How To Fish Stillwaters

August 25th, 2003

Stillwaters, lakes, ponds and reservoirs are the most underutilized fisheries in the North America. Why? Because the average fly fisher doesn't know how to fish them, or where to start. Stay tuned, you too can master stillwaters! ~ LadyFisher

Using New (Different) Materials to Improve Old Patterns

By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

One of the questions often asked by beginning fly fishermen, is "how does one decide which flies to tie and when to fish them?" Newcomers to the sport often seem confused by the sheer volume of fly patterns available.

Each generation of fly tyers develop new patterns, and re-invent the old standards. Rarely is a pattern so solid in design it is immune to change. When the parachutes came on line, almost every standard dry fly was tied with the new "hackle post" design. The Swisher-Richards no-hackles changed a lot of minds on what type of dry flies we should fish in our spring creeks and slower moving freestone rivers.

Wet flies, nymphs, and streamers have undergone similar changes over the years. New nymph dubbing materials, new crystal chenilles, swisstraw, bead heads, and hundreds of other new types of materials have allowed us to develop a new age group of sub-surface flies.

If all of the flies listed in the 50 or 60 pattern books in my modest library (many of which were published in the past 30 or so years) were laid end to end, they would probably reach halfway to Christmas Island.

We don't need to tie all of the patterns in these books to be successful. Before I begin to fish a trout lake I haven't fished recently, I go to my fishing journals and determine which flies worked the last time I fished the area. I compare, among other things, the time of year, water temperatures, moon phases and insect hatches. It is very important that I compare apples to apples (time of year and water temperatures being the most important factors).

If it is a new fishery, I use any one of a dozen or so fly patterns I have the most confidence in at the time (I refer to this sub-surface assortment as my Deadly Dozen). The wet flies I use most often fall into several distinct categories. One group of stillwater patterns I often fish, for example, employees a gold and dark olive variegated chenille as the body material. Among these patterns are the Taylor Shrimp, Marv's Fly, Blonde Stayner, and Light Olive Sheep Creek Special.

There is another material that I use quite often, which is almost as effective as the gold and dark-olive chenille. It is Chinese pheasant rooster-tail fibers. Oregonian Jim Teeny has made a career out of a fly pattern called the Teeny Nymph. The only ingredient in Teeny's pattern is rooster-tail fibers from the Chinese pheasant. While Jim does now dye his feathers a wide range of colors, it was the natural pheasant-tail fibers that built his career.

One of my most successful fly patterns has been my Pheasant-tail Damsel. The tail and abdomen are Chinese pheasant-tail fibers, and the thorax is the above mentioned gold and dark-olive variegated chenille (I combine ingredients used in other "hot" patterns whenever possible). I use brownish-olive swisstraw for the wing-case, and brown saddle hackle for the legs.

Successful patterns can often be improved by adding new materials that have been developed since the pattern came on line. George Biggs' Sheep Creek Special, one of the great stillwater patterns that originated in my home state of Idaho, is a good example of a fly pattern that can be improved by keeping the original design the same, but using different materials.

On my last trip to eastern Oregon's Malheur Reservoir, for example, I caught most of my trout with a Canadian Brown Sheep Creek. The tail was the original brown hackle, and the wing the original mallard flank fibers (dyed woodduck). The body was the legendary Canadian Brown Mohair material wound on and picked out. Over the years the pattern has also been extremely successful at Idaho's Henry's lake.

I've also dressed the Sheep Creek with a black, gold and dark-olive, brown and olive, burnt orange and black (halloween), and black and tan variegated chenille bodies. The pattern is also effective with a pheasant-tail fiber body.

One can take this "substitution technique" a step further. By using the new Super Chenille - a mixture of tinsel chenille and rayon chenille - the tyer can develop an entire new line of "Superbuggers." The tyer can also combine the Sheep Creek and Tex Favorite designs with the new Super Chenille and develop an entire new generation of trout flies (now I'm really confusing beginners).

While there will always be new materials coming on line, the smart fly tyer will keep in mind the designs of the old standbys. The Sheep Creek Special, for example, has been such a successful pattern, that the tyer should never completely abandon the original materials. Changing to new materials may broaden the patterns appeal, but one should never forget what got him to the dance in the first place.

Another old standby that can be improved with new materials is the Stayner Ducktaill. Some tiers are now replacing the orange hackled fiber tail and beard with orange Chrystal Hair (or other similar materials). Some years ago I developed a "Blonde Stayner" by changing the dark-olive chenille body to the yellow and dark-olive variegated chenille (mentioned above), and the natural flank feather to a woodduck dyed mallard feather. I believe my variation is more effective than the original when yellow perch, brown suckers, or chubs are present in a lake.

I'm sure there are other new materials that might "improve" the original Stayner. Pearl and Ice Chenille are two new materials that come to mind.

Now that I'm on record in favor of experimenting with new materials in old patterns, I want to reinforce the theory that "presentation" will always be more important than "pattern." Combining new materials and old designs might catch more fish...and it might not. It is still up to the angler to present his flies to fish in an appealing manner. Understanding where to cast our flies is even more important than what we are using. The "wrong" fly fished where the fish "are," might catch fish. The "right" fly fished where the fish "are not," hasn't got a prayer.

So...I'll tell the beginners: If they don't have a buddy to set you straight, buy a couple of good stillwater pattern books, read what the so-called experts have to say, and design a game plan. Besides the obligatory woolly buggers and other leech patterns, have wet flies that suggest damsel and dragonfly nymphs, mayfly nymphs, caddis and midge pupas, scuds, backswimmers, and forage fish.

If the beginner is still confused, he should put all of his flies in his fishing hat, close his eyes, and draw one out.

I won't admit I've ever done that. But then there are a lot of things I won't admit having done. ~ Marv

About Marv

Marv Taylor's books, Float-Tubing The West, The Successful Angler's Journal, More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume I) and More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume II) are all available from Marv. You can reach Marv by email at or by phone: 208-322-5760.

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