Stillwater trouting: your best chance for early season success. By Jim Lepage

Spring, particularly for many Eastern and Northern stillwaters, marks the beginning of the trout fishing season. In most areas around the United States, spring brings a change in fishing as runoff, warmer water, and migration of both gamefish and baitfish cause increased feeding activity. Trout and landlocked salmon in the Northeast can be extremely aggressive in springtime. In the Northeast, Upper Midwest, or any area where winter brings ice formation and spring brings a thaw, the spring season can be a wild one. The immediate loss of ice from a stillwater is often followed by a flurry of activity that I believe is prompted by increased oxygenation of the surface waters through exposure to open air.

Along with a dramatic shift in the water’s layers, as cooler water from the surface of the pond sinks deeper and warm water rises to the top, fish move into shallow areas along shorelines or shoals, and feeding activity increases. Because of the baitfish spawning activity, the inlets and outlets of many stillwaters become prime locations for taking feeding trout that are aggressively crashing bait and gulping their stunned quarry. Activity during the spring, no matter where you are, will be centered along the shorelines, around the inlets and outlets, near rocky shallow shoals, and on the surface. Spring also marks the beginning of increased insect activity in many stillwaters across the United States. As longer days of spring start to warm the shallow areas and shorelines, caddis, mayflies, and midges get active, so trout cruise and feed on and near the surface. At this time of the year, rising fish can be found anytime of the day, as comfortable water temperatures bring trout to shallow areas and to the surface. The fishing can be as rewarding and exciting as the beautiful landscape in which many of these tranquil waters are found. But, from small ponds to large lakes, such stillwaters can also be intimidating if you’ve never fished them, or if you fish them infrequently. Their calm surfaces can be difficult to read without a discerning eye that comes with years of experience, but even a little knowledge goes a long way in making any fishing experience a rewarding one.

The misconception that stillwater flyfishing requires long casts and technical presentations to take trout is just not true. Anglers who have spent their lives on stillwater will tell you of the countless times when trout have taken a fly only a few feet away, and others when a 90-foot cast covering a rise resulted in refusal. Whatever your level of mastery, fishing stillwaters will continually offer new experiences and conditions to help hone your skills.

With any new endeavor, however, you need to have the right equipment. Too many anglers do not take the time to outfit themselves correctly. The cost of spending time reviewing your tackle needs could be a lost fish, the wrong flies, the wrong rod, or even worse, a spoiled fly-fishing experience. Here are the tips you need for getting the right start with the basic tackle and gear for successful fly fishing for trout on any stillwater.

Fly Rods

Your choice of fly rod is the most important one you will make, and is one of the simplest. You will go through your own internal struggles on cost, but it only hurts once to find a good rod. A bad rod can ruin a long-planned trip and cost you dearly.

The most common fly rod for stillwater fishing for trout is a nine-foot 6-weight. If you are buying your first rod, this should be your rod of choice. Many skilled anglers profess that a nine-foot 5-weight is great for stillwaters, but these same anglers quickly change to a 6-weight when the wind picks up. The nine-foot 6-weight can cast large, wind-resistant flies and streamer patterns into the wind, yet can also present small dries to finicky trout. This versatility alone makes the nine-foot 6-weight the right choice.

Reels

Depending on the stillwater you are fishing and the size of the trout you expect to catch, the reel you put on your rod can do a variety of jobs while you are bringing in the catch of the day. Basically, though, the reel stores fly line and backing. When you are preparing to cast, you pull the amount of fly line off the reel that you intend to fish with, and the reel stores the rest until you want to either pull more line off or put more line back on. There are many different types of reels, with different coatings, size ranges, price ranges, shapes, drags, handles, and knobs. Remember: The reel basically holds your line until either you or a fish decides to take it off. But only you can decide when to put it back on.

During a recent outing in Montana’s Glacier National Park on Duck Lake, which is known for its huge rainbow trout, I was helping a beginner learn to spot trout cruising the bank. While trying to hook one of these monsters, she did everything right. The fish took, and headed for the middle of the lake. The reel was a spring-and-pawl, and the fly fisher had no experience palming reels. Trying to teach someone palming techniques when a seven-pound Montana rainbow is headed for Idaho is not easy. She landed the fish, but not until the trout was a couple turns from taking all her backing. A disc-drag reel would have taken care of that fish in short order. So, if you’re planning to fish stillwaters where you expect big trout, perhaps Montana or Labrador or Maine, a disc -drag reel will help in handling large trout. Reel selection is mostly a personal and subjective venture, however. Pick the size reel that fits your rod well and provides balance; the style is really up to you.

