We recently spoke with our friend and stillwater fishing guru, Phil Rowley about his approach to fly fishing lakes. If you’re interested in learning about stillwater fly fishing, Phil is an outstanding resource. In fact, if after reading this article you want to get more in depth on these topics, we’d highly recommend following Phil and his resources at FlyCraftAngling.com.
In our conversation with Phil, he had some excellent tips for approaching any stillwater fly fishing situation. He said that anglers should consider three things when it comes to stillwater trout: comfort, protection and food. If anglers can get to know those three requirements for trout, it will go a long way to improve their stillwater game.
Here’s a quick breakdown of those three factors and how you can leverage them toward stillwater fly fishing success:
According to Phil, the first major factor that influences stillwater trout is comfort. Trout have a pretty narrow window where they are comfortable and eating actively. And really, it’s more about oxygen than it is about temperature.
“The higher the water temp, the lower the dissolved oxygen,” Phil explained. “Colder water can hold more dissolved oxygen, which is one reason why trout require cold water.
“Additionally, trout in lakes are also very susceptible to weather changes,” he added. “The barometer, moon phase and all those factors will affect stillwater trout. When something unsettles them, they’ll go off the bite a little bit and you may have to use attractor patterns and other things that might entice them.”
The next factor to consider is protection. Like any wild animal, a trout’s top concern (in addition to finding food) is staying alive. Trout will naturally seek out areas where they feel protected – or where that protection is in close proximity to their preferred food source.
“For example, trout like weed beds because it’s good breathing, there’s protection and there’s food,” Phil said. “Other examples of security include drop-offs where a shallow shelf meets deeper water. That shallow shelf might be home to more bug life and the food that trout like – but they’ll stay close to that deeper water where they can quickly evade predators.”
In addition to drop offs, Phil says to consider fishing along light lines where light falls into darkness. Shaded areas make it more difficult for predators like birds of prey to see into the water, and therefore it offers fish more protection.
“Trout also feel more protection when there’s a ripple on the water because it offers some concealment,” he added. “For that reason, a day when there is a little wind and a light chop is a good thing for anglers. A calm, glassy lake is often a difficult one to fish.”
Security and protection are great for a trout – but remember they also need to eat. Therefore, they’re not going to stay in deep water all the time. The food and the insect life is going to live in places where the sunlight penetrates. Look to places where there’s food and security in close proximity.
“Anglers can find success by finding those places where lunch is served,” Phil told us. “That includes shallow shoal areas, those areas less than 20ft of water. Also look for weed beds and places close to deep water where they can come in, have a bite and then get out.”
Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together
Knowing the needs of trout is part of the battle. But how do you turn this knowledge into success? Phil’s Advice is to take some time to study the water before you begin fishing.
“Don’t just run out and start fishing,” Phil said. “Take the time to look at shoreline vegetation for insect life, like the shucks of drowned damsels. Look for washed up casings from other aquatic bugs. Get a measure of what’s living in the lake, what’s more abundant, how big are they, what color are they? Take time to do some investigative work.”
In addition to searching out the food sources, Phil advised us to take the time to study the lake for areas where trout have both security and food. Where does light water meet dark water? Look around points for drop-offs or along the edges of weed beds. Take note of submerged islands or any other place where shallow water meets deep water. Those are places that will naturally hold trout.
Depth, Retrieve, Pattern
“People often think success is fly dependent,” Phil explained. “They think if they’re not catching fish, it must be the fly. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. If you’re struggling to find fish, remember ‘DRP’ which stands for depth, retrieve, and pattern.
“Depth is often the first problem,” he continued. “In most stillwater situations, we’re fishing within two feet of the bottom. After depth, the next most important factor is retrieve. It’s hard to get most anglers to move the fly slow enough. The food sources that live in lakes are very, very slow.”
For these reasons, Phil recommends using a strike indicator. First, a strike indicator allows you to control depth. Additionally, it will allow you to execute a very slow retrieve while maintaining that depth. Phil says to use a slow, hand-twist retrieve – that is, slowly twist the fly line around your non-casting hand to bring it in. If it seems painfully slow at first, you’re probably doing something right.
Finally, if your depth and your retrieve aren’t producing results – then it’s time to rotate through some different fly patterns to find what food sources the trout are focused on.
Phil’s Recommended Fly Rods for Stillwater Fishing
Phil says he uses anything from a 4-weight up to 7-weight for stillwater fly fishing.
“I’ll fish a 4-weigh in situations when I’m batting light winds and smaller fish,” he said. “On the other end of the spectrum, I’ll fish a 7-weight for throwing big flies, fighting larger fish and heavy winds. But we mostly use 5-weight and 6-weight fly rods. Just remember that on a lake, wind is your friend. So you need a rod that can handle it.”
Phil’s preferred rod for stillwater applications is the Mystic M-Series. First, the 10’ 3” length of the M-Series rods is ideal for fishing in windy conditions. Additionally, that extra length has a number of other benefits. One of those benefits is when fishing with strike indicators. The longer the rod, the deeper you can fish your indicator and still be able to land the fish. On a longer rod, you have a greater working distance between indicator and fly.
“I also prefer longer rods because they roll cast beautifully,” he explained. “When fishing with indicators, you want to use short casts so that you can react in time with the delay and subtleties in the take. The deeper you’re fishing beneath the indicator, the closer to the boat you should keep it. With most other rods, when you’re roll casting with a short amount of line out, there’s not enough line out to load the rod. But the beauty of the Mystic M-Series is that the supple tip allows you to load the rod beautifully for roll casts.
“Also, a longer rod is more prone to throwing a wider open loop,” Phil added. “When fishing indicators and other complicated, tangle-prone rigs, open loops equates to fewer tangles and less frustration.”
According to Phil, the extra length of a 10-foot rod also helps with landing fish. “You can more easily steer them around obstacles, etc.”
And finally, Phil says that the longer fly rod is beneficial for both mending and lifting the flies through the water to entice a strike.
“We do mend on lakes,” he explained. “Especially with floating line presentations. We can use wind-induced currents to take the flies and drift them down. But if you’ve fished lakes, you’ve probably noticed that the surface current will pull the floating line into a C shape - as that starts to form, it’s time to mend. A long rod is great for that purpose.
“And don’t ignore the fact that fish will often follow the retrieve until you lift and then you’ll trigger a strike,” he added. “With a long rod, you can do a slow rod raise and let the flies sit right below the surface - this is a great way to entice a strike. With a longer rod, you get a longer raise with more line out.”
If you’re interested in the Mystic M-Series fly rods, check out Phil’s store at StillwaterFlyFishingStore.com.
More Stillwater Resources and Information
If you’re interested in learning more about stillwater fly fishing, we really can’t say enough about Phil’s educational resources. Be sure and check out his website at FlyCraftAngling.com as well as his Stillwater Fly Fishing Academy.