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Fly fishing in ponds, lakes, and reservoirs can be intimidating to anglers who focus more on moving water. But, most fly-fishers have everything they need to tackle stillwater fly fishing. They just have to change their mindset a bit and devote some time to this productive discipline. Here, we’ll coach you up on how to approach stillwater fisheries with confidence. We’ll offer some tips on everything from the gear you’ll need to the techniques you can employ to help you enjoy stillwater fly fishing for lake lunkers, from bass to trout and everything in between.
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Why choose stillwater fly fishing?
If you’re a dedicated fly angler and you have honed your skills in moving water, you may not understand the appeal of stillwater fly fishing. That’s OK. Honestly, it’s not for everyone. But for anglers who like to tackle new challenges and learn new disciplines within the fly fishing realm, stillwater fishing is a great way to get into fish and, in many cases, really big fish.
What’s more, stillwater fly fishing can keep you on the water, even when it’s miserably hot. High summer in trout country, when rivers are often too warm to safely fish, can be a great time to try stillwater fishing. High-elevation lakes and reservoirs can offer excellent fishing when valley-floor rivers and streams are tepid and challenging for trout.
And it’s not just about trout. Even in traditional trout country, many lower-elevation lakes and reservoirs are coming into their prime during the warm months of the year, and it’s a great time to try fly fishing in lakes and ponds for everything from bass and panfish to pike and carp. Simply put, stillwater fly fishing gives anglers the chance to fish through the “dog days,” extend their seasons, increase the diversity of their fishing and learn valuable angling tools that can help their overall fly fishing game.
Preparation for lakes, ponds, and reservoirs
First things first. It’s important that you know a little bit about the body of water you’re going to try and fish first. Start by doing a little internet sleuthing. Read blog posts or message-board entries from anglers who’ve been there before you. Take a good look at the pond, lake, or reservoir you’re hoping to fish online. You can learn a lot about a body of water just by spending an hour or so online.
Using the information you’ve gathered, you should be able to make relatively informed decisions on what gear you’ll need, what flies you might want to tie before you go and what time of day you want to fish. If you’re targeting a high-mountain lake full of wild and native cutthroat trout, you’ll know how long the hike is. You’ll know if you’ll be able to fish the lake from shore or if you’ll need to acquire a float tube or a boat of some sort.
Flies for stillwater fly fishing
Flies for ponds, lakes, and reservoirs don’t look all that different from flies you might take to the river with you. Stillwater fish move throughout the water column over the course of a normal day, and, depending on the time of year, you may cast everything from dry flies to heavy streamers to tiny midges that just drift in the lake.
Generally speaking, though, stillwater fishing for trout, pike and panfish is, first and foremost, a streamer game. Many stillwater anglers will start with traditional weighted streamer patterns (often using a sinking or a sink-tip line, depending on the time of day or the time of year) and begin searching for fish around likely structure (think rocks, submerged wood or, if you’re fishing a warm-water impoundment, consider casting around docks and piers). Sure-fire streamers that ought to be in every stillwater angler’s fly box include old stand-bys, like Woolly Buggers, Slumpbusters, Zonkers, Clousers, and the like. Colors will vary (again, do some research and go to school on what other anglers have used successfully before you), as well as size and weight, but a good start is to include flies in brown, black, olive, chartreuse, and white. Don’t be shy with flash or UV-reactive materials.
Fishing topwater flies for predatory fish is the pinnacle of the fly fishing craft. And, when fishing lakes or ponds, it pays to have a few poppers or gurglers in your fly box. These flies move water and look and act like struggling prey. Fishing poppers and gurglers is particularly enjoyable when you’re going after bass, panfish or pike (with pike, you’ll need heavy bite tippet — at least 30-pound test line or even pliable wire). It’s a visual game and you want your fly to look vulnerable so it’ll entice a strike. These topwater chaos flies can be anything from green and yellow to red and white, with multiple combinations included. For gurglers, consider adding rubber legs and some flash.
Yes, stillwater fish will hit drifting dry flies, depending on the time of year and the time of day. On many Rocky Mountain reservoirs, there are epic mayfly and caddis hatches that bing big, heavy-shouldered trout to the surface. For instance, on Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park, a recovering population of native Yellowstone cutthroat trout dependably chases everything from March Browns and Green Drakes to caddis flies and spruce moths over the course of a fishing season. On Hebgen Lake in southwest Montana, the lake’s famed chironomid hatch occurs in May and into June and even July in cooler years.
