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Stillwater vs River FlyFishing

Stillwater vs River FlyFishing
Catching trout in lakes or ponds is not always as easy as taking fish out of a rain barrel. Tom Sutcliffe decodes the differences between stillwater flyfishing and flyfishing in rivers or streams.

Words and Pictures: Tom Sutcliffe

For some strange reason many anglers do rate stillwater flyfishing less testing of skill and craft than fishing rivers and streams. Yes it can be easy but, as with all things, it depends. Stillwaters are never consistently easy and fishing them is now as much a science as any testy river fishing ever gets.

The days when we got to a dam and endlessly threw big, gaudy attractor flies as far we could and then stripped them back as fast as possible, have long since gone for the anglers I fish with.

We slowly tumbled to the fact that the more we approached fishing lakes like we approached fishing streams and rivers, the more we improved our chances of making regularly good catches.

Stillwater fly fishing 5

Learning how to read a lake

This meant learning how to read a lake, meaning:

  • fishing around structures like weed beds, reeds or drop-offs
  • making careful presentations
  • using finer nylon tippet material; and
  • keeping a low profile.

And, of course, it meant trying to imitate the bugs you commonly find living in lakes, insects like:

  • the ever-present dragonfly and damselfly nymphs
  • tiny blood worms
  • snails;
  • even terrestrial insects like ants and grasshoppers.

This is not to say that large, brightly-coloured attractor flies don’t catch a lot of fish in stillwaters. They do, and there is still a big place for them. But adding dimensions and options to your stillwater fishing adds to your catch and, believe me, the fun of the exercise.

READ MORE: Tom’s best stillwater flyfishing spots 

How to create movement in stillwater flyfishing

One of the obvious differences between lakes and rivers is there are no currents in lakes and you have to create movement; imagine where your fly is under the water and then make it behave like a living insect.

That takes a lot of skill and, together with the fact that the average stillwater trout is far bigger than the average river trout, the fish you do hook invariably puts up a strong enough fight to test your skills to the very limit.

It’s not unusual to have a big trout cartwheel three or four times into the air, take the entire line off the reel and then run you deep into the backing. It’s heart-stopping stuff.

In fact, the relative largeness of stillwater trout probably feeds the misconception that you need a big fly to catch a big fish.

We now know that many monster-sized trout are caught in lakes on flies small enough to fit on your thumb nail, and if there has been one significant advance in the body of the stillwater church, it is towards using smaller flies, often not fished alone, but in teams of two or three.

stillwater fly fishing

Flies for stillwater flyfishing

Popular in this sort of rig nowadays are tiny soft-hackle flies that had their origins in the North Country of England more than a century ago, teamed up perhaps with a small mayfly nymph or a bushy dry fly.

On the question of flies, I must admit that I get more pleasure fishing imitations of insects I know are around than I do fishing an arbitrary attractor pattern.

For example, I will often start with a small Red-eyed Damsel Nymph fished on a floating line just below the surface using a very slow, jerky retrieve. That’s because small, green-coloured damsel nymphs are ubiquitous in lakes and they swim very slowly with wriggly movements of their slender bodies.

I occasionally sieve through a clump of weeds and it never ceases to amaze me how often damselfly nymphs show up, one of the reasons the Red-eye Damsel Nymph has become such a popular Stillwater fly fishing pattern throughout South Africa.

Having said that, there are trips we make when a particular fly pattern pops up as a winner for some reason, which is why we never leave home on anything like an extended trip without our fly-tying kits.

Tying up patterns in the evening becomes as much a part of the ritual of a trip as actually catching trout.

READ MORE: The art of flyfishing

To tube or not to tube?

If I can, I fish lakes from the comfort of a float tube, notwithstanding the hassle of having to unpack and inflate it. But often I dispense with my float tube for the pleasure of wading along the shallow margins like a stalking heron, probing the gaps in the weed beds with a small fly on a floating or intermediate line.

Sadly, though, the margins of many lakes are so weeded over that, without a tube, the only hope is to fish the deep water off the dam wall.

Not that it bothers me too much, because as it turns out, the deep water just off the wall, even if it isn’t as interesting as searching the shallows, is one of the most likely places to connect with a trophy-sized fish. Just remember that the glare of the sunlight off the water when you are in a tube is intense and face-covering is essential.

stillwater fly fishing

The best rods for stillwater flyfishing

Most really serious flyfishers now carry three rods on their float tubes, separately loaded with a fast sinking, a floating and an intermediate fly line.

This is because to catch stillwater trout you have to work out what depth they are feeding at and each of these lines gives you an added depth option, even if at the end of the day a bunch of anglers can end up packing away what looks like a small forest of fly rods.

But to suggest to the beginner that he rigs up three rods is asking too much and, in truth, I still catch the majority of my stillwater trout using a floating line.

If I need the fly to get deeper I just use a heavier fly, or add more nylon to the leader, or just allow more time for the fly to sink.

Fishing a dry fly

The huge advantage of a floating fly-line is being able to fish a dry fly on lakes, an extremely useful tactic. The right time to fish the dry fly is when the sun is up and there is a nice chop on the water.

The floating line also allows you to use another interesting tactic known as fishing the ‘static nymph’. Using a small nymph you cast into the wind and let the line drift across you. As it drifts the fly will naturally move slowly, but the key is you aren’t adding any retrieve.

READ MORE: The Dry Fly: Myth or Holy Grail?

When a trout takes the nymph you will see sudden movement at the tip of your fly line, sometimes just a twitch, sometimes a deep draw, sometimes no more than a brief hesitation, all signs that you should strike immediately.

But if you don’t get a take, slowly lift the rod at the downwind end of the drift – this upward movement itself often provokes a take – and then cast again.

As far as the right time to fish stillwaters goes it’s a case of fish from first light until last. Worth mentioning, though, is that some of the best fishing I’ve had on lakes was in the middle of the day when my mates were lying on the bank enjoying lunch.

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