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STILLWATER Fly Fishing For Trout (Expert Techniques and Tactics)

stillwater fly fishing for trout

The thought of fly fishing often invokes images of an angler casting and drifting flies down a gurgling creek or river for most people. However, much of the fly fishing in this country occurs in stillwater scenarios. In this article, you’ll find an in depth tutorial with tips and techniques for stillwater fly fishing for trout.

Stillwater Fly Fishing For Trout (Tips and Techniques)

Stillwaters are lakes, ponds, marshes, etc. that come in all shapes and sizes. In many parts of the country, these bodies of water contain trout. Lakes have the potential to be even more productive and grow bigger fish than streams or rivers. 

Fly fishing stillwaters does not vary all that much from fishing streams and rivers. Although many may think fishing lakes requires long casts or a boat, don’t fall victim to such thinking.

Much of the best stillwater fishing is highly accessible to anglers on foot. You should be able to find fish so long as you have a general grasp of stillwater fly fishing for trout.

So if you’re ready, lets take a look at what this all entails with a little expert knowledge.

What are Stillwaters?

As mentioned, stillwaters can essentially be broken down into lakes, ponds, and marshes. There’s of course going to be tons of variability within each of those categories.

Stillwaters can be artificial reservoirs, high mountain glacial alpine lakes, beaver ponds on a flowing creek, or mountain marshes.  Fly fishing for trout in stillwater can take you to a whole number of different venues.

The best part about stillwaters is that they have the potential to grow very big trout.   Trout don’t have to work as hard to continually swim as they do in flowing water. They’re able to focus more of the energy on growth and reproduction.

Additionally, stillwaters have the potential to provide a much more prolific food chain than flowing water. This is a result of increased plant growth which in turn feeds aquatic insects.  And as you know, insects are trout food. And more trout food means healthier trout. In the right scenario, stillwaters can grow insanely large trout in a very short period of time.

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Understanding Stillwaters

To the untrained eye, a stillwater is just a big bowl of water. However, to the well versed angler, a lake contains all sorts of variance underwater. These nuances of what is happening under the surface is what gives you better knowledge of how to catch fish. In a large lake, you can generally categorize the areas below the surface into these categories. 

Littoral or Shoal Zone

This is the hot bed of productivity in a lake. The littoral (or shoal) zone refers to the shoreline edge of the lake to a depth of around 10 or so feet. This is the zone which receives the most solar input and is therefore the most productive on a plant level.

Lakes with a large littoral area great for producing aquatic vegetation to provide food for aquatic insects, to thereby feed and grow trout. Generally these areas are characterized by different patches of aquatic weeds. Trout often spend time around these weed beds targeting aquatic insects living amongst the cover.

For anglers on foot, this is likely the zone you will be able to fish. So long as you are not in the heat of the summer, trout will be spending time feeding in this shallow zone. It helps to have waders on a shallow lake but may not be necessary if the littoral zone drops off quickly.

Drop-Off

Very much as it sounds, the drop-off is where the shallow littoral zone transitions into a deeper portion of the lake. Drop-offs may not always be present in some lakes. This type of zone is highly variable amongst waters.

Generally speaking, targeting an abrupt drop-off from the littoral zone can be a good tactic. Fish tend to gravitate towards areas like this in a lake. Trout spending time in this area may be utilizing the food of the littoral zone while being closer to the cover and cooler waters of the deep.

Fly Fishing Gear For Stillwater

fly rod and reel for stillwater

Most general fly fishing gear works in most stillwater fly fishing applications. However, there are some components to the gear that may allow them to be more specialized for stillwater applications.

Fly Rod

For most stillwater fly fishing, you are going to want to be able to have some reach with your cast. To achieve this, a good 8 to 10 foot fast action or moderate fast action rod will be your preferred ticket. Somewhere in a weight range or 5- weight to 10 weight, dependent on your target fish species. This will help you be able to get a little more reach out into the stillwater and cast larger flies at times. Read more about the fly rod and reel combos that I recommend here.