Fly Lines

The right fly line is the most crucial choice of tackle in stillwater fly fishing. Because it covers many different fishing depths, from the surface down to 20 feet, the fly line is your only means of getting the fly to where the trout are. You will need at least two lines to accomplish this in most stillwater fishing applications, a floating line and a sinking line.

Floating Lines

For many stillwater fishers, casting to rising trout conjures up thoughts of quiet evenings on mirror-calm stillwaters dimpled with rings as trout slurp emerging mayflies. There is nothing as rewarding as casting to a rising trout, watching him slowly rise to your fly with open mouth, and lifting your rod to meet with the resistance of his bulky form. In these situations a good floating line is a must have item and one that will make your stillwater experience rewarding. Floating lines come in various tapers and colors. A standard weight-forward taper in a high-visibility color, such as yellow, is the most common and the one I would recommend. Floating lines are most often used for dry flies, emergers, and occasionally streamers in early spring or late fall when fish are feeding close to shore or near the water’s surface.

Sinking Lines

To other stillwater anglers, retrieving a fly on choppy days over trout that dwell and feed in deep water is what it’s all about. In fact, you cannot fish effectively in 90 percent of stillwater situations without sinking line. Most trout feeding takes place subsurface (possibly as much as 90 percent), making sinking line and/or flies fished below the surface productive in most fishing situations. The feeling of an unanticipated yank as a trout inhales the fly that swings off the bottom to imitate the emergence of a mayfly about to surface, and the head shake of an unseen fish after you set the hook, are what stillwater angling is all about. In these situations, a sinking fly line is essential. These lines, like floating lines, come in various tapers, but the colors available are limited to the materials used to make them sink. Because tungsten is most commonly used in making full-sinking lines, and tungsten in raw form is a dark gray powder, the line color ranges from dark green to black. The faster the sink rate of the line you are using, the darker the line color. Because stillwaters are flat calm during evening hatches on only a few precious, lucky, and rare evenings in a season, a sinking line becomes a stillwater fly fisher’s best friend.

Basic nymphs, emergers, and streamers that imitate baitfish or crayfish, as well as attractor patterns, are best fished with sinking line. I probably fish full-sinking line four-to-one over floating lines. I recommend a full-sinking line in class III (sink rate of two to three inches per second) or a class V (sink rate of five to six inches per second). If I had only one line to take, it would be the class V. It gets to the bottom more quickly than other full-sinking lines. Make sure that any full-sinking line you buy is density compensated. This means that the line is designed to sink at the same rate throughout its taper so that it does not form a belly as it sinks.

Specialty Lines

Specialty lines, including sink tip lines, clear intermediate (clear monocore “slime” lines), and intermediate sinking lines all can come in handy in certain situations. Of all the specialty lines available today, the one that I use most is the Orvis Depth Charge fly line. It has a 30-foot extra-fast-sinking head attached to a running line made with an intermediate coating. It sinks like a stone, getting deep in a hurry. The intermediate line follows the head down more easily than a floating running line. I will often substitute the Depth Charge line in place of my full-sinking line. It is a more versatile tool for fishing deep water. Depth Charge is not sold by line weight, but rather by grain weight; I recommend the 200-grain Depth Charge for 5-weight rods and 250-grain for 6-weight rods.

The only other line I recommend for use in fishing subsurface nymphs or streamers close to the water’s surface is the clear intermediate line. This is manufactured using a single-strand monocore with a clear PVC coating, and is completely transparent. It sinks slowly, leaving no wake as you retrieve it. It's a great line when casting to spooky fish along a shore where you’re concerned about lining a fish. “Lining” a fish means spooking it by casting line over the fish or its vicinity. If the fish sees the shadow or the splash of the line as it hits the water, it will quickly take cover. A clear intermediate line is narrow in diameter, casts very little shadow, and is clear rather than opaque. I like to use the Clear Intermediate Line if I am casting streamers close to shore or along the water’s surface, as it increases my chances of catching fish that are between me and my fly during the retrieve.

