it still had my number.

I've fly fished scores of western trout lakes, and while Henry's Lake has not been the most difficult for me to figure out (I would rate Montana's McDonald Pond in Centennial Valley with that distinction), it can be really technical at times. While having the correct type of fly on your tippet is certainly important, the key to catching at the Big H is presentation... presentation...presentation.

So...what else is new?

My introduction to deep-sinking lines took place at Henry's during the late 60s. I had float-tubed the Glory Hole at Staley Springs for two days without hooking a single fish. I got acquainted with a couple of more successful fly fishermen who were fishing from a boat. They had watched me for two days, as I became more and more frustrated. One of them asked me which line I was using. I told him it was the Intermediate (my only sinking line at the time).

You many fish here the rest of your life with that super slow sinker, he told me, and still not be catching fish when they plant you.

Go to town, the other angler advised me, as he landed yet another trout, and buy a deeper sinking line.

I had promised my wife a dinner in West Yellowstone, so while we were there that evening, I visited Bud Lilly's Trout Shop. The next day, I was back in the Glory Hole at daybreak. My two new friends were also there. When I told them I had bought a deep sinking line, they applauded.

Now what the hell do I do with it?

For the balance of the week, these two old-timers - who were to become very close friends over the next two decades - fine-tuned my count-down technique, my retrieves, and gave me a fist full of flies. By the end of the week, I was (almost) matching them fish for fish.

The key to catching fish at Henry's Lake has not changed during the four decades I've fly fished the lake. Most of the time you must put your fly right on top of the weed beds that coat the bottom. Use the count down technique until you pick up weeds, then subtract a couple of seconds. Many of the old-timers use a watch and keep meticulous count of where their fly is. If this sounds too routine, the angler should probably fish someplace else.

Count your fly to the bottom, and fish it just above the weeds for ten or 15 feet. Then retrieve it at a fairly steep angle of emergence. Henry's Lake guru Bill Scheiss (author of the book, Fishing Henry's Lake), once told me that 6 or 8 inches can make all the difference in the world. He believes that ninety-nine percent of the fish in Henry's Lake, at any given moment, are within 2 feet of the bottom.

Even when there are dozens of big trout rolling on the surface, keep your flies deep. The legendary Ted Trueblood wrote a FIELD AND STREAM column about a lake in the west that confused him for several days, the first time he fished it. He said fish were working the top like crazy. He tried dry flies, he tried midge and caddis emergers, he tried damsel nymphs just under the surface. The fish kept rolling and he continued faithless.

Out of desperation , he finally put on the deepest sinking line he had and sank his fly to the bottom. He caught fish steadily for the balance of his trip. Although Ted rarely named a body of water he wrote about, he confirmed in a private conversation it had been Henry's Lake.

Many Big H anglers believe the old pro catching all the fish has a "secret" pattern. While most of them do have proper fly patterns, most of the time they have simply mastered the presentation. Trade flies with one of them some day and you'll find he outfishes you with the pattern you couldn't catch a fish with.

I once read an article published in a now-defunct California outdoors magazine, entitled "The Secret Of Fly Fishing Henry's Lake With Dry Flies. I'd never heard of the author, nor had anyone I queried. I've never taken a fish from the lake with a dry fly, nor am I acquainted with anyone who has. Henry's Lake is such a fertile body of water, fish don't seem interested in expending energy chasing emerging or adult chironomids or caddis, when they can cruise leisurely subsurface, with their mouths open and inhale huge volumes of aquatic organisms.

I'm sure there will be a few dry fly purists who will snicker at the above paragraph. They just need to spend a week on the lake with only a floating line and a fly box filled with floating flies. If they don't have a good supply of split shot with them...they too will go fishless.

I first fished the Big H on my honeymoon, fifty-odd years ago. I'll acknowledge that as honeymooners, Vina and I didn't spend an awfully lot of time attempting to learn the lake's secrets and consequently didn't catch many fish.

