4 principles that will help you catch more trout in ponds, lakes, and reservoirs.
[by Phil Tereyla]
AS THE SUN BREAKS THE HORIZON TO THE EAST, the glassy water of Spinney Mountain Reservoir in South Park, Colorado, erupts with fishy boils. Large midges hum like low-flying aircraft around my head as I pull up my Buff to avoid adding a few to my morning breakfast. I sit in anticipation, stare at my indicator, and hope it plummets to the depths so I can feel that force against my line and rod that we all dream about. I almost secondguess myself and think maybe these lake monsters would rather chase a larger offering. But then my indicator dives, and I’m in that magic moment I was waiting for.
I set the hook. Adrenaline rockets through my veins, and I don’t even know what I’ve hooked. It could be a recently stocked 12-inch fish, or a specimen worthy of breaking out the DSLR. To my delight, a beautiful 20-inch-long cuttbow launches itself from the lake and begins to strip line off my reel. The boundaries that normally constrict river trout to a confined playing field aren’t even a consideration for my quarry, and after a hearty battle filled with cartwheeling jumps, rod-corking head shakes, and multiple runs, I finally lead the fish into the net. Moments later, my buddy experiences the same rush and eventually lands a fish that puts mine to shame.
As the day progresses, my dedication to nymphing continues to pay off. But it’s not as easy as it might sound. Rather than wait for fish to lazily swim into their meal, I’m making them chase it. It’s just one of several active ways to target trophy trout that can pay off when you need an ace up your sleeve.
Dive and Dance
As a guide, one of the biggest problems I’ve seen anglers have when fishing stillwaters is the depth at which they present their flies. Whether you are nymphing or fishing streamers, you want to make sure fish have to travel as little as possible to find what they think is a meal. When nymphing, start with a rig that suspends flies relatively shallow—only three to four feet below your indicator. Oftentimes, as when hatches begin in the morning hours, trout will be close to the water’s surface. Then as the day progresses and the upper portions of the water column begin to warm, fish will tend to drop down deeper and deeper. When that happens, periodically raise your indicator 18 to 24 inches higher to keep your flies at the proper feeding depth.
Once you think your flies are at the proper level, the next thing you’ll want to consider is how to get trout to notice them. Expert stillwater guide and the author of three books, including Fly Patterns for Stillwaters, Phil Rowley suggests a strategy that all stillwater anglers should add to their repertoire.
“Rather than throw everything into the fly selection bucket, I approach things from a different angle and think DRP, which stands for depth, retrieve, pattern. Most people struggling to understand and master stillwater presentation tend not to let their flies sink long enough, and when it comes to retrieving, they move their flies too fast.”
Fish that reside in lakes and reservoirs are constantly on the move and looking for their next meal, which makes motionless nymphs somewhat of an easy target. But unless a trout swims directly into your bugs, it may simply pass by. To help get a trout’s attention, add a little movement. It doesn’t matter if the lake is flat and calm, or choppy from wind, occasionally jostle your flies with a four- to eight-inch twitch to grab the attention of large trout on the prowl. The key is to keep a tight line at all times. Doing so makes it easier to twitch your flies, and you’ll always be prepared to set the hook.
A good rule of thumb is to let your nymphs sit stagnant under an indicator for a couple of minutes. If you see signs of fish in the area, like rises or other anglers hooking up, you might be striking out because your flies look lifeless. By allowing your flies to sit uninterrupted for two or three minutes, you’ll know whether or not a dead-drifted presentation is what fish are in the mood for that day. However, if you’re waiting too long for any sign of a take, it’s time to add some twitches and movement. Short, swift twitches can also move your flies higher in the water column and represent something like an injured baitfish, crayfish, or emerging insect. After a few twitches, allow the flies to sink again and rest for a minute or so to see if you caught any fish’s attention. If not, repeat the movements, or make larger or smaller twitches on subsequent casts, to figure out what combination makes your bugs stand out from the others.
For many stillwater anglers, including myself, a favorite method to target large trout in lakes is to cast and retrieve streamers. That said, streamers shouldn’t be the only patterns you “retrieve.” In fact, one of my favorite ways to entice stillwater fish is to retrieve nymphs and imitate insects moving about in the water.
Damselfly patterns are just one of the items I like to fish with motion. When emerging, real bugs leave the safety of the lake bottom or a weed bed and begin to slowly swim to the lake’s edge. If you’re standing on the bank, cast an olive Woolly Bugger or Scott’s Damsel and retrieve it back to shore with slow, consistent strips, so the fly is always in motion. Use the same technique for other classic stillwater hatches like Callibaetis, midges, and caddis using flies like a Soft-Hackle Hare’s-Ear Nymph, Prince Nymph, or Landon Mayer’s Titan Tube Midge. Rowley notes the speed of the retrieve is just as important with his DRP tactic.
“Keep in mind the lake floor, particularly weed beds, offers prime habitat for the aquatic insects and invertebrates trout feed upon. Placing your fly within a few feet of this region is the best recipe for success,” Rowley says. “Stillwater food sources do not move fast. Keep your retrieves slow, erratic, and punctuated with strategic pauses to mimic how the natural prey that trout hunt on a daily basis move.”
During the early summer months, some lakes can host both Callibaetis and damsel hatches simultaneously throughout the morning hours. During these hatches, you can find fish not only in the deep sections of the lake but also cruising the shoreline. After inflating your float tube, take five minutes to catch your breath, walk the edge of the lake, and look for fish close to shore—there are times those fish are some of the most aggressive. If you see trout, make casts that lead the trout’s direction of travel by a few feet and begin slowly stripping your flies. More often than not, these fish will quickly turn and grab your fly.