May 13, 2022
This article was originally titled "Freshwater Flats: How to Target Trout in Stillwater Shallows" in the April-May 2022 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Too many people have the wrong impression that lake fishing is a deepwater game where you blindly plumb the depths, but the biggest trout I see every year come from the shallow edges and the stillwater flats of natural lakes and manmade reservoirs. Trout use these shallow areas to hunt and to feed, and when they are there, it’s the best chance we have to hunt them visually.
While much of my stillwater fishing is on the stillwater reservoirs of Colorado’s South Platte watershed, perhaps my favorite place to catch trout in the shallows is in Pyramid Lake, Nevada. I still have a crush on this fishery, even after spending countless days here every season over the course of the last 10 years. It is the type of fishery that will beat you up with its waves, and at times make you question whether there are any trout at all in this giant body of water.
In 2020 I was there with Trevor Ibsen. It was his first time at Pyramid, and our first day of fishing was his birthday. All I could remember was praying to the trout gods that they would reward him with a chance to land a beautiful Pilot Peak strain cutthroat trout. The forecast was for a week of sunny days with minimal precipitation. That could mean slow fishing in high sun, so we decided to start by targeting a flat, shallow-water area in hopes that some big fish would be there hunting for tui chubs or cui-ui (suckers).
While we did bring stepladders like everyone else, I have found that with large feeding flats, it’s often best to fish from shore.
Too often, lake fishermen are guilty of wading too deep, or in the case of Pyramid Lake, setting up their ladders far into the lake at times when the fish are likely to be in the shallows close to shore. After only three casts, my theory rang true. In a one-hour stretch, we managed to land five fish each, and when Ibsen set the hook on that final trout, the violent thumping of his 11-foot Winston Microspey made me stop and say, “I think that’s your giant!”
The beast broke the surface with a series of violent head shakes like a tarpon in the Florida Keys. Finally, I slid the net underneath its pale, slick belly, and to Ibsen’s delight, it was one of the biggest Lahontan cutthroat I had ever seen—it measured in at 37 inches and weighed 25 pounds. (The fish is on the cover of the April-May 2022 issue.)
Low Light Conditions
In my experiences in fishing stillwater lakes in the West, I estimate that most trout are caught in shallow water or within 20 feet of the shore. The biggest challenge in the shallows is that trout often feed in these areas when the light is low and there is glare on the water. They retreat to deeper water when the sun is high.
Low light drastically reduces your viewing lanes you use to view the bottom. Look for prime feeding areas—such as the transition from deep to shallow or from weed bottom to sand—and slowly creep into position. You want to get close enough to gain a viewing window, which in low light might only stretch 5 to 15 feet in front of you. The best way to find a viewing lane is to position yourself with the light at your back and look into the water just to the left, right, or in front of you. Yes, there is a risk of spooking your target, but the low light prevents the fish from seeing your movements very well.
On the flip side, glare on the surface can also be beneficial in shallow water. It can help you see disturbances than indicate movement. A good example of this would be wakes on the surface caused by the water bulging or rippling over moving trout. If you spot these wakes, you’ll know the general area where the trout are holding. On saltwater flats, this would be called nervous water or a “push” of fish, but the same thing happens on freshwater flats. You may not see the fish, but you know the fish is there. In a river these types of movements are difficult or impossible to detect, but on a glassy lake in the last hour of the day, they can be obvious.
Surface glare is also a great contrast for the silhouette of a drifting or waking dry fly. At this time of day, you are going to have glare, so you may as well use it. When they are in shallow water, trout are there for one reason, and that’s to feed, and they can be very aggressive toward waking flies, which often trigger snap responses from these fish—something you don’t get from fish in deep water. It’s similar to searching with a streamer—you are covering large areas of water to find fish and produce a strike, but the advantage of waking flies is that you eliminate the risk of snagging the bottom. I like to wake a fly like a #10-14 Goddard Caddis, and often hang a #14-18 Mini Leech Jig Radiant below it. An unweighted streamer with a foam or deer-hair head like #6-10 Rowley’s Foam Minnow is another good choice paired with a #12-18 Rickards Stillwater Nymph. Often, the waking dry fly attracts their attention, and they eat the subsurface fly. The dry also acts like a suspension device to keep your second fly out of the weeds.
Fishing with the Bright Sun of High Noon
Fishing the shallows in bright sunlight can be both an advantage and a challenge. The challenge in these conditions is that trout are usually easier to spook because they have greater overall visibility, and there are more shadows that will send them fleeing.
