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10 Rules for Catching Trophy Stillwater Trout

The most common stillwater-angling mistakes and their solutions.

10 Rules for Catching Trophy Stillwater Trout
Float lubes and other floating craft have helped stillwater fly fishers fish areas that harbor big trout. Even so, many anglers still struggle to catch trout consistently on stillwaters, probably because most hone their skills with floating lines, light leaders, and tiny dry flies on moving water. To catch the biggest fish, you often need to cast sinking lines long distances and match your retrieve to the natural you are imitating. (Barry & Cathy Beck photo)

Anglers have been fly fishing lakes for centuries. Nevertheless, most fly fishermen struggle when stalking trout in stillwater. That shouldn't come as a surprise when you consider that most fly fishermen hone their skills with floating lines, light leaders, and tiny dry flies on moving water.

In the mid-'70s a new floating device made lakes accessible to all anglers. The belly boat (float tube) arrived on the scene and revolutionized fishing on lakes that were virtually unchallenged and a mystery for fly fishermen. However, only a handful of anglers committed to the pursuit of big trout were successful; most were not. That’s because a lot of anglers venturing onto stillwater lacked the skills and knowledge lake fishing demands. Many used a trial-and­error approach and caught a few fish, but most were unproductive.

Pursuing stillwater trout means learning the functions of multiple fly lines, understanding how to fish varying depths, and using suggestive patterns that represent a host of aquatic food sources along with retrieves that emulate the natural movements of the prey species. Knowing the effects of nature's external forces that control and stimulate trout behavior is also an important asset.

If you are fishing stillwater for the first time, you can only learn the knowledge and skills necessary to be productive on the water with rod in hand. Then and only then will your chances of hooking trout, especially the bragging-size variety, improve. The time you spend on the water builds confidence and eliminates fear of the unknown. With experience, you'll no longer feel overwhelmed by the size of lakes; which line, Oy, or retrieve to use; what depth to fish; which food sources trout feed on; and, of course, the biggest mystery of all, where to find trout.

Anglers struggle to consistently catch trout for many reasons-from poor casting to using the wrong type of fly line to fishing at the wrong depth. The good news is that they can overcome these problems easily. Mistakes of this kind are common to first-time stillwater anglers. I know, I've made them all. Fly fishing lakes over the past 30 years has taught me many lessons, some of which l learned from mistakes or using unproductive methods. We can learn from every outing.

The following are the ten most common mistakes made by stillwater fly fishers, followed by their solutions based on my approach to fishing lakes with flies. Keep in mind that there is no one way to fish lakes; lots of methods will work. However, some work better than others.

A fly angler in a float tube hooked up to a jumping trout.
The belly boat revolutionized fishing on lakes that were virtually unchallenged and a mystery for fly fishermen. (Barry & Cathy Beck photo)
  1. Problem: Failing to move when conditions or trout behavior necessitate change.

Solution: Cover more water, and the odds are you will catch more trout. Most anglers fail to recognize changes in trout-feeding behavior that cause the fish to move to different areas of the lake or to different depths. I have a simple rule. If I'm not getting hits, I move. When the strikes drop off, anglers need to consider other options. Did the trout move, change food preferences, retreat to deeper water, or did you put them down? If you were fishing a prime spot and the fishing slows, rest the spot, seek out new water, and return later. You can bet the trout will.

  1. Problem: Moving the fly too quickly or in a manner that is inconsistent with the way the naturals are moving.

Solution: The speed of the retrieve should be consistent with the natural movements of the insect you are trying to imitate. Caddis and mayfly nymphs emerge from the bottom silt and move upward through the water column in a series of jerky starts and stops. Imitate the slow, erratic movements of chironomids with a hand-twist retrieve. Long, slow pulls (or a series of pulls and pauses) imitate the swimming motion of most baitfish. Though there are times when a fast retrieve is effective, in general we all tend to move our flies too quickly. If ever in doubt, go slow.

One key to a successful presentation is to keep your fly in the fish's feeding zone for as long as possible. Also, consider external factors such as water temperature in relation to your retrieve speed. Cold water and fast retrieves are a bad combination. In the winter, for instance, fish will not chase anything more than a few inches. To draw strikes from these cold fish, you have to put your fly right in front of their noses and keep it there for as long as possible.

  1. Problem: Failing to match your fly line to the feeding zone.

Solution: Divide the water you are fishing into three zones. Trout primarily feed in the top and the bottom zone. The top zone extends from the surface down to about 4 feet and includes shallow shoreline areas 4 to 5 feet deep. Fish the top zone with a slow, full-sinking intermediate, sinking-tip, or floating line. I prefer Cortland's Clear Camo, a clear intermediate, or their Ghost Tip, a slow-sinking, 15-foot, clear-tip line. The bottom zone extends from the bottom up to about 4 feet. Sunlight must reach this zone for it to be an effective food-bearing region. I use a fast, full-sinking line for fishing this zone.

The middle zone is the least productive, yet it is the largest zone to explore. Generally, trout don't look for food in the middle zone but hold there because of temperature or oxygen needs. Fish this zone with a fast full-sinking line. Remember, the key to an effective presentation is to keep the fly in the zone as long as possible. Trout will not chase food that drops below their feeding zone.

A drawing of a cross-section of a fly angler in a float tube fishing his flies at different depths.
Wind, sunlight, water temperature, water quality, and the availability of food can influence the zone in which the fish will be most active. Fish the top zone with a slow, full-sinking intermediate or floating line and the middle and bottom zones with a fast-sinking line. Retrieve your fly slowly so you keep it in the zone for as long as possible. Trout will not chase food that drops below their feeding zone. (Rod Walinchus illustration)
  1. Problem: Casting flaws.