Our next trip to the lake was three years later and considerably more successful. My brother-in-law and I managed to land limits of rainbow/cutthroat hybrids, with a few really nice brook trout thrown in, and began to feel more comfortable with our skills at this big eastern Idaho trout lake. While I did catch a couple of fish on flies, we were mostly trolling spoons.

The following year we added my father to our fishing safari and had a very successful trip. But we had to rely on a little luck, and a wild Henry's Lake wind storm, to learn the secret that made the trip so memorable. We had launched our 7-man rubber raft in an area now occupied by the Henry's Lake State Park, and trolled north to Henry's Lake Lodge (the old Pittsburgh Club), where we stopped for lunch. About that time a south wind blew up and we spent most of the afternoon waiting for it to die down so we could motor back across the lake to our vehicle.

While we were at the lodge, my father struck up a conversation with a grizzled old fisherman, who described a center lake "glory hole" that he said never failed to provide his daily limit. He gave my father the landmarks to triangulate his hotspot. He described how an imaginary line between Sawtell Peak and Henry's Lake Lodge intersects with a line between Staley Springs and the spot where we had parked our vehicle. That was the spot to fish. I was later to learn that Bill Scheiss calls our glory hole of 1955, his hybrid hole #2.

On the following day, we used the old timer's directions and proceeded to have one of those days you dream about. We took three limits of hybrids, including several in the 6-pound range (while I think we did release a few of the smaller fish, readers should keep in mind this event occurred long before any of us had ever heard the term "catch-and-release").

A lot has happened at Henry's Lake since those first two mid-50s fishing trips. The decade of the '60s produced trophy rainbow/cutthroat hybrid fishing that attracted fly fishermen from all over the world. Along with the lake's (smaller growing) cutthroat and brook trout populations, the Big H was considered hallowed water by knowledgeable fly fishermen.

Then in 1969, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game elected to eliminate the hybrids from Henry's Lake in favor of increased populations of cutthroat and brook trout. They said they wanted to let the lake revert to its native species (they somehow failed, in their arguments, to acknowledge that the brook trout was also an "introduced" species, not native to the lake).

Many sportsmen were convinced Fish and Game was primarily interested in the revenues generated by sales of cutthroat eggs produced by the lake-side hatchery. They accused Fish and Game of not placing a high enough priority on the quality potential of the lake. Incensed sportsmen attending public meetings, eventually pressured the department to continue stocking the popular hybrid. (Western Idaho fly fishermen helped solve the "hybrid" problem by getting one of their own, Will Godfrey (owner at the time of Will's Fly Shop, near Island Park Reservoir), appointed to the Fish and Game Commission. Will formed a coalition on the commission and got Henry's Lake back on track as a trophy fishery).

While the Department got some really bad press on the mid-70s hybrid issue, they were less guilty of mis-management than many critics believed. Fish and Game had primarily been concerned about hybrids diluting the cutthroat strain at the Big H hatchery. Although once believed to be sterile, Fish and Game discovered that up to 15-percent of the hybrids retained the ability to cross with the cutthroat. Without pure cutthroats and rainbows, the strain of hybrid would be weakened. Recent heat sterilization procedures has solved that problem, so Fish and Game is not so hesitant about stocking hybrids where there are native cutthroat trout present.

Since the mid-70s, quality fishing at Henry's Lake has had its peaks and valleys. During the late '70s and early '80s, there were some very large hybrids and brook trout in the lake; but the numbers were down... way down. Fish and Game lost some hybrids to disease in one of their hatcheries, during that time frame, and, unfortunately, had chosen to reduce the cutthroat program. Was the reduced potential at the lake their way of paying sportsmen back for questioning their policies? I don't know. I do remember some very good Henry's Lake fly fishermen going for days without touching fish. I spent three weeks at the lake in 1979 and you could count the fish I caught on the fingers of both hands.

