How To Fish Stillwaters
May 9th, 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


Multiple Roll

By Gary LaFontaine

The most valuable fly fishing technique is the one that can bring a non-feeding trout rushing up from the depths to smack a fly. The only way to do that is to tickle a trout's curiosity, tease him to distraction, or even drive him into a competitive frenzy.

I happened upon the Multiple Roll by accident or, if my mediocre casting skills can't be called an accident, by fortuitous ineptitude. The method sprang to life, immediately complete, because my best roll cast flops out weakly instead of shooting out strongly.

I was hiking around the shore of Woods Lake, a trophy trout lake near Kalispell, casting as far as possible towards the middle. One friend, Gary Saindon, was also walking the bank and two others, John Randolph and Dan Abrams, were paddling a canoe. It was mid-afternoon in September, and although it was a rainy day, there apparently wasn't a single trout in the shallows. No fish broke the surface, and none cruised the littoral shelf that extended out thirty feet from the bank.

Wherever I had clear space for a back cast, I threw line far out into the lake, waited for a Red and Black Bristle Leech to sink deep, and retrieved the fly slowly into shore. A few, infrequent strikes happened just as the Leech reached the drop-off, the place where the shallows suddenly fell into the depths. The trout weren't feeding and they weren't in the shallows. They were holding in deep water against that steep drop-off wall.

I came to a section of bank lined with trees. There wasn't room for a regular cast. I had to roll cast the fly out beyond the drop-off. I made my first sloppy, big loop roll and the marabou Bristle Leech splatted about five feet short of the drop-off. I quickly made a second roll cast, shooting a few additional feet of line, and the fly hit right at the drop-off, still not far enough. I rushed a third and last roll cast, finally getting the fly out beyond the shallow zone. As it hit the water a rainbow slammed the fly.

I worked down the bank, using three or four roll casts to get the fly out, a necessary inconvenience as long as there were trees at my back. In less than a half hour, fishing a quarter mile of shoreline, I landed five more rainbows, all between two and four pounds. Obviously, the trout had shifted into a feeding mood.

Eventually I reached a section free of trees. I started making regular casts again, hauling and throwing a long, sweet line. I worked like this for a long time, never getting a strike, and I began to wonder about this. As my father used to say about me, "The boy's slow but when he gets hit on the head, he does rub the bump."

I felt silly using a roll cast with all that clear space behind me, but I started flipping the fly out with a three roll sequence before beginning the retrieve. Walking back over the water I'd flogged unsuccessfully with regular casts, I began catching trout again.

Gary Saindon, watching this, said, "There's no reason a roll cast should work better than a normal cast. Why should fish care how a fly gets there?"

For most of the fall I couldn't answer that question, but on a number of ponds and lakes the Multiple Roll Technique brought trout rushing to the fly during the slow times of the day. It became an important method for my friends in the valley, too. Joel Hart caught sixteen trout one morning on the Gold Creek Dredge Ponds and Bernie Samuelson, forced out of the high country by bad weather, camped on Georgetown Lake and caught extraordinarily big fish, averaging over two pounds, every day for two weeks.

My curiosity overwhelmed me. The answer couldn't wait until spring. I hastily arranged a scuba diving session, bringing in Brester Zahm to dive with me and setting up Joel and Bernie, the two people most familiar with the Multiple Roll, to do the actual fishing. We drove up to Woods Lake for two days of underwater observation.

We reached the lake when the trout were in a resting phase. The fish held against the drop-off, groups of them clustered on benches in depths from ten feet to eighteen feet. The first casts were normal—from the trout's point of view the fly landed and swam to the shallows, and even though fish turned toward the splat of the Bristle Leech every time, they lost interest as it moved over them.

The multiple roll casts produced a different reaction. The first cast landed short of the drop-off. The fly drew the trout's attention when it hit the water, but with the start of the second roll cast it accelerated and flew into the air. The trout were still looking at the spot when the fly hit again, five feet further out and right over their heads. The fish started rising up, three or four of them at a time, to look closer at this strange behavior, but the fly accelerated again and escaped just as they reached the surface. And then the fly hit the third time, behind them, and this time, in a mad race spurred by competition, one of them reached the Leech and slammed it as it began to swim.

From our underwater position, Brester and I watched Joel and Bernie catch five rainbows. Then we surfaced and made them change the method slightly. It was a small alteration, but it doubled the effectiveness of the Multiple Roll Technique. They still made the same first three casts—short of the drop-off, on top of the drop-off, beyond the drop-off. But then, instead of moving to a new spot if they didn't hook a fish, they kept roll casting, as many as five more times, just beyond the drop-off. The additional presentations gave any reluctant trout a chance to respond to the strange "fly away" creature.

The hardest part about the Multiple Roll Technique for a good roll caster is not casting too far the first time.

Here are my suggestions for equipment and technique:

  • The best rod is powerful so that continuous roll casting doesn't tire you out.

  • Use a floating weight-forward 7-weight line and a 5-foot leader tapered no finer than 3X (fish hit the fly hard).

  • Use a streamer or a leech pattern—it shouldn't be heavily weighted.

  • Stand on the shore and roll cast at least three times — just short of, right on, and beyond the drop-off.

  • Repeat the last cast, beyond the drop-off, up to five times.

  • If a trout strikes while you're actually roll casting, set the hook by hurrying the roll cast as fast as possible.

  • When fish are not feeding they rest in a safe place, usually under cover or in deep water at the drop-off zone. Resting fish, if they're not in a complete non-feeding funk, can usually be teased into chasing a fly.

The Multiple Roll Technique is one method that works even better in mountain lakes than it does in richer, lowland waters. The trout in high lakes are seldom so overfed that they ignore easy, or interesting, prey. The spoiled valley trout forget how to compete for food because they don't have to; whereas in high lakes the repetitive roll casts appeal to greed as well as curiosity. ~ GL

To be continued, next time: Which method when

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