Leaders

Leaders come in a variety of lengths, tapers, and diameters, in either knotless or knotted form. If I were to pick one leader that works in most situations, a nine-foot knotless tapered leader in a 4X or 5X diameter would be my choice Most companies’ manufactured leader tapers will do the job, but some do not have good tapers. Make sure the leader you are using has a taper and comes from a reputable company that has done its homework on designs. And I doubt that anyone has put more test time into leaders than Orvis has. Our knotless leaders are extruded through special machines to give them exacting tapers for turnover and presentation. They are then set with heat and tension so that their breaking strength increases as you go from the thin tippet that attaches to your fly to the thick butt that connects your fly line to the leader.

Knotted leaders are made of various level sections of line, starting with heavy materials at the butt and diminishing to a thin tippet. A knotted leader could have as many as eight or nine knots from start to finish. Knotted leaders have several major faults. First, the knots are prone to breakage. They snag small pieces of grass or debris, often leaving an unwanted wake when retrieved. Spending time cleaning this off is time you could be fishing, and with debris attached during the retrieve your chances of catching fish are reduced. There is no reason to use anything other than knotless leaders for your stillwater fly fishing.

Nylon is the most commonly used material for leaders. Formulation changes in nylon will change a leader’s breaking strength, abrasion resistance, elongation, color, or tenacity. At Orvis we pick the best combination of strength, elasticity, and durability for our Super Strong formula.

In recent years, a material called PVDF, or polyvinylidene fluoride, often called fluorocarbon, has hit the market. It is expensive, but its attributes deserve to be noted. Its breaking strength is usually less than that of a comparable nylon material, but it does not absorb water, which reduces a material’s breaking strength. Nylon can absorb as much as 20 to 25 percent water reduceing its breaking strength significantly. PVDF also has a refractive index that is very close to that of water, which means it reflects light at about the same angle as does water. This allows the material to virtually disappear when being fished, one of its greatest advantages. Its abrasion resistance is also better than that of most nylons. Although this material is denser than nylon and therefore sinks more quickly, I have used it for dry-fly fishing for more than six years, and I wouldn’t change. With the help of water tension and the fly’s ability to float, and water tension it can readily be used for dry-fly fishing. I normally use a nylon leader with a piece of PVDF tippet material blood-knotted to the end of my leader. I also find that when using PVDF it is possible to go up one X size in tippet diameter. Because of its invisibility in water, it is less apt to be seen by finicky trout. I can honestly say that this material has increased my ability to catch fish. On some especially tough days, fishing next to better fisherman, I have been able to outfish them three to one. Without PVDF, this would not have been possible.

Your leader length should be varied based on the type of fishing you are doing.

Leaders less than nine feet in length (six to seven-and-a-half feet) are great for sinking fly lines when you want the fly to stay with your line as it sinks. Nylon material has a specific gravity that makes it just a little heavier than water, whereas sinking line can be many times denser than water. Longer leaders tend to prevent the fly from sinking at the same rate as the fly line. This causes a belly to form in the line and can cause missed strikes, as it is hard to set the hook when your line forms a semicircle in the water. Shorter leaders will allow your fly to stay closer to the tip of your fly line as it sinks, keeping your line, leader, and fly at about the same depth during the retrieve. This enhances your ability to set the hook, beacuse the fly line and fly are more directly in line with the fish as it strikes.

Leaders that are nine feet in length are about average and are most often used for standard dry-fly fishing and retrieving subsurface nymphs or streamers when using a floating line. Both water clarity and fly size should determine which leader you will use in stillwater. If I am casting No. 12 or larger dry fly, I use a nine-foot leader. Longer leaders of 12, 15, or 18 feet in small diameters (from 4X to 7X) can twist the tippet, as the air-resistant fly wants to spin during casting. When casting large dry flies like Hexagenia mayflies that are often a No. 6 or 8, you need to go to either a nine-foot 3X leader or a seven-and-a-half-foot 4X to prevent this twisting.

