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Levels in the Lakes

by Dave Hughes

My wife and I arrived at W.U.’s Highway Lake around midmorning. A quick scan over the still surface revealed that trout were already rising. We rushed to the rig, thrashed to get our awkward pontoon boats assembled, dragged them down to the edge of the water and huffed them up with air. A half-dozen yellow-headed blackbirds flared up out of their nests in the thick vegetation, perched on fragile cattail tops, cursed and stamped their feet at us, explained they were trying to raise babies and we ought not to disturb them while they did it. We donned waders and got launched, to accomodate the birds, as quickly as we were able to string our rods with floating lines and tie on dry flies.

The trouble was, those rises turned out to be so sporadic and whatever it was that the trout were taking so invisible, that we were never able to chase anything down or present our flies to a working trout in a way that gave us confidence the trout had actually seen it. It’s the first rule for fly fishing stillwaters of any size: If you are unable to cover rises and determine if your offerings are either accepted or rejected, you must waste as little time as possible switching to something sunk. We did. I tried a midge pupa on the usually accurate assumption that trout taking something invisible are feeding on midges.

Masako tried a size 12 Black Woolly Bugger, which has become our fall-back pattern whenever we encounter reluctant trout on water that has no movement.

Neither of them worked. And neither of us was smart enough to try anything more than the interminable switching of flies and changing of retrieves.

We had still not enjoyed any action when it became time to peddle back to the launch, endure the scolding of the same set of birds for the same list of reasons, eat a joyless lunch on the tailgate of the pickup while we discussed our total lack of luck. That discussion prompted me to recall the second rule of fly fishing lakes: If you have reason to suspect that trout are within sight of the surface but are not taking anything off it, remove that disturbing floating line and switch to one that sinks at about the same rate as the fly attached to it. For me, when I saw signs that trout were cruising and rising, back to the pontoon boats and the scene of our earlier frustration. I changed the line.

Action became instant. I moved out far enough from the cattails to calm the blackbirds, turned to cast back in toward them, and worked out about half the length of line I’d need to reach the edge. I cast that out, let it sit while I stripped the remaining line I needed from the reel. When I lifted the rod to begin my first concerted cast, I came against weight. It was our first fish of the day, a portly one of about sixteen inches. It fell for the exact midge pupa pattern I’d fished with so little success on the floating line.

Of course, a single trout is no more than an accident, and proves nothing. But I drove over to Masako, traded rods with her and restrung her rod with the same type of clear intermediate line. It’s tricky threading the guides of a long rod with short arms in a pontoon boat; the secret is to break the rod down, thread the butt and tip sections separately, then rejoin them. It’s still awkward, and can’t be done in a hurry. By the time I’d accomplished it, Masako had hooked and landed one trout, barbed but lost another.

Trout hold, feed, nap and do whatever else they like at three primary levels in lakes: the surface, the two- to three-foot deep sub-surface area and what I’ll simply call the depths. If you plan to fish stillwaters with anything like regular success, it’s necessary to be prepared to fish each of these separate levels.

Fishing the surface is obviously best done with a floating line. It’s the third rule of fishing lakes and should probably be the first: If you see trout rising or visibly cruising with enough regularity that you’re able to cover them with dry flies, then you should try to match what they’re eating. Such feeding will almost always be prompted by the presence of an aquatic insect hatch of some sort, though it’s not rare for trout to feed just as visibly and selectively on a windfall of terrestrials blown in from nearby trees. Whatever it might be, you’ll be far ahead of the trout if you can capture the creature on which they’re feeding, get a close look at it and match it as closely as you can.

You’ll rarely find it fruitful to fish dry flies in the absence of rises, in a searching fashion, as you might cast dries to draw trout to the surface over shallow riffles in moving water. If trout are rising in a lake, they’ll usually be focused and at least somewhat selective. If they’re not rising, they’ll usually be deep and not even notice a dry fly sitting forelornly up on top.

The most common insect fare in spring, in lakes, is either the ubiquitous midge, the widespread Callibaetis mayfly or a fallen ant or beetle. You’d be crazy to narrow your fly selection so brutally, but my guess is that you’d not fail the trout very often—again in spring—if you carried no more than the Zebra Midge in size 14 to 18, the Callibaetis Compara-dun in size 12 and 14 and a Black Foam Beetle in size 14. Either hand-twist the midge pupa just fast enough to keep it almost at the top or dress your leader to within a foot of it to suspend it very near the surface. You can also slip-knot a tuft of yarn a foot up the leader from the fly, to dangle it just that deep.