And, of course, it’s easy to tell when to tie on a dry fly. If you start to see rises and noses pushing through the surface film, the time is right to ditch the deep streamer and the sink-tip line and change over to a floating line and a match-the-hatch dry fly pattern. Pay attention, too, to the bugs on the water. If they’re struggling in the surface film, trout are likely going to key in on emerging bugs, not the insects that are seamlessly escaping their watery shucks and flying off to start the reproductive cycle all over again. Later in a hatch, watch for the spinner fall, and this is when you’ll see big fish coming to the top to go after mayflies.
Match the hatch as best you can, but consider a few solid patterns that will likely put you in the right entomological neighborhood. A good stand-by for lake-hatching mayflies is the dependable old Adams in sizes 12-18. It’s an attractor that doesn’t look like anything in particular, but possesses just enough “bugginess” to get frequent looks. Other patterns? Green Drakes are good early-summer patterns in trout country. Pale Morning Duns are dependable in high summer.
But it’s not just a mayfly game. Trout will key in on damselfly larvae, and if they can find an adult damsel stuck in the surface film, they’ll go get it. So tie a few extended-body patterns in electric blue and light green. You won’t be disappointed.
Finally, toward the end of summer, make sure your fly box has a decent selection of terrestrial bugs — mid-sized Chernobyls, Fat Alberts and the like. Terrestrial flies are important patterns on just about any pond or lake. Bass and panfish, like sunfish and crappie, will also hit hopper and ant patterns. Don’t leave home without them.
Yes, lake-dwelling fish eat aquatic insect larvae. Mayfly nymphs, caddis nymphs and damselfly nymphs are common in lakes all over the country, and trout likely earn most of their meals chasing these underwater bugs around. But don’t forget chironomid nymphs. These insects are vital to a trout’s diet in ponds and lakes, particularly those with mud bottoms and some depth. Also, don’t leave home without a few weighted San Juan Worm patterns — worms are natural food items in lakes, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using flies that imitate natural prey. We’ll get to how to fish these flies in a bit.
Gear and equipment for stillwater fly fishing
Rods, lines, etc.
During the heat of the day, trout are going to be deeper in the water column, so your fly should be weighted, and you should likely consider a sink-tip or full-sink fly line that will help your fly get down into the strike zone. With that in mind, it pays to have a fly rod able to handle some heft. While you can likely get by with a “standard” 9-foot, 5-weight fly rod, you might consider sizing up a bit, just so your rod can better handle a sinking or sink-tip line as well as a heavy fly.
Ask any avid lake angler who goes deep for trout, pike and bass in the summer. When you’re throwing flies that feel like wet diapers after a few dunks in the lake, you need a rod with some backbone. It’s not a crime to go after big lake fish with a 6- or 7-weight fly rod. And, if you’re in a boat, you can tote along more than one rod. You might fish your 7-weight and throw streamers most of the day, but then switch to a lighter 5-weight when the evening hatch starts.
Your fishing setup is just part of your gear outfit for tackling stillwater. If you’re fishing from shore or wading in the shallows, you might need waders (particularly in high-country lakes and ponds). You’ll definitely need dependable wading boots or footwear you can trust when it’s wet. These will very likely be different from the footwear you wore on the hike in — you don’t want to be walking down a mountain in the dark in wet footwear. And don’t leave home without a rain jacket, particularly if you’re fishing high-mountain lakes where summer squalls can brew up with a moment’s notice.
Boats, Rafts, and Belly Boats/ Duckies.
While not absolutely essential, the difference you might find between being able to explore the entire body of water you’re targeting, as opposed to being confined to shore, will most likely be night and day. Luckily, there is no shortage of different vessels you can use to explore, and they come in all different shapes, sizes, and price points.
This category will encompass the greatest diversity of vessels among the 3 categories highlighted. This includes anything from your typical motor boat such as any bass boat, deck boat, or even a pontoon, to smaller vessels such as dories, canoes, and kayaks. The real differentiating factors between which boat is best all comes down to what your environment looks like, and how much change you have rattling around in your pocket. If you’re fishing massive reservoirs with big, multi-lane boat ramps, and can afford something with some bells and whistles, something with trolling capabilities and an outboard motor certainly won’t hurt. However, those types of boats take a lot of maintenance and time to deal with. If you’re looking at smaller lakes and ponds, a human-powered vessel, such as a canoe or kayak, will certainly bring you back to the good ‘ole days and doesn’t require much upkeep or $$ on permitting and maintenance.