Solution: Most fly fishermen are adequate casters on moving water, but on stillwater they find it hard to achieve distance without spoiling their presentation. If you can't cast 50 feet, your line piles up at the end of your cast, the fly frequently hits the rod or line, wind knots constantly appear in your leader, or the line strikes the water in front or in back during your cast, you need help. Practicing the proper mechanics will help overcome casting flaws, but practicing bad habits will not. Taking lessons from a qualified instructor is an option. Presentation is the key to catching trout, and casting is a part of presentation.

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  1. Problem: Failing to place the rod tip at the water's edge.

Solution: Presentation goofs account for more lost opportunities on stillwater than all the other mistakes put together. Failing to place your rod tip at the water's edge during the retrieve creates slack, retards speed and distance during the pull, and is one of the major causes of missed strikes and break-offs during the hook-set. The higher your rod tip is held above the water, the more slack develops in the line, creating problems in your presentation. Correcting this flaw is simple, but remembering to do it on every cast isn't. Breaking bad habits requires concentration, or we resort to doing the same old thing. Simply place the rod tip at or in the water to keep the line tight.

A smiling man holding a large brown trout on a lake.
Presentation is the key to catching trout. You must be able to deliver the fly to the fish without spooking it. After your cast, keep your rod tip at the water's edge on the retrieve to eliminate slack in your system and improve your hook-sets. (Denny Rickards photo)
  1. Problem: Matching the fly to the line and matching both to prevailing conditions.

Solution: Trout feed in certain areas of a lake and at specific depths depending on external factors such as wind, sunlight, water temperature, water quality, and the availability of food. When fish feed on top, the fly of choice is usually an adult or emerger pattern. Why fish deep with a Woolly Bugger or scud pattern? If there is no surface activity, trout are obviously holding in deeper water. This is a perfect opportunity to probe the lower and middle zones with a leech, bugger, or midge pattern, especially when cold air or water temperatures restrict surface activity. Trout often eat any available food source because of their opportunistic feeding nature, so match your pattern with the zone where the insect is found and provide trout with more opportunities to say yes.

  1. Problem: Blocking or crowding the lanes trout cruise when wading.

Solution: In the early morning and late evening, trout often cruise the shallow shorelines searching for food. They plot a course parallel to shore, always on the alert for predators. Wading anglers often take up residency in the same paths trout cruise, forcing them to scatter into deeper water. A simple observation will often disclose their whereabouts. To keep from spooking cruising fish, cast from a shoreline position before wading. Stalk trout cautiously before casting or shuffling your feet when wading shallow shoreline zones. Fish are vulnerable and always on alert when feeding in shallow water.

  1. Problem: Fishing barren or unproductive water.

Solution: Water temperature, amount of oxygen, food, safety, and a fish's need to spawn determine the locations and depths in which trout hold. When trout feed, finding them becomes more predictable by eliminating location options. Time spent on the water helps solve this problem. Trout spend the majority of their time feeding in shallow water either close to shoreline cover or subsurface where insects emerge. A lack of surface activity means trout are holding in a deeper zone or feeding on or near the bottom. Concentrate your efforts around aquatic vegetation, inlets, springs, old streambed channels, drop­offs, or structure above and below the water. Remember, a large percent of the water in all lakes is void of trout.

A drawing from directly overhead of where to fish on stillwaters.
Most anglers waste time fishing barren or unproductive water. Fish around aquatic vegetation, inlets, springs, old streambed channels, drop-offs, or structure above the water. Trout are opportunistic feeders, and if you are not receiving hits, move. Natural elements and the availability of food causes fish to relocate to different areas and varying depths. (Rod Walinchus illustration)
  1. Problem: Unbalanced leader and tippets.

Solution: A balanced leader and tip­pet section is critical to a sound presentation of the fly. An unbalanced leader fails to turn over properly, is difficult to cast, and puts slack into the cast. A 12-foot tapered leader with a 3X to 5X, 3-foot tippet section is all that is necessary for most stillwater fishing. Balance your leader and tippet section to the size and weight of the fly you are casting. Wind can hinder a good presentation. It's better to get closer than pile up a cast intended for a good fish.

  1. Problem: Drifting into the cast when fishing from a floating craft.

Solution: Wind is always a factor on lakes. When fishing from a float tube or pontoon boat under windy conditions, never allow yourself to drift downwind or into the direction of your cast. This creates slack in the line that interferes with retrieve speed and allows the fly to sink below the zone you intend to fish. Consider anchoring to eliminate drifting altogether, but this restricts your ability to move. Second, you can kick enough to keep the line tight, which is always a must when fishing stillwater. Check your drift by raising the rod tip a few inches above the water. If the line curls to the right or left, you are drifting downwind and into your cast. Kick a little harder to bring the line tight, but not enough to drag the fly unnaturally fast.

These problems and their importance (not necessarily in the order presented) are common among most stillwater anglers. Only a handful of fly fishermen spend enough time unraveling the secrets of fishing lakes with flies. Consistency is born out of new knowledge and improved skills. Improved skills are the result of time spent fishing. It is all a matter of priorities, wouldn't you say?


Denny Rickards is the author of Fly ­Fishing Stillwaters for Trophy Trout. He lives in Fort Klamath, Oregon, and owns and operates Crystal Creek Anglers.




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