Fly Reel

Your reel of choice is more a matter of personal preference. In most general stillwater fishing applications, any sort of disc-drag reel is going to get the job done for you. 

Fly Line

The fly fishing line component of stillwater fly fishing is perhaps the area to pay to most attention to. In stillwater fishing scenarios you may be fishing from the surface all the way down to 20+ feet. To achieve these different depths, different fly fishing lines will be necessary.  When fishing in the shallow littoral zone or fishing an insect hatch, most standard floating lines will do well. With these, you can fish dry flies and wet flies down to a limited depth.

Beyond floating line, there is also sinking fly lines. These come in different sink rates and are categorized differently by most companies. One standard variable to compare is the sink rate of the line measured in “inches-per-second”, abbreviated “IPS”. Depending on how deep you intend to fish will dictate how fast of a sinking line you want.

For deep fishing with leeches or baitfish patterns, use a very fast sinking line. If you are fishing nymphs and assorted wet flies in the littoral zone, a slow to moderate sinking line will certainly do the trick.

Additionally, you can also purchase a sink tip to add to your floating line. This will allow your floating fly line to be a little more versatile and sort of mimic a slow sinking line.  Ultimately, it would be in your best interest to have a spool of floating line and one or two spools of sinking line to be able to cater to the situation in front of you.

Fly Fishing Waders

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Waders are a helpful addition to the stillwater anglers tool box. Having a pair of waders may significantly extend your fishing opportunities. They will allow you to move further from the shore and target different fishing areas. Additionally, they may get you away from brush on the shore that could hang up your back cast. A pair of waders opens up a ton of opportunity in stillwater fly fishing situations to access otherwise unreachable areas.

Read more on the fly fishing waders that I recommend here.

Boats

In addition to waders, having a boat of some sort also allows you to reach further into the lake and extend fishing opportunities. The most common vessels in fly fishing continue to be float tubes and personal pontoon boats.

A float tube, when paired with waders, sits the user below the water level and they utilize their feet to propel themselves. While inexpensive and easy to transport, they don’t allow users to see into the water far away and are difficult to use in the wind.

Personal pontoon style boats have become increasingly popular. Although bulkier and harder to transport, they are very versatile. They sit the angler higher above the water and have a pair of oars to make locomotion quick and easy. Some can even be affixed with a trolling motor for optimal movement on the water

Polarized Glasses

Last, but most certainly not least, a stillwater angler needs a good pair of polarized lenses in their possession. Having the ability to see better into the waters surface will drastically increase your fishing ability in locating both fish and proper habitat. They really should be in every single anglers tool box. 

Best Stillwater Flies For Trout

stillwater flies for trout

When stillwater fly fishing, you are going to need to have a variety of flies on hand. Trout in stillwaters feed on a large variety of prey items from aquatic larval bugs, to terrestrial bugs, to other fish. You will need to determine just what it is the trout are feeding on and find yourself a fly to best imitate that food item.

So what do you need to do this? Lets go over the general types of flies you should have in a stillwater fly fishing fly box. This will help you select the best stillwater trout flies when you are out on the water.

​Dry Flies

Dry flies are floating flies that imitate flying insects. These flying insects often have aquatic larval forms that also have fly patterns to imitate them. Dry flies are often small in size, usually size 12 to size 20 or even smaller. If you observe flying insects near the water and trout kissing the surface, you will want a dry fly to mimic these flying insects.

If you are at a loss for a good beginner dry fly selection, here are some you can’t go wrong with.

  • Adams
  • Blue Winged Olive
  • Pale Morning Dun
  • Elk-Hair Caddis

Nymphs

For most trout, aquatic insects will compose the vast majority of their diet. These tiny larval forms of insects and adult forms of others must be consumed in high numbers to sustain large and hungry stillwater trout. These are a great choice for fishing at ice out or near weed beds in the littoral zone. Fishing them on a very slow retrieve will be most productive in most situations. Having a selection of bead-headed and non-beadheaded nymphs should be a staple in any fly anglers box.

