Working The Water And Observation

In stillwaters, finding fish may not be as easy one might hope. Many fly anglers will show up to a favourite fishery and immediately head out to a previously productive spot on the lake with hopes of having the same success they've experienced in the past just to spend several hours flogging the water will less than favourable results. Cast after cast and trying every fly in their box still leave some wondering why their success was limited. Unfortunately not every day is going to be like the last but knowing they’ve done their best before moving on to another area could have changed their luck. So how does one know when it's time to move on? Working the water and observation should answer that question.

With fly fishing, observation is key. Are you fishing a well structured area? Are fish rising in the area? What insects or aquatic life are you seeing on or in the water? Are the fish taking food items on the surface, just below the surface or is there no indication of feeding at all and if not, is there noticeable fish feeding in another area of the lake? Choosing an area to work with actively feeding fish should be first on your list. Determining what the fish are feeding on and where they are feeding will give you clues of what presentations and techniques you'll use as well as your preference in flies. But even after these determinations, only working an area will have you find the fish or let you know it's time to move on.

When I'm teaching stillwater clinics one thing I have to keep reminding my students of is to ‘work the water‘. After anchoring down and choosing your presentation don't continually work the same piece of water at the same depth with the same retrieve. Look at working an area as an experiment. Doing the same thing over and over again will usually produce the same results and if the results are unproductive, your experiment will be a failure.

Fan Casting
Fan casting is simply spreading your casts out, covering as much water as you can. Being right handed, I like to start on my left side casting over my left shoulder. My next casting will be 5-10ft to the right of the last cast and I'll continue this until my final cast ends up as far right as I can cast (usually casting with my rod on the left side of my body). After my final cast to the right I'll then start over and cast to my left again, over my left shoulder.

Fish can be peculiar. That quick, short, stripping retrieve that drove the fish nuts yesterday may not generate any interest today. Continually change your retrieve until you find one that interests the fish. Maybe today it's a very slow hand twist or a long slow pull. Could be a very fast, long pull will a long pause. Be imaginative with your retrieves and try and find what's turning the fish on that day. 

Whether using a sinking line or floating line the depth you fish could determine how successful your day is. Fish will choose what depth they want to hold at on that particular day and success may be only a foot or two away. If you don't get your presentation into the strike zone your efforts may fall short. When using a sinking line, the count down method works extremely well. After you make your cast, you simply count down before you retrieve. Depending on how deep you are fishing and how fast your line sinks will determine how long you need to count. When I'm working an area, I like to find bottom and work my way up through the water column from there. I'll count down to say 30 and if I didn't feel any weeds on my retrieve then on my next cast I'll count to 40. When I do find weeds, I'll then shorten my count so I'm keeping my presentation just above the bottom and after working the area at that depth, I'll then shorten my count working my way up through the water column. When chironomid fishing with a strike indicator, I'll start with my flies a foot off the bottom and if I have no success after working the area at that depth, I'll pull up my presentation and secure my indicator a foot down the leader so my flies will now be presented at two feet off the bottom. I'll continue working the area and adjusting my indicator until I find where in the column the fish are holding. I'll use the count down method if fishing without an indicator. 

Working the water and observation on a stillwater fishery are the keys to finding fish. If after working an area your success is still limited, you may then want to move to another area of the fishery and put these same practices to work again. 

Mike (Doc) Monteith is the owner of Alberta Stillwater Adventures, specializing in one-on-one introductory to stillwater fly fishing clinics.

Finding The Strike Zone

Getting your flies into the strike zone is important when it comes to stillwater fly fishing. Just a couple of feet can mean the difference between a good day, a great day or a day when you tell your friends, "it was nice just being out on the water". Finding what depth trout are feeding at starts on the surface of the water and ends with your flies sitting at just the right depth below. As my good friend Phil Rowley advocates, D.R.P. which stands for Depth, Retrieve and Pattern. These are in order of importance when finding success on stillwaters. But just how do you find the correct depth?

Let's start with maps. Bathymetric or hydrographical maps are great tools for finding a starting point when fishing. These maps can show you feeder creeks, underwater humps or sunken islands, deep holes, shallow flats and old river or creek channels. Utilizing these maps will not only inform you of some of the structure available and what areas you may want to fish but of course will also show how deep the water is in these areas. 

Once out on the water and you've made your way into an area of choice, you now need to pin point what structure you wish to fish and get a clearer picture of how deep it is. A fish finder or more appropriately, a depth finder makes this possible. Even the cheapest fish finders offer the two most important features; depth and an image of the bottom. The other features like surface temperature, fish marking, GPS, and color graphics are just a bonus. With the information your fish finder gives off, you now have enough information to choose your fly line and the length of leader you'll need. If a fish finder is not a part of your arsenal, marking your anchor rope in 2 foot increments will also work for getting a more accurate reading of depth. 

