The huge expanses of water found when fly fishing lakes used to really intimidate me. I had become pretty good on rivers and streams, since they were much easier to read. All I saw with lakes and reservoirs was miles of flat water. Although I’ve learned how to put the odds in my favor over the last twenty years, the fact of large expanses of water still applies as much today as it did then. There are times when you have to cover these expanses and that means up, down, and everywhere else. These times are not the time for a slow strip, and hopefully part 1 has helped get you on the right track as to when to fish a slow presentation. However, approach, flies, and equipment are the other hugely important factors to really capitalize with a slow presentation.
FLY FISHING LAKES SLOW: GEAR
Your initial setup and the gear you use are the first step in having confidence and success with slow stillwater fishing…and I’m talking about your strip, not the amount of fish you catch. For most stillwaters, some type of watercraft is crucial to being able to really get into position on any part of the lake, reservoir, or pond. It’s not always necessary, but a watercraft almost always gives you way more options. I prefer higher riding watercraft like pontoon boats for fishing areas that have any amount of weed growth around. Otherwise you’re going to look like some sort of swamp creature when you get out of the water. An anchor on these higher riding personal watercrafts is hugely important when wind comes up, and either a good stripping apron or stripping basket is a must for proper line management. Boats of various sorts can be very helpful on larger bodies of water, along with electronics, since you can target completely different types of structure much more easily. This can make or break a day, since you may be fishing in an area that has little to no fish in it at first. Make your decision on what type of water you’re fishing and what you can afford. If you can’t afford a motor boat style craft, don’t hesitate to get out of the water with your pontoon boat etc. and drive to different parts of the stillwater. I’ve done horribly for an hour or two and then switched sides of the lake or reservoir only to absolutely pound fish on the other side. Stay flexible and use your watercraft to get you to the fish.
As far as your rig goes, use whatever rod and reel you have, but if you have choices, then fish according to the size of the fish, casting distance, and fly size. I use #5 – #8 rods for all of my lake fishing for trout. There are so many rods out there that will work, so go with rods that work well for you, but don’t go overly fast/stiff with smaller flies. If you have questions about rods or reels for that matter, shoot me an email. Leaders and tippets are usually from 6 – 12 lb. test, but go with the diameter that makes your fly move the best while maintaining strength. Check out this article for an in depth look at leaders and tippets and how to select them, but I would recommend using nylon mono and often with an improved clinch knot etc. (not a loop knot) for slow presentations when you want to stay shallow, otherwise use your favorite loop knot. I almost always use two flies for open to semi-open water areas. Put about two feet of tippet between the flies. Fishing buddies and myself have landed and/or hooked two fish at a time many times with this rig. Your leader should be about 7 – 10 feet to the first fly, and I fish tapered leaders since I get a bit more power out a stiffer butt section but a nice delicate presentation when that is necessary.
Finally, fly lines are incredibly important for fishing slow. I use a clear/camo intermediate probably 70% of the time for retrieved presentations. It sinks at a perfect sink-rate and is less obtrusive under the water than a colored line, although in deeper water this may not matter at all. Cortland 444 Small Game Clear Camo and Rio InTouch CamoLux are great choices for an intermediate. The other two lines are a full floating, which is used with smaller nymphs, and faster sinking lines for deeper fish. Once you start getting faster sinking lines, it becomes difficult to fish slow, since the fly continues to plummet. However, if fish are deep and sluggish, then you have to fish faster sinking lines to be effective.
FLY FISHING LAKES SLOW: FLIES
The general fly pattern doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Seal buggers, sparkle buggers, leeches, and standard buggers are all plenty effective. Use sizes #4 – #12 or whatever size hook that gives you a fly that is 1 – 2.5 inches. I don’t fish a lot of huge flies with this presentation for trout. Brown, dark purple/black, burnt orange, and tan/olive are my favorite colors for stillwaters. Also, bright oranges can be very good around spawn time. I will also fish flies like muddlers and sculpin patterns when the water is off-colored, since they push a lot more water than other patterns. Standard stillwater nymphs (12 – 8) are effective as well. The pattern is usually not that important as long as the fly is tied in the manner described below. I use a lot of natural dubbings with my stillwater nymphs. There are times, usually when there is a major hatch, when fish will be picky and want smaller sized flies (14 – 16), so make sure to have some along. I tend to emphasize the profile of the fly more on these patterns. I was astonished one year when I got to fish some private ponds early in the year with some very good anglers. We caught very few fish even though there were fish feeding everywhere. I finally started to fish a #16 olive baetis pattern and started to get fish regularly. Because the flies were so small, I had to use smaller than normal tippet with some big fish and broke off the only two I had with me. I only picked up a single fish after that and no one was catching anything. This is not the rule, but it happens.
