Stillwater fly fishing for trout on lakes and ponds can seem like a bit of a dark art at first, especially for new fly fishers or fly fishers that are used to fishing for trout on rivers.
There is usually no obvious flow and working out where feeding trout might be sitting involves a lot more thought with regards to depth and the water column. But, with a little fine-tuning every fly fisher can become successful at trout fishing a stillwater, and here are some tips to help you out.
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Finding Stillwater Trout
As with any form of fly fishing, if you want to catch fish you’ll need to be casting your fly where the fish are. So, how do you find trout in a stillwater?
There are a number of factors to consider when you first approach a lake and if you take a moment to assess the conditions, you’re likely to find an area with trout feeding a lot faster.
Food Is Key
You’re not going to find trout evenly spread around a lake as different areas will provide the trout with a more consistent food source than others. Fish in general, trout included, are efficient at feeding and won’t leave an area full of food once they find one.
This leads to the question of where does trout food, such as insects and nymphs tend to live in stillwaters like lakes? The answer is near vegetation and plants need sunlight to grow and therefore aren’t abundant in deep water. You can also see our post on What Do Trout Eat for more information.
The most productive area of lakes that anglers should target is between the shallow shoreline and the point at which the lake drops off into a deep area of around 20 feet. This is where the most plants grow in lakes and feeding areas that trout will patrol consistently.
The drop-off zone is the most productive part of any lake and many anglers won’t leave it once they find it. Also, areas with overhanging trees or reeds near the shore of stillwaters are a great zone for insects and other food that trout will be aware of and patrol.
Luckily, on most lakes, you don’t have to hit more than 50 feet to reach the drop-off zone so fly fishing the shore to drop-off is easily accessible to all fly anglers who can throw a decent cast.
Depth & Water Temperature
Trout like water temperatures to be between 55 and 60 degrees and will always seek to find a part of a lake where they feel comfortable. This means that stillwater anglers have to consider temperature vs depth when stillwater fly fishing to find fish.
Larger deeper lakes tend to have higher surface temperatures than smaller shallow lakes as colder water has a higher density than warmer water and will naturally sink below. This means that the majority of the stillwater trout in the lake might be sitting at a depth of 40feet or more and you’ll have to use a full fly fishing sinking line to get your fly down to them or a very long leader with a sink tip.
The temperature of the lake, regardless of the lake’s size or depth, will also be affected by the weather. If you’re fly fishing during a hot spell and the lake has heated up, then you should expect the trout to be in a deeper zone where the water is cooler.
In some cases, especially on larger lakes, you’re not going to be able to fish the deeper areas without some kind of boat or float tube to get you out into the middle of the lake.
Trout love Inflows & Outflows
When fly fishing on a stillwater, look for any inflows or outflows coming in or out of the lake, as trout will congregate around these areas. The flow of water into/out of the lakes provides fresh oxygenated water for the fish and consistent food full of delicious nymphs and insects. During fall, the trout will also use the inflows and outflows as spawning grounds if they can.
Learn to love the wind
Stillwaters don’t have any kind of flow like a river but there are still elements that move a lake’s waters around, mainly the wind. When the wind blows, it churns up the surface of the water and pushes all the food in the lake in one direction.
Now, it does seem a little counterintuitive to go and stand at the windy end of a lake with your fly rod and try to punch a line through it but it’ll be more effective for catching fish than having the wind behind you. The trout will patrol the windswept shores looking for all the food that the wind has blown over.
If you’re currently looking for a fly rod, then check out our post on the Best Fly Rods here.
Birds are a great hatch indicator
Stillwaters can have epic hatches of dry flies and as the insects come off the surface the first creatures to notice will be birds. When fishing stillwaters always keep an eye out for birds feeding on the surface as it’s a sure sign it’s time to use a floating line and throw a dry fly nearby.
Stillwater Fly Fishing From The Shore
When you’re fishing from the shore of a lake one of the worst things you can do is send your fly line 60 feet into the lake on your first cast. If the fish are holding between the shore and the drop-off, by casting 60 feet you have just made your presence known to every fish between you and where your fly line lands.
Begin fishing from the shore by casting a short length of a fly line. I usually start with a 15-foot cast and then slowly increase up to about a 60-foot cast. This allows you to prospect the shallow water first and ensure you don’t spook any fish before they have a chance to consider eating your fly.
See our post here on fly rod and line weights explained so you can have a full guide.
Change Your Angles
Before you slowly increase your casting distance from 15-foot, make sure to prospect the water around you by casting in different directions. This means making a cast at every angle from parallel to the shoreline on your left all the way around to parallel to the shoreline on your right.