When fish and Game flooded the lake with increased numbers of cutthroat fingerlings in the early '80s, the catch rates increased, but the average size went down. Simply too many fish. Fifty fish days were common, but instead of being trophy sized, they mostly ran from 14- to 18-inches. While this would be acceptable fishing in many trout lakes, it was a major disappointment to anglers who traveled to Idaho to fish for the "lunkers" of Henry's Lake.

When Fish and Game finally got their program stabilized, we began to see top quality fishing return. In 1995 I spent August and September camped at the lake and the fishing was superb. My fishing logs reveal many 20- to 30-fish days, with good numbers of 3- to 6-pound fish, both hybrids and cutthroats.

But there was a fly in the ointment. A prolonged drought had cut down the brook trout winter spawning runs and very few specks were showing up. With heavier brook trout plants in recent years, trophy brookies should once again begin to show up in the lake.

The fishing these past two seasons has been spotty at best. The continued drought has lowered the lake by 50-percent each year and the mid-summer fishing has been poor. Bill Scheiss, arguably the most knowledgeable guide on the lake, cancelled many of his July and August clients in both 2001 and 2002. I have several friends with cabins on the Big H and to a person they described the fishing last summer as a total disaster.

With improved snow packs this past winter, Henry's Lake anglers are holding their collective breaths. The lake level in April was listed at 79-percent. Bill Scheiss believes it will be 95-percent by mid-June. If I were planning a trip to Henry's Lake this summer, I would call several of the local fly shops and get up-to-date information on water conditions and the fishing. This column will pass on a monthly report on what my contacts are telling me.




    Hook: Mustad 9671, (or equivalent), sizes 8 - 16.

    Thread: Red, prewaxed 6/0 or 8/0.

    Tag: Red thread.

    Tail: Brown neck hackle, 2 wraps, tied dry-fly style.

    Body: Peacock herls, 2 or 3, extra thin body. Wrap herls around the thread, then wrap body.

    Ribbing: Red thread, doubled, 4 or 5 wraps.

    Hackle: Brown neck hackle, 2 wraps, tied dry fly style.

    HEAD: Red thread.

If there is a fishing destination mentioned more often in my books than Henry's Lake, it could only be Horsethief Reservoir. I learned most of my entomology, and a great deal of my fly tying, at those two marvelous Idaho trout fisheries.

Henry's Lake has heavy populations of some of the most important aquatic insects found in stillwaters. It's early June chironomid hatch (called "snow flies" by locals) is legendary as to volume. The first time I encountered the hatch, we were right in the middle of the lake when it started. Our craft was a WW2 Navy 7-man rubber raft, with a 7 hp motor. The little chironomids were so thick we could hardly breathe. We ended up wrapping bandanas around our faces, and still ended up swallowing dozens of the little beasties, before we were able to reach shore and escape to our vehicle (which had so many midges roosting on it, you couldn't tell its color).

The second time we fished the lake, our party consisted of my wife Vina and I, my sister and her husband, and my mother and father. We pulled into Staley springs, intending to camp in their campground. We got there about noon and the snow fly hatch was in full swing. The six of us walked down to the campground, swatting chironomids as we walked. The three ladies in the party huddled, then informed we three males, that should we insist on camping on Henry's Lake, there would be three divorces in the family. We found a nice campground far enough away from the lake not to be bothered by the little bugs.

I've tried ever since to schedule my Henry's Lake trips after the snow fly hatch is over.

Besides midges, Henry's Lake has shiner minnows, sculpins, crayfish, mayflies, caddisflies, damsels and scuds. In a word, the lake is fertile. And it has trout...big trout. Where else do we need to go to study entomology and how it applies to our fly tying and fishing?

I first saw the Henry's Lake Renegade at the Big H during the mid-70s. It is one of the most productive flies during late June and through the month of July, probably imitating caddis and midge larvae and pupae.

It's effectiveness is certainly not limited to Henry's Lake. The fly has caught fish everywhere I've fished it. I've had other fly fishermen tell me the fly has saved the day for them more than once at other lakes and reservoirs across the intermountain area, and throughout the Pacific Northwest. ~ 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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