21 tips to improve your stillwater fly fishing

Want to catch more fish? Here are 21 stillwater fly fishing secrets and tips to help you increase your catch rate when fly fishing for trout on stillwaters.

21 tips to improve your stillwater fly fishing
© Fly and Lure
21 tips to improve your stillwater fly fishing
Picture copyright © Fly and Lure
21 tips to improve your stillwater fly fishing
Fly fishing tips Estimated reading time 16 - 27 minutes

1. Use the countdown method

One of the key things you're trying to do when you're trout fishing is to find the depth at which the fish are holding. This will change according the light levels, water temperature, wind levels and insect hatches, so you'll need to use the countdown method throughout your day.

After you've cast your flies, give the line a pull to straighten it out and ensure you'll feel any takes, and then countdown down for 5, 10, 15, 20 or 25 seconds to allow your flies to sink through the depths. With each consecutive cast, use a slightly longer countdown before you commence your retrieve to help you find the depth at which the fish are holding.

Start near the surface and work down. Trout look upwards for food. Start with a five second count, then try 10, 15, 20 and 25 until you get some action.

Count your flies down with each cast until you find the feeding depth.

2. Watch the fly line at the tip

After and during your cast, always keep your rod tip down so it's just above the water surface. If you retrieve with your rod up in the air, several feet above the water, any fish which takes your fly gently won't be felt because it will only move the slack line dangling beneath.

Point your rod tip down all the water through the retrieve and keep a close eye on the line dangling just below the tip. It's your strike indicator. If a fish takes the fly gently, you will often spot the line move outwards, even if you don't feel the bite. Lift the rod and you might hook the fish.

The fly line dangling beneath the rod tip is your strike indicator.

3. Use the fan casting technique

Most fly fishers have a natural tendency to cast immediately in front of themselves on every spot at which they fish. This means their flies will only be covering a narrow strip of water, and the trout may be somewhere else.

Instead, try to cover the whole area of water in front of you, including the margins on either side. Imagine a grid or fan pattern drawn on the water, and place your casts from as far left as you can go, all the way round the fan until you've covered the area to your right.

Once you've gone all of the way across the fan from left to right, start again and re-cover the area you fished a few minutes before, perhaps with a different fly, a different retrieve or at a different depth. You'll greatly increase your chances of finding any fish.

Use the fan casting technique to make sure you cover all of the water in front of you.

4. If the sun comes out, fish deeper

Where other animals have eyelids they can squint, or pupils that can constrict to help block out bright light, trout do not. They can't squint and their pupils don't constrict.

Their eyes are adapted for lower light levels, so when it's sunny, they don't feel that comfortable and they'll drop through the water layers to find deeper water where less light has penetrated. When the sun comes out, make sure that you change to fishing deeper, otherwise the trout may miss your flies.

When it's sunny, fish deeper.

5. Fish more than one fly

You never know which fly is going to work, so while you're trying to find out what works, you'll increase your chances of success by fishing several at once - one on the point and one or two on the droppers.

More often than not, the flies chosen will consist of a bright attractor pattern, such as a blob, and some drab more naturalistic patterns, such as buzzers, nymphs or cormorants, on the droppers. The trout may be drawn into the gaudiness of the attractor but end up taking one of the naturals.

Fishing several flies at once will increase your catch rate.

6. Leave plenty of room between your flies

If you're fishing several flies on the same leader, ensure you leave plenty of room between them. As a general rule of thumb, a gap of about five feet is recommended between each fly.

Your top dropper can be tied five feet from the end of the fly line, the second fly goes five feet below that, and the point fly goes five feet past that. This gives you a nice long 15 foot leader with three well-spaced flies.

Experts reckon fishing the flies closer than this reduces your catch rate. If you're fishing brightly coloured flies, then the rule of thumb is that you should leave a 10 foot gap between them, as fish can get spooked by two bright flies placed close to each other.

If you're fishing several flies, leave at least a five foot gap between each one.

7. Remember that stillwaters aren't still

Although they're called stillwaters, and all you'll see from above is a bit of surface ripple, stillwaters aren't actually still beneath the surface. The wind action on most lakes causes the water to move constantly, which means that food is always on the move with the trout following it.

Trout in rivers usually position themselves with their noses pointing upstream so they can effortlessly consume anything that drifts past them. Trout in stillwaters can behave similarly and will sometimes position themselves into the wind.