At this time of day, the sun is at less of an angle, and the glare or reflection off the water is reduced. This allows you to see into the water better, but in shallow water with calm conditions, the trout are less likely to be around. So be cautious; scan and cover the water thoroughly. Try to get a visual of the fish from a longer distance.
When there are no fish on the flats in bright sun, it’s still a good time for scouting. Look for weed beds and travel corridors between weed beds, old stream channels, drop-offs, sandbars, and potholes that might indicate a spring on the lake bottom. This is all information you can use later when the flat turns into a feedlot.
It’s common on many lakes that the day starts out calm, but as the sun and the heat index rise, the wind picks up. This inevitably brings what many anglers fear, but what I call a “big-fish chop.”
The ideal chop has wavelets from 3 to 6 inches, which provide the fish with cover by distorting the surface. If the wind gets too bad, it can make line control and casting difficult, and it can actually roil the water of the flats by stirring up sediments. You don’t want a gale out there, but chop on the water is a huge ally.
And despite the fact that trout feel safer, humans with good sunglasses can actually do a pretty good job of seeing through that chop. Flat water reflects light like a mirror, but choppy water actually provides thousands of little windows where the many angles of the light allow you to see through the waves, and piece together what’s under the surface. The entire flat can become a “window of opportunity” because the targets are less stressed—they feel safe under the illusion of cover, and will continue to feed for hours.
This chop provides the best conditions for dry flies because it slightly distorts the trout’s view of the fly. Much as in riffles in a stream, fish are more likely to eat than in flat water. It’s also the best conditions for suspending a nymph because the chop provides a subtle up-and-down movement, and it’s great for streamer fishing because your flies drop into the water unnoticed and are unlikely to spook fish.
Another great advantage of wind is that during the cold seasons of spring and fall, the breeze can drift warmer surface heat into a specific bay. I have seen where a bay receiving this blown surface water is 5 degrees warmer than other areas that are receiving cooler upwelling water.
If the wind is at your back, the casting might be easier but the water is likely cooler. If you always keep the wind in your face, you will receive the warming water and, in the height of summer, surface water also tends to carry more food like chironomids, spent Callibaetis, hoppers, and adult damselflies.
When spotting fish in the shallows, the ideal situation is to get a detailed view of the entire fish, and be able to see all of its movements and behaviors. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. When you are scanning the water, your eyes will often pick out unusual colors or a silhouette, which is often the shadow of the fish on the bottom. Once you have spotted a silhouette, the next step is to watch for movement. Look for the sideways feeding movement, tail or fin motion, and up- or downward action. By watching for movement, you will determine if what you are seeing is actually a fish or just some structure in the water.
If there is glare on the water, you may not be able to see the actual trout but you can locate them on the flat by watching the rises. They could look like anything from a head-to-tail roll to just the tail disappearing into the surface like a shark fin. These are all a giveaways of a trout’s swimming direction. This is important because unlike river trout, stillwater fish are always moving when they feed, and in shallow water they are more likely to provide these types of clues. Like a quarterback leading a receiver with a touchdown pass, you have to discern the fish’s route and lead the rise.
Candy on Top
Depth control is one of the biggest challenges you can face on the flats, because the fish are patrolling and feeding in 3 feet of water or less, and trout are built for seeing their food above them. I calculate that 70 percent of the largest trout I see in the net are the result of a dry or a dry/dropper rig. The idea that big fish are usually down deep just isn’t true. Dry/dropper rigs keep your flies above the trout in shallow water, allow your delivery to remain snag-free, and land like a feather in calm water.
In the right seasons, attractors like Amy’s Ants, Fat Alberts, Chubby Chernobyls, Candy Shop Callibaetis, and Parachute Adams can entice big trout.
Anytime Callibaetis are in season is a good time to try a dry fly. When trout see a Callibaetis dun on the surface, they’re like a kid in the candy shop—it’s hard to resist the treats. Callibaetis spinners are probably even more important, likely because they start a crazy dance routine, bobbing up and down a few feet above the surface before they mate and land on the surface. It almost appears as if they are teasing the trout.
For the trout, this makes them the best non-escaping meal on the planet. Not only are they easy to eat, they are also a generous size (#12-18) and they have up to three broods per year—starting in mid-June and in warm, dry years lasting into the beginning of October. Unlike other mayflies that tend to fare better in specific weather, Callibaetis hatch in all weather conditions, with cloud cover supplying the best conditions—you can almost set your watch by the hatch every day. The spinner fall, however, won’t amount to anything if it’s windy.
