Playing the Stillwater Game from Scratch Pt 3: Locating and Executing​

Lakes for the rest of us...


(Exploring new water in north central WA, Fall 2019)


Just like ‘when,’ we’ll also make ‘where’ a two-dimensional search, this time by considering which lakes to frequent, and then by locating trout once afloat at a chosen venue.

Selecting Lakes – No doubt, you’ll fish any number of places for any number of reasons. Fishing with friends, going on vacation, a hot tip, pure curiosity, you name it. Day to day, I’d recommend choosing a single lake to spend most of your time on, then having a very small handful of others to visit often. In my experience, there’s no substitute for knowing one body of water extremely well. This home water will be your primary training ground where you’ll know all the terrain, become familiar with the trout population and food sources, observe trends, etc. In adopting this one-stop approach, your learning curve will most likely shorten, and, in reasonable time, you can adapt your new skills to other waters. I did this myself, not for days and weeks, but for months and years, and it paid handsomely.

Beyond your home turf, make a short list of other lakes that you can get to at least a few times a year. Mine were all within an hour of home, which gave me access on any evening or weekend, or when the itch to skip work struck me. If your picks are good, at any given time one or more of those lakes will be producing, and you’ll start being on fish regularly throughout the year.

Criteria – Besides reasonable distance from home, consider trout population/stocking, crowds and pressure, overall size and terrain, and available food sources as part of your decisions. State stocking information is easy to find through WDFW – look for waters that are stocked consistently year to year, as well as receiving regular plants of “catchables” as they’re called. Jumbos are a bonus but don’t make them a requirement.

Regarding pressure, if you don’t have good word-of-mouth sources, a few exploratory trips will tell you all you need to know. Also, some of us are more tolerant of crowd and noise pollution than others. I tend to do fine around noise and general distraction but am short on patience where crowds are concerned. For most, I’d say some degree of compromise is welcomed when prospects are good.

For lake layout and food sources, start with a little research, then venture out and narrow your options. To keep it easy, I would recommend a bathymetric map of each lake (, the Washington State Fishing Guide (Terry Sheely), and the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer which maps the entire state out in detail. You’ll get enough information regarding location, size or acreage, depths, species of trout, and general fishing to establish a list of possibilities. Tip: Keep your own copy of the bathymetric maps most valuable to you. Early on, don’t be surprised if you spend more time researching and exploring than fishing. We’ve all been there and that will change soon enough.


(Don’t hold out for home water with giants, but if you happen to have them in yours, consider yourself extremely fortunate. Most of us travel great distances to find them.)

Once afloat, look for the obvious signs first. Fish, food, birds, even other anglers can be your best indicators of hungry trout. Watching for fish or insects is most intuitive, but also keep an eye out for bird activity, mainly swallows, as they circle and swoop on anything that hatches from the lake surface. I see them mostly where midges are, given the abundance of chironomids, but have also spotted them over mayflies.

At times, other fishers can be the best tip-off to what’s working. If one or more of them is having success, try and observe all you can without venturing too close. Most are more than happy to share information and advice, even offer a fly, but I’d stop short of “trespassing” in someone’s territory. They may not say anything, but no one likes another guy’s fly in their face when the action is on.

When a Trout Speaks – If your first good sign ends up being an actual strike, treat that as the best indicator of all. Trout themselves have a way of constantly communicating if you’ll simply listen. Clearly a strike says something, while silence or no strike says just as much. It’s all useful information, straight from the source, that tells you whether the bite is on or off and where fish are located. I go out regularly and depend solely on mere strikes to know what’s going on in the water. Often that’s the only information we have.

What One Trout Does – You can also safely assume, what one fish is up to the rest are up to as well. Trout instinctively behave in a collective manner, so if you see one, you’ll know there are others doing the same thing at the same time and place. With that in mind, look to turn a single strike into two, then three, then more. When you see more experienced anglers putting the numbers up, this is exactly how they’re accomplishing that. No rocket science, they just know how to turn one fish into more by following the strikes around.


(Anxious as this rainbow was to return to the water, I was even more anxious to pitch my fly back out toward a lively section of shoreline, where I managed seven before the crowd dispersed.)

Now let’s look at the lake itself. I have a rather simple way of dividing the water up into three categories when I search for trout. Short of an obvious tip-off like visible fish movement, foods, or the sight of other anglers with bent rods, I’ll conduct a blind search in each of the shallows (or shoals), against the shoreline, and out in the open water above the depths. Give each of the three a good 15 or 20 minutes before moving on and, within an hour or less, you’ll know if the lake is producing or not. With practice you’ll be able to determine that in the first few minutes of an outing.

