Cutthroat Chronicles: Must-Know Stillwater Tactics

With most of the West still in the throes of runoff that seems unlikely to subside in the near future, us fly fishermen are quickly learning the intricacies of fishing stillwater.

I’ve always enjoyed rivers, and most anglers prefer them over lakes. A river demands exacting attention from managing drift to not falling in. A lake? Well, it feels easier. Even though it is, in fact, quite the opposite.

I’m not any sort of a stillwater expert, but my 2017 fishing journal has more entries for lakes and ponds than my rivers and streams. I’ve had to build on my existing stillwater knowledge and learn more – mostly through trial and error – to avoid multiple days in a row of getting skunked.

With that in mind, I’ll share a few of the tips I consider must-know stillwater tactics for any fishermen in the Mountain West.

Float Strategically

Fly fisherman with his catch
Notice where I’m at in this photo. Yes, I’m on the water (in a canoe, which we’ll touch on in a second) but I’m not that far from shore. I caught that particular brook trout on a 40-foot cast with a large March Brown on the end of my line, which was aimed right at the shore.


A big mistake anglers make when fishing stillwater is floating around and casting generically without purpose. Now, the above picture was taken during a mayfly hatch, which makes finding the fish a lot easier than normal on a lake. However, this photo emphasizes the tactic of casting to something other than the water.

When you’re floating on a lake, focus on finding and fishing the following bits of structure:

  • Shore: Why bother floating if you’re just casting towards shore? Well, for the same reason you float in a driftboat down a river and fling streamers at the shore. It’s all about angles. Often, lakes and ponds don’t provide ample casting room; ironically enough, trout tend to congregate around the edges of lakes and ponds, especially this early in the season. The shallow water is warmer, which means more food, which means more fish. It’s a simple equation that’s often overlooked because anglers assume big fish sit in the middle of the lake and snack on minnows all day. They certainly do that, but not exclusively. Even big fish come into the shallows from time to time.
  • Points, Drop-offs, and other Structure: Telling you just to cast to shore is a bit generic and doesn’t help. It’s a good starting point, but once you train yourself to look for fish cruising 40 or so feet out from shore, you have to start looking for:
  • Points: These are areas of the lake where the shore comes to a large “point.” Fish love to congregate off these and I honestly don’t know why. All I know is fish love them.
  • Drop-offs: These are harder to capture a photo of, but the general theme is that you want to look for sudden, dramatic changes in the level of the lakebed. Floating gives you the ability to float right above these drop-offs and present streamers or nymphs to fish hanging there, waiting for food to swim right on by.
  • Other Structure: The last bit of structure to look for is anything that feels fishy. Submerged logs are always a safe bet, as are undercut banks, and creek inlets. In fact, drop-offs often coincide with creek inlets. A delta forms at the end of the moving water, resulting in a gradual slope down to the natural level of the lakebed.
Grassy bank of a river
In this photo you can see the point the grassy bank makes. I watched my friend stand on that point and catch five fish in ten minutes.

To Float or Not to Float?

Floating gives you a few significant advantages. You can cover more water, get different angles on trout, and see more of the lake than you can by shore fishing. It’s just like fishing a river from a boat, really.

The answer to this question is really that it depends on where you’re fishing. A few weeks ago I floated Fish Lake with a good buddy of mine. As anyone who knows Fish Lake is aware, the weed line is the best fishing this time of year. It’s impossible to reach fly casting from shore in most places, though, so we had to use float tubes to get ourselves on top of the fish.


Float tube
I prefer canoes over float tubes for comfort reasons, but what you float in doesn’t matter. What matters is if you can access the structure from the shore, or if you need to be on the water to do so. That’ll guide you in your decision to float or not to float.

The Flies

This is where I often feel most out of my element – the Flies and the tackle of stillwater fishing.

I spent my growing-up years on tiny freestone streams and creeks in the Rockies. Rigging up for a river is easier for me than making sure my suit fits right. Getting ready to fish a lake feels like putting on a tuxedo.

What I’ve learned so far, though, is this:

  • Always have a spool of sinking line. If the fish aren’t hitting the surface, a dry-dropper rig isn’t likely to be terribly effective. Sinking line puts your streamers or nymphs down where the fish are. I prefer a Type 1 sink line because it allows me to more accurately control the depth of my Flies.
Now, we do have to address the differences between sinking lines and sink tips. A sinking line is completely level and sinks at a uniform rate, while a sink tip is exactly what it sounds like – a tip section of fly line that sinks. When I use a sink tip, I generally fish a Type 2. What I like to do is buy some cheap sinking line in the sink rate I like, then cut it and tie on perfection loops to both ends so I can completely customize the length of my sink tips.

If you plan on stripping big streamers in deep water – right next to a drop-off or deeply submerged log, for example – then I’d recommend a full-sink. If you want to strip smaller streamers, or nymphs, a sink tip is the way to go.

  • The type of Flies you use depend on the lake you’re fishing. Deeper lakes usually require heavier streamers and full sink lines to help your Flies get to the trout, unless you see them feeding in shallow water. I almost never exclusively fish streamers on stillwater unless it’s ice-off, though; more often, I catch fish on nymph rigs (three nymphs tied on loop knots floating under a slip-strike indicator) or by stripping nymphs in slowly. Little hare’s ears and pheasant tails work wonders when stripping them in slowly, either on a sink-tip or floating line with a long leader.
  • Don’t be afraid to jig. I carry a few heavy marabou jigs with me at all times because they just work. Tying one on the end of your fly rod and bouncing it outside the edge of a log is just the same as fishing a streamer, except your presentation is vertical instead of horizontal. I have a ton of fun sight-fishing this way on clearer lakes, though setting the hook takes some getting used to.
Fly fisherman releasing his catch
Lakes hold big fish, and if you put the time in to use these tactics – and develop your own – you’ll find the trophy fish waiting.

Spencer is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, novelist, and sports writer from Utah. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.