Article Stillwater Fly Fishing - Having a Game Plan

Stillwater Fly Fishing:
Article by Tyler Laurenti
Having a Game Plan / Fly Design and Presentation

Having a Game Plan

If I were to make a guess, I’d say that about 80% of fly-fishers are attracted to running water. Of that 80%, I would be willing to venture that half of that 80% fish running water exclusively. Having neither a preference for one type of fly-fishing experience over the other, this “tunnel-vision” mindset is never something that I have incorporated in a fly fishing outing. In a state of thousands and lakes and relatively few rivers/streams comparably, Washington State is a stillwater mecca.

The mentality of fishing a stillwater is similar but different from fishing a river. In a river, you can actually see boulders, seams, plunge pools, tail-outs and “trouty” holding structure and logical areas to find fish. They are logical because the current in the river will funnel the food though these structures and the boulders allow the trout to hide from the force of the current, while still being able to pick off the parade of food coming down the way. Lakes have structure as well, but it comes in much bigger scale.



Without a doubt, the shoals are the most productive area of the lake and offer the highest opportunity to find fish. Shoals are the shallow areas that gradually slope down into the lake. This water is the shallowest in the lake it is the first area to warm up after a long winter. In all seasons but winter you can target trout on the shoals. This area has the highest concentration of vegetation and not surprisingly, the highest concentration of bugs. Generally, in late February trout will enter the shoals, rooting around for chronomid larvae and pupae. During these months, an increase in light and temperature will trigger insect hatches. The shoal is the shallowest area of the lake and these areas will receive the first hatch. The progression of the hatches on the shoals will be 2-3 weeks ahead of the rest of the lake. In mid-fall and throughout the spring, the fish will feed all day long in the shoals. However, in the summer, though the shoals will continue to produce copious quantities of bugs, the water temperature just gets too hot for a fish’s tolerance. During this time, trout patiently wait in the cooler depths of the lake or along shady cliffs/steep grades for darkness to arrive and for the shoals to cool off. They then re-enter the shoals and stuff as much food into their mouths as possible.



The drop-off is the area where a shoal stops and gives way to an underwater cliff. This is a highly productive area. However, it takes some investigation to find it. If you are lucky enough to be able to look down on the lake from a higher vantage on a calm sunny day, you will actually be able to see the shoal taper off into the lake and drop off. The depths of the lake are dark blue or black, while the shoal will reflect the color of the mud/sand/vegetation that creates it and will contrast the dark blue or black depths. If you don’t have the luxury of being able to see the drop-off, you take an anchor on a rope and as you let the anchor go you release the anchor rope in one-foot intervals and estimate the depth. You then head out from the shoal toward the middle of the lake and pick up the anchor and bounce it across the bottom repeatedly. Eventually, the excess anchor rope in your hands will start peeling out of your hands. Congrats! You just found the drop off! Fish that want to enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffet of the shoal, but are too chicken to actually enter the shoal, will wait 1-3 feet off the drop-off and nervously pace back and forth deciding if they want to enter the shoal or not. Make no mistake, though these fish are chicken, they are very aggressive and have no qualms taking your flies. If you did a good job estimating the depth of the drop-off with your anchor, you should be able to figure out how long to extend your leader/tippet or how long your sinking line will need to sink before you start retrieving. Throughout the year, anchoring your craft on the edge of the drop-off and wind drifting chronomid pupae/larvae imitations will be highly productive. Sinking lines with dragonfly and other suggestive baitfish presentations can be equally productive. Oftentimes you will hear of a chronomid fisher talk about how he caught 20-50 fish in a given day. There is a pretty good chance they were working the drop-off.

Cliffs / Steep Grades

For much of the year, cliffs/steep grades are more of a secondary option to the shoals. These areas are attractive because most species of fish generally tend to orient themselves to structure, and a solid rock wall or sloping hillside is exactly that: structure. Oftentimes, minnows will orient to this structure and with minnows come minnow-eating brutes, which often time are fish of 15” or more. In fall, winter, and spring, fishing streamers on a slow troll with type 4 sinking line with a with long slow strips with a couple of intermittent quick jerks at a depth 10-20 should get you into the occasional brute. However, in the hot summer and early fall days, when the shoals are too hot for the trout’s preference, you will find large populations of various sized trout congregated around cliffs/steep grades that offer shade on the water. If the lake you’re fishing on has a big cliff on its south bank, you might be in luck!


The Depths

Unless you have determined there is an underwater island, or some kind of unusual structure in the middle of the lake, fishing the depths is a low percentage bet, and frankly, a complete waste of your time. You are fishing blind, with no strategy, and with no hope. To keep yourself from absolutely frustrating fishing, leave the depths alone. Should you desire to take your craft and fish right across the middle of the lake, consult and see if this website offers a bathometric map of the lake your fishing. If your lake has some kind of an underwater structure then, who knows, you might be on to something...



