By: Landon Mayer
The sun is bright, glaring off the water’s surface, forming distinct viewing lanes in clear water as long and wide as an opening on the highway. A breeze creeps in from the west, creating protective chop on the surface of the bay that my eyes have been sorely searching. Finally the prize arrives, a slow-moving pod of fish cruising in formation like a SWAT team on a raid. While many fly fishers envision tarpon, permit, or bonefish when they think of sight-fishing scenarios like this, it’s also common along stillwater shorelines in the Rocky Mountain West, especially in early spring just after ice-out. And here’s the good news: you don’t need a boat.
Reservoirs, lakes, and ponds can seem overwhelming at times because there is so much water to cover, it can turn into a guessing game. In the spring, as the ice separates from the shore, the warmer water along the edges brings trout into the shallows where they feed for weeks even after the ice melts completely away. This provides concentrations of fish accessible to anglers on foot, as trout cruise within casting distance of the banks.
Unlike their river-dwelling counterparts that hold in feeding lanes awaiting a meal, stillwater trout are in constant motion. Finding the correct location to wait and ambush these cruising fish, and having the right presentation and tackle, are the keys to rewarding days from the shore.
There are numerous ways to rig for shoreline fly fishing. One of the easiest ways to manage your fly depth is using an indicator to suspend your flies. Whether the trout are hugging the bottom or cruising near the surface looking for emerging insects, you can adjust your indicator to position your flies at the correct depth.
This becomes vital during ice-out because the trout cruise in shallow water near the shore, and you can use an indicator to keep your nymph or chironomid imitation up off the bottom. For the nymph game, start with a tapered 9-foot fluorocarbon 2X to 4X leader. At the end of the leader, attach an 18- to 24-inch fluorocarbon tippet one size smaller. For example, if you are using 3X leader, add 4X tippet to the end. Tapering down in diameter helps with a smooth transition from thick to thin, allowing the flies to turn over more effectively.
Attach your first fly using an improved clinch knot or Eugene bend knot. I usually fish with two flies by attaching a second piece of 18- to 24-inch fluorocarbon to the bend of the first hook using an improved clinch knot.
My favorite indicators for stillwaters are medium or large Thingamabobbers. These plastic balls suspend heavy rigs in even the toughest waves.
To complete the rig, you need to supply weight to sink the flies without introducing the unnatural element of split-shot. Try using a tiered system of tungsten beadheads with the heaviest flies on the bottom and lighter ones up top. Weighted flies like Garcia’s Tungsten Rojo Midge, McLellan’s Hunchback Scud, or a Hot Wire Prince Nymph (#12-16) are some of my favorite flies for the bottom.
Also carry Copper Johns (red, green; #12-18), Rubber-legged Hare’s Ears (#12-18), Mayer’s Purple Things (#12-18), Jumbo Juju Chironomids (#14-18), Chan’s Ice Cream Cones (#10-16; coated with cement), McLellan’s Hunchback Scuds (olive, tan, orange; #10-16), Barr’s Meat Whistles (olive, rust; #6-10), Rickard’s Seal Buggers (olive, burnt orange; #4-10), Pyramid Lake Tadpoles (purple, chartreuse; #6-10), Griffith’s Gnats (#14-18), and Red San Juan Worms (#12-18).
An alternative to suspending your nymphs with a strike indicator is to retrieve nymphs and streamers actively to keep them off the bottom and in front of feeding fish. Crayfish, leeches, and damselfly nymphs are just a few food sources that actively swim.
To be effective with swimming flies, line selection plays a big part, and you need to match your line to the structure and water depth you are fishing. Along shallow shorelines I use a floating line with a weighted fly, or else an intermediate sinking line that slowly descends a few inches per second. I use a fast-sinking shooting head that drops like a rock when I probe the drop-offs along deep ledges like those on Pyramid Lake, Nevada.
With the challenge of spring conditions, you want a line that has a front taper design that cuts through wind and matches a 6- to 8-weight, fast-action rod. The best floating line I have found is Scientific Anglers Mastery Series GPX Textured. The line surface has a pattern similar to a golf ball, reducing the amount of friction as it travels through the guides. The rough surface makes the line shoot better and the peaks and valleys in the texture trap air between the surface of the water and the line, allowing it to float better. This is vital when your line is moving up and down like a roller coaster over the waves.
For intermediate sinking lines, RIO’s CamoLux intermediate line has a sink rate of 1.5 to 2 inches per second. It is a clear, camo-tinted line with a low-memory core and supple coldwater coating. It almost disappears subsurface, allowing you to fool warier trout. This is important in clear water along the edges when trout are prowling slowly, and any unnatural object they see above or below the surface sends them fleeing to the depths.
For deeper water, Teeny T-200 or T-300 lines are good choices. These fast-sinking shooting heads reach depths of 15 to 30 feet at a rate of 4 to 6 inches per second. They are best when you are trying to cover deep drop-off zones close to shore. You’ll need an 8-weight rod to effectively cast the heavy 300-grain line.
With intermediate or sinking lines, attach a 3- to 4-foot piece of straight 0X fluorocarbon. The constant thin diameter helps the fly drop with the sinking line. With large mobile streamers like Barr’s Meat Whistle, use a no-slip mono loop knot. This strong knot allows maximum movement on heavier line when the fly is swimming or slowly crawling on the bottom. Keep the loop a half inch in size or less, to prevent wary trout from detecting the knot. [See “Hop It & Drop It” on page 42 for details on using the Meat Whistle with a floating line. The Editor.]
