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Stillwater Fly Fishing - Fly Design and Presentation

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

Fly Design and Presentation

In the last article, Having a Game Plan, we covered the basics of lake structure. In this article, were going to get some insight into what is necessary to make your lake patterns work for you and considerations you want to take into consideration at the fly tier's bench. Unlike the last article, this is based completely on my experience and is open to debate, dispute, and really has no scientific founding. This article is written solely on my observations.

In the last article it was made crudely apparent by me that stillwater fish are able to take their "sweet-ass time" to evaluate the pattern and the presentation that you put on the fly. This is true. However, since we know that trout in lakes have more time to scrutinize patterns than their river brethren, our patterns need more to keep the trout's attention. Lake flies can be broken down into 2 groups: Exact imitations and Impressionistic Patterns.

Note: To view larger photos of the patterns below, click on the thumbnails and then use your browsers back button to return to the article.

Exact imitations

Photograph Light Organism Natural material Terrestrial plant
Sky Twig Natural material Line Feather

Some insects do not emerge rapidly from the lake bottom to the surface. Foremost in my mind are the class of huge insect order of Dipthera (flies with 2 wings). These are the chironomids and midges. This is all fly fishing jargon, because they're all chironomids, we just call flies that are smaller than a hook size of 16 midges. Anyway, these guys live on bottom of the lake and often in mud flats, though they can be found anywhere. They start out as a little worm (larvae) that spastically twitches jerks and really doesn't make much forward progress. When the time is right, the pupal form of this insect emerges from the larvae, and it fills with gas. It then moves straight up through the water column - Not at an angle. It also progresses very slowly through the water column. As a fly fisher, our best bet is to hang the chironomid under a strike indicator. If we have a little bit of breeze over the water, the chironomid will bounce up and down with each ripple, and will give the pattern a life-like action. This is because your strike indicator is keeping your chironomid at a specific depth that you've measured the fish to likely be at. Your patterns also need to be very specific to match the originals. I always use beadheads on my chironomids because I don't like waiting the extra 30 seconds for my fly to get down to its desired depth. You will want to add white gills (white antron or ostrich herl) and your patterns need to be slim, just like real chironomids. I've heard guys talk about trolling chironomids around a lake or retrieving them in fast 3-4" strips with success, but in my opinion, that was just plain dumb luck that they caught a fish fishing like that. Chironomids don't act like that and if we're fly fishers, we should probably do what the insect does if we want to stand a fair chance at catching fish.

Some Leeches
Hood Branch Eyewear Tints and shades Twig
Natural material Animal product Feather Eyelash Fur

Everyone fishes leech patterns, but few really fish them like a leech. Leeches are almost as slow as chironomid larvae, and the majority of their activity comes at night. If you really want to fish a leech like a leech, you must fish it slow and on the bottom with frequent pauses and stops. I learned to fish leeches from the Canadians up in B.C., who take their lake fishing much more serious than we do in the U.S. Most leech patterns will use mohair. Many more will use marabou. These patterns are tied very sparse and the final product will be very simple and will ultimately have a "wispy" look to it. I have seen the colors of leeches run the gamut but here are some ideas.

1) Western Washington
Black, olive, brown, or any combination of these colors. It is often necessary to add a piece of "Flash" to attract the trout's attention. Some like to add a small red bead at the head of the fly, while others will add some kind of sparkle dubbing in the body. Almost all flies will have a marabou tail of some sort to give the fly the exact undulating effect that real leeches have. The major thing to incorporate into your patterns is the color of the Western Washington lake bottoms: muddy brown and dark olive. Note: Do not get carried away with sparkle products; a little sparkle goes a long way.​

2) Eastern Washington
Eastern Washington can have all the above, but specifically, Eastern Washington lakes have a different color spectrum on its lake bottoms. Due to the alkaline nature of many Eastern Washington soils, many Eastern Washington lakes have marl shoals. The color of the aquatic vegetation on the lake bottoms are often an olive to lime-green color and their insects will also adapt to the same coloring. Thus, leeches in lighter spectrums of olive and even tan/beige will be productive. I remember once going through the stomach contents of a Columbia Basin bluegill and finding a tan leech with maroon mottling. Unlike Western Washington, in Eastern Washington you get more for your money with sparkle products. The best product that I've found is sparkle chenille in light olive. I put a marabou tail in a similar shade of olive and add 3 pieces of holographic flash into the tail. This holographic flash is so damn obnoxious (read really flashy) that it is best to only extend it half way down the tail. In summary, olive holographic flash produces better than average results when you don't get carried away with incorporating too much of this stuff into your ties.​

Scuds and Snails
Insect Pollinator Arthropod Moths and butterflies Pest

Fishing snails in lakes is a tough bet. If you think the previously mentioned insects were slow, you won't believe the snail. For fly-fishing purposes, just think that snails don't move at all. If you fish them, you fish them under a strike indicator until you're bored to tears and can't take in any longer. You will see them in the stomach contents of trout, but I'd have to say that they're in the class of daphnia; something that trout eat that you can't produce at the tying bench, or would want to.