Let’s first concentrate on fishing with an indicator. The fish finder is telling you you're sitting in 15ft of water so you now have to build your leader for that depth. Before pulling off 8ft of tippet and attaching it to your 7ft leader, did you take water current into consideration? Is there any? Is there a good wind that would keep your leader from holding your flies straight under the indicator? Normally, your flies will not sit directly under your indicator but with a slight arc in the direction of the lake current. The more current and the deeper you're fishing, the bigger the arc and keep in mind if you are fishing with an indicator you'll want some extra length so your indicator isn't being secured by the heavy butt section found on store bought tapered leaders. You can achieve that extra length by matching your leader & tippet to the depth of water you're sitting in before tying on your flies and if you are experiencing heavy current or windy conditions you can add an extra 1, 2 or 3 feet. So let's assume it's just a normal day with a bit of breeze, you've now made a 15ft leader and attached your first fly. In Alberta, we're allowed fish up to three flies but I usually use two flies to avoid tangles. Now attach another 2-3 feet of tippet and tie on your point fly (that's where you get the added length). Now let's discuss how to attach the strike indicator to your leader so you can be sure you’re close enough to the bottom without your flies laying right on the bottom or hanging to far above the bottom. 

A proven method for determining where to attach your indicator to your leader is to use some form of a weight attached to your fly. Maybe you prefer a bell weight, hemostats (very popular amongst fly anglers) or you've discovered a great little tool known as (what else) a depth finder. These little tools are perfect for letting you know where to attach your indicator. Depth finders are traditionally used in ice fishing and made up of lead with some form of clip (I prefer the alligator clip). To use the depth finder, you simply clip one onto your bottom fly and drop it down into the water. Once the depth finder and fly has reached bottom, use your thumb and index finger to pinch the leader where it enters the water at the surface. Now attach your indicator six inches below to this spot. Remember the lake current and the slight arc we discussed earlier? If the lake doesn't have much current and you are indeed hooking up on bottom or consistently hooking up on weeds, pull your rig up and set your indicator another six inches down the leader. You can continue moving your indicator down the leader while working the water until you find out what depth the fish are holding at. 

Using a depth finder or hemostats can also be used when fishing deeper water with a method called "dangling". Using a fast sinking line (type 5-7), you simply strip off line from your real and drop your fly into the water with the depth finder attached. Once you hit bottom, place the tip of your rod to the surface of the water and reel up one foot of your fly line then strip in all your fly line and remove the depth finder. Now cast out your fly line once again letting your line and fly sink to the bottom and when you feel your flies are straight up and down, lower your rod tip to the surface of the water and you're set. You can now just leave it there with the odd twitch or start your slow retrieve. When fishing in deeper water like this, fishing directly below your boat will rarely spook fish. 

To find depth on a floating line without and indicator, build your leader in the same method we discussed above but add 20% more leader to the depth you are fishing so you would use an 18 foot leader in 15 feet of water. Try experimenting by counting, count to a number that you believe should get your flies close to the bottom. If you don't feel bottom or pick up weeds on your retrieve, count longer on your next cast and continue this until you find bottom. Once you're certain your flies are getting down, count to a smaller number on your next cast keeping your presentation just off the bottom or over top of the weeds while you retrieve your presentation. You can work your way up through the water column by counting less on each cast. This same method works with sinking lines but without the long leader.

Getting into the strike zone by finding depth is just as important or maybe even more important than choosing what patterns you'll use when stillwater fly fishing. Finding what depth the fish are holding at could make or break “a nice day just being out on the water“. 

Mike (Doc) Monteith is the owner of Alberta Stillwater Adventures specializing in one-on-one introductory to stillwater fly fishing clinics.

Floating Lines For Stillwaters

Floating lines are by far the most popular fly lines amongst steam fly anglers. Being so versatile, these lines allow anglers to present several techniques and tactics whether fishing dry flies, streamers or nymphs. But are you aware of just how versatile these lines are when fishing stillwaters?

Crossing over from fly fishing streams to stillwaters can look intimidating. Although the techniques used for stillwaters are not exactly the same, it isn't quite as problematic as it appears. A lot of the same flies, terminal tackle and equipment can be used and are just as capable in stillwater situations than in moving waters making the leap to stillwater fly fishing fairly easy.

