What is your stillwater strategy?

A stillwater fly fishing experience can range from being one of the most enjoyable outings a fly fisherman can ever have to being the most frustrating and technical fishing one will ever encounter. What is interesting to me is that while many approach a river or stream with a degree of logic, determining what pattern they tie on based on the knowledge gained from prior outings or real-time streamside observation, there are a number of those that fail to apply these same principles to their stillwater fishing tactics. We all see those that rig up an intermediate line and tie on their favorite bugger pattern and troll around all day without acknowledging the various types of food forms which inhabit that particular body of water. My point here is not to be critical with this particular strategy, it is just to address that in my opinion, this contradicts some of the basic elements of fly fishing(observation to surroundings, general knowledge about aquatic entomology, depth, presentation etc..). At the end of the day, this technique can yield a degree of success but there are many times where I have seen this strategy fail and these fishermen deduce the fishing as being slow and chalk it up as a relaxing day out on the water.

As I gain more experience in stillwater flyfishing, I have evolved to greatly appreciate employing a much more scientific approach to my fishing tactics. When I travel to a lake that I have never visited, I quickly try to identify where the shallower shoals are(identified by cattails, underwater vegetation, algae mats) and where the deep portions are likely to exist. I will target one of these two areas, or both, depending on the ambient air temperature.

Another important and easy observation is identifying the lake substrate. A muddy bottom will encourage me to think about using chironomid larvae and pupae patterns, leeches, damsels, baetis, and dragonflies, while a cobble substrate focuses my attention more towards caddis, stonefly, crayfish and baitfish patterns. While the dichotomy of aquatic invertebrates will be similar at many lakes, each body of water will exhibit some form of unique quality that might favor one strategy over another either with using a general type of pattern(leeches, chironomid larvae and pupae, damsels, callibaetis, ect.), specific presentation, depth, et.al.

For example, my strategy for fishing Pass Lake will be slightly different from that I apply at Lone Lake. Standing at the boat ramp at Pass, it is easy to observe the school of minnows that are grouped near shore with the occasional golden flash that darts through the cluster. I have not seen schools of baitfish at Lone, so the thought of tying on a minnow pattern and kicking it around the shallows has never entered my mind. Certainly both lakes share commonalities in their architecture and aquatic biomass, but both have unique attributes which justify employing slightly different stratagem.

I wanted to start a thread where everyone both experienced and beginner can chime in and add their personal observations out on the water, identifying strategies that proved successful/unsuccessful and provide any other relevant information they wish to share.

Ed Call

Well-Known Member
Great post Master Obiwan. I find entimology particularly challenging but in the past year I've been a bit more observant of "what in the hell are they slamming and why are they not interested in my offering". That has improved my chances a bit. When I just can't quite get that right I'll try some chironomid fishing, something I've just begun to do, troll a bugger or cast it in tight to the bank/structure and give some erratic twitches in retrieve. I've also found that different stripping techniques seem to produce for me at different water temperature times. Furthermore, the amount of light has given me fits when I can't quite match whatever hatch is on. A close color and profile on an overcast day is generally gonna get me a dumb one or two, but on brighter days there seems to be a more refined need to match the colors or sizes. There are so many things I don't know but every time out I try to apply something I've read here. This thread promises to bring some more of those ideas into my toolbox. Thanks for the thread and the eloquence in which you have framed it.

Michael Thompson

the flavor of BADFISH
great post indeed. when i fish a river im always confidant i can at least fish it well, and im sometimes dismayed when i cant even get a bump. lakes however make me feel like i am somehow just shooting into the dark, and it really takes some self coaching to make me stay on a lake the same amount of time i would put on a river. this year i intent to pay my lake dues and up my confidence.