Scuds on the other hand will likely get you in to some trout. From what I can tell, scuds have no atmospheric air requirement and can be found on the bottom of any lake that has rather alkaline soils. To determine if a lake is alkaline, look above the water line for a high water mark. If the high water mark looks really or kind of chalky white, the lake is has alkaline qualities. If you watch scuds, they kind of twitch, freak-out, and jump from one limb of aquatic growth to another. They do not swim for 50 yards or whatever distance you were planning to troll them across the lake. I am not a great scud fisherman, but the guys I know that do well calculate the depth they need to get them to the weed-tops and add a strike indicator to keep them there. They then use occasional 1-3" strips and pauses to move their scud towards them. With the exception of 3 lakes that I know of, Western Washington generally does not have scuds. Eastern Washington has plenty of scuds but they are not of the Gammarus type (the larger type found in the British Columbia Interior Lakes), but of the Hyalella variety. These scuds usually don't exceed a size 16 in hook size. The exception would be in the upper Okanogan area, where Gammarus scuds exist. Wherever scuds exist, so do healthy trout. So, because a healthy trout provides the kind of aggressive fight that we look for, I guess its in all of our best interest to learn to fish scuds.

Impressionistic patterns

If you like to strip your flies, impressionistic patterns are the way to go. Certain insects have movement in the lake that require you to strip your patterns. In this next section were going to discuss the stillwater insects that make lateral progress through the water. Imitate their actions and you'll do fine. Trout are opportunists, so you're not dealing with too difficult of a crowd. Do your own thing and you will turn the fish off, and you will have a crappy day on the water.

Damselfly Nymphs
Artificial fly Bait Terrestrial plant Insect Feather
Plant Terrestrial plant Feather Grass Twig
Water Liquid Aircraft Terrestrial plant Vehicle
Vertebrate Artificial fly Insect Arthropod Bait
Sky Plant Arecales Feather Terrestrial plant
Artificial fly Plant Organism Grass Liquid

These are part of the faster group of bugs that move around in the lakes. Beginning in late April (generally) damselflies begin their movement to the shoreline where they climb up on cattails and split their nymphal shucks and emerge into adults. (Its pretty amazing because they have telescoping bodies and the adult is much larger than the nymph, which is unusual in the insect world. Usually the bugs get smaller with each passing metamorphosis of maturity). In places there aren't cattails, they will climb up on rocks or rock walls and hatch. The key is that they always move from the center of the lake, or wherever they had been living as a nymph, and move to the margins of the lake. So, if you want more fish on a damselfly hatch, you should cast out into the lake and strip into the shore. When these guys are ready to migrate to the shore they don't mess around: 2-3" strips with occasional pauses will work well. They travel in all parts of the water column, so you can't mess this one up. You'll probably do a little better closer to the bottom (since they emerge from the bottom), but it really doesn't really matter that much.
Since these guys are moving fast (fast for lakes, at least) you DON'T want to have a tightly tied fancy plastic looking beautiful fly shop creation complete with a raffia body and burnt monofilament eyes. You want something the breathes and moves, just like the damselfly that is spastically jerking and kicking its way to shore. Flies that incorporate moving parts are always key. I like to put chain-eyes or a bead-head on the front of the fly. That will make it drop and rise. Also, remember a damsel nymph has a wider head than its body. The body must taper quickly from the head. The tail should be made of 5 to 6 strands of marabou. Add more, and the tail will be thicker than the head, which turns fish off, because it doesn't look like a damselfly.

In Western Washington, because the lakes are a muddy brown color, your damselflies are going to be a dark olive to dark brown color to match the mud. In Eastern Washington, lighter shades of olive and sometimes lime shades will do the trick. I understand that in Pend Oreille, Stevens, and Ferry Counties, beige and light brown damsels are effective in addition to the olive and lime tones.

Dragonfly Nymphs
Liquid Plant Bottle Arthropod Twig
Artificial fly Bait Fishing bait Insect Fishing lure
Artificial fly Arthropod Fishing lure Insect Bait
Liquid Plant Fishing lure Grass Fishing bait

Dragonflies offer a real meal for the trout. However, you need to fish them effectively for trout to actually believe that they're Dragonflies. Dragonfly nymphs have a really weird swimming action. They are always near or on the bottom, but they shoot off the bottom at an angle, in a rocket like fashion. As soon as they stop swimming, the weight of their bodies causes them to immediately sink. So, you will fish a weighted fly, and count your fly down to the bottom, and then make three 3-4" strips and then pause for 2-3 seconds as your fly heads down to bottom. Then repeat this process.