Dry lines or floating lines are one of those tools that can be utilized effectively in both situations. Many stillwater experts have been quoted as saying that if they had only one line to use in stillwater situations, they would choose a floating line.

The most obvious tactic when fishing a floating line is when fishing dry flies. Just as in your favourite streams, hatches of mayflies, caddis and midges as well as seeing terrestrials falling onto the surface of the water all takes place. Knowing what species, sizes, colors and the times of these hatches is the key to being successful but really, other than not having to worry about a drag free drift but rather placing your fly (leading the trout) in the direction it's swimming after seeing a rise, stillwater dry fly fishing is very similar.

Catching fish during an emergence where the fish are taking bugs just below the surface will also be seen on stillwater fisheries. A floating line and a lightly weighted emerger pattern works just as well in stillwaters. Tactics like greasing your leader, using a strike indicator or a high floating dry fly to keep your point fly in the strike zone is just as productive in stillwater situations.

Fishing streamers, wet flies and nymphs in stillwaters are extremely affective. Patterns that represent: water boatman, backswimmers, mayfly, dragon & damselfly nymphs, scuds, leeches and minnows catch a lot of fish. Most active fish in stillwaters are found in shoal areas of a lake. The shoal is usually 20ft deep or less and is the market place for feeding trout. A floating line is a powerful tool for working these shoal areas. By simply increasing or decreasing leader length and weight, as well as using the countdown method, flies can easily reach areas where active fish are found.

One big difference between moving waters and stillwaters are the speed in which food is presented to the fish. In streams, the current moves the bug life to the fish that hold in a lie suited to their three basic needs: Food, protection and comfort. These needs must be met in stillwaters as well but instead of the food coming to the fish, the fish search out their meals. Because there is no current pushing along the bug life, the trout have a lot more time to inspect their food and will gain the knowledge that a lot of these simple life forms are slow swimmers. The stillwater fly angler can match this natural movement by fishing patterns using a static presentation. Floating lines work perfect for this technique and patterns can be dropped down to 20 or even 25ft with or without the aid of a slip indicator or when shallow, a hopper-dropper type set-up. This method works well when fishing chironomids, leeches, scuds and a host of other simple life forms.

Upgrading your knowledge and techniques from streams to stillwaters is important but for the most part, the equipment and tackle you're already using will suffice. If you've been contemplating moving over to stillwaters from streams and you're only line is that of a floating line, this versatile tool maybe the only line you need to find stillwater success.

Mike (Doc) Monteith is the owner of Alberta Stillwater Adventures, specializing in one-on-one introductory to stillwater fly fishing clinics. 

The Midge Larva – (Bloodworm)

The four stages of the midge's life cycle include egg, larva, pupa and the adult. Also known as chironomids, (from the word chironomidae, meaning non-biting midge) there are many anglers who believe the two flies are different but they are indeed one in the same. As fly fishers, when we speak of the chironomid, we are usually referring to the pupa stag of the midge which is more than likely what causes this confusion. To add to this misconception, we have yet another name for the midge when in it‘s larva stag. Commonly known as a bloodworm, the midge larva is not a true worm due to it's exoskeleton and small clawed legs. It's appearance however, does have a resemblance to a worm and do to a large percentage of the larva having a blood red coloration, explains easily how it got it's name.

The Bloodworm
The bloodworm can be found in several colors. Different shades of tan, brown and green can often be found and even combinations of these colors. But it's the red bloodworm that is most prevalent. This blood red appearance is due to a protein called haemoglobin within the blood of the midge. Like us, a midge's blood is iron based and because a lot of bloodworms make their home in anoxic environments, need this haemoglobin to store oxygen which in turn maintain the viability of it's cells when little oxygen is available.

Non-biting midges can be found in pretty much every fresh water lake and stream in the northern hemisphere. Warmer climates will usually see midges in smaller sizes but the further you travel into cooler climates the larger they get. On stillwaters, midges can be seen from ice-off to ice-on and where waters stay open all year, the midge will continue to hatch. The larva, like some species of caddis, will build their homes in tubes. These tube-like homes can be found at the bottom of lakes and ponds where they will go through several moults becoming larger each time. Through-out this process, they will leave their tubes to forage for fleas, algae and decaying matter known as detritus. Because they can't swim but rather squirm or wriggle through the water, they become easy targets for hungry fish. They are also known to migrate in the spring to warmer, shallower waters and then back to deeper waters in the fall where temperatures will remained around 4 degrees Celsius over the winter. Eventually, the bloodworm will transform into a midge pupa where it will then slowly ascend to the surface. 