Go Fish

Language, its a virus
Good post Obiwan.... I fish lakes alot. I do not consider myself an
expert and never will. One of the best books that helped me get
started was by Codes and Kaufmann. I think its called Lake fishing
with a Fly. On my favorite lake I know where the fish usually lie and what
would be the best bug to throw. Even fishing it hundreds of times does
not insure a fish to hand. A new lake is a different story. It helps to go with
a few people and have everyone try different setups using different bugs and
this will shorten the learning curve of a new lake. When I am trolling I
"twitch" the line.. (the twitch is just a slight tug of the line)
this gives the bug a little more life-like movement. I also
vary my retrive fast, slow, long pause, short pause....I have found
that movement can be critical to getting the fish to bite.


wishing I was back from Krygyzstan...
So.. here's some newbie input.

I'm very new to fly fishing, the Spokane area, everything. I picked up fly fishing because I had always wanted to go for it, in February I decided, why not? I started out on the Spokane river, and got it handed to me every time - nymphing was a challenge, not like bass fishing back in the midwest where I came from.
I kept at it though, spent every chance I could get down in the river, and I still got it handed to me. :thumb:
When the lakes around Spokane opened up I headed for those, got it handed to me! But the learning curve taught me well, adaptation! It forms the basis for my stillwater strategy. Before you can key on what fish are biting, you have to key in on where fish probably are. Here's where my bass fishing background helped. I don't have a fish finder, I don't have a float tube, just the depth charts from washingtonlakes.com - invaluable. You can use a depth chart to find great areas to toss your fly even from shore, but learn up on trout behavior, where they'll go, what they're doing this time of year, water temperature, sunlight, it all factors in.

So far I've had great results in water close to drop offs, adjacent to shallows and structure, areas where the fish have access to a lot of options, especially in the hours close to dusk. I think its because they're moving in from out deep closer to shore to grab some food when they don't have to be as wary about predators in the low evening light. I'm not a trout though, I don't know what they're really thinking!

Like obiwan says, take observations, know what's in your lake and how to imitate it. Often, you can go out and observe, then apply that knowledge. I caught a very lucky brown the other day on a dry fly. I watched him scoop up midges in the surface film for minutes - I didn't have a great imitation, something small and dark to match what I was seeing on the water. By the grace of the big guy upstairs, that brown sucked up that fly, but the key was letting the dry get sopping wet, sink into the film a little and wham!

When I landed him, his mouth was full of black wiggly looking things. Honestly, I knew that a midge looked like a mosquito sorta, but I didn't know what his mouth was full of. I came back home, got online and learned everything I could about midges. That old brown was full of midge pupae. I hit the fly shop, found a decent imitation of what I had saw, and hit the lake again with strike indicators, and did really well finally. Talk about rewarding!

My strategy = stick with it, learn, observe, and have fun fishing. Formulate a plan, figure out where the fish are. Don't just tow another wolly bugger behind your float tube! (There are times when that'll really kill 'em I hear though) Well, I'm going to eat some chow and hit the lake!


Proud to Be Alaskan
My strategy and evolved over the years, first it was worms off a dock under a bobber and sit there till the trout came around. Then I figures out that I'd kill less fish if I used flies so it was a fly with red in it (royal anything or a black gnat) under a casting bubble, then I went on a trolling binge, because we'd catch bigger fish trolling, woolly buggers and stuff. Finally I picked up a fly rod, usually I'd troll to a spot that the fish liked and swith my bugger to a pellet fly and nymph dropper. Then I started fishing for pike and I'd cast big bunny flies at the local pike lake and ended up catching a lot of rainbows. Then I took a break from lakes for a while and now I'm back fishing lakes, mostly I just cast at the shoreline or lilly pads with some kind of dry fly and a scud dropper. Or I look for risers and cast them midge patterns. If there are no risers I troll around depending on the lake and what the fish do I might sit in one place and cast for a bit then troll some more and look for risers, when I see fish rising regularly I try to figure out where the various fish are rising and keep my fly there and then cast to any riser within range cause usually they run in schools around here.

One day in october I fished an adult dragon fly pattern and it was like bass fishing only the fish were trout and they were hard pressed to get the dang thing into their mouth.

