The sun crept over the smokey horizon as it began warming the arid desert floor below. The summer air smelled of a burnt forest, it was late August in Central Oregon, “Fire Season,” as many call it. This year had been especially bad with abnormally warm temperatures. Many of Oregon’s trout streams were under “hoot owl” regulations or even closed to angling. Fortunately for us, we were planning to head to a caldera to fly fish a volcanic crater lake that sat at over 6,000 feet in elevation. The lake’s depth was over 200 feet deep, and the water temperatures would be cool.
We were accompanied by Jeff Perin, the owner, and operator of the Fly Fisher’s Place. A long-standing full-service fly shop and outfitter located in Sisters, Oregon. Jeff is a Central Oregon native and has been fishing this part of Oregon his whole life. He is also lucky enough to spend over 90 days on the water guiding a year, for which he thanks to his hard-working fly shop manager and staff. Unlike many guides in Central Oregon, who focus their efforts on big rivers like the Lower Deschutes, Jeff spends a lot of his days guiding the lakes in Central Oregon.
The plan was to start our day early in hopes of finding some surface activity and then focus our efforts targeting fish below the surface using sinking lines or floating setups with long leaders and indicators. The thermal activity in this specific lake helps create a highly productive ecosystem. Meaning there is a lot of bugs that can support a lot of trout.
With Jeff or as the guides like to call him “El Jefe” at the helm, we motored to the first fishing area only to be met by swathes of callibaetis dancing on the surface. Callibaetis are a stillwater staple, a type of mayfly that is commonly found at slower-moving bodies of water like lakes and ponds. They hatch throughout the summer and are a primary food source for trout. A favorite insect for many anglers as it usually can involve tying on a dry fly.
Some trout were slurping spinners and some fish were aggressively taking the callibaetis off the water’s surface. Jeff tied on a tried and true callibaetis fly and laid out a 60-foot cast onto the weed bed in front of the boat. The fish were rising everywhere in front of us, but none to Jeff’s imitation. His patience persisted as he waited for a fish to find his fly.
Unlike in rivers where trout sit in holding water and wait for the food to come to them. Trout in lakes have to search out their food. They swim in circles covering water trying to find food. Specific water temperatures and bug hatches will make the fish more active and less active.
After 20-30 minutes of no action and a few non-committal looks from the fish, Jeff switched up his fly and tied on a spinner imitation. And just like that within the first few minutes, a rainbow slurped the spinner on the surface. And what followed was fish after fish rising to eat the spinner imitation. Jeff explains that presentation and fly selection are extremely important to fishing the callibaetis, “From day to day I see fish key in on all stages of the emergence, and a profile that worked yesterday might be giving us blanks today. I fish emergers that look like little flat floating nymphs in the surface film, and emergers that look like they are curved and pushing up through the film, half below the surface and partially floating above the surface, and I fish emergers that look like winged duns still attached to a trailing nymphal shuck. Just for callibaetis emergers I carry a dozen or more patterns, often in 2 or 3 sizes, and have some color variances too. Duns become a little easier to match for profile, but color can be all over the board. I see callibaetis primarily as gray, but they often range to olive, cream, tan, and sometimes even black.”
“Spinners are by far the trickiest part of the callibaetis surface fishing equation, which is funny to me because from a tying perspective they seem the easiest. How hard can 2 split tails and spent wings be, right? Well, I am here to say it’s damn hard. Color is critical on spinners and without a doubt, the surface imprint the natural makes is hard to imitate but easy for the fish to tell the difference between our fly and a natural spinner. I wonder about the UV spectrum relating to spinners and that is one more part of this I hope to one day understand more. Finally, we can’t forget about the nymphs. For me, I take into account whether I am fishing the fly on a strip retrieve or static under an indicator. I am falling in love with jig-style callibaetis nymphs under an indicator. So good! But a Poxy Back Callibaetis or Soft Hackle or Feather Duster type nymph are all good for your lake box, amongst others.”
The surface activity slowed down, and the sun began to position high above us. With the air temperatures now nearing the high 80’s, we decided to reel up the dry fly rods and move to another part of the lake to focus our efforts below the surface.