When the spinners hit the water, the adults go from an egg-laying body position with wings upright to a spent position with wings down. If you observe the trout’s feeding behavior, you can tell what stage the trout are keying in on. These upright Callibaetis adults do not escape like duns. The trout seem to know that, and they grab them quickly. Without question or debate, the best upright Callibaetis dry on the planet is a traditional hackled Adams dry #14-16. When the mayflies are finished ovipositing, the trout begin gulping on spent spinners, and that’s where the Candy Shop Callibaetis comes in.
When the Callibaetis first start landing on the water, I use just a single Adams, but I eventually switch to a double dry rig to cover both bases. The lead fly is always a traditional Adams attached with a clinch knot. I attach the Candy Shop Callibaetis to the bend of the first hook with a 2- or 3-foot piece of 4X or 5X fluorocarbon or nylon monofilament and a nonslip loop knot to prevent the tippet from twisting, and to ensure the fly lies flat on the water like a spent female.
Fishing the Candy Shop Callibaetis—or any dry fly for that matter—on stillwater requires a leader that turns the fly over adequately. Because you are casting to a moving target, you cannot allow the flies to collapse in a heap short of the target. The leader must turn over predictably so the flies land where you want them. I start with a 9-foot 3X Absolute Trout nylon leader from Scientific Anglers, and add a 3-foot piece of nylon tippet using a double surgeon’s knot.
If you still can’t put the cast in a tin cup, it’s okay in stillwater situations to overshoot. This gives you some breathing room to move the fly into position and intercept the trout. Simply drag the fly back toward you and in front of a feeding fish. Picking up the fly and casting again risks spooking the fish, but in most instances, just bumping the fly into position will not make a difference.
There are so many ways to move a dry fly—from skating, to twitching, to popping. Your strategy depends mostly on the fly you are using. I prefer to skate the dry to mimic the movements of a natural caddis, or a windblown mayfly, but there are times with a hopper when a twitching movement is better.
Fly Fishing Damselflies
Without question, some of the most exciting fishing I’ve ever experienced is when trout are chasing and eating damselflies as they swim toward shore. The first time I witnessed this frenzy take place was on the edge of Antero Reservoir, when I was 17 years old. I was amazed at not only at how many fish were actively feeding, but how they were spraying water into the air as they fed in 18 inches of water, racing to consume the damselfly nymphs swimming to shore.
The biggest challenge when fishing damsel imitations is being able to deliver the fly in shallow water, retrieve without snagging the bottom or vegetation, and keep everything natural-looking and stealthy in this shallow, clear environment. My Mini Leech Jig excelled in shallow water, so was a natural platform to build a damselfly nymph imitation.
By using extra-small olive monofilament eyes, and placing them in front of the tungsten bead, I was able to represent the shape, size, and color of a damselfly’s head. With a body of micro pine squirrel, and ostrich herl legs, you have a damselfly with a natural silhouette, movement, and it stays horizontal in the water.
Damselfly season begins as early as May, and runs through September, but generally peaks around late June. As soon as I see adults flying around, it’s game on. Trout ambush the swimming damselfly nymphs as they migrate toward shore, where they turn into adults. This is why damselflies are a key food item in shallow water—when it’s time to hatch, they leave the security of their weed beds and head to shore, and this is where trout hunt for them in water from 3 feet deep to as shallow as 6 inches.
I fish the Mini Leech Damsel Jig in two ways—the first is as a dropper below a dry that imitates another prominent food supply, such as Callibaetis or caddis. My favorite suspension dry fly is a #14 Goddard Caddis, off which I hang an olive or tan Mini Leech Damsel Jig on 6 to 18 inches of fluorocarbon tippet. I skate the caddis on the surface, which moves the damselfly nymph below it.
Another effective way to deliver the Mini Leech Damsel Jig is by using slow intermediate sinking fly lines like Scientific Anglers Sonar Stillwater Hover or Sonar Stillwater Clear Camo lines, which sink at 1 inch per second and 1.25 inches per second, respectively. It’s important to have a line that keeps your fly up in the water column where the trout can see it. You want to present the fly swimming toward the shore with a slow retrieve, which can be a finger-over-finger retrieve, or a hand-twist retrieve.
Scraping the Bottom
The Popcorn Beetle was originally designed for the giant Lahontan cutthroat at Pyramid Lake, Nevada. There is probably not a fly box at Pyramid that doesn’t have a Popcorn Beetle in it, but I’ve found it works in stillwaters just about everywhere.