Ed Call

Well-Known Member
Spent many summers in Louisiana, Sportsman's Paradise. This little number works on alligators, alligator gar of epic proportions, frogs, snakes and just about everything else. The come in a variety of effective sizes and timing configurations for you to get your depth presentation just right in the zone. Sadly, they do not come in any other colors so you have to add any other features you want. Also they tend not to lend themselves to catch and release and they also will put a hole in your waders, boat, body, dock or other things that coincide with your presentation attempt. Stand back!


When I go to a lake that I've never fished before I want to know if it has a public beach and what the day time temps are going to be so I can watch for the bikini hatch.
If you handle your rod right you might get a bite.
Obi, Good thread.

I've been fortunate enough over the past decade or so to teach flyfishing to a few beginners each year. What you identfy in your thread is one of the most important aspects of fishing success, which is developing a plan or strategy for each fishing outing. For some this may sound like too much work/effort, but to those who employ it on a regular basis the rewards are more than worth the time and effort. It also speeds the learning curve we all find ourselves participating in. If I may add to your thoughts with a couple more that have helped many.

1. Start keeping a fishing journal. Most of us don't remember as well as we like to think we do and recording our observations, successes/failures, and what we've learned at each outing is important. Writing down where you found fish, what flies were working, insect activity, water quality, weather, the season/time of day, lines you used, and etc. will help you retain new knowledge and give you a reference for future visits to that body of water. This is a great tool to help the fisherman learn a local lake or stream. Those that keep journals know their value. As the new fishing season begins this is a great time to start a new habit that will bring good rewards.

2. Another technique I share, use this board to get together with other fishermen who have been fishing your local waters (or waters you like to visit). If you are fairly new to the sport or would like to become more successful, spending a day with another fisherman who knows the lake/stream well can be a great way to gather important knowledge. Many of the best "lessons" I've experienced have come from others I've shared a day on the water with. Making a concentrated effort toward this end reaps many rewards and hastens the learning curve dramatically.

3. Try something new. A line, a new style of fly, a new fishing technique. A different depth, a different retrieve, a different combination of flies, and etc. We can get stuck in the same perspective (way of thinking) when it comes to fishing. There are times when we are successful with a certain fly or style of fishing and we have a tendancy to want to repeat that success with each outing. This can rob us of an opportunity to learn something new. It's usually new knowledge partnered with existing knowledge that brings continual success and increases our joy and satisfaction in our sport.

Good news...the water in our local lakes is warming and the fish activity is increasing!
Good luck, Fish on!


Active Member
Ambient and water temps make a big difference when it comes to stillwater strategy. First of all, I try to make it a point to fish when the temps are moving towards 55 degrees F. For the most part, this has been a very reliable approach.

As far as average temps are concerned, colder the temp, shallower the water I will concentrate on. Typically, in the depths of winter, I will always make it point to cast right to the bank to see if large browns or large 'bows are lurking there. If browns have a strong presence, then this is often a very successful approach. When it comes to 'bows, I then to think they hold in water that is a couple of feet deeper. Troll by and cast around docks, over shallow weed beds, and other structure (drop-offs, etc.) when looking for 'bows.

Come spring, I still stick to shallow water, though I start thinking about structure and water where you just lose sight of the bottom. At the same time, I won't discount deep water where wind-driven and free-drifting food might be present. Also, when the skies have opened and the sun is shining, I will look for places where shade is present. That means docks, tree shade, logs, and places where you lose sight of the bottom--more or less in that order.

When it comes to fly choice, I think of zones that might support certain types of food. Try to match the zone according to what Brian Chan has suggested in his books. If I see weeds at the shoreline, I will prefer nymphs-like patterns--dragonflies especially, as they're year-around insects. If I know there are crayfish present or planted fry, I will feel more open to streamers of the appropriate color. Oddly, I tend to prefer unweighted flies when fishing with an Intermediate line, though a beadhead can find its way onto my tippet if I feel a more leech-like presentation is needed. When using a floating line, I will go with a beadhead fly. That goes equally for chironomid pupae and W'buggers. Now that spring is here, I will keep a chironomid emerger pattern on my back up rod, which is always rigged with a floating line. Trout will be more inclined to rise to emerging bugs, so it's always good to be prepared.