You would think with the pausing and waiting you do (between strips) with this retrieve that you would do okay with a fancy looking woven, or realistic looking damselfly. In my experience, I have found that a fly that is very weighted, has lots of marabou, hen hackle palmered through it (read wooleybugger) seems to do much better that a realistic looking fly. This point is up to debate, and you will have to determine what you think is more effective. There really is not authoritative answer to this one.

All-Around Attractors
Arthropod Insect Wing Pest Parasite
Artificial fly Arthropod Fishing lure Insect Bait
Artificial fly Bait Fishing bait Fishing lure Insect
Plant Feather Terrestrial plant Twig Close-up
Grass Feather Terrestrial plant Flowering plant Wing
Arthropod Insect Organism Artificial fly Close-up
Liquid Plant Fishing lure Grass Fishing bait

Like I said before, trout are opportunists. The number one optimist is the cutthroat. Cutthroats are suckers for red--but in proportion. When fishing a lahontan lake or a Western Washington cutthroat bog, I don't get too technical with my ties. I tie an olive bodied and dark olive hackled wet-fly pattern with a red butt made of red aftershaft or any other crappy fluffy feathers you can find on the stem of a red-dyed feather. I bunch them on the tail so that aftershaft butt flutters just a little. My red butt probably does not exceed 4 mm in length. This seems to specifically work for cutthroat. I've not had much luck with other species of trout with the "red-butt" wet flies.

When it comes to Rainbow trout, Brookies, and Browns other patterns are necessary. For instance, the wooleybugger. Who can dispute the effectiveness of the wooleybugger? It's quite possibly the best pattern of all time. Palmering soft hen hackle (read cheap low grade hackle) makes the fly breathe when you strip it. The marabou tail undulates all-the-while creating a lively fly pattern that darts or undulates, depending on how you strip it. Add some flash to the tail or a fancy sparkle chenille on the body and who knows what will happen. An additional improvement in attractor flies is the Carey Special, which uses pheasant rump as a collar to the fly. When you strip the fly, the collar pulls against the body of the fly and then "pops" back up in between strips. Another substitute for the collar is Hungarian partridge. It too, has the same qualities as pheasant rump, but the barbules are not nearly as long, so it works well on fly sizes 10 and smaller. This is a great addition to your smaller streamer patterns (read damselflies). If a stillwater trout is going to follow your fly, it is going to follow it for a while. He's got all the time in the world, right? Adding additional features like marabou, flash, pheasant rump, or Hungarian partridge is going to add just a bit more motion and liveliness that is going to keep its attention with your fly instead of abandoning it.

Bunny Leaches
Grass Scale Cable Automotive lighting Fur
Hair Artificial fly Fishing bait Eyelash Bait
Artificial fly Bait Fishing bait Fishing lure Feather

What can I say? The bunny leach combined with a beadhead is deadly for trout. My #1 night fishing pattern (Steve Probasco's Night Leech) is a variation of this pattern. If you use crosscut bunny strips, you can wrap it around your hook and you end up with something that looks like a rabbit's foot lucky charm. Or you can tie it right down the hook with a standard-cut "zonker strip" which gives it a mohawk which is just as effective. Don't ask me why, but large browns and rainbows are big fans of flies incorporating bunny strips. If you're really savvy, you skip the cross cut rabbit strip and tie your bunny hairs into a dubbing brush (a special device is needed for this) and your pattern will immediately sink to the bottom (The skin in rabbits allows some buoyancy, which slows their departure. By using a dubbing brush you take the rabbit skin out of the equation).

Water Boatman and Back-Swimmers
Insect Arthropod Twig Pest Parasite
Insect Beak Arthropod Twig Hummingbird

What's the difference? Not much. When looking at the two you will find that the Back-Swimmers are football shaped and when they swim, they swim upside-down. The Water Boatman are a little more compact and generally have about the same silhouette as an apple. Both have "oar-like" legs that extend from the middle of their body. The "oars" are about twice as wide as the body, but a fly-tier can get away with tying them longer. Keep this thought in mind, because if you tie them to their appropriate proportions, the "oars" will be rigid, and the fly will not swim and will look fake. Oh, and Back-Swimmers will bite you and Water Boatman will not!