When it comes to fly fishing stillwater, there is no reason you can’t use your river raft that you’ve been running down your local river all Summer. Note, if you’re planning on doing this, mobility will be limited and you’ll most likely be at the mercy of the wind. We’d recommend making a few modifications, such as attaching a trolling motor, adding a longer anchor rope, and doing some serious research on where you’re going to be fishing beforehand. If you’re planning on doing some hiking into your body of water, be it a pond or high alpine lake, there are also pack rafts. Pack rafts can be a venturing angler’s best tool, and can act as a versatile tool to get you into places no one has ever fished before. If you’re considering one of these, we recommend taking a look at the Rapid Raft, by Uncharted Supply. This raft packs down to the size of a loaf of bread and weighs in at just a few pounds – making it easy to stow inside, or onto, any backpack. Click HERE, to learn more about this amazing pack raft. You can also read about our personal experiences with the Rapid Raft, here.
Pictured above: The Rapid Raft set up process. The Rapid Raft is small enough to hook onto, or fit, in any hiking/ fishing pack. Just roll open, inflate, and get on the water. Full setup time: around 2-3 minutes.
If you’ve ever seen someone cruising around a lake or reservoir in a belly boat, the look of it can oftentimes warrant a chuckle. However, these boats can be extremely effective on small/ medium size bodies of water. These vessels require the angler to slip into them up to their stomachs, hence the name, and use their legs to propel them. This is often accomplished much more effectively with a pair of flippers. This tried and true method is a great way for anglers to get around a lake or pond, with minimal commitment to a larger vessel like a boat.
Other items you’ll need for stillwater fly fishing.
Fishing stillwater is a reactive endeavor — you’ll need to respond to what’s going on around you, perhaps even more than you would on your typical trip to the river. With that in mind, and if you can make room in your pack, consider the following items:
- Strike indicators/bobbers (more on this below)
- Split shot weights, preferably non-toxic, like tungsten
- A good net — lake-dwelling fish can be big
- Fluorocarbon tippet in 1x-4x for streamers and nymphs
- Mono tippet in 3x-5x for dry flies
- Fluorocarbon leaders in 1x-3x for streamers and nymphs
- Mono leaders in 3x-5x for dry flies.
- Polarized sunglass
- Insect repellent
- Water or a water filtration bottle
- A good, comfortable, backpack
Techniques for fly fishing stillwater
The techniques you’ll employ while fishing lakes will be different than those you use on moving water. And they’ll depend largely on what you’re fishing for, and what flies you’re using
The standard stillwater cast is one that’s designed to help anglers cover as much water as possible. If you can double-haul, you’ll be able to throw more line and your flies will find themselves in front of more fish. Whether you’re fishing from shore or from the confines of a float tube or a raft, you’ll be better served if you can throw 50 or more feet of line (yes, even sink-tip, or sinking line). Don’t have this ability yet? Practice. It’s important, particularly for your streamer and dry-fly game.
The strip will be different based on a number of factors, like the fish you’re targeting, the fly you’re using, the time of day and the time of year.
As a rule of thumb, the deeper you fish, the slower your strip should be. This is true for almost any lake-dwelling fish, from pike to trout and from bass to sunfish. Deeper water is colder water and some fish, like lake trout or pike, seek out the cooler end of the thermocline. Lake-dwelling trout will be deeper during the warmest times of the year and the warmest times of the day. During ice out and the spring and fall “shoulder seasons” you won’t need to go as deep. But the strip should still be quite slow. You’ll want your fly to kind of “crawl” along or near the bottom.
Bass and sunfish will hover around the first layer of cooler water, but they’ll also be more willing to come up for food, particularly if they’re around structure. Consider a faster strip with some random pauses when casting around rocks, weed beds, docks or piers.
If you’re fishing a lake or a pond with a healthy population of damselflies or dragonflies, you’ll likely want to strip a little faster and use the larval version of these bugs — for damsels, consider a size 12 olive green Woolly Bugger. Go a little bigger — size 8-12 — for dragonfly nymphs.
