Playing the Stillwater Game from Scratch Pt 1: Gearing Up
Lakes for the Rest of Us...


The rest of us – let’s start there. You fly fish, but recently picked it up, we’ll say you are somewhere in year one. Or maybe you’re somewhat of a veteran fly fisher, but the allure of lakes never really became a thing for you. Maybe you’ve tried it, maybe you haven’t. Either way, you’re in need of a crash course. For the sake of this article, you’re my audience and I’m here to get you on your way, catching fish and having fun in places where the water doesn’t move much.

Here we’ll discuss the ‘need to know’ and keep it at that. I’ll get you out on the water where fish hang out and, more importantly, at a time when your paths will cross. Furthermore, you’ll know enough to be dangerous in terms of what to do and what to use. That’s it, and you’re catching fish!

Beyond these fundamentals, there will be an entire universe of additional knowledge to uncover going forward. That part never ends if the stillwater game takes off for you.


For me, breaking into stillwater fly fishing came surprisingly easy, which I’d say, is the opposite of most people's experience. However there were reasons in my case and that story can be useful for our purposes. Prior to fly fishing, I did a little of everything given where I lived and who I fished with. Any species of trout or salmon was in play and, what’s more, if it involved water I’d fish there. So, lakes, ponds, rivers, creeks, the salt – all of it, yes.

Eventually I took a greater interest in small ponds where trout lived, especially places requiring a hike to get in but with decent sized fish. That meant just far and high enough to be out of the way, without going too far up in elevation where trout tend to be on the smaller side. By narrowing down and placing focus on this game, I came to know some of the finer points of what determined success, many of which had to do with timing and location of trout activity.

If my whereabouts were becoming more singular, so too were my methods of attack and choice of “bait.” I sort of evolved to one way of presenting, and with the same lure every time. By then I was carrying ultralight spinning gear and pitching small, weighted spoons. Namely, I settled on a 1/8 oz Kastmaster in any color, whichever was cheapest when I went shopping.

I found I didn’t need more than one way to present, and this method was rather universal, it worked for everything and, when trout were active, I wasn’t missing anything. With the same spoon, I was able to cast long or short while retrieving it near surface or at any depth. In those days I was fishing from shore, so all combinations of distance and depth mattered.

Fast forward to fly rods and float tubes. When I started jumping into Pass Lake (Anacortes) and other waters as a fly fisher, I knew next to nothing about stillwater as a discipline. I could sort of cast a fly and kick around with my fins, and that was about it. But I knew how to find fish and was pretty darn familiar with their behavior and what it took to draw strikes. I did nothing more than adopt a fly-fishing version of the same spoon-pitching racket I knew so well.

Turns out, that was really all I needed to get out there and catch fish on lakes with a fly. Without much else, I could at least keep pace with others. The rest came over time, eventually pushing my results to new heights.

Let’s take the stuff I stumbled upon back then and give you a similar start. You don’t need the same background I had, or any background at all. I’ll provide the roadmap; all you need to do is read on and get out there.


Minimalism started for me well before fly fishing. Eventually, all my lake fishing exploits took place with a single spoon pitched from a pack rod. Nothing fancy.


First things first. Let’s make sure you’re geared for lakes. Perhaps you’re already set up to fly fish and may just need an item or two. Worst case, a new fisher starting from the ground up can be in business for, reasonably, $800, or so. I’m assuming used where it makes sense and spending a little more for some items if the bang for the buck is there. That said, if you really wanted to, the number could go below $500. But you’d have to really want to. Then again, you’re off and running for not much.

I’m not known for being a big spender on the water but, for the sake of comparison, I’m generally afloat with about $1,600 worth of gear. And from knowing a lot of folks in this community, I’d venture most are well above that. Below I’ll list the items out, while showing what you can expect to spend on each. I’ll do an $800 column and a $1,600 column. Know that both price points are budget friendly. One gets you all the way through the door with reliable gear, while the other is a touch nicer. You’ll catch the same number of fish either way.
Lake ListReasonableTim
Float Tube$150$300


These amounts are obviously rough estimates and you certainly have more than one way to get to each. In the Reasonable column you have new and used options for most items. I’ve done fine either way, but recommend new for waders, reel, lines, and flies. I’ll add, plenty of good deals can be had on used rods but do your homework and take your time. Accessories can include forceps, pump, etc.

In my column, the fins and rod are used while the rest were purchased new. Here’s what I did for the major items:

Float Tube – Fish Cat 4
PFD (personal floatation device) – NRS Chinook
Net – Brodin Phantom Gallatin
Waders – Orvis Silver Sonic
Fins – Force Fin (used)
Rod – LL Bean Guide 8’6” 5 wt. 2 pc. (used)
Reel/Spool – Orvis Battenkill 5/6 Disc (4-6 wt. gear covers most lake fishing, 5 wt. is most popular).