Obstacles, such as points and islands, also affect the movement of the water, so look for the areas where the water is being driven to locate the feeding trout.

Stillwaters aren't actually still and trout follow the wind and water movement.

8. Stay on the move

Lots of stillwater fly fishers have a tendency to stay in the same place for long periods of time, repeatedly thrashing the same piece of water, often without fan casting.

You'll usually stand a better chance of finding the fish if you move every 10 minutes or so, once you've fan casted a couple of times and searched the depths with the flies of your choice. Of course, if you get some interest, stay longer, or give the spot a short rest and return a little later.

Keep moving until you find the fish.

9. Observe the fly life on the banks

While stillwater trout will happily take blobs, blue flash damsels, cat's whiskers, squirmy wormies and yellow dancers all day, every day, they're going to predominantly be used to feeding up natural invertebrates in the water or landing upon it.

It pays to observant and look at what's hatching on the banks. If you spot flies hatching or crawling around, then do try switching to smaller, more natural patterns. Unsurprisingly, it's often very effective, if you can pull yourself away from the blobs...

If you can see flies around, try "matching the hatch".

10. Don't stick to the floating line all day

On most stillwaters, especially small or medium-sized ones, a floating line is the norm. You can easily catch fish all day using a floater, but if the fish go deep you'll need to use a weighted fly to reach them and you may struggle to keep your fly in the feeding zone or retrieve fast enough with only a floating line in your arsenal.

Most competition fly fishers use several lines - some take literally a dozen or more different specialist lines with them and change them throughout the day depending on the conditions. Most stillwaters, you'll be fine with a good floating line, an intermediate (which sinks very slowly) and a sinking line - maybe a Di3 or Di5 (which sink at 3-5 inches per second).

Buy a spare spool and take at least an intermediate line with you so you can swop the floater if conditions change, or if you can't buy a bite on the floating line. It will mean you'll get your flies into the feeding zone faster and you'll be able to use retrieves you couldn't with a floating line, which could be enough to catch you some extra fish.

You can fish a floating line all day on most stillwaters, but you might catch more if you tried another line at some point.

11. Vary your retrieve to induce a take

Stillwater trout are often highly pressured. Every day they'll see hundreds and hundreds of flies zipping past them at a variety of speeds. This can make them wary and although they'll often follow your fly, getting them to take it isn't always as easy as it might first appear.

Varying the retrieve speed you use - both on different retrieves and within the same retrieve can make all the difference. Don't just keep doing one foot strips at the same speed all day, or figure eight retrieve on every cast.

Try some really slow retrieves, try some normal strip retrieves, try roly polying at breakneck speed and see if you get a hit. Add pauses to your retrieve and stop for a second or two to let your fly drop before recommencing. You'll almost certainly get extra pulls as a result.

Mixing up your retrieve and adding pauses often results in takes.

12. Try a range of fly colours

Once you've found the right depth, your next challenge is to find the right colour fly to use. There are various theories about what colour flies work best under certain day - dark day, dark fly; bright day, bright fly, etc. However, fish don't read rulebooks and these are not always the case.

The usual technique is to simply use trial and error to find out what shade works best. Start off with something dark, especially in stillwaters where the water is stained or murky, as dark flies create a silhouette which is easier for trout to see.

If that fails, try a light fly - maybe something beige or something white. If that doesn't work, go for something bright. The classic bright flies are the orange blob, the yellow dancer and the cat's whisker. To make it easier to find out what colour works, try using a bright fly on the point and drab patterns on the droppers.

Try dark, bright or natural patterns until you find what works.

13. Scale your fly size down

If the fishing is really tough and the fish are turning their noses at up at all of the flies you chuck at them, then scaling down your fly size can be really effective.

Most stillwater fly fishers use flies in the range of size 8, size 10 or, at the smallest size 12. Scale down to a size 14, 16 or even 18 nymph or dry and you may be surprised at the results.

Sometimes, scaling down to a tiny fly makes all the difference.

14. Fish deeper water during the day

Trout follow the food, but they're cautious about entering shallow, open water, especially when it's clear, as it places them at greater risk from predators. They'll often be found cruising the margins in the morning or evening, but will generally move into deeper water as the day goes on, especially if it's sunny. 

