Fly Fishing in Stillwaters - 10 Essential Tips for Greater Success (Part 1)

There are a lot of lakes in BC, in fact, over 20,000 waterbodies varying from pond size to those having hundreds of miles of shoreline.  It’s pretty safe to say that there are a few too many to ever fish in one’s lifetime. Some of the best fishing for trout and char occurs in the smaller lakes or stillwaters, those under about 1000 acres in surface area. These smaller waterbodies, depending on geographic location can be quite productive in terms of their ability to grow game fish.   The majority of lakes in the province support wild populations of rainbow trout and char. Many of these are located in the northern half of the province. The Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC stocks about 900 lakes each year with rainbow, cutthroat, kokanee and brook trout. The majority of these stocked waters are situated in the southern 1/2 of the province. The most productive lakes are located in the interior regions of the province in a band stretching from the southern Okanagan to the Peace River plateau.

Becoming a proficient fly fisher on these productive lakes means spending the time to learn how these ecosystems function. This includes the structure of the waterbody, what food sources are present, preferred habitat of the trout, char and other game fish species as well as the best times of the year to catch these fish. Lakes are much more secretive in terms of offering hints as to where the trout are going to be found as compared to rivers and streams. There are no currents to dictate where fish can live or that determine prime aquatic invertebrate habitat. For these and other reasons many fly fishers lack the confidence when fishing lakes. We often refer to this as the black hole syndrome.

Understanding lakes can be like a puzzle, where we solve small pieces and eventually have the complete picture. What follows are 10 tips to help put that puzzle together which ultimately translates into having more success and fun on the almost limitless number of lakes to choose from in British Columbia. Of course, these tips will have application to productive stillwaters found anywhere.

1) Where the trout live

Lakes can be broken down into 3 distinct areas or habitat zones. The shoal or littoral zone is the shallow water area of the lake, that water from the shoreline out to about the 25 ft depth zone. This also coincides with the depth of maximum sunlight penetration which is a key factor in determining overall lake productivity. The shoal is where the vegetation grows and where the majority of aquatic food sources are found. The shoal is the grocery store and the trout and char come onto the shoal for food.  It is the most important area of the lake when it comes to catching trout.  The drop-off zone is where the edge of the shoal zone transitions to the deeper parts of the lake. The slope of the drop-off can be gradual or quite steep. Drop-offs are also the maximum point of green plant growth so are also a perfect fish feeding area as well as offering refuge from the warmer shallow waters during the hot summer months. This habitat zone is relatively short or narrow as the water quickly deepens to the deepwater zone of a waterbody. The deepwater zone supports the least amount of macro invertebrate (insects and other larger food sources) habitat. However, in many lakes the deepwater or mid-lake zone supports fairly prolific chironomid populations and subsequent emergences. 

2) Watch the Birds

Aquatic insect hatches can often be confined to certain shoals  or specific locations within a lake. Often, on larger waterbodies, a certain colour chironomid can be emerging in one bay and a totally different size and colour pupa emerging in another bay. Birds, such as swallows, terns, gulls, and night hawks, find emerging chironomids, mayflies, caddisflies as well as other hatching insects much more quickly that we can. Binoculars are valuable in seeing avian activity and in particular when fishing larger lakes.

3) Look on and into the Water

Carry a small aquarium net to capture pupae, nymphs, emergers and adult insects so you can match fly patterns to size and color. Place the specimens in a vial or white dish to get a better idea of color and to also watch the actual emergence process. Surface and sub-surface feeding trout leave distinct riseforms that provide clues to the angler as to what insect stage they are selecting. Trout feeding on minnows often show chasing/slashing rises as they work through the school of baitfish. And finally, polarized sunglasses allow you to see better beneath the surface to spot shoals, drop-offs, spring areas, and bugs.

4) Know your insects and other food sources

Learn to recognize the major aquatic invertebrate food sources that make up a large percentage of the diet of trout in many stillwaters such as chironomids (midges), mayflies, caddisflies, damselflies, dragonflies, waterboatman., backswimmers, scuds, leeches, snails, and forage fish. Equally important, have a sound understanding of their individual life cycles and habitat requirements. Getting to know a particular lake or group of lakes translates into learning which food sources are present and knowing the emergence sequences peculiar to those individual waters. Many good reference books cover identification, life history and distribution of the most common Stillwater invertebrates. These insects’ life cycles and emergence patterns are similar regardless of where a lake is geographically located-chironomids from a lake in the Northwest Territories emerge the same way as those in a nutrient rich stillwater in a productive lake on the north island of New Zealand.

5) Water Temperature

Water temperature influences the hatches, and each insect order have preferred temperature ranges for development and emergence.  Insect hatches follow a sequence that typically begins with midges, followed by mayflies, then damselflies, caddisflies and lastly dragonflies. The most intense emergences typically occur when surface water temperatures range between 50 and 65° F. It is possible to see multiple insect orders and species emerging at the same time which can be confusing to both angler and fish. Anglers must rely on their knowledge of individual insect emergence strategies and be prepared to present all options to those feeding fish. 

The fall period is the reverse of the spring in terms of water temperatures and feeding trout. Feeding intensity increases as water temperatures drop. Trout feed very aggressively during the late fall to freeze-up period in order to store as much body fat as possible to help survive the winter months as their metabolism drops significantly. Once surface temperatures drop below 50ŸF trout will spend more time back on the shoals looking for food sources that will overwinter in the lake. Shrimp, leeches, dragonfly nymphs, damselfly nymphs and Chironomid larvae all become important late season diet items.

Come back next week where we will be delivering the final 5 tips of Fly Fishing in Stillwaters.

Brian Chan  

Part 2 Now Available