Once you have hit every angle, increase your distance a little and repeat the process until you catch a fish.
Mix Up Your Retrieve
When stillwater fly fishing, you have to retrieve your line to give your flies some action and to ensure you stay in contact with your flies without any slack so you can hook a trout properly when it eats.
It’s impossible to know exactly what kind of retrieve the trout will respond to best and you have to mix them up to see which one is most effective. Vary your retrieve from slow and short to long and smooth so wee what is working best and then stick with it.
If you’re lucky enough to be fishing a lake with crystal clear water you’re likely going to be able to spot free-swimming trout in the shallows that you can sight fish to. There is nothing more exciting than presenting a fly to a fish you can see and watching it eat one of your chosen fly patterns.
Stalk the shoreline of the lake slowly and quietly while ensuring the sun doesn’t throw your shadow onto the water. Once you see a fish, throw your flies gently ahead of the direction it’s moving towards and fingers crossed you catch it.
Fly Fishing For Trout At Different Depths
Multiple Fly Rigs
A great way to find out how deep the fish are feeding at is by fishing a nymph rig will multiple flies that sit at multiple depths. You can fish up to 4 flies each of which will be in a different part of the water column, allowing you to fish 4 different depths at once.
It’s best to fish a multiple nymph rig on a floating line, with or without an indicator, and with a leader length of around 9 feet. You can fish 2-4 flies on this kind of rig and you should space out each fly with 3 feet of tippet starting from the end of your 9-foot leader.
When you start catching fish, you’ll know which of the flies the fish prefer and at what depth they are feeding in.
One of the best tips I’ve learned when fishing multiple flies is to use an indicator when there is some chop on the surface. The small waves cause the indicator to bob up and down giving you flies a delicious movement fish love.
Be a little cautious with multiple fly rigs in the wind though as tangles happen a lot more easily. If it’s windy, maybe use 2 flies instead of 4.
Using Different Fly Lines
When you go fishing on a stillwater it pays to have multiple fly lines at your disposal so that you can prospect different water depths effectively. I always come to a stillwater with at least a sinking line and a floating line, plus it doesn’t hurt to throw in intermediates or sink tips too.
Sinking lines are key when the fish are sitting between 20 and 40 ft while floating lines are ideal for fishing between 1-20ft of water, and an intermediates/sink tip line will keep your fly in the 10-20ft zone.
I tend to have a rod with a floating line and a rod with a sinking line ready to go. If you have spare spools for your reel, so you can easily swap different lines in and out of your reel which saves you from carrying two rods, but you’ll have to re-rig everything each time you change up.
Using The Right Gear
Fly fishing in lakes requires different gear to fly fishing in a river. Firstly you’ll need to cast further and probably deal with a lot more wind and lake trout are usually a lot bigger than river trout, meaning you should leave any rod under a 5 weight at home.
A 5 weight rod is a great choice when fishing short distances on a stillwater on calm days but when the wind picks up you’ll be wanting a 6 or 7 weight to really punch your line into the wind.
If you want more selection on fly rod weights, check out our posts below:
- Best 3 Weight Fly Rod
- Best 4 Weight Fly Rod
- Best 5 Weight Fly Rod
- Best 6 Weight Fly Rod
- Best 7 Weight Fly Rod
Leader & Tippet
Leader length between rivers and lakes is pretty much the same. Having around 9ft of leader which you then add your tippet to is fine, and you can always increase the length to work different depths with a floating line.
One thing you should watch out for is the strength of your tippet. Lakes are no place for 8x tippet, as the trout will just bite through it, use 4x tippet and above only or you’ll be very sad when a 6lb trout bites you off.
You can check out our post here on Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet Explained for more information.
Have The Right Patterns In Your Fly Box
If you’re used to fishing in rivers, then you’ll know that having a good selection of fly patterns is key to success, and the same goes for lakes. There will be some flies in your river box that work in lakes but it pays to have a dedicated lake box as the insect life in lakes is a little different.
Your fly box should contain a range of nymphs, streamers, buzzers, and dry flies in various sizes and colors that represent the different life cycle stages of a stillwater insect. This includes things like baitfish, leeches, scuds, mayflies, damselfly nymph, caddisflies, waterboatmen, snails, dragonflies, chironomids, and more.
If your lake box has a range of the above flies in it, you are covered for the majority of the insect life you’re likely to find on most lakes but every lake is different. For extra advice, you should speak to a local fly shop about what flies work best in any particular lake. It also pays to understand the life cycle of the insects based on seasons as this gives you a general idea of what’s happening all year round.