How To Fish Stillwaters
May 30th, 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


From the Bottom of the Food Chain, Part 2

By Gary LaFontaine

WHAT WORKED on United Kingdom reservoirs, however, does not work on our mountain lakes. The stripped streamer catches only the rare trout on high-elevation waters. There are too many differences—the cloudy, rich soup of the reservoirs versus the clear, sterile water of mountain lakes; an environment with numerous species of forage fish versus an environment with no bait fish except small trout (and not even those in lakes with no natural reproduction); reservoirs with rainbows and browns versus alpine fisheries with the much less piscivorous cutthroats and goldens.

Joel Hart verified the futility of streamers on the plankton-feeding golden trout of Cave Lake with four days of dog-crazy flogging, hundreds of casts producing not a single hit. Afterwards it was hard to convince him that these trout, the "strainers," are catchable. I had to work hard to persuade him to take me up to plankton-rich waters like Pear, Druckmiller, and Cave lakes.

August 7 through 12 (continued):
I've never seen anything like these lakes in the Crazies. We've been to three of them by now, sampling the zoo-plankton populations, and not only are the plankton populations high for a mountain lake, hundreds per liter of water, but they're also dominated by a single, bright red Copepod (Diaptomus shoshone). There's no doubt that trout in these lakes are concentrating on this particular zooplankton during the summer months. We kept two rainbows each from both Pear and Druckmiller for breakfast, and the flesh of these fish was a brilliant red.

These fish aren't uncatchable—and after a great morning on Druckmiller, even Joel is starting to have faith in that. We caught fourteen rainbows, the biggest ones over two pounds, but only one method worked. There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but if there's more than one way to skin these plankton-feeders, it's not in my bag of tricks. Maybe the "Hang-and-Bob" might be effective, but it would have to be with the right fly. The only thing that worked for us was "Pulling the Trigger" with the Rollover Scud.

Joel kept saying, "We'll see if this catches those goldens on Cave."

Of course the goldens on Cave are going to be the toughest trout to fool—among the plankton-feeders, goldens are always the hardest to catch. They lock so thoroughly into a slow, open-mouthed swim-and-graze that they seldom even nod at a passing fly.

We moved over to the Sweet Grass Creek drainage and climbed to Cave Lake. We camped here three days and we could have pounded the water twelve hours a day in the long summer light. We didn't—we concentrated on the first few hours after sunrise and the last few hours before sunset. I did fish for a half hour during the middle of the day once just to see if the goldens could be caught then. By standing on a cliff we could see them, cruising with mouths agape, at least forty feet deep.

At dawn and dusk they were shallower, no more than fifteen feet deep, and with a Teeny T-400 sinking shooting head our flies would reach them quickly enough for the method to be effective. Just like the trout at Druckmiller, the goldens here looked at an Olive Rollover Scud, but took an Orange or a Red Rollover Scud much more aggressively. How aggressively depended on the flip or roll of the fly in relation to the fish.

Nothing makes a trout react faster than a Rollover Scud if the fly flips over close enough to the fish. The pattern swims upright when it's retrieved, but it rolls over as soon as the tension is gone. Or the movement can be just the opposite—it will sink upside down, but as soon as the angler tightens the line the fly will spin into the upright position. Either way it has a built-in "action" that triggers an instinctive response in trout—even prompting a reaction from the plankton-sucking goldens of Cave Lake.

Joel and I took turns sighting for each other. When the fly was at the correct depth—among, next to, or in front of the trout—the spotter gave the call. The angler pulled on the sinking pattern and the fly rolled quickly upright; and then immediately the fishermen slacked off and the fly flipped upside down again. Then he tugged sharply. With this multiple flipping movement we each caught a number of the goldens on the Rollover Scud.

Morning of the 9th—3 trout Evening of the 9th—1 trout Morning of the 10th—7 trout Evening of the 10th—3 trout Morning of the 11th—6 trout Midday on the 11th— 1 trout Evening of the llth—3 trout

Our tally for three days was twenty-four of the "uncatchable" trout. The morning was always better than the evening because fish were in shallow water longer. We caught the one midday golden to prove that plankton-feeders could be hooked in very deep water. The T-400 head, sinking at eight inches per second, took more than a minute to reach the proper depth. Working a fly at forty feet isn't something I'd ever do regularly, but there are anglers who fish very deep water and I can only admire their patience. The smallest trout were 12 inches, but many of the fish were 16 to 19 inches. We saw some cruising goldens that looked even bigger.

Joel couldn't believe that we finally caught the goldens of Cave Lake. This was the greatest trip for goldens for either of us.

The Rollover Scud flips because it has a strip of heavy wire lashed to the top of the hook shank. This weight unbalances the fly. The rollover, an action we started playing with to catch the overfed trout of the limestone ponds and spring creeks of the Deer Lodge valley, doesn't depend on the trout's hunger to elicit a reaction.

The Rollover Scud triggers an instinctive, snatch-it reflex in trout when it's fished right. The best retrieve, known as Pulling the Trigger, is a "pull slowly, stop, pull quickly" sequence. Let the fly sink to the eye-level depth of the trout. To move the Scud nearer, draw line with a smooth, slow pull, until the pattern is within two feet of the fish. Then stop retrieving, letting the fly flip over and sink. Finally, if the trout hasn't already taken it, tug sharply on the line to make the fly turn upright and jump forward a few inches.

A CONVENTIONAL FLY usually fails on golden trout— the Rollover Scud doesn't. A twist on the theories of imitation explains why plankton-feeding fish, oblivious to any regular food organism, respond at all to a certain class of "action" flies. A regular pattern depends on its visual characteristics to mimic life, and this is fine if the fish is feeding on something that can be imitated visually. The problem is that visual characteristics appeal to the urge to feed, leaving the trout a choice. For any fish grazing on zooplankton the choice is easy. He is going to ignore a conventional fly, no matter how lifelike it looks, and continue swimming open-mouthed through the cloud of minute food organisms.

A fly that moves suddenly and strangely, especially if it's close, works on a deeper, more reflexive part of the brain. It doesn't mimic any single prey item—with motion it mimics not just "life" but odd and vulnerable life. It somehow jolts even a grazing fish out of its stupor and excites it into eating a larger pattern. When the trout sees the strange, quick movement of the active fly, it has no choice, at least not about making that first instinctive move toward the pattern.

The closer the Rollover Scud is to a trout when the fly flips, the higher the chance of a take. This is why sight-fishing with the pattern is so effective. The angler knows when the fly is in the striking zone. On some waters the Rollover Scud can be four or five feet away from the fish. When it turns over, a cruising trout will rush to take the fly.

The goldens on Cave Lake weren't nearly that responsive. If the fly was within two feet when it flipped, a fish would turn to it and maybe take it. At this range he was more likely to keep swimming towards an Orange or Red Rollover Scud than an Olive Rollover Scud. If the fly was within one foot or, even better, six inches, when it flipped, the fish would almost always suck in the pattern. ~ GL

To be continued, next time: More Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes

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