When you arrive at a fishery, it's always worth fishing the margins if you arrive before other anglers. There's often an amazing amount of big fish present in the shallows first thing. However, the light conditions and the activities of other anglers will generally drive the fish further from the bank as the day goes on.

They'll often also go down deeper, as well as further out, so countdown for longer and try an intermediate or sinking line if you stop getting pulls on the floater.

By the afternoon, the fish have often moved out further and gone down deeper.

15. Use a sinking line to fish deeper and faster

If the fish are ten feet down because it's sunny, cold, or both, you could fish a weighted fly and count it down on a floating or intermediate line until it's in the zone. However, when you retrieve, the fly will rise up through the water away from the fish. The faster you retrieve, the further up in the water column the fly will rise.

Fishing a faster sinking fly line, like a Di3, Di5 or even a Di7, will mean your fly gets to the right depth quicker and you'll be able to keep it in the zone longer, and use a faster retrieve to see if that induces a take.

Fishing a faster sinking line also changes the angle at which the fly come back up to the surface, and that's often really effective in making any trout mesmerised into following the fly smash it at the end of the cast.

Using a sinking line means you can cover the depths for longer.

16. Don't leave your dries in the same place longer than 10 seconds

One thing I've heard independently now from several competition fly fishers is that most people have a tendency to fish dry flies in the same place for far too long on stillwaters.

Apparently, a better technique is to cast out the flies, count to 10 and then re-cast to a new position if they've not been snaffled. Having tried it throughout the summer, I have to say, it does appear to work.

Move your dry flies every 10 seconds if you don't get a take.

17. Check your leader for knots

So called "wind knots" are actually caused by creating tailing loops when you cast and are evident as little overhand knots that appear along your leader. They look insigificant, but they can reduce the strength of your line quite a lot - maybe 40%, some tests reckon.

Check your leader regularly for signs of wind knots and change the line if it's knotted, otherwise you may lose any fish you hook, especially if they smash the flies hard or if they're of above average size. Work on your casting to try and reduce the likelihood of other knots forming.

Proper casting technique minimises the likelihood of so-called wind knots.

18. If you can't get a bite, try fishing static

Sometimes no matter what flies you try, what depth you fish or what speed of retrieve you use, you just can't persuade a trout to take a moving fly. This seems to be especially common when it's really warm or really cold.

If you struggle to get a bite, it's always worth trying to fish your flies completely static to see if this attracts any attention.

It's always George's first tactic if he can't get a bite. He'll snip off the old fly, tie on a blob, squirmy wormy, egg fly or buzzer, attach a strike indicator a few feet up the line and cast it out.

Sometimes it's just the thing to induce a take. It also means you can have a sit down and rest your arm.

If they won't take a moving fly, try fishing something static beneath a bung.

19. Be stealthy

Although some stillwater trout might seem fairly used to anglers wandering the banks, that doesn't mean they're not extra wary as a result. It's surprising just how many fly fishers you see at stillwaters who stomp heavy footed along the banks, and drop a heavy bag or seat box by the bank, without thinking what that might do to the trout.

Take a leaf out of the coarse angler's book and tread gently and quietly, stay back from the edge and try to avoid spooking the fish. If you don't make them suspicious, they'll be far more likely to take your fly.

Softly, softly catchy trouty.

20. Fish the hang

If you've ever fished a stillwater fly fishery with very clear water, you'll know quite how many trout you can get following in your fly to the bank without taking it. This is something that those of us who fish murkier stillwaters often miss.

Those following trout will often take the fly if you vary the retrieve half way through the cast, but if that fails, then fishing the hang is the next best option. To do this, all you do is come to the end of your retrieve and count to 10. Stop and let your flies drop to the bottom. If anything is following, it will often smash the flies as they "escape" to the lake bed.

Hanging your flies at the end of the cast often gets a pull.

21. Watch and speak to other fly fishers

If you spot someone across the lake who's catching when you're not, take a moment to watch them. Are they fishing lures or buzzers? Are they fishing a faster retrieve than you? Have they switched to a sinking line?

If you can't figure out the secret of their success, most people don't mind being asked politely for tips. In fact, most are only too pleased to share their knowledge and advice, so you've got nothing to lose in having a quick chat as you wander past. It could save you from a blank.

Other anglers are always happy to share expertise and tips.

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