Midges decline in size from larva, to pupa and finally to adult. Generally, the bloodworm will be two fly sizes longer than adults and one fly size longer than the pupa seen on the surface of the water. According to what body of water you are fishing, sizes can vary with some bloodworms reaching up to almost two inches in length. The bloodworm is quite slender with a very distinct segmented abdomen that should be mimicked when tying patterns. The larva's slender appearance should also be taken into consideration when at the vice as the bloodworm has little for girth. Colors of red and green are most common and an almost transparent or high sheen material will produce well.

Fishing The Bloodworm
When fishing bloodworms in stillwaters, the set-up should be similar to that of fishing the pupa (see article 'Finding The Strike Zone') whether with a strike indicator or fished naked. For stillwaters that allow a two fly set-up, a pupa pattern tied on as your dropper fly with a larva pattern tied onto the hook bend as your point fly is a great way to target deeper fish while the dropper fly targets fish foraging higher up in the water column. Keeping your bloodworm pattern within a foot or two off any bottom structure is good strategy as bloodworms will not stray to far from home accept on windier days when wave action can force them up higher into the water column. Because midge larva get around by squirming through the water, anglers should give good animation when retrieving their flies. An excellent retrieve when using an indicator is two very short but quick strips, then leaving the fly alone to settle back down for a period. This action seems to draw the attention of nearby feeding trout and will often result in hook-ups once the fly is either dropping back down or has settled back to a resting state. With that said, at times no movement is required at all and just leaving your presentation catatonic can produce well. The use of a non-slip loop knot will further add animation to your fly when tied to the eye of the hook. This knot will have the fly moving freely as apposed to a clinch knot tied tightly up to the eye hindering movement. When choosing the size of fly, choose one size larger than what you believe the naturals will be in order to help your pattern stand out from the crowd. This also plays on the greed factor of hungry trout.

Because the chironomid pupa receives so much attention (and for good reason), the bloodworm gets overlooked for the most part. A mistake by stillwater fly anglers to be sure, as they certainly don't get overlooked by hungry trout.

Mike (Doc) Monteith is the owner of Alberta Stillwater Adventures, specializing in one-on-one introductory to stillwater fly fishing clinics.

Caught Pike?

Some fly anglers are reluctant to target pike on a fly rod. Maybe pike doesn't meet their definition of what fly fishing is all about or maybe it's because of their days spent targeting pike before picking up a fly rod. Whatever the reason, they have no idea how much fun they're missing out on. Fly fishing for pike doesn't have much finesse associated with it, chucking those big heavy streamers on heavy rods with steel leaders but if you've been thinking of trying something new and are looking for some explosive action then maybe it's finally time to step back and wrap your head around some pike.

The northern pike has many names. The scientific name is Esox Lucius. Lucius derived from its resemblance to the pole-weapon known as the pike and Esox comes from the Greek name meaning big fish. Around these parts, smaller pike have been called hammer handles and snot rockets while bigger pike have gone by names like gators, slough sharks or water wolves. There are many other names we hear anglers calling northern pike and the names differ according to what geographical area in the world they're found. But regardless what you like to call the northern pike, when you hook into one on a fly rod, you call it exciting. 

There are fly anglers who hunt pike all summer. Using sinking lines, they'll fish deeper water in search of these toothy critters. Most fly guys however, will target pike in the spring and late fall as the shallow stillwaters at these times are warmer than the deeper waters meaning more insects which in turn will draw in the bait fish and the pike will follow. Pike will hunker down in these shallow waters, awaiting it's prey. They'll hold completely still, relying on it's incredible ambushing skills to devour a tasty meal.

Techniques and Presentation
Unlike most stillwater fish, pike are not always cruising around foraging for food. Pike are ambush predators that like to hold near weeds, in depressions or on the edge of drop-offs. When they make their way into the shallows, they will at times, sit in as little as a foot and a half of water and sighting pike is a great way of finding out just how shallow the pike are holding. By cruising the shoals and wearing Polaroid glasses, you can see them lying in wait. You may spook a few out of their hiding spots while you're doing this but it gives you a good idea of just how shallow you should be fishing them. Once you know how close they're holding to the shore, anchoring down and casting parallel to the shore line can be very productive. Although pike don't hold in tight schools, they can hold in fairly close proximity to each other. Fishing parallel to the shore while fan casting and working from deeper water inland will spook less fish when hooking up and give you better coverage of fish-able water. Experimenting with your retrieves is also an important element of fishing for pike. Although my favourite retrieve is a strip, strip pause, pike don't all respond to the same stimulus and where you may find one fish taking a dead slow retrieve, another may take only the fastest of retrieves. Constantly changing the speed of your flies should produce good results. When the fish are less active, a slower presentation right in the face of a holding pike can produce strikes probably more out of aggression than hunger. When pike are shallow and if conditions are right, consider using sliders and poppers. Although pike are not as precise when it comes to top water feeding as trout, if pike are aggressive and the surface of the water is smooth, top water flies can make for the ultimate dry fly fishing. The takes on top water flies are heart pounding and will at times startle you. The pikes aggressiveness really comes through when you see one attack your fly. Even the small hammer handles are a blast to catch on floating patterns.   