How Low to Go – Depth is the next consideration. Let’s also divide the water column into three parts. We’ll say above the surface, surface to 6 feet, and 6 to 12 feet will be our three zones. Obviously, a lake can extend to any depth, especially in the PNW, however most activity, and where you’ll want to concentrate your efforts, will be within the top 15 feet or so. This makes sense, as most of what trout need (food, cover, vegetation) will be found within that range.

To relate depth to our three categories, fishing the surface (dry flies) generally takes place in shallow areas or right along shore, fishing between surface and six feet can take place in any of the three locations, and working from six to twelve feet is useful in the outer shallows and open water over more depth.

Trout will concentrate at different depths for any number of reasons. In addition to food and cover, think also about temperatures. Remember, they like comfort and stability, and will likely gravitate toward the most suitable depth if conditions have recently changed. For instance, an upward spike in top layer temperature from recent summer heat would probably put them down into cooler water. For lack of other clues, I’d prioritize my search in that six-to-twelve-foot zone. You can assume they always move toward middle temps, or 50 °F, so that could send them up or down depending on current water temperatures and the outside air.

“Do I need a depth or fish finder?” No, not really. I don’t use any form of electronics on the water myself. By way of plain eyesight, my fly, and everything we’re talking about here, I have more than I need to figure out general depths and find fish. That said, there’s not really a wrong answer either. Much of this sport is left up to interpretation and personal preference. We have a variety of ways to lure and catch trout, and many of them can be equally productive. You and I can decide which is most fun or interesting. Personally, I enjoy being somewhat of a minimalist, while others I know really like the aspect of toys and technology. Perhaps the best part of all that is we have plenty of good choices.


Let’s mash these two together. Here we’ll go over the basic methods of presentation on lakes (how), while putting all that gear and flies we talked about to use (what). Again, I’ll assume you’re already off and running with fly fishing and are at least familiar with rigging up and casting a fly. Likely you’ve even caught a few fish. If not, we’ll fix that.

“How much casting skill do I need on lakes?” You’ll like my answer – not much. Stillwater is quite forgiving in that way, as most situations and methods don’t require the long bomb, or even laser accuracy. There are some exceptions but, for the most part, you can work your way around and catch fish without being an accredited fly-casting expert. And that’s great news for me since I’m nothing special with a fly rod. If you can put a fly 30 or 40 feet out, you’re fine. I always say, I’d much rather be the guy with fish in my net than the one with the prettiest cast.

“Do I need to practice casting?” At first, yes. But that soon goes away. Fly fishing novice or veteran, if you’re venturing out onto lakes for the first time, do yourself a fun and easy favor beforehand, and find a good patch of grass to sit on. Rig your rod up with a dummy fly (cut the point off an old fly, anything works) and plant your rear end directly onto the grass. In the seated position, start casting while keeping your line and fly in the air, without touching the grass, as it swings back and forth. You’ll see what I’m getting at.

The one necessary skill you’re working on is casting your fly effectively from the seated position, very low to the water. So compared to a standing position, you now have your line several feet closer to the ground or water, and any flaws in your form will likely have your line slapping the water behind and in front of you.

A lot of folks will compensate for this with a longer rod (10 feet is typical for lake fishing rods). If that helps or corrects the issue for you, by all means, find yourself a new toy. In my experience, a little practice and focus on form will allow you to use a rod of any length. I use an 8.5-foot rod without issue simply because my form is decent. And remember, I’m not casting all that far.

  • Check your fly at least every few minutes
  • If your fly or a knot takes more than 3 minutes to untangle, clip off and start over
  • If you have the choice, cast downwind vs. up
  • When snagged, be overly protective of your rod tip – a lost fly beats a broken rod any day
Methods to the Madness – In lakes we have four major methods of presenting a fly: Trolling, Cast/Count/Strip, Dry Fly, and Vertical. Some folks don’t use them all, I use three of them myself, but you’re best off having all four as options. I’ll introduce each below and plug in our six flies where they fit best (see Part 1).

Trolling (leech, minnow, GRHE) – Just like in other forms of fishing, all you’re doing here is moving slowly with your fly being pulled behind. This can be done at any depth from surface to floor. In practical terms, trolling can be done down to 12 or 15 feet of depth. Your chosen fly line and length of cast will determine how deep your fly will travel along once underway. In my case, I’ll use my floater to present a fly just under the surface, say, in the top two feet or so. Beyond that, I’ll use my full sink and either a short cast, maybe half length, to run at 6 feet or so; or a full cast to run at 10 or 12 feet.