The lake resembled a life-size aquarium, the crystal clear water shimmered a translucent dark blue. Standing on the bow of the boat you could see 20 feet down to where rainbows and browns were circling like sharks feeding on various insects.
We took a water temperature reading with a Fishhawk Thermometer that was tied to a spool of braid. Jeff dropped it to the bottom of the lake and let it sit for a couple of minutes when he brought the thermometer back up it read 68 degrees at the surface, 67 degrees down 5 feet, and 66 degrees down 20 feet. At 66 degrees the water temperatures were still in the green zone for fishing for trout.
We began rigging up the 10 foot 5 weight rods, and Jeff explained how the importance of choosing the correct sink rate in a fly line is essential to catching fish below the surface. “Sink rate is very important when approaching a lake, so I carry dozens of extra spools for carrying a wide variety of sink rates. This season, during the hot weather I learned how important a type 5 line is.
“For 40 years I never fished anything more than a 3 usually but had every line covered in the slower sink rates. Now I am going up to type 7’s and 8’s for fishing ledges and drop-off zones and also fishing a dangling chironomid or leech.“
“Day in and day out I would start with the Airflo Delta Intermediate Taper Fly Line for fishing over weed beds 5 to 15 feet deep where so many fish end up being caught in their feeding zone. The other two lines I have been crazy about this season since I started fishing Airflo Stillwater lines are the Superflo Sink Tips in a 3-foot Anchor Tip size for fishing chironomids in choppy water when an indicator puts too much (negative) action on the fly, and also the 12-foot Fast Intermediate Tip. Airflo makes both a 12-foot fast and 12-foot slow intermediate sink tip, and both have a ton of game over weed beds and in shallow shoal zones. I see myself fishing more and more with these 12-foot sink tips for leeches and nymphs.”
Jeff cast out perpendicular across the boat as he waited 30 seconds before slowly stripping the damsel and chironomid fly patterns across the weed bed. Near the end of the retrieve, he begins to pick up on the drop and a nice size fish eats the red chironomid. “Fish on!”
The trout makes some powerful runs pulling the line out of the reel and jumping a few times before Jeff gains control and steers it towards the landing net. A quick cheer from the boat and we send it back to the depths of the translucent water.
After releasing this fish, the bite turned on. The fish had keyed in on chironomids that were emerging from the weed beds below.
In many lakes, chironomids make up the largest part of a trout’s diet. A chironomid is ultimately a lake midge and can be found in many different sizes and colors. It is a must-have for stillwater anglers and needless to say, Jeff had quite the selection of these bugs. He explained that “from my experience I see fish caught all the time on chironomids like a red #14 pupa when the throat pump sample shows different colors and sizes of chironomid pupa. But, as with so much technical fishing, there are days when you have to be spot on. So I carry 3 fly boxes of chironomids, mostly matching the pupa, but I have a good selection of larva patterns too. Earlier this season there was a week where the fish on one of the lakes just gorged on #18-20 dark olive pupa. It was critical to match that carefully, so I went home and got to the vise and came up with some winners. I am also very picky about beads and find that in clear water a white bead is sometimes passed up by the fish, and in that type of water I’ll tie my patterns with a gun metal bead the majority of the time, but also matte black beads are very good for darker flies like that little dark olive pupa I was just talking about.”
With air temperatures climbing into the 90’s we decided to call it a day and head back to the boat ramp. I thought to myself is stillwater fishing the future of recreational fly fishing? There was no way that today we could have fished a lot of the different local rivers as the water temperatures would have been way way too high. And these lakes can take a good amount of angling pressure without phasing the fishing.
Jeff mentioned that he has seen a rise in popularity of stillwater fishing and that stillwater fishing will be a part of the future of fly fishing. “It offers a ton of challenge and there are so many aspects to it, I think it is a game everyone would want to play.” It’s definitely something that more fly anglers should be doing, while a lake can be a little bit intimidating finding some local intel from a guide or fly shop can really shorten the learning curve.