Tackle and Equipment
Recommended tackle when going after northern pike should include rods in the 8 to 10 weight range. Although these heavier rods will help you horse in these aggressive fish, you'll be more concerned with casting out the large flies needed to entice these big eaters and casting these heavy flies all day can cause fatigue, The more backbone your rod has the easier it will be to cast these big flies. Large arbour reels to match the weight of these heavier rods will help when fighting pike, especially when you hook into that 40 incher. Pike are known for their strong runs and can quickly take you into your backing so reels that come with some form of drag control will be beneficial. Pike fly lines are now available from all the major manufacturers and Rio, Cortland and Scientific Anglers all make excellent pike lines. If you are only going to choose one type of line for pike, a floating line should be considered as a good all around line. To get presentations deeper adding more leader and heavier flies is an easy fix. An intermediate sinking line also makes a great addition to your arsenal and a handy tool for pike that are holding a little deeper. The one thing us fly anglers can't seem to agree on is pike leaders. Seems everybody has their own opinion on this one. Through experience, I've found that relying on about 4 feet of 20lb wire tippet attached to about 3ft of heavy mono has saved a lot of lost flies. Rio has come up with an amazing 20lb knot-able wire tippet that's very supple with a diameter of only .016" making changing flies or building leaders easy work. Other notable pieces of equipment that you will want to consider are long hemostats, long enough to go digging into a mouth full of teeth. Jaw spreaders, to keep that mouth open while using your hemostats. A cut proof glove in case the mouth closes on your hand, a large net or better yet a cradle for getting big pike under control and of course a good cutting tool for dealing with wire tippet.  

Flies and Materials
Traditionally, 3 to 6 inch rabbit strip and buck-tail patterns have been used when hunting the northern pike. Rabbit strips offer incredible action when retrieved and there are a good variety of patterns available. A quick search on Google will bring up many of these patterns like Barry Reynolds’s bunny leech which is highly productive. Keep in mind though, these flies tend to get water logged and do become quite heavy. Marabou, although not as durable, is a much lighter material that doesn't hold as much water and it offers an awesome pulsating action under the surface. A simple yet affective marabou pattern to try is the popsicle leech. With just a cone head, some chenille and wrapped marabou that flows back over the body, this fly has proven it worth time and time again. I've caught my personal best with this pattern on a pike that went over 40 inches. Buck-tail flies are also highly successful but tend to get chewed up pretty quick. A newer synthetic material used today that doesn't hold any water and is really durable is Superhair. When combined with crystal flash these materials make for a highly visible fly that is superior over the less durable deer hair and polar bear flies. With just a quick comb-out, this material will continue looking like new even after being raked through the sharp teeth of a pike. Superhair can replace traditional materials on flies like the Mickey Fin, Lefty's Deceiver and the Clouser Minnow. The most deadly pattern I've used for pike to date was introduced to me by Phil Rowley out at Lake Wabamun a few years back. The Half and Half (1/2 Deceiver and 1/2 Clouser) has produced many large pike when other flies just couldn't draw their attention.
Floating bass flies work equally as well when used for top water pike fishing. Poppers and sliders draw attention as do frog and mice imitations. Creating your own top water flies is fairly simple. Using thick foam like you see in a pair of cheap flip flops and cut out using copper tubing make for great popper heads and materials like chenille, superhair, buck-tail, rabbit strips and crystal flash can be added according to your liking. Most of the top water flies I use are gaudy, home made flies tied brightly to draw attention. When tying streamers consider matching colors to the pike’s natural prey found in the stillwaters you’re fishing. 

The northern pike's aggressive nature and nasty demeanour make for exciting and explosive action. If you've yet to experience pike on the fly, don't let it be one more thing that you've shelved for another day. Fly Fishing for Pike really can be some of the best fly fishing you've ever had.

Mike (Doc) Monteith is the owner of Alberta Stillwater Adventures, specializing in one-on-one introductory to stillwater fly fishing clinics.