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.
FLY FISHING LAKES SLOW: APPROACH, FLIES, AND GEAR
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 we have 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!