Clearly you’ll want to cover rises when you’re fishing either a floating fly or a pupa just inches deep. Since stillwater trout most often cruise in pods, refrain from pasting your fly onto every rise-ring you see. Avoid frantic casting. Get your fly on water where trout are cruising and let the trout come to it. If the pod moves on, then you should cast to intercept it again. If a single trout comes up in a clearly defined succession of rises, set your fly gently about where you expect the next rise to happen. If you’re lucky, it won’t turn away from the purpose and direction of its cruise and you’ll have it.

When no rises are visible, or they’re so sporadic and scattered that you have difficulty getting them covered with any certainty, then switch to the clear intermediate line and fish a sunk fly two to three feet deep.

It’s often preferable to combine a streamer and nymph, thereby offering trout a choice. I’ll admit there are two or three different ways to get your flies to the same fairly easy level. A wet-tip line will do it. So will a slow-sinking line. You can even use the same floating line and a weighted fly. All of those rigs deliver a sunk fly to about the same strata in the water but, in my experience, none do it with the same effectiveness I’ve enjoyed with the clear intermediate.

Part of that success is due to invisibility. I don’t know if trout perceive the fly or flies to be separate from any attachment and are therefore more likely to be pleased by them, but I do know that I have that sense and expect my offering to be more pleasing and it’s possible I catch more trout on the clear intermediate line simply because I expect to catch more trout when I’m using it. But one of the main rules about life, whether fishing or anything else, is that our expectations are always built out of our experiences and my experience has been the accumulation of more trout, often as abruptly as that one that took my first cast on the small blackbird lake, when I switch from a floating line to a clear intermediate and fish the same fly at the same level.

Another reason the line works so well is the ability it gives you to use a very slow retrieve while keeping the fly at the same level. With a wet-tip, sinking line or weighted fly fished on a floating line, the fly will slowly pass through the desired zone and keep going deeper, on the creeping hand-twist retrieve I’ve come to prefer. Though this note is about levels, not retrieves, it’s more than minor to mention that the day Masako and I fished the lake where we were so scolded by blackbirds, every trout we caught but one—and we eventually caught quite a few—took a pupa or streamer fished on a hand-twist retrieve, not a stripping retrieve. That one exception was the first trout, which took the fly on the sit, before the beginning of any retrieve at all.

You could use quite an expansive set of sunk flies on the intermediate line, but I suspect you’d not do badly very often in stillwaters if you carried a Woolly Bugger, a damselfly nymph and the same Zebra Midge listed above for the floating line. The secret might be size. My fall-back Bugger is black, size 12, beadheaded and has its tail truncated to the point where it’s more a size 14 than a 12. Nearly every stillwater trout I’ve caught in spring, no matter the focus of its feeding, has also contained a few immature damselfly nymphs. My favorite imitation is Brian Chan’s size 16 Baby Damsel, no more than a bead and a sparse marabou tail and a few twists of ribbed marabou herl on a hook. About half the time when I’m fishing the clear intermediate line, I’m rigged with the Bugger trailed by either the midge pupa or the damsel.

The depths are mysteries, but they’re where trout are found in early spring when the cold of winter still lingers in the water and also whenever no hatch or fall of terrestrials tempts them upward. If trout are deep you’ll catch none of them unless you’re prepared to send your fly way down there to get them.

Flies for the depths can be big. Size 6 and 8 Black or Olive Woolly Buggers work well. The same size Black Bunny Leech is also effective. Fly pattern is not likely to be nearly as important as getting the fly down to where the big trout lurk. I often like to trail one of the smaller flies already listed, just in case trout are shy about size. But it’s rare; a bigger bite is usually better.

It’s neither difficult nor expensive to prepare yourself to fish the three primary levels at which trout live in lakes. Buy a rod that’s a casting tool, not a delicate presentation rod, in 6- or 7-weight. Buy a reel, wind it with backing and the appropriate weightforward floating line. Acquire two spare spools, one for a clear intermediate line, the other for the depth charge line that best loads the rod you’ve bought. That’s all. Spool plenty of backing. You’ll be armed for trout at any level in any lake and some of them are likely to be big ones.

Dave Hughes Articles

Dave Hughes is the author of more than 20 books about fly fishing. They include the classic Western Hatches with Rick Hafele, American Fly Tying Manual, Handbook of Hatches, Reading Trout Water, Dry Fly Fishing, Nymph Fishing and the massive reference Trout Flies. His latest book, published in 2009, is Nymphs for Streams and Stillwaters. Dave, a native Oregonian and Vietnam Vet, is an accomplished amateur aquatic entomologist. His hobbies include collecting, identifying, and photographing the aquatic insects that are fed upon by trout, as well as tying and fishing the flies that match those insects and fool those trout. His articles on fly fishing have appeared in Field & Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, Fly Fisherman magazine, American Angler, and Fly Tyer. Dave served as editor of Flyfishing & Tying Journal for eight years, and is currently Elements of Success columnist for Fly Rod & Reel. Check out Dave's website at: www.davehughesflyfishing.com

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