Leaders that are 12, 15, and 18 feet offer some stealth when fishing finicky trout and are usually available only in smaller diameters from 4X to 7X. Often on calm days or clear waters, the fly line can easily spook fish when it comes too close to them as your fly is being presented. A longer taper leader presents your fly at a greater distance from the fly line, allowing for less disturbance of the water and a better presentation to those spooky fish. Longer leaders can become challenging when casting into even a slight wind, so depending on the application, you may have to go from a 15-foot to a 12-foot leader in order to get the turnover you are looking for. I most often fish a 12-foot leader as a standard length when fishing to rising trout.

Leader diameters are normally referred to in X size ranges. For the most part, the diameters can be determined by the flies you cast. The chart list the X size range, the diameters associated with these sizes, and the sizes of flies that are recommended for use with each. When choosing leaders for trout fishing, the diameter of the leader (rated in X sizes) is more important than the pound test rating.

RECOMMENDED LEADER DIAMETERS
FOR DIFFERENT FLY SIZES
Tippet Size Diameter Balance with Fly Sizes
0X .011 2, 1/0
1X .010 4, 6, 8
2X .009 6, 8, 10
3X .008 10, 12, 14
4X .007 12, 14, 16
5X .006 14, 16, 18
6X .005 16, 18, 20, 22
7X .004 18, 20, 22, 24
8X .003 22, 24, 26, 28

 

Tippet Material

Tippet material is used either to replace or to add to the tippet section of the leader. In the process of replacing flies over a period of time, your leader will be shortened and the diameter will start to increase once you have used up the tippet section and start cutting into the taper. Simply tie on a piece of tippet material using a surgeon’s or blood knot, and you’re back in business. It sure beats replacing your leader each time you get to this point. I often buy a nylon leader in a nine-foot length and 4X, then add three feet of 5X PVDF material, making it 12 feet in length with a PVDF tippet section. A full PVDF leader is expensive, yet a spool of PVDF tippet material can turn any nylon leader into a PVDF leader just by adding a few feet to it. After all, the section tied to your fly is the critical part of the leader. With a 25 yard spool of PVDF, I can change approximately 25 leaders into “stealth” leaders for fishing stillwater. That makes the investment worthwhile.

Waders

Today, breathable waders far outsell the neoprene of yesterday. Their ease of movement, comfort, and breathability make them the best choice. I may use neoprene for a winter steelheading trip, but 99 percent of the time I am in breathable waders.

Breathable Waders can make hiking in to reach a pond or lake a sweat-free pleasure. If you plan to do any walking along shorelines that have thick brush or trees, get a pair with double fabric overlays on the knee and shin areas. A pair that has a durable, puncture-resistant outer layer of fabric, like our Pro Guide model will help prevent briers or sharp branches from punching a hole in your waders. These can also be as waist-high waders by simply rolling them down, using the shoulder straps transforming into a belt. They are great for hot days and shallow wading along shorelines.

Sunglasses

Simply speaking, if you leave your sunglasses at home, go back and get them! Sunglasses that are polarized (the key word here) do more than help you see into the water. They drastically reduce eyestrain by preventing you from squinting either from direct sunlight or from the reflection off the water’s surface. They also keep debris from entering your eyes on those windy days. In addition, they actually may allow you to spot fish. This is where lens color makes a big difference. I consider copper or amber lenses the best for spotting fish in lakes and ponds.

Whether you are after the wild brookies of northeastern beaver ponds, where the 10-incher is king, fishing the alpine lakes of Glacier for 16 to 20 inch cuts, or stalking rainbows in a spring-fed pond in Colorado, you now have an idea of the basic equipment best suited to stillwater fishing for trout. A nine-foot 6-weight rod; a reel that balances well and fits your personal preference and the fish you’re after (remember that for larger trout you may want a disc -drag reel); varied sinking and floating-line set-ups for various conditions and depths; an array of leaders and tippets; comfortable, breathable waders; and sunglasses to keep your eyes relaxed and to help you spot cruising trout.

There is a lot more to stillwater fishing than the basic equipment. There are different techniques for shoreline fishing, wading, and fishing from a boat, a canoe or a float tube. There is fishing in spring, summer, and fall, fishing to the hatch or during spawning of baitfish, sight-fishing, and fishing the edge of floating debris and weed beds. All of that will be addressed on this site, so keep checking back as the season progresses for tips on successfully fishing stillwaters.

 

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