Fly line choice: That is entirely dependent on the depth of the water being fished and the type of fly being used. A lot of times I tend to start with an Intermediate. I do that, because I like to fish when the water is cold and fish are holding shallow. When I have to shift to a faster sinking line, I take it as a sign that I need to start fishing higher altitude lakes or hit moving water or the salt.

Well, that's about as much as I have to contribute at the moment.

BTW, Obiwan, how come you haven't been reporting in the salt forum? I used to see you there all the time. What gives?

--Dave E.
Thanks for everyone so far who has chimed in on this thread. The information has been informative and has provided much insight into stillwater flyfishing.


I generally ignore the salt until July when the silvers begiin migrating through the PS and play that game until season close.

Jim Wallace

Smells like low tide.
(edit, almost forgot to say what a great opening post it was, with which Master Obi opened this thread. Good one, it was!)
My strategy has been to check my tippet and knots regularly, so I don't loose the same lucky wooly bugger I've been trolling around all Winter and Spring. I think I'm going to see how long I can keep fishing that one fly.:clown:
Just kidding. Tuesday at Narwhalsawzal, was windy and no signs of bugs when I got there mid-afternoon. The above strategy seemed appropriate, and I was thusly rigged up on my 4wt. However I started out with a monstrosity of a dumbell-eyed, size 6 "dragon nymph" on my 6 wt rig, because I wanted to slow-troll near the bottom in 10-15 feet of water, and I had my old clear intermediate rigged on that rod. I know that I should have switched spools to my type III sinker, and tied on a floating dragon nymph, letting the line sink all the way to the bottom before stripping back in, but I was feeling lazy. It was also a bit breezy for casting, so I just tied on the heavily weighted "bottom scuffler" version and fought the wind while slow trolling near the bottom. Fishing like that, I hooked and brought alongside a good 20"er, but it jumped and threw the heavy fly when I reached for the net. Missed a lot of strikes with that rig, and lost another good fish I never saw.

Switched to the 4 wt and my lucky "marathon" bugger, and worked that thing deep, along dropoffs, around sunken logs, over the shoals, flats, etc. Got many one-grab strikes, so I knew it was working. Did bring 5 stockers to hand.

A little after 7pm, the wind backed off some, and I noticed some black gnats about size 16 or 18 flying around and also noticed a few rise rings. But I was not rigged up with a floating line on either of my rods, and I was already thinking of heading back to the ramp. I bit off my lucky bugger and tied on an unweighted old ratty black #14 fly, that had one time resembled a Doc Spratley, to the end of my 4 wt rig and tried drifting up on the rings and casting to them, but they kept moving away from me. I only did this for the entertainment of the snickering powerbait-slinger on shore, though.
Just another day of clowning around:clown:

Old Man

Just an Old Man
Spent many summers in Louisiana, Sportsman's Paradise. This little number works on alligators, alligator gar of epic proportions, frogs, snakes and just about everything else. The come in a variety of effective sizes and timing configurations for you to get your depth presentation just right in the zone. Sadly, they do not come in any other colors so you have to add any other features you want. Also they tend not to lend themselves to catch and release and they also will put a hole in your waders, boat, body, dock or other things that coincide with your presentation attempt. Stand back!
Hey, a Dupont spinner. They will work good when nothing else will.

Me, I don't like to work that hard at catching fish. I usually just dip myself into the water and then play around with what I think will work. I used to start out with an Olive Willy and then go from there. When one carries as many flies as I do it isn't long until I find one that will work. And fishing Chronies is not in my bag of flies..

But when Stream fishing. I usually stop at the local fly shop and ask as to what is working and spend a few bucks for a few flies.