“One of the simple things I love so much is when I am out there standing at the helm of my 18’ skiff with my hand on the throttle, and turning back to look at the prop wash dissipate behind the prop. It is a weird, simple pleasure, but it is something I love when I am out there day or after day. I can close my eyes now, or in the middle of winter and see those bubbles from the prop and think about how beautiful water is.” Be sure to check out some basic stillwater fly fishing tips from Jeff below.
Basic Tips and Techniques for Fly Fishing Lakes:
Best time of year to fish Central Oregon lakes?
Jeff: June and October, but with the various elevations of our lakes we can get fishing as early as March or April and go all the way to early November. July and August can be hot months here, but a lot of the lakes hold up to safe water temperatures even then. So, really for me, I focus on Late-April to Halloween and the rest of it is a bonus that we get some years.
What are five stillwater fly patterns you would recommend?
Jeff: For starters a Simple Chironomid Pupa on a TMC 200 hook #14-16 and a gunmetal bead with a fine silver wire rib. I vary the body color using red, black, brown, light olive, and dark olive thread. We can argue if I just gave you 5 flies or if that is “ one” fly, so I have 4 more to go: (#2)Balanced Leech. Again, all over the board on colors and beads. Black, Olive, and Brown are my favorites. Gunmetal beads mostly, but fluorescent beads are fish catchers on many lakes and many days. (#3) An old fly from Randall Kaufmann’s book on Nymph Fly Tying called the Cates Turkey. I took this fly and put it on a Jig Hook Hook with a Slotted Gun Metal Bead and it kicks ass for Callibaetis nymphs under a CORQ indicator. (#4) A Sparkle Dun in #14-16 and #17 (TMC 107Y) is solid for Callibaetis hatches, and if you tie it in Gray, Cream, Olive, and Tan you’d match a ton of local hatches with that. Finally, I love terrestrial fishing on lakes and while I can tell stories for days about how good Ants and Hoppers are, the beetles are incredibly important all season long. I have continued to catch lots of trout on beetles well into the fall including on days with snow falling and right after ice-out. However, summer winds really drive the beetles to the lake margins and that is when the best action is. #12-18 Black Foam Beetles are hard to beat. But let’s be honest, no one wants 5 flies, so for those of you interested in lakes, a good fly selection is an important part of being the best you can be out there. Locally important hatches can’t be forgotten. Some lakes damsels, scuds, or water boatman might be the thing in your waters. Stillwater trout eat a lot of cool stuff.
Recommend length of leader and tippet size when indicator fishing, dry fly fishing, sink-tip fishing in the lakes?
Jeff: Today I was fishing 7-foot leaders with indicators. The reservoir I was on has been dropping fast and the flats where the fish were feeding were mostly 4 to 6 deep. So being adaptable is important. Mostly 10 to 15 foot leaders with an indicator hits the sweet spot because fish feed on shoals where there is a weed bed or marl bottom and that is where the food is. This season I went all the way to 25 foot leaders but have for years used a lot of 18 foot leaders in the summer months fishing chironomid pupa and larva under an indicator. Certainly early in the season, the fish will be in shallower waters so a shorter leader is better, but it’s lake by lake and that part of the game to learn where the fish will be feeding. For sinking lines, I used to be tied to the concept of a short leader so the flies followed the sink rate. On a trip to fish the amazing lakes in Tasmania a few years ago, I learned from a couple of guides that thinking was outdated. So my sinking line leaders are mostly 12-15 feet and have at least one dropper tag, but at times I use 2 droppers and a point fly on an 18 to 20 foot leader. Most clients can’t cast this set up, and that is ok, so we assess that with each person and work one or two flies on a 9 to 12 foot leader off all the various full sink and sink tip lines.
One last tip for the beginner stillwater angler?
Jeff: Become a good caster. If you can deliver a 50 or 60-foot cast with both a tight loop for dries and streamers and an open loop for indicators you’ll be ahead of the curve. People forget to mend on lakes, that is equally important with a floating line out there as it is on the river.
Thanks again to Jeff, Eric, and the crew at the Fly Fisher’s Place. To book a guide trip with Jeff or one of his guides, call the Fly Fisher’s Place in Sisters (541)549-3474 or email Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to check them out online here, and on Instagram at @theflyfishersplace.
Article by Patrick Perry @patperry.