For trolling I keep my rod tip just above the surface and, using the same hand I hold the rod with, I’ll grasp the fly line between my thumb and finger, leaving a little slack for takes. You can guess the rest – on the strike when your slack is gone it’s time to set the hook. That’s it!

In time you’ll get a good feel for depth. You’ll know easily if your fly is hitting the bottom. Probably the most common mistake newer fishers make is using either a floating line or sink-tip line and thinking their fly is at the desired depth. Usually, you’re a lot higher up than you realize, since your fly tends to move upward as you move through the water at a troll. For the most part, you really need a full sink line to keep the fly down in the zone. Again, I can troll at any depth from surface to 15 feet with only a floater and full sink line.


(Nothing to it – My preference for trolling involves a short loop of line in hand while holding the rod tip just above surface. When the line goes taut, I set the hook. That’s it! Same method for floating or sinking line.)

Cast/Count/Strip (leech, minnow, damsel, GRHE) – Same as it sounds, you cast, you count, and you strip. Period. This method is the one I use most, given its versatility and effectiveness. I do about half my searching this way and tend to do most of my targeted presentations with it once I find fish. If you think about it, this method allows the angler to cover any part of the lake at any depth…nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

Like trolling, Cast/Count/Strip can be used at any depth just by counting your fly down to the desired depth from a stationary position. To present up near the surface, simply skip the counting step and strip back as soon as the fly lands. You can use either your floater or sinker to work near the surface, there won’t be much difference.

When using this method, consider your fly to be live and in play as soon as it hits the water. So, if you’re counting it down, a strike can occur at any time and often does while the fly is still sinking through the depths. Also, submerge your rod tip just beneath the surface from the start of the presentation and leave it there the entire time. You’ll feel everything, have a much better sense of control, and setting the hook is never a problem. When lifting your rod upon a strike, you won’t notice any drag from the rod tip being submerged, it comes right out.


(The art of Cast/Count/Strip becomes its own sport in freezing weather. Exercise caution and don’t force anything when attempting to free your guides of ice.)

When stripping you can go any speed, smooth or erratic, it all works. A little trial and error in each circumstance is all you need. I tend to prefer a faster, more erratic retrieve most of the time, as it works for me and suits my style of presenting. I’d say much of the time you can do either with equal results.

Regarding your slack line, it can either fall into the water as you strip or collect somewhere on your boat or tube. Some prefer stripping baskets or aprons, while others will just let the line gather in their lap or on the floor. Each has its pros and cons. Personally, I just let it fall into the drink on my left side, and I don’t hang it up often enough to matter. The advantage is that it lifts trouble-free from the water when I pick up to cast.


(A leech stripped from the depths was too much to resist for this colorful rainbow.)

Dry Fly (emerger) – Touted as more of a moving water presentation, a floating fly certainly has its place on lakes. I tend to use them for hatching Callibaetis (mayflies) and to hunt browns near shore when those opportunities present themselves. If you’re already used to dry flies on moving water, much of the game is similar but does take some getting used to, given the lack of movement or drift.

Size wise, a little goes a long way on lakes. I tend to keep it on the smaller end while gravitating toward colors I can see. It follows that brighter, less windy conditions add to your presentation’s visibility, so subtlety matters. On the contrary, some wind chop, rain, or grey skies will not only allow for a more liberal choice but will tend to bring fish up.

The usual tips on stream would also apply here – short hesitation before setting the hook (let them take it under first); don’t beat the water with too many casts; keep a generous amount of floatant on your fly for buoyancy; inspect your fly up close every 5 to 10 minutes; focus your eyes on or near the fly; when playing fish, no need to be gentle or bashful, keep a normal amount of pressure on without allowing any slack – a well-placed hook will hold no matter how small and, if your fish isn’t that well hooked, it was never yours to begin with. But if you give a trout the gift of slack, he’ll gladly oblige and spit your fly out.

Vertical – Most commonly used for chironomid fishing, a vertical presentation is generally done using a floating line and strike indicator, with fly suspended directly beneath. Think of the old bobber/worm technique in bait fishing, the overall layout is much the same. You’ll watch the indictor just like you would a dry fly, setting the hook once it goes under. No indicator? No problem. You can substitute a dry fly, preferably a stimulator or larger pattern, tying a length of tippet to the bend in the hook and suspending the second fly below (basically a dropper rig).

The depth you run with a vertical presentation can be anything, and many fishers can go down 15 or more feet. Rods and rigging become a more detailed discipline at that point. For now, know that chironomid fishing is another whole subject on its own. I’m merely scratching the surface here as a general introduction.