“The Popcorn Beetle is a very simple fly pattern that is easy to tie,” says Doug Ouellette, designer of the popular fly. “The action is created by the buoyant 3mm foam body and the extended front foam lip. The Popcorn Beetle wobbles and wiggles with even the slightest pull, and can be tied with or without a tail. The version without the tail has better movement and is the go-to fly.”
The original Popcorn Beetle is white foam with a chartreuse chenille body. Soft body materials such as Antron chenille or the old-school chenille are best, as the cactus-type chenilles are too abrasive, and the fish eject them quickly. Today there are many different color combinations, such as black/purple with a tail (sometimes called the Pyramid Pollywog), black/chartreuse, and white/pink.
When fishing the Popcorn Beetle, it’s important to vary the retrieves and the rod angles according to the wave action and the different currents. In big waves and strong currents, stick your rod tip in the water, just above the sandy bottom. This technique is called “the grind” and it’s not meant to get the fly deep. It keeps the fly line straight from the tip of the rod to the fly for constant contact.
When there is no wave action, I use “the bounce” and hold the rod horizontal about a foot and a half above the surface. When I strip line hard, it causes the rod to bounce, giving tremendous action to the Beetle. Perhaps the most effective retrieve is called “the bump.” The retrieve is short and compact, with the rod tip just touching the surface. The bumps should be from 1 to 2 inches with a stop-and-go cadence—bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, stop, bump, bump, stop, bump, bump, bump, stop, and so on. Be sure to stop and pause for up to five seconds. This allows the Popcorn Beetle to float up toward the surface, and many times triggers a grab.
For some anglers, when there is no current involved in a fishing situation, it can be easy to think the fight in stillwater won’t be as intense as it would be in a river. But I think the hardest fight you can have in fresh water is hands down a stillwater situation.
When a fish runs away from you at what seems like Mach 2 speed, it can change direction and run the other way with the same force. There is no current that opposes the trout, so they can run freely at top speed in any direction. I don’t care how large your reel arbor is—you simply can’t keep up at times. Now add arm-wrenching head shakes and eye-level jumps to the mix, and you are truly in a fight.
If a fish swings toward your feet so fast you cannot reel fast enough, you need to strip line as quickly as possible. In a river, it’s usually wise to get the fish on the reel and play from the reel as much as possible, but standing in stillwater shallows, it’s possible to strip line quickly and pile the line in the water without tangles. To retrieve line quickly like this, push the reel far in front of you, grab the line from behind your pinched trigger finger, and pull the line with your noncasting hand all the way to your belt or hip. Then reapply the finger pinch, let go of the line, and repeat the process with an exaggerated arm movement. This is the fastest way to take in line. If the fish bolts, form a circle with your thumb and forefinger to control the line as it jumps back up off the water and through the line guides.
Fly Recipes for Fishing Stillwater Shallows
Candy Shop Callibaetis
- HOOK: #14-18 Tiemco 100.
- TAIL: Tan Microfibetts.
- ABDOMEN: Callibaetis color turkey quill.
- WINGS: Light gray Scud Backing marked with a brown Copic Marker.
- HACKLE: Dun gray and brown, cut flush on the bottom of the thorax.
- POST: Gray macramé yarn with orange/pink McFlyfoam sighter.
- EYE: Finished with a drop of Loctite super glue on top of thread wraps.
Mini Leech Jig Damsel
- HOOK: #12-18 Tiemco XT 500
- BEAD: Slotted 2.3-2.8mm tungsten Radiant bead (olive/gold).
- EYES: Hareline x-small Live Eyes.
- BODY: Krystal Flash.
- WING: Micro pine squirrel (olive or tan).
- THORAX: Dura Skin (olive/tan) pulled over large Mylar tinsel.
- COLLAR: Large ostrich herl.
Doug Ouellette’s Popcorn Beetle
- HOOK: #8 Tiemco 3761.
- THREAD: White 140-denier UTC Ultra Thread.
- FOAM: White 3mm Fly Foam.
- BODY: Chartreuse Antron chenille or Cactus Chenille.
- TAIL: White marabou (optional).
Landon Mayer is a Colorado fly-fishing guide and Fly Fisherman contributing editor. He lives with his wife Michelle and their four children in Florissant, Colorado. His most recent book is Landon Mayer’s Guide Flies: Easy-to-Tie Patterns for Tough Trout (Stackpole Books, 2022).