Additional note on the fins, I was fortunate enough to pay less than the $120 shown for each of the three pair I have. $120 is the amount you can expect to find them used for today with a little watching and waiting.


Spend a little extra but don’t spend a lot – A few extra bucks can serve you well on the water. I did just that for a comfortable float tube, fast fins, and a used rod that works as well as if I spent three times as much.

A bit about boats – For lake fishing, you really need to be out on the water, away from shore, to do any real damage with a fly. Your options range from float tubes (what I’m using) all the way up to traditional boats. Fly fishers typically use pontoons, other inflatables, and small prams in addition to float tubes. Kayaks designed for fishing are also gaining popularity in some areas. With float tubes and pontoons, the user wears a set of waders with kick fins, as those boats are foot propelled. Lastly, a life vest or PFD is required by law with most of those options. Regardless of legality, I highly recommend use of a PFD whenever you go out.


Which boat would you float? For stillwater, inflatables are close to ideal given their light weight, portability, and overall seaworthiness. Options include float tubes, pontoons, and everything in between. L to R: Steve Mooney, Scott Salzer and Ivan Kletka.

Lines and Leaders – Start with two lines, a floater and a full sink with midrange sink rate. Mainly, you’ll want the full sink line vs. sink tip or other variety for subsurface depths. A lot of less experienced fishers don’t understand the difference in the water. In short, the full sink gets down to where you need to be, while the others will keep your fly a lot higher up than you might realize. This is one of the more common mistakes that will keep you out of the zone and away from fish in lakes.

For reference, I’m using just two lines myself and, no surprise, one is a basic floater while the other is a midrange full sink. The floater is the equivalent of the current Orvis Hydros Trout WF-5, nothing fancy. My sinker is an SA Sonar Stillwater 5 wt., Sink 3 / Sink 5. The dual sink rate is a “newer” attribute that claims to further balance the line as it sinks. I don’t really notice the difference (vs. a single sink rate) but it casts and sinks as well as anything. Overall, the choice of fly line is up to you. Start with the two and you’re covered, regardless of any others you may wish to add.

Leader and tippet also come in an array of choices. For your floater, start with a 9 ft. 3X monofilament leader and 4X mono tippet material, 24” to 30” is fine. I error on the side of a longer tippet to allow plenty of room for “fly changes.” If you’re somewhat clumsy like me, you’ll want to do the same. The 4X size will provide some additional strength while still working with flies generally down to #16. And I’ve never known leader/tippet size by itself to spook fish. Generally, poor presentation or perhaps too large a fly is more likely to put them off.

For your sinker, a 6 ft. to 7.5 ft. 2X fluorocarbon leader and 3X fluoro tippet (24-30”) will cast nicely while allowing plenty of strength underwater. Note, you can use mono with just as much success, and many anglers also opt for a much shorter leader for subsurface presentation. It all works. Personally, I find the longer leader casts a lot better since my style of fishing calls for a lot of casting and stripping.

Before I move on, let’s talk flies. I’ll identify just six to get you off and running. These will cover lakes from January to December and equip you for most situations in general. Notice I’m not getting overly exact for each fly, so there’s room for variation:

Minnow #6 (light color or white), Leech #8 (dark color), Damsel Nymph #10, Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear (GRHE) #12, Mayfly Emerger #14 (can be flush-floating or descending-body), Chironomid #14 (black or red – get both). For chironomid fishing you’ll also need a strike indicator, that’s the fly-fishing version of a bobber. Plenty of choices there and easy to find, I’ll leave the rest to you.


My six: Top row - Flashy Lady Minnow #6 (Black/White), Bead Head Simi Seal Leech #8 (Crawdad), Damsel Nymph #10; Bottom row - GRHE #12, Callibaetis Challenged Emerger #14, Red Chironomid Bomber #14.

Six doesn’t sound like much, but I’m using only three myself and that’s at the most. I tend to use one, the leech, most of the time. Admittedly, I’m somewhat of a minimalist, and likely you’ll go way up from the six, but know that you really don’t need a big variety of flies to attract trout in lakes.

Final note on flies, barbless is best.

Species of Trout

In a word or so, you can find rainbow, cutthroat, brown, brook, tiger, golden and others less common, all in Washington waters. For our purposes, I’m treating them all alike, and we’ll operate on the premise that a trout is a trout. Know that it doesn’t stop there, and plenty can be learned about each. Specific behaviors and characteristics will distinguish certain species from others. Here we’ll consider that a more advanced topic.


Washington’s various species of trout are easily recognizable by their markings. This colorful fall brookie certainly supports that.