Stillwater specialists (those that spend more time on the lake than the river) claim that this really is a "seasonal hatch," with only special attention brought to the "Water Boatman fall." What does all that mean? It means that the bugs actually get out of the lake and mate and fly around. They can do this in the spring, but most anglers see this event in the fall. They then plunge themselves into the water in an effort to break though the surface of the water. This event is the Water Boatman "fall." Apparently, the whole scene has the effect that it is raining on a sunny day. Eastern Washington lakes have large quantities of these insects in their waters and I have found mashed boatman in the stomach contents of Columbia Basin trout throughout the year, which coincides with the fact that have had some success with this pattern outside of the typical spring and fall "Water Boatman fall" event. There is a reason for this (this is going to be kind of long-winded, so bear with me on my explanation). I feel that each trout is an opportunist, so that doesn't mean that every trout in the entire lake is keying into the same hatch. Water Boatmen and Backswimmers breathe atmospheric air, and have to continually come up to the surface to get a bubble of atmospheric air, which the hold against their chest with their "non-oar" legs. Because their air supply is limited, you don't usually find these bugs in water deeper than 10.' If a trout is up on the shoal, they will run into these bugs and they may become part of their regular diet. The trout that is spending its time in a deeper part of the lake will have different food sources and different priorities. Inspections of the stomach contents of fish I have "bonked" prove this. Moral of the story: Don't be afraid to try this pattern in the shallows any time of the year.

These bugs are also the most fun to fish. They are the speed demons of the lake and their swimming motion can best be described as scampering. Who knows which direction they're heading or where they're going? I seriously doubt that they really know where they're going. Put these patterns on a clear intermediate line, ghost tip, or a floating line and a long leader and strip them continuously in 1-3" strips with short pauses between a series of strips. In Eastern Washington, they're usually in hook sizes of 10-14. This is a relatively unexplored fishing option among fly fisherman. Be the first kid on your block to say, "I fish with Water Boatman and Backswimmer patterns!"

Baitfish Patterns
Artificial fly Bait Fishing bait Fishing lure Feather
Feather Grass Wing Close-up Tail
Artificial fly Bait Fishing bait Fishing lure Liquid
Insect Arthropod Pollinator Parasite Twig
Artificial fly Bait Fishing bait Fishing lure Eyelash

In most lakes other non-trout species occur. These non-trout species successfully spawn each year and provide juvenile fish populations in a lake. Furthermore, lakes with inlets and outlets provide successful spawning opportunities for trout and char that create juvenile fish populations. Regardless, if a fish is 15" or more, its mouth is big enough to fit a juvenile fish into it. The benefits of ingesting one juvenile fish far surpass the efforts of multiple feedings of individual insects. One minnow will sustain a fish's appetite for a longer duration due to the larger ingestion of calories per feeding. As a fly fisher, if you want to target largest fish, baitfish patterns are your best bet. Some say that baitfish are a very cautious bunch and wait until the safety of dark to feed. I can't verify this with any degree of scientific authority, but I find that the overwhelming majority of fish I catch on baitfish patterns occur after dark. So, I concur.

A baitfish moves very slowly until a larger fish scares it. At that time, it panics and aimlessly darts in one direction, and then becomes calm and moves a crawling pace again. The more that it is chased by a predator, the more it aimlessly darts. I often fish baitfish patterns after dark so I do not know if the fish first identifies my baitfish pattern upon touchdown of my cast or somewhere during the retrieving process. Regardless, when night fishing I keep a super-rapid retrieve of 4-7" erratic strips targeting the shorelines all-the-while. Again, because of all the motion you're putting on your patters when you retrieve them, patterns that replicate the look of fish will not be productive. Patterns made of all-black materials will silhouette the night sky the best and should be used. I have heard it said that if you take any pattern and look at it in the dark (with a lighter background) the fly will appear dark. However, I find that flies tied with black materials work best for me.

Like I said, this is my take on stillwater fishing and is based solely on my experience. I still have another 60 years of fishing to learn, and I wouldn't be surprised only 15 years from now I laugh at what I've written here. However, I think this information provided here is a good start for trout fishing in stillwaters. The purpose of this series is to open up a whole new world of fly-fishing to those that see fly-fishing as a running-water sport. That just isn't true. In a state where there are comparatively few streams to the thousands of lake opportunities available, learning to fish stillwaters will give you a better appreciation for this amazing multi-faceted state of Washington. My final article in this series, which will come out some time after the summer of 2004, will specifically describe fly-fishing for warmwater species. I hold a special place in my heart for warmwater fishing, and look forward to getting you into the details of the Northwest's most gratifying and neglected fishery. Until then,

Tight Lines and good times!
Tyler Laurenti
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