Another popular fly is the Pyramid Lake Tadpole (purple, chartreuse; #6-10)
with a foam overbody. The floating fly swims higher in the water column as you search the bottom or deep drop-offs with a fast-sinking line.
Where to Start: How To Be Successful Fly Fishing Shorelines
The first plan of attack if you are not familiar with the terrain is to locate a topographic map for the fishery, or get some where-to-start advice from local experts. A map can show key drop-off points and shallow bays where trout cruise after ice-out looking for food and warmth. Midges hatch first in shallow water that warms quickly in the spring, so shallows and especially the nearby drop-offs that provide security are vital starting points.
If these drop lines are in deeper water, use the method made famous at Pyramid Lake and fish from 3- to 6-foot stepladders. You gain height for longer and easier casting, and more important, gain a better vantage point for sight-fishing in calm or sunny conditions.
If you’re not sure of where these drop-offs are, look for a distinct color change from light green to dark green, for instance. These color changes indicate crucial depth changes that trout tend to prowl in the spring.
If possible, try to find high ground to scout the shoreline, as it can be harder to see the exact drop-off when you are standing in the water. In the early season when the ice just starts to thaw on the edges you may see three color changes going toward shore: white ice, green or blue deep water, then shoreline colors that are typically brown, tan, or red. All these transitions are logical ambush points for predators like trout because they provide safety and a steady food supply.
In the spring as the shallow edge water warms up, the first midge hatches start near shore. Always look before you wade, especially during the first two weeks after ice-out, as trout hug the bank to take advantage of the warm water and food. This is when you will have to remind yourself that this is freshwater sight-fishing, not the salt.
Once you locate these drop-offs that follow the lake contours, try to find structural points that intersect these travel lanes. The tip of a point of land, or the mouth of a bay puts you closer to the fish as it forces them to funnel around you. In rocky terrain, these points can sometimes save the day during heavy wind. Use them to find shelter from the wind for easier casting and better sight-fishing.
The last thing I look for is erratic structure that doesn’t show up on maps. Rocks, boulders, and weed beds supply habitat for insects, and cover for the trout that feed on them.
When fish are more exposed in shallow water, any extra cover they can find is attractive. My favorite spots along known shorelines are usually isolated large rocks, or rocky points. Trout cruise below, around, and through the rocks using shade, the structure itself, and extra surface disturbance to remain undetected. This is where I find some of the largest trout of my year.
Follow the Wind
Spring wind can be frustratingly unwelcome, but experienced stillwater fly fishers welcome it because it produces “big fish chop.”
Trout are spooky in flat water, and especially in flat, shallow water near shore. Windy chop on the surface supplies cover, and the small waves add a constant jigging movement to your flies. When I dead-drift nymphs and chironomids with a strike indicator, this up-and-down movement triggers more strikes, and it’s difficult if not impossible to replicate this action with a standard retrieve.
In the spring, the surface of the lake has the warmest water. When the wind blows, it can move this warmer surface water to one end of the lake or the other, or into various bays where the trout follow.
The wind also blows food around, creating scum lines and other collection points. Concentrate on these “food banks” and target the clearwater near the scum or dirty water which contains extra stirred-up food. Fish school up in large numbers searching through the muck for food.
The ideal chop is around 1 to 6 inches. This is just enough vertical motion to add movement to the flies and provide cover for the trout.
When fishy chop turns into full-on waves, fishing become more difficult and you’ll need to need to add more weight and length to your rig to adjust for the lift as your flies begin to move drastically up and down. Whether it is subtle or intense, these wind conditions are the key to productive fishing on stillwaters.
On calm days when you pray for a small puff of wind every now and then, add movement to your nymph rig by using a slow strip every 30 seconds or so to remove slack from the line and mimic the lift and drop of the flies that takes place in the wind.
For those magical days when the wind dies down and the clouds cover the sun enough that the trout think it is a good time to rise, you’ll likely find them feeding on individual midge adults or midge clusters. More dependable surface fishing comes later in the year when mayflies and damselflies begin to hatch, but midges can and do offer dry-fly fishing in the early season.
Use a Grifftith’s Gnat or Parachute Adams (#16-20) and don’t focus on where a trout just rose. Concentrate on the trout’s head and what direction it is pointing or moving as it breaks the surface. Because these fish are on the move for food, they will not rise in the same spot twice. Lead the fish by 3 feet or more, allowing your fly to be in view as the trout approaches. Too many stillwater fly fishers spend their time casting just behind a trout because that’s where it just rose.
For pinpoint presentations, cast beyond the feeding lane of the trout, and slowly pull the fly in front of the fish as it approaches. This small retrieve for accuracy will increase your success dramatically.
Stillwaters are often overlooked by fly fishers looking to get out into moving water after a long winter. But the rivers will be there later in the year, and spring is the best time for wading fly fishers to walk the shoreline. If you are looking for rod-bending battles, nearby lakes, reservoirs, and ponds can start the season the right way.
Landon Mayer (landonmayer.com) is author of Colorado’s Best Fly Fishing (Stackpole Books, 2011) and Sight Fishing for Trout (Stackpole Books, 2010). He is a Colorado trout guide and does speaking engagements across the country.