Here are some common varieties to emulate a variety of aquatic insects in size ranges similar to that of dry flies.

  • Hare’s Ear
  • Copper John
  • Prince Nymph

Wet Flies

Wet flies are a large group that encompasses a large variety of imitations. From baitfish, to leeches, to dragonfly nymphs; they all fall under wet flies. These can be fished in a similar manner to nymphs, with generally slow retrieves for smaller nymph and leech like patterns. However, for baitfish patterns, quick and variable retrieves may be the ticket. Wet flies are generally fished with a sinking line but can also be used on floating lines. Wet flies come in much larger and heavier sizes to imitate larger prey items and may require larger rods to cast them.

Here are a few general patterns to consider but as always, it is best to get local knowledge from your fly shop for specific patterns.

  • Wooly Bugger
  • Sculp-Zilla
  • Dragonfly Nymph
  • Peacock Lady
  • Zonker Minnow
  • Leech-like patterns

Tips For Targeting Trout In Stillwater

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Stillwaters are often very large and fish densities may be overall quite low throughout the volume of water. Therefore, it is up to the angler to target specific things to increase their fishing ability. Here are a few stillwater fly fishing techniques to increase your fishing ability.

​Time of Year

At different times of the year, fish will be utilizing different habitat within a stillwater. If you live in a cold climate where stillwaters freeze, ice-out can be a great time to fish. During this time, when ice is only thawing in certain areas, fishing can be highly productive. In these open areas, all of the prey items and fish will be gathering in warmer waters. This can be a good time to fish baitfish patterns or nymphs.

Alternatively, if you live in a warm climate, summer time can present a challenge. Trout prefer cold waters and if the water surface is warm, trout will be found deep in the cool water below the thermocline.

During spawning seasons, which vary for different species, it can be easy to target fish. During spawning season, trout generally congregate in the shallows, the inlets, and the outlets of stillwaters.

By understanding where fish are at different times of year, you can maximize your efforts and opportunities.

​Find Feeding Areas

You want to be where the trout are eating. This may depend on a variety of factors. If you are lucky enough to catch an insect hatch, try to utilize a fly that most mimics the hatch. If you can see trout cruising shallows, try fishing nymphs, dries, or baitfish patterns.

Certain areas of the lake are going to be more productive food-wise than others. As discussed earlier, the weed beds amongst the littoral zone are going to be highly productive for insects. Try nymphs and wet flies in these areas.

Additionally, stream inlets to lakes are often a good food highway for eagerly waiting trout. This is an excellent stillwater fly fishing tactic when there is flow through the water body. Particularly during spawning season.

Often times, you can see trout feeding on dry flies or subsurface insects, this can be a great way to hone in on fish. Cycle through different flies to figure out just what it is they are out there eating. Try to determine if they are actually eating from the surface or if they are eating just below it.

Proper Presentation

Perhaps the most learned skill of all, is proper presentation. Not only do you need to use a fly that mimics a food source for trout, but you also need to present it in a realistic fashion. This is going to be very different for all types of flies in all types of scenarios. In clear stillwater fly fishing settings, trout often have the option to be very picky about their food. These can be challenging scenarios in regards to proper presentation. This is a learned skill that will take a bit of practice.

Conclusion

Stillwater fly fishing can be highly rewarding. I love nothing more than standing waist deep in a high mountain lake at sunlight. Casting flies onto a mirror-like surface disturbed only by the menagerie of trout lips feeding at it’s surface.

Trout in stillwaters have potential to grow to large sizes and can present a particularly picky target at times. All adding to the fun no doubt. With a little bit of understanding and a willingness to observe and learn, you can be a successful stillwater fly fishing angler.

Stillwaters present a whole lot of opportunity beyond trout as well. I encourage you to expand your horizons and fish for new fish in new settings.

Written by Don

When I'm not bass fishing or looking for steelhead in my home state of Oregon I can be found working on house projects dreaming of my next fishing adventure.

I started this website to share just some of the things I've learned along my fishing journey, and the many things I'm still learning. Enjoy!

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