How To Fish Stillwaters
April 11th, 2005

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

Ice-Out Strategies, Part 3

By Gary LaFontaine


Bernie's quest for ice-out on lakes in Montana goes from early May through early August—roughly ninety days. He's generally in the high country for sixty out of the ninety days. In that time he fishes about 10 percent partial clearing, 2 percent breakup, and 88 percent post-breakup conditions.

I don't push into the high country as early as Bernie does and my percentage of post-breakup days is probably around 98 percent. With the post-breakup period I begin the stalking and hatch-matching strategies. This is when I search not just for feeding fish, but for the largest fish feeding in a particular body of water.

High-mountain lakes aren't very complex environments. My stomach samplings put trout and grayling into one of three feeding groups during the post-breakup period:

    1) Trout cruising and searching the surface for random food.

    Forget them, after breakup these cruisers are almost always small trout. During the non-hatch periods there isn't much littering the surface, usually just a scattering of adult midges, and this isn't enough to get bigger fish searching the surface. The daily, predictable dumping of terrestrial insects onto the water won't start for nearly a month. In the post-breakup period terrestrials constitute roughly 20 percent of the trout's diet, and in the first few days after ice-out it's probably less.

    2) Trout cruising and searching the bottom for food.

    Trout and grayling cruise the littoral zone of the lake singly or in schools looking for active, exposed nymphs. This feeding activity occurs a lot during the post-break-up period because aquatic insects begin migrating from deeper water into the shallows as soon as the ice disappears.

    The standard slog-and-flog technique will work—throw out a sinking fly, let it settle, and retrieve it, over and over again. But this blind casting is boring. It's not my game, and it doesn't have to be the game for any intelligent fly fisherman.

    The movement of the fish isn't random. The swimming speed of either individual or schooling fish frequently correlates to the amount of available food in a particular lake. If there are weeds, and abundant nymphs, the fish move slowly. Most high-mountain lakes aren't like this—they have boulder or mud bottoms, and populations of larger aquatic insects are sparse. The fish move quickly, covering a lot of area.

    My first experience with deep cruisers was in 1970 at Park Lake above Helena [MT]. My teacher for western fly fishing tactics, Dick Fryhover, took me out nearly every day that summer to a different spot; and this was my first experience with high-country stillwaters.

    I stumbled onto a tactical discovery that day, one that has meant hundreds of additional trout and grayling for me from lakes over the years, and recorded it in my log book:

    Nobody was catching grayling, but standing on the rock, I was high enough to see the schools of twenty or thirty fish swim past. The problem was that they were swimming so deep and fast that by the time I saw them it was too late to cast to them.

    They seemed to be on a schedule. Every five minutes or so a school followed the same path. Whether it was the same school or not, I wasn't sure. I cast out a Montana Stone nymph and let it sink slowly six to eight feet, hoping to time it to the movement of the school. They came in so quick that I didn't have a chance to even start a retrieve. A grayling of about 13 inches, took the fly and the line tip jumped.

    I timed the next three passes better and even had enough warning to start a retrieve, but I never even had a hit. On my fifth cast I didn't retrieve (again) and wham! a grayling took the dead, sinking fly.

    I kept playing with this all day and a slow retrieve out-fished a quick retrieve 4 to 1 and no retrieve outfished a slow retrieve four to one.

    In my fishing log I underlined that didn't three times — it was a lesson I wanted to remember. There are a few special retrieves I use in stillwaters, along with a few standard ones, but if anything I'm a specialist at not moving a fly — nymph, dry, wet, or streamer—on lakes.

    The secret to catching cruisers is to see them and then time the pattern of their movement. Even if the surface is a little choppy, it's possible to spot fish if you are high enough. This means you at least need to stand on shore or on top of a rock to get a vantage point.

    3) Trout feeding on emerging midges.

Once the ice goes out on lakes, most aquatic insects — caddisflies, mayflies, stoneflies, damselflies won't start hatching for at least a few weeks. This is just as true on valley lakes as it is on high-mountain lakes.

It's not so with midges. They are ready to pop out as soon as the first slit of open water appears on a lake. They must have some way of timing pupation—the last spurt of growth has to begin when the lake is still frozen over. The freshly emerged adults crawl out on the ice edges and the snowbanks.

Even trout in high-mountain lakes can get fussy about imitation when they feed on emerging midges day after day. My favorite flies, fished in tandem, are an Improved Buzz Ball and a Halo Midge Emerger. The Buzz Ball, matching a mating cluster of adults, provides visibility and functions as a strike indicator. The Halo Midge Emerger may range from size 14 to size 24, but it's always black—the early ice-out midges are always black on the lakes I fish.

I tie nine to twelve inches of monofilament into the eye of the Buzz Ball and dangle the Halo Midge Emerger off the back, greasing both flies with floatant. I cast into the middle of the rising fish and let the flies sit there. This can be nerve-racking when rolling trout are slopping like pigs at a trough, but even the slowest retrieve won't help and will probably hurt chances of a hookup.

Not all parts of a lake get the same number of emerging midges. The early season hatches are thickest in flat, shallow areas. Broad bays, especially if there is a dark bottom that warms in the sun, usually prove best. The outlet shelf, where the current gathers, and the silty, alluvial fan of the inlet often produce good hatches, also.

Unlike Bernie Samuelson, most people don't have the time like to search and chart the ice-out succession of high-mountain lakes ever higher through the early season. Most don't even have the time to hike once or twice a week into the high country. For the backpacking angler, however, hitting these waters at or close to breakup is still the key to fabulous fly fishing.

There is a shortcut. I found the perfect one. I had a pilot fly me over the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness Area last spring. He swung low over various lakes while I found names on a topographical map. In half an hour I knew if a dozen waters were still frozen, completely ice free, partially open, or even, from the look of the ice, about to break up.

You don't have to fly over an area yourself (although it's a nice luxury). You just have to talk to airplane and helicopter pilots who regularly cover an area. At one of our local hospitals there's a life-flight helicopter; and two of the regular people on the flights are fly fishermen. They gladly chart lakes for me. Out here the majority of people are fishermen, and all of them like to look at mountain waters. ~ GL

To be continued, next time: PRIMING ON THE VALLEY LAKES

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