Stillwater trout fishing can be amazingly fun and rewarding. Stillwater trout are usually a lot bigger, the food sources are enormous, and the opportunity for solitary fishing is much higher, since stillwaters are often much more expansive. Like with any freshwater fish species that inhabits stillwaters, trout can be found in a huge variety of watery environments and of different depths. For me personally, I love lakes that have plenty of sections with depths less than twenty feet. These lakes are almost always extremely fertile and are a ton of fun to fish. In these types of water, shallow water fishing is often the name of the game. Depth is one of the most important aspects, and you must always be in the fish’s feeding zone, but speed of retrieve will often determine how long you’re in the fish’s feeding zone and at the same time will affect the depth of your presentation. One of the most deceivingly effective retrieves is to move the fly extra slow. The most extreme case is to fish flies with little to no movement at all, this happens with dries, with midging, and with some other nymphing situations. This article series will leave these tactics alone and will not cover slow techniques used with foam covered flies. It will, however, cover the ins and outs of fly fishing with a slow retrieve and how to develop confidence in it. Incidentally, these tactics can be applied to most species of fish but are particularly effective for stillwater trout. The first article covers when and where to fish slow.
WHEN TO FISH SLOW FOR STILLWATER TROUT
The worst thing you could do is go out to a stillwater and just start fishing your fly slowly…well okay, maybe not the worst thing. The reason for this is that there are certain times that are much more suited to slow fishing. If it is not the right time, the fish may be moving fast and want a faster trigger, or you could be in a situation where you need to cover a lot of water. A faster retrieve is going to locate fish more efficiently, even four to eight times faster in some instances.
So when are the best times to fish slowly? When fish are condensed into a smaller area and thus when searching isn’t an issue, this a great time to fish slowly, because it keeps the fly in the zone for a longer period of time. Combine this with a cooler water temperature and it is usually a sure thing. Cold water temperatures from ice-out to about 40 degrees are, in general, prime for slow water retrieves as well as cooler periods during the fall. The fish are not moving very quickly but are on the lookout for food after the long winter of consistently frigid water temps or in preparation for the winter. A fly that looks like an easy meal or that just hovers in the fish’s face can be deadly, and high numbers of fish are often expected. The same could be said for inconsistent external factors like weather that affects consistent water temps or drives them down but also when the water has become a bit off colored. Slow presentations will often mean the difference between a 25 fish day and a skunk; it’s literally that important at times. This can be said for those inexplicable times where fish are just not aggressive for whatever reason. In this case, a slow methodical pull can bring a few fish when you otherwise might be hard-pressed to even get a hookup.
I remember when I first started lake fishing. About a week or two after ice-out, I dragged my buddy along on this stillwater adventure. His heart wasn’t in the fishing and he was more or less just letting his fly dangle in the water while using a full floating line, not even retrieving the fly, like it was a live worm under a bobber! I was flogging the water and covering every inch of it. As I approached him—he looked like he was about to fall asleep—his rod suddenly slapped the surface of the water as a hot rainbow of about six pounds destroyed his tippet and snapped his fly off in a flash. Didn’t take much more to convince me that less is often more in stillwater fishing.
It’s not just daily conditions that drive our fishing choices; it’s often the general type of water and parts of the lake that are helpful in determining whether or not to fish slowly. Waters with a variety of food sources and not a lot of active baitfish nearby are perfect for slow fishing. When stillwater trout are not actively pursuing minnows, they will usually be feeding on slower moving bugs and thus get used to seeing these. The fish will logically enough be in places where these prey sources are found.
WHERE TO FISH SLOWLY
When and where to fish are usually closely linked, since stillwater trout move to certain parts of the lake at different times of the year as when water temp/quality, food sources, and reproduction dictate movement. Understanding these three main factors helps you locate where the fish will be and thus whether or not you should fish slowly for them.
Let’s start with reproduction, since it is as predictable a factor as there is. First and foremost, it’s going to depend on the species of fish and when they spawn. Rising temperatures in the spring and falling temperatures in the fall, at least in North America, will drive fish to put on the feed bag, move them to the shallows, or move them to their prespawn areas (and ultimately into their spawning areas). As with all species, all of this can be going on at the same time, so try to figure out what the majority of the fish are doing, or decide which ones you want to target. Either way, stillwater trout will be in shallow water areas where 1) there’s a lot of food or 2) there is habitat that is good for spawning, such as rocky shores or river inlets. This helps you find the fish in general, but now you must use the information from when to determine if it is a likely time to fish really slow.
The second factor, food sources, bleeds into number one in the last paragraph. Prespawn and often postspawn stillwater trout are going to go where the food is, particularly adjacent from their wintering or spawning areas if possible. This, obviously, does not just hold true for spawn time, since fish have to eat throughout the year, as shocking as this information might be. Therefore, fish cannot be far from feeding areas even if the water temp in these areas is not to the fish’s liking. The fish will use these food sources at sporadic times and hold in other places, often deeper water, when they are not feeding.
The food sources of stillwater trout are mainly aquatic insects, scuds/sow bugs, crayfish, leeches, minnows and other fish, and daphnia (tiny zooplankton). Of these food sources, daphnia, minnows, midge, some mayfly species, and sometimes crayfish can pull trout out of the shallows even when water temperatures are ideal for shallow water feeding. For this reason, the other food sources are normally what the stillwater trout are feeding on when a slow presentation is key. Also, do not underestimate the triggering qualities of a slow presentation even when fish are not normally feeding on anything at all that would be moving this slowly, particularly when the conditions are ideal for this presentation as outlined above.
The places that you will usually find these food types are standard hotspot style fishing areas. These are flats (with weed beds, in a defined migration route, or other structure), weed beds, channels, bays, points, and humps. These are particularly good in water between 1-12 feet, and I usually start shallower earlier, since weed growth is the lowest that it will be through the year. When you find daily conditions that are right for slow water fishing in these areas, it can be a no-brainer. It might take a bit to locate precisely where the majority of fish will be (sometimes this is better with a slightly faster retrieve), but once you do, a slow presentation will not only catch a majority of fish that see your fly, it will keep the fly in the strike zone for the longest period of time.
Finally, temperature and oxygen factors will at times trump feeding, that is to say, fish will have to abandon the shallow water areas of the stillwater for deeper water. This happens almost always during the summer and ice over. Fish will, of course, travel, but they are not going to survive long if they have to travel mile upon mile out of their summer holding water to feeding areas. For this reason, feeding areas that are adjacent to deeper cooler water, when temperatures become unfavorable, are your best bets for finding feeding fish. This can also mean vertically when certain insects like chironomids will hatch in relatively open water areas. If you’re not finding fish in the shallows, they may be there in the evening and mornings but retire to the depths during the day.
In shallow stillwaters, the fish may sulk during the day (except at high elevations) in an attempt to preserve energy until the water cools or they may feed voraciously on anything that moves because of their higher metabolism, but surface food sources like terrestrials and insect adults can be very important on these lakes, so experiment on your waters. If the stillwater is predominantly shallow (less than 20 feet) and is cool year round, you will almost always have great fishing. These types of stillwaters are what fly anglers dream of. In all cases, make sure to learn your homewaters, since each stillwater has its own peculiarities. If a lake is not your homewater, do as much research as possible. So that you can narrow in on when to trust in a super slow retrieve.
It might seem counterintuitive to fish at a snail’s pace in a huge expanse of water. However, in the situations outlined above, fishing slow is your best option to catching a lot or even some fish on a given day. You should now have an idea when and where to fish slowly, and this is hugely important to get you in the game. In part 2, we’ll discuss how to fish slowly, the equipment to use, and the qualities of the flies you use.