A Crash Course in Stillwater Tactics

Like most fly fishermen, most of my experience is in fishing rivers. However, all the FFTUSA events I have competed in have included at least one stillwater session. For this reason, I have had to put a lot of work in to improve my lake game. Here are my thoughts on how to start solving the stillwater puzzle.



The single most important piece of equipment when fishing stillwaters is a sinking fly line. This is why so many anglers grouse about fishing lakes, saying that they don’t catch many fish. Most of them are trying to fish lakes like rivers, either by drifting nymphs under an indicator (much more slowly than in a river), or by twitching dry flies along the surface. Many fish streamers as well, but they usually still fish them on a floating line which does not allow them to get deep enough, even with split shot on the leader. As a side note, split shot should always be avoided when lake fishing. Besides making casting difficult, it severely limits the angler’s ability to feel strikes. Sinking lines solve both of those problems.

There are good selections of lake-specific lines available that come in a wide range of sink rates. From less than one inch per second (ips) all the way to 7-8 ips. In my experience, intermediate (1-2 ips). Type III (3-4 ips) are the most versatile, and will probably cover around 70% of all stillwater fishing scenarios. I carry up to 7 lines ranging from a full floater (rarely used) to a Type VII. The Rio InTouch Lake Series covers a range of sink rates. This line can be rounded out with their Intermediate and Midge Tip lines for fishing closer to the surface.

Multiple reels and multiple spools allow the angler to quickly change lines // Flies from L to R: a ThinMint, Pine Squirrel Leech, and Buzzer.

A good lake rod will generally be both heavier and longer than one used for river fishing. More length will make it easier to keep the flies and line above the gunwales of a boat or the foliage on most lakeshores. A heavier rod will also be able to cast further. This is key due to the importance of distance casting in stillwaters. 9½ or 10-foot, 6-or 7-weights generally work the best, and faster action rods are better for punching through the wind and generating the line speeds necessary to make these long casts. Rods such as the Sage Method, Redington Vice, and Sage Accel are available in these sizes.


We will not cover distance casting techniques in this piece, as such a topic is best covered with in-person casting seminars and clinics. All I will say is that when attempting to cast 60 and 70 feet, the loop must be tight and controlled, and sufficient line speed must be generated. Tight loops are accomplished by keeping the power stroke short. Additional line speed can be gained by incorporating a double haul.

Note the positioning of the angler’s non-casting hand during the stroke. [See title photo above] As he backcasts, he lets that hand drift back slightly, not so much that he removes tension from the line, but enough so that he has room to make a strong haul on the forward cast


Determining the depth at which the fish are feeding is accomplished primarily with the countdown method. For example, if one is fishing a Type III sinking line (3-4 ips), and thinks the fish are feeding 2 feet below the surface. The line should be allowed to sink for 6-7 seconds. As a side note, it is also important to strip all slack out of the line as soon as it hits the water. This will ensure a sufficiently fast sink rate.

Once the angler has determined approximately what depth the fish are feeding at, the next step is to determine what kind of retrieve they are keyed in on. To start, keep the retrieve as random as possible. I might start (in a single presentation) with two fast 12” strips, four slow 6” strips, one medium-speed two-foot strip, tuck the rod under my arm and do 6 seconds of fast roly-poly, followed by eight fast 4” strips. The important thing to remember is that very few (if any) natural food sources move for forty feet in 12” bursts at the exact same speed. As a side note, don’t hesitate to incorporate plenty of pauses into your retrieve. Fish will often follow a fly and on these pauses.

There are no set formulas for which retrieves work best in which scenarios, except for the that the speed of retrieves should generally slow down as the water temperature drops.


When retrieving, it is very important that the angler keep their rod tip in the water. This will greatly aid in strike detection, and will also ensure that the line gets down to the desired depth. Not only does the rod tip stay in the water during the retrieve, but it also stays there when the fish takes. Because of where the fish is in relation to where the angler can apply force, if the angler lifts his rod to set, they will just pull the fly right out of the fish’s mouth. Keep the rod tip low, stripping hard until the line goes tight. Then you can raise the rod and bring the fish in.

Fly selection takes a backseat to both depth and retrieve, but still must not be overlooked. Every angler will, over time, develop their own confidence patterns for stillwater fishing. I have found that bugger variations in black, olive, and brown, sizes 8-12, are the most consistent producers. Damsel nymphs are also a key food source in many lakes and reservoirs, as are midges and chironomids.

In conclusion, most anglers view lake fishing as more difficult than river fishing. However, that does not have to be the case. If anglers try to fish lakes in the same way they fish rivers, they will indeed struggle. If anglers can unlearn what they know from river fishing, that will be a leg up.

Ed Mulhern has fished in four Fly Fishing Team USA regional events and one U.S. Fly Fishing Championships. He received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado School of Mines in 2014. Ed currently works for a software company in Denver.