How To Fish Stillwaters
October 3rd, 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

Finding Fish, Overview

By Paul C. Marriner

French-speaking Atlantic-salmon fishers in Canada's Quebec province use a wonderful phrase, . Roughly translated this means fishing for rocks. It describes the situation where one has just spent several hours casting over a salmon pool in which there are no salmon. It suits stillwaters equally well. Regardless of the quality of your equipment or the perfection of your technique, it's axiomatic that you can't catch fish where there are none.

To avoid requires knowledge of four factors: fish-holding or fish-attracting structure, wind, available or prevalent food-forms, and temperature. Structure, wind, and food-forms have individual chapters. However, sad to say, even finding fish and having the right tackle and imitative flies is no guarantee of success. Overlooked in every book I have read, including some otherwise excellent treatises on trout biology, is that fish sleep. Perhaps not sleep exactly as they have no eyelids to close, but quiescent or resting periods. Sometimes fish take these time-outs on the bottom but they are also known to do so suspended in a zone of comfortable temperature and oxygen levels. At such times they ignore all offerings. Although impossible to prove, I believe I have witnessed such activity (or lack thereof) on a small lake that is extremely rich in food. The depth-finder marked a large group of untemptable suspended rainbows, but others out on the prowl around the lake were catchable. Were the suspended trout sleeping off the last big meal just like you or I might do?

At least in my experience, the reverse of these quiescent periods, otherwise known as the bite, is the most pronounced when dealing with brook trout. Excluding the predictable morning and evening rise, my diaries reveal that on sunny spring days, not being on brook trout water between 10 AM and 2 PM is a big mistake. Once this bite ends, the stillwater will seem as bereft of trout as the Love Canal.

Water Temperature

In modern parlance, water temperature can be a non-negotiable deal-breaker - trout will not stay where they encounter lethal temperatures. However, while temperature effects are extremely important they need little separate explanation. Such effects include critical currents created by density differences (Chapter 6, Wind and Other Currents) and when aquatic insects hatch (Chapter 7, Food-forms). Always have a thermometer of some description in your kit. Trout are relatively comfortable between 40 and 72 deg F (4 - 22 deg C). Cold-water lovers like brook and lake trout strongly prefer the lower half of the range, whereas browns and rainbows are most active between 50 and 65 deg F (10 - 18 deg C). When the water is generally cold at either end of the season, look for areas with the warmest water. For example, in the northern hemisphere, search out dark-bottomed shallows at the northwestern end of a lake. However, excluding special circumstances discussed elsewhere, at the start of the season most trout species will be found frequenting deeper water as the bulk of the food is benthic. In midsummer, when water temperatures are high, search out cooler water. While this may seem insultingly obvious, one must combine such generalities with knowledge of the other three factors to be consistently successful.

I didn't have far to look for a cogent example of these temperature effects. In a National Park not far from my home are two study lakes. One is shallow and thus productive of aquatic critters; the other deep enough to develop a thermocline but with a limited littoral zone. The two are connected by a short section of narrows. In the cooler seasons brook trout feed regularly in the first, however, when its water temperature exceeds their comfort zone they retreat to the second.

Air Temperature

Air temperature influences wind effects, however I know from bitter experience that it impacts angler comfort far more than trout location. Also, I didn't include the general term weather or its surrogate, barometric pressure history, in my four factors for three reasons: first because one of its components, wind, is discussed separately; second, because while settled weather stimulates the entire stillwater community, knowledge of a fluctuating barometer only tells us that fishing will probably be tough, not where the few feeders will be found; and third, because, like air temperature, the general weather may influence your location more than that of the fish. Regardless, in terms of ease of locating and catching trout, a mild, overcast day with a light wind is in my experience unbeatable (the occasional light shower often perks up the topside action), most especially if these conditions have persisted for several days.


Birds are often the angler's best friend, be it at sea or above an inland stillwater. Particularly on rich lakes, flocks of swallows working hard are an almost sure sign of a chironomid or other hatch. However, don't necessarily head for the first flock you see. On prolific waters like Chew Valley Reservoir, in the Bristol area of southwest England, the birds may be concentrated in perhaps a dozen areas of the lake simultaneously. Chironomids hatch from a variety of depths and it's better to fish in relatively shallow bays rather than over the deeps. On a blustery May day we bypassed the fifty swallows swooping over the middle of the lake and headed for a cove near the top of the reservoir with its own quota of birds. A superior decision as short drifts produced several weighty rainbows for both our boat and the half-dozen others who also made the trek.

Other feathered friends include ducks. If they are working the shoreline reeds, stretching up to pick off insects, it's a tip-off that something is (or was not long ago) migrating shoreward to hatch. Obviously a visit to the reeds is in order to find out what's happening. Also, gulls or terns will feed on a heavy mayfly hatch. So if you see an active-looking flock on the water, check out the area.


Each time one finds fish in a stillwater, the odds of future success there improve. At least they do if you remember what you learned. Trusting this valuable information to memory is risky. When we fish as a team in competition everyone has a map of the water. During the practice and competition days the maps are updated with where, how, and on what every trout was caught; then we hope for stable conditions. Writing this much detail on a map is clearly impractical over the long haul; better just to write a date code keyed to your diary. Moreover, our competition map is a short-term project; those taking a longer view will also want to record weather and water temperature data. Once upon a time on large and medium stillwaters, one needed to take bearings to pinpoint a location or drift. Today's solution is an inexpensive GPS. Unless badly memory-challenged, recording position in a notebook while on the water is sufficient to recall the events of a single session when making a diary entry a few hours later. At least for me, maps and GPS readings are overkill for ponds and small lakes - my diary entries suffice. ~ PCM

Credits: This article is an excerpt from Canadian author Paul C. Marriner's Stillwater Fly Fishing, Tools & Tactics, published by Gale's End Press, Mahone Bay, NS, Canada.

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