How To Fish Stillwaters
April 18th, 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


Priming on the Valley Lakes

By Gary LaFontaine

MY HOME REGION is sprinkled with incredibly rich ponds and lakes. Within an hour's drive from Deer Lodge [MT] there are two lakes and thirteen ponds that grow very large trout. They are great waters for fly fishing, shallow and weedy and full of insects and crustaceans.

For years these waters were an afterthought in my fishing, places I'd go to no more than a dozen times a season. My progression from casual to fanatic stillwater angler happened on these ponds and lakes, but it wasn't a gradual shift in focus. One day stillwaters were just an occasional, slog-and-flog diversion—the next day they were the most exciting and challenging fisheries imaginable.

Everything changed on July 21, 1983. An English fly fisherman, James Harris, and I sat on the bank of the Hog Hole, one of the famous Anaconda Settling Ponds, and watched at least twenty men, some on shore and some in float tubes, beat the water all over the pond, the group hooking roughly one trout per hour. In British understatement, James said, "They're really very bad at this game, aren't they?"

James was not an unfair man. He would later write an article about the group of fly fishing friends who help me with scientific research, calling them "the greatest running-water fly fishermen" he'd seen in twenty years of international angling.

I didn't know the other anglers on the Hog Hole, but they fished the water pretty much the way I would fish it. They played slog-and-flog, throwing out a sunken fly — in most instances a Woolly Worm — and retrieving. The more sophisticated fishermen counted down the sinking fly, and worked it just over the weed beds. Most just threw a fly out and randomly pulled it in. These people, by the license plates on their vehicles in the parking lot, were from eight different states and one Canadian province. They were decked out in the newest equipment. They were probably a fair cross-section of North American fly fishing talent.

They were, in the words of James Harris, ". . . not very good at this game."

I knew what I disliked about pond and lake fishing — it was exactly this boringly random method of deep prospecting, even if it did produce an occasional trophy trout. Most of the anglers on the Hog Hole would probably be satisfied with one or two fish over five pounds, which was virtually guaranteed here with enough time on the water. None of us knew any better because, unlike the anglers of the United Kingdom, we weren't stillwater specialists.

James and I fished the Hog Hole for the next four hours. With him leading, and me following his example, we landed fourteen trout, the biggest an eight-pound brown. Those four hours changed my angling outlook forever. Over the rest of that season I fished stillwaters fifty-seven days, mostly in my home valley.

My stillwater education flourished into obsession, one that has never really died down, beginning that summer. Every new experience confirmed that stillwater fly fishing didn't have to be that repetitive slog-and-flog approach.

My education didn't progress evenly. It leaped ahead with bursts triggered by experimentation on local waters with a growing group of friends who were as fascinated as I was by our stillwater opportunities; my exploratory trips to hotbeds of North American stillwater fly fishing, especially the Kamloops region of British Columbia, to study the tactics of experts; and visits from English anglers steeped in their two-hundred-year-old stillwater tradition. It didn't take long for me to gather more than fifty distinct stillwater techniques, all of them effective, most of them relatively easy, and many of them visually thrilling.

Not all techniques worked on all stillwaters—thus the need for over fifty methods. My usual procedure, after arriving on the bank of a pond or a lake, was to climb a hill or cliff and just sit and watch the water for fifteen minutes before setting up any piece of tackle. The only exception to this observation period happened when trout were rising— and then I would try to start casting as quickly as possible. The trick when fish weren't rising was to guess which technique was perfect for that fishery at that moment.

Twenty years ago it was hard for me to find anyone in my home area who even wanted to fish lakes. Now there's a bunch of us who hit the stillwaters in the valley regularly; with a quick telephone call I can get a few friends together for a trip.

My regular companions are Andy Stahl, Joel Hart, and Ken Mira. They live in the area and they actually prefer the ponds and lakes to moving water, fishing stillwaters a couple of times a week throughout the season. Another group, Bernie Samuelson, Matt Quinn, and Ron Ruddig, hit the lowland waters, but for them the valley ponds and lakes are only practice grounds until the mountain waters open up.

One evening in May, after a day on Georgetown Lake, we relaxed in an Anaconda restaurant. "On most of the high lakes I don't need all the techniques we use down here," Matt observed.

"But then there are other lakes where you wish you could carry in every bit of equipment you own," Ken rejoined.

"We can't," Matt answered. "That's the problem."

The whole group stayed there until closing time that night, playing with a problem of logistics. Which unique stillwater methods, honed on lowland reservoirs, were the most valuable in the mountains when the trout get difficult? Out of a bag of more than fifty techniques, which ones justified bringing extra equipment into the high country?

We eliminated some of our favorite methods that were effective on weedy, silt-bottomed valley lakes because they don't work well on the typically deep, rocky-bottomed mountain lakes. We rejected others because they require equipment, such as a boat, that couldn't be packed into the high country.

We discarded one method that stood at the top of everyone's list because it is so universal that it envelopes virtually every other technique. The most valuable technique in lowland lakes is spotting and casting to a particular fish; and this is also the most important trick on high-mountain lakes. But spotting, the skill that separates the beginning angler from the expert angler, is so universally applicable to fly fishing, in moving as well as stillwaters, that it is elevated to a level above technique. It is the umbrella under which every other method exists.

Every member of the group made a list of the ten "most unique and effective" methods for mountain lakes. Seven members and seven lists—there were three techniques that appeared on every list—three that everyone agreed are invaluable when trout in mountain lakes became difficult to catch. Two of the strategies were developed by someone in our group—a guarantee for the "unique" part of the qualifying standards—and the third, a United Kingdom technique, was a certain choice because it was the most exciting approach.

We even put these methods into their own categories: Most Exciting (Floss Blow Line), Most Effective (Hang-and-Bob), and Most Valuable (Multiple Roll). ~ GL

To be continued, next time: Floss Blow Line

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