Unlike their river/creek brethren who must make split-second decisions while feeding, the stillwater trout can take its sweet-ass time to evaluate any fly you present to it. Therefore, it is critical that we keep the fly in front of the fish for the longest time possible. In addition to a standard weight forward floating line, I carry these full sinking lines: the intermediate clear/camo line in a type 2 or 3 sinking rating, a type 4 sinking rating, and a type six (depth charge) sinking line. Sink tips are generally a poor choice because though they sink, when you troll or retrieve line, your fly starts swimming back up through the water column to balance out the forward progression of your troll/line strips. A full sinking line is necessary because it keeps at the depth that you’ve determined the fish to be at. Now, how do you determine where the fish are? Some guys actually carry an electronic fish finder, but all that beeping as I am passing over fish would just annoy the hell out me. For $60, Cabelas has a “Fish Finder/Temperature Finder” that is about 4” long and flutters down to the bottom. It not only tells you the depth, but also gives you temperature readings in 5-foot increments! Take that info with what you know about the trout’s preferred temperature range, and you now have a starting point of where to start fishing and where not to fish. Cheaper yet is to buy an actual thermometer and send it down to various depths and hold it there long enough to get a reading and bring it back to you as fast as possible before the mercury drops. That’s a pretty chintzy idea, but it would probably work.


Trout are cold-blooded animals, and with that in mind, have ideal temperature ranges for each species. Considering all temperatures in the farenheight scale, the rainbow trout’s ideal temperature range runs from 44 degrees to 75 degrees. The ideal temperature is 54 degrees. The rest of this data is approximate and I’m just going off the top of my head, but the eastern brook trout’s ideal range ideal temperature is 50 degrees, the brown trout’s ideal temperature is 56 degrees, and the cutthroat’s ideal temperature is 50 degrees. The entire range if I recall is similar to the 44-75 degree range of the rainbows. Don’t quote me on the non-rainbow species, it’s just a ballpark figure from a study I once saw. The more you deviate from the ideal temperature on either extreme, the slower and more sluggish the fish get. Now here’s the odd part, regardless of temperature, any highly oxygenated water will balance-out temperature extremes. For instance, you can have fine fishing in the middle of December if you can find a spring in the lake. Even though the water temperature may be 38 degrees, if you find a spring, you will find a massive congregation of trout hanging around it. On a calm day, you can find a spring by watching intermittent bubbles come out of the lake with pretty good consistency. Another indicator is that that spring will be a sand-slick in the middle of a vegetated area. Simply wind-drifting over such an area while wearing polarized glasses will reveal this.

Stillwater Ethics

I hate to bring up a downer subject, but I wanted to address something that needs some light shed upon it. The issue is fishing the desert and Western Washington lowland lakes in Mid-June through Mid-September. "So, what's wrong with that?" You might ask. Did you ever notice that you find yourself having to use faster sinking lines to provide good fishing during the daytime in the summer? There's good reason:

In deeper lakes (deeper than 20 feet), the warm water above naturally separates from the cold water below. That’s called stratification. Anyone that’s ever swam in the deeper regions of any lake and dove to the bottom knows that at a certain point in your descent into the depths of the lake, the water for some reason gets cold all-of-a-sudden. Ha! Stratification exists!

Well, the fish live in the colder part during the daytime in the summer. When you catch a fish, you drag it past the stratification line (they call this the thermocline) and into the warmer, less oxygenated water. Increases in temperature cause oxygen depletion in water. The closer to the surface you get, the less oxygen in the water. We play fish at the surface, because that’s where we happen to be fishing from. The larger the fish, the less control we have of it, and the longer we play it—in sparsely oxygenated water. In shallower lakes, there is no stratification line and the whole thing is warm. The fish are stressed even before you catch them.

If we really do practice Catch & Release because we truly believe that trout are to be caught more than once, than why stress out the fish to exhaustion by choosing to fish desert and lowland lakes in the summer and early fall? Last year three 5 lb fish made it to my freezer because I couldn’t successfully revive them. I got cocky and had to fish my favorite lake in the first week of September, and wasted what I like most about the lake--the fish.

Some of you might say, “Hey buddy! Chill out! My fish swam away. I know he’s OK!” I disagree. The fish left your grasp exhausted and off balance. He sat on the bottom of the lake, exhausted, with his blood full of lactic acid, and teeter-tottered around for half a day and expired. You just never got to see that end of it. So, if you plan to fish in the summer, be prepared to eat your catch because your “noble” catch and release efforts will likely be a frivolous effort at best.

Final Thought

All and all, there are acres and acres of stillwaters waiting for a person like you; a person who knows what do because they are approaching the lake with a game plan. With some exploration, you’ll find secrets unlocked by your techniques, and desired solitude in a lake that nobody fishes. Wishing you tight lines and special memories in the seasons to come.
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