Surface bugs, like poppers and gurglers need more aggressive action. The idea is to move water and make the fly look like something big and meaty stuck struggling in the water. Random jerks and strips will serve you well if fish are in the mood to chase bigger flies. These flies work well around weed beds and lily pads and near obvious structure, like submerged wood and around snags and clusters of rocks.
Yes, you can absolutely fish nymphs to lake-dwelling fish, particularly trout. And you can use different methods to deliver flies to the fish. First, you’ll need a longer leader than you might normally use. Start with a leader that’s at least 15 feet long and, if necessary, add tippet to make it longer.
One of the best nymphing methods to use on lakes and ponds is to suspend nymphs over the feeding zone under a strike indicator or even a bobber. Some anglers simply suspend a multi-nymph rig under a high-floating attractor dry fly, like Chubby Chernobyl or a Fat Albert. This can be deadly with chironomids, midges, and worm patterns under the indicator or indicator fly, but it also works with more traditional mayfly and caddis fly nymph patterns.
Nymphing tends to work well during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, when fish are active, but not active all day long. Honestly, it’s not the most exciting fishing, but if you hit the fish when they’re on the feed, it can offer some really good fishing for larger trout. This probably isn’t a method to consider for bass or pike, but it does work well for bluegill and crappie when water temperatures are a bit on the cold side.
What are you fishing for and when?
Stillwater fishing can be good most of the year. Obviously, if you live in real trout country or pike, many of the lakes and ponds you might fish in the summer will be frozen over and inaccessible (unless you’re an ice fisher!) during the colder months. But open water doesn’t lend itself to a universal approach. Stillwater fishing success depends a lot on the season, the time of day, and even the weather. It also depends on what you’re chasing.
Pike, bass, and panfish
Pike tend to be very active right after the ice comes off lakes and reservoirs, and they congregate around decaying weed beds and over structure. If you’re fishing for pike in the Lower 48, your best months for pike are likely late March through May and into early June. Once the days start to get longer and the water warms, pike tend to go deeper. If you’re fishing for pike in boreal lake country of Canada, prime time is from ice out to about the first week of July. They’ll become active again in late August and September when water cools.
Bass and panfish are spring spawners, and they start to get active when water temperatures push into the 60s. In more northern climates, that can be as late as June. Farther south, they’ll start to get active as early as March or April. These fish will stay in accessible waters most of the summer. They’ll tend to be more active early in the day and again in the evening.
The best time to chase trout in stillwater impoundments around the country is at ice out. It’s also a great time to “walk and stalk” cruising trout that push into the shallows. Trout are opportunists. They search of baitfish and aquatic insects as soon as there’s open water. Ice-out fishing can be wonderful for fly fishers who like to sight-cast to fish.
As the water warms, trout will go deeper and hold around structure. Just like other game fish, they’ll be more active early in the day and again later in the evenings. In the fall, before lakes and ponds freeze, trout will again be shallow and working hard to put on weight for the winter, when the prey base becomes more limited.
Stillwater fly fishing is rarely a fast-paced endeavor. Often, you have to move around a lot to find fish. Sometimes, you need the discipline to let cruising fish come to you. If you’re shorebound, consider the time of year. Fish will be closer to the banks in the spring and fall. If you’re in a float tube, raft, kayak, or boat, you can employ different techniques to reach deeper-holding fish. Even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll get into fish every time.
Structure is your friend
No matter what time of year you’re fishing stillwaters, make sure you’re able to identify structures in the water. Predatory fish hold in cover. Most are ambush predators that wait from cover and attack prey without having to expend too much energy.
For trout, look for rocks and submerged wood. Bass and panfish like docks and piers, but will hold in the weeds or under lily pads in the absence of more obvious cover. Pike are the ultimate ambush predator. They can go from zero to a mouthful of ducklings in nanoseconds. They tend to seek out weed beds, lily pads, and rock piles. They’ll also hold under docks and piers, just like bass and sunfish.
No matter what you’re after, what time of year you fish, or what time of day you find yourself fishing, structure should be top-of-mind.
Why choose stillwater fly fishing?
Stillwater fly fishing may not be for everybody. But for anglers who want to expand their fishing repertoire and extend their seasons, going after fish in lakes, ponds and reservoirs is worth the effort. But, just like anything else, it requires a bit of patience, and there is a learning curve. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.