How To Fish Stillwaters
August 8th, 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

Productivity of High Mountain Lakes

By Gary LaFontaine


My equipment for rich valley lakes is a road show — three fly rods, three reels with extra spools for a number of lines, eight boxes of flies, two kinds of strike indicators, a wallet with four compartments for different types of hand-tied leaders, neoprene waders and fins, an inflatable kick boat for ponds, and a specially rigged aluminum boat and motor for bigger lakes. Altogether this collection weighs close to a thousand pounds — a bit much to backpack.

My equipment for regular hike-in lakes is trimmed to the ounce. The two rods in aluminum tubes are my walking sticks and aren't counted in the weight. The rest of my tackle scales at nine pounds and six ounces—and even this collection is trimmed for multiday trips if there's no beast of burden along to pack the excess.

The weight limitation is not a handicap on most high-mountain lakes. These are basic fisheries, and trout in them have limited feeding options. A floss blow line, a floating line and a sink-tip line, and two boxes of flies and a few leaders, along with a couple of rods and reels, give me everything I need to catch fish most of the time. I can match the surface foods — midges, mayflies, caddisflies, or terrestrials — or work the drop-offs just beyond the shallow rim with weighted nymphs.

The crisis happens on rich mountain lakes. I'll get snubbed by nice fish and my blood boils with the need to catch them. I want all thousand pounds of my gear. The spoiled trout in these waters feast on specific food items in particular sections of the lake, leaving the rest of the lake nearly barren. You have to put the right fly at the right depth and make it act the right way — often this requires specialized, not general, equipment.

Fertile mountain lakes, if they're isolated enough to discourage hordes of anglers, may grow enormous trout for the high country. The fish sometimes average four pounds; and in places where everything is right, there might be trout that surpass that magical ten-pound mark. The food base includes not only heavy hatches of midges, mayflies (Tricorythodes and Callibaetis), and caddisflies (Banksiola, Onocosmoecus, Oecetis, Clistoronia, and Agrypnia), but also major populations of damselflies and dragonflies. There are also scuds, snails, and leeches, and maybe even crawfish. And like any other mountain lake, these waters get a daily shower of terrestrials during the summer months.


Rich valley ponds and lakes are quite different from most high-mountain waters. They are often shallow; most mountain lakes sit in canyons and have a rim of shallows with a deep center. The bottoms in valley lakes are fertile soil; most mountain lakes have stony bottoms of hard, infertile igneous rocks such as granite. In valley lakes, aquatic weeds are abundant; most mountain lakes have little or no rooted vegetation. Valley lakes have heavy populations of crayfish, leeches, snails, scuds, and nymphs and larvae; most mountain lakes have spotty populations of aquatic insects (with the exception of midges) and few higher life forms.

Since trout have many more feeding options, and grazing grounds of extensive weed beds and mudflats, they can and sometimes do ignore insects on the surface in rich lakes. They may simply be stuffed to the point of satiation. It happens on these waters (especially with the biggest fish). This hardly ever happens on infertile, high-mountain lakes.

It's not that dry flies are ineffective on rich waters. They are often the best patterns for catching large numbers of trout — and surface techniques should be used more by still-water anglers. The problem is that rich waters are much more complex fisheries than most high-mountain lakes. Trout can find food in different areas and at different depths in these valley habitats, and unlike the opportunistic foragers of infertile waters, trout feed selectively when one food type is particularly abundant. On these waters you need a full range of equipment, tactics, and fly patterns.

In valley lakes the trout are often so wary of fish-eating birds that they won't rise when there's flat water and a bright sun. Those same fish rise freely, even during the middle of the day when the wind is blowing. The broken surface provides safety. Choppy water and any kind of hatch guarantees surface feeding on almost any lake, but on valley lakes these conditions often bring the largest trout to the top. The unsuspecting angler might never see a rise in the broken water, but for the lake specialist fishing the top when the wind is blowing becomes a matter of faith. ~ GL

To be continued, next time: More on the productivity of lakes

Previous Lake Fishing Columns

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