Once I’ve got my favorite general patterns, I want to make sure to tie them with certain features. Materials that have movement when the fly is sitting at rest are hugely important. Marabou is king but also bunny, arctic fox, and Finn raccoon are fantastic. Also, articulation on nymphs can be deadly as well. These patterns should not sink rapidly and have almost a neutral buoyancy in the water, so tie your patterns dense enough to achieve this state or slightly sinking. Finally, I always tie my non-nymph patterns with a little weight in the front to give the fly a kick when retrieved. This kick gives life to the fly when you pause on the strip and does what all good flies should do…look alive.
FLY FISHING LAKES SLOW: PRESENTATION
There are two main ways that I like to fish this rig for fly fishing lakes slow. With non-nymph patterns like seal buggers, I will use a long slow pull as the video shows. I will begin with my hand fully extended at the front and then end with it fully extended behind me. The speed needs to be from about a two count to about an eight count. One of the most important aspects of this strip is the pause. The pause can be everything on a given day. I remember fishing on a fantastic smaller lake in Wyoming one late June. We had caught a lot of big fish in the shallows on surface patterns feeding on callibaetis adults and nymphs, when a storm rolled through. The storm made the water a little milky and that usually meant it was time to go. However, I began to cast out bugger patterns and not even retrieve my fly for 10-20 seconds. I began to catch one fish after another up to almost 25”, which were sucking the fly in almost invariably on the fall. I ended up with over 50 fish that day and half over 20 inches, but many of these came in milky water after a storm. With the long strip, the take is almost always a tick or tap-tap, so get used to sensing this subtle feeling. On a side note, bass/sunfish will often just feel sticky when you’re fishing slow. Strike detection is very important when you fish slow, so set the hook more often when you’re starting out. I also need to mention that when the water is milky or off-colored, it really helps to lift the fly when it is within 15 feet of you. The lifting motion really triggers strikes, and the fish will most often hit right near the surface. A good setup is with a marabou muddler/sculpin pattern and then a standard bugger style pattern behind.
The second way is with a continuous crawl or with tiny continuous strips (like a centimeter at a time) as the video shows. With a continuous crawl I have medium, very slow strips of about four inches. Envision a nymph crawling over weeds and rocks. I will use this with smaller bugger style patterns and nymph patterns in most situations depending on what is happening with my larger bugger style patterns, since I usually begin fishing with larger patterns unless there is an obvious hatch, and this is particularly true early and later in the year when there are not as many smaller insects in the water. If I know that the fish are in the area but are not taking my larger imitations, then I will switch to this continuous crawl and smaller imitations before trying other techniques. I normally use the tiny continuous strips (TCS) during the summer months, when there are lots of insects in the water such as callibaetis and damselflies. This is actually my go-to retrieve during a damselfly hatch particularly fishing damselflies shallow and is awesome with articulated nymphs. Both of these retrieves are with smaller patterns and a lot of the time these are nymphs. Strike detection is much the same as with a long slow strip, but with the tiny continuous strips the strikes can be a bit harder, so be careful on the hookset.
Remember fly fishing lakes slow is just one of many different ways you can fish for trout but also many other species. I have learned to have a ton of confidence in this technique and am amazed at how many species want an extra slow retrieve. This was particularly obvious to me when my 8 year old son started catching huge bluegills on a micro bugger that I had tied on for him one spring day. His technique was to let the fly sink and then simply feel for the take. I was amazed at his fishing smarts and almost had to wipe away a prideful tear of joy from my cheek. This was not just a fluke as this was by far and away the most successful technique on that early spring day. Anytime we fish, the sooner you can dial in on what the fish want, the more fish we will catch. It’s that simple. You can simply experiment all day, but starting off right and with a strategy will save you hours of casting practice and will be in the ballpark more times than not. If you haven’t already developed confidence in fly fishing slow, I hope these articles give you the confidence to do so. Try it out this fishing season!