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Fly Patterns for Stillwaters


Seasoned stillwater fly fishers use patterns specfiically designed for lakes.
Scouring the bins of many fly shops finding a selection of proven stillwater fly patterns often requires detective work.  Fly-fishing has its roots firmly entrenched in rivers and streams so it stands to reason that fly bins reflect this trend.  But every year sees more anglers seduced by the charms of lakes.  One thing is certain fly fishers are on the prowl for productive stillwater patterns.


For the fly tyer there are few places to turn, as most stillwater patterns are river and stream hybrids or transfers.  Hareís Ear nymphs, Wooly Buggers are excellent starting points but the serious stillwater angler has to put the river and stream box on the shelf.  The time has come for stocking fly boxes with patterns focused upon stillwater food sources.  This desire became such an obsession it lead to the creation of my book, Fly Patterns for Stillwaters.


So where does the stillwater fly fisher and tyer begin?  Successful fly fishers need to have a basic understanding of all of the potential food sources within their area or chosen destination.  This is the basic foundation of fly-fishing and it is no different for lakes but stillwaters are complicated and intriguing enough so there is no need for the angler to make things worse by having a million different patterns.  This comes over time believe me!  At any time a myriad of potential candidates might be on the menu, from robust dragon nymphs, to caddis larva or slender chironomid pupa.  Thankfully the approach and solution is simple. 


Opportunists by nature trout prey upon whatever crosses their path.  Typically it is a stillwater staple.  Stillwater staples are those food sources that are available year round.  In productive stillwaters throughout western North America there are five key food sources or staples; scuds, chironomids, damselflies, dragonflies, and leeches.  Even in the face of regional or seasonal peaks such as an emergence of Callibaetis mayflies one or all of these staples always draws an instinctive response from the trout.  Staples are the brood stock for any stillwater fly box.




Scuds are season long prey item.
Scuds are arguably the most important year round food source of trout in productive stillwaters.  These fertile armadillo like crustaceans fill the non hatch voids of early spring, late fall and the low light conditions of early morning and evening.  Yet despite their obvious appeal to trout scuds donít seem to garner the same respect from anglers, they are the Rodney Dangerfield of the menu.  In the lakes and ponds throughout the west fly fishers are in tough against the millions of naturals taking the needle in the haystack analogy to all new heights.  Perhaps this explains why fly fishers might seek to impersonate other food sources.


The stillwater fly box should be populated with scud patterns ranging from size 10 through 16.  Use the larger sizes to imitate members of the Gammarus clan common to the numerous calcium rich lakes of the west.  The smaller sizes from 14 down cover the smaller but more widespread Hyallela.  Avoid exaggerated, arched hooks.  Arched scuds are either dead, resting or feeding, successful patterns focus upon the outstretched posture of a swimming scud.


In addition to size color is the other obvious consideration.  Scuds have a unique chameleon quality enabling them to adapt their coloration to their surroundings.  Clear marl type waters are home to pale olive, watery green or tan colored scuds.  In darker algae waters scuds lean towards dark olive and green.  From time to time anglers might observe the turquoise color of a freshly molted scud and a selection of appropriately colored scuds is always worthwhile.  There has been much written about orange colored scuds.  Dead scuds, obviously not worthy of imitation, turn orange due to the carotene in their system.  Carotene is common to all crustaceans and is the reason for the bright orange flesh of any fish feeding upon them.  Pregnant females store their eggs in the marsupium along their undersides giving their mid section an orange hue.  The orange spot seen on the backs of many scuds is not the brood pouch but a parasite known as Acanthocephalan.  This parasite causes the infected scud to swim upwards, hardly an effective flee response.  Whether infected or pregnant the fly box should include a selection of scuds with an orange midriff.




Precise presentations, slow patient retrieves and slim patterns make chironomids perhaps the most difficult discipline facing stillwater fly-fishers.  Chironomids are a constant throughout the stillwater season, love them or hate them they are the most potent weapon within the stillwater fly box.


Patterns from size 10 through 18 cover the majority of hatch situations facing stillwater fly fishers.  Although fly fishers plying some waters, such as those of south central British Columbia, might want to include size 8ís as mutant pupa are common to many waters within this productive region.  


Chironomid pupae dominate just about every color within the spectrum.  Flies should be dressed in black, maroon, olive, brown, and various shades of green.  Focus upon bright body materials such as Frostbite, Flashabou, Krystal Flash and V-Rib to imitate the trapped air and gases pupa use to augment their tedious ascent.  Basic black mixed with ribs of red, copper and silver is a great starting point.  Good friend and Kamloops area guide Gord Honey advocates maroon as his key color.  In addition to its natural color maroon can also pass for black or brown.  Many chironomid species retain residual hemoglobin from the larval stage in the tips of their abdomen.  A sprinkling of red-butted patterns is a worthy investment.  Glass, metal or tungsten beads provide additional attractive flash along with much needed weight.  Tungsten beads are a godsend in windy conditions as they keep the fly in the feeding zone despite the strong circulation currents.


In addition to pupa patterns the chironomid arsenal should include a smattering of larva patterns.  A size range of long shank  #10 through #14 covers most situations.  Popular colors include red, maroon, green and a unique candy cane combination of red and green, whatever the color all chironomid designs pupa or larva must be rapier thin. 



Mention a lake or a pond and the first insect that springs to mind is the damselfly.  Although occasionally preyed upon as adults stillwater anglers should concentrate their efforts imitating the nymphal stage.  With an average life cycle of one-year damselfly nymphs can reach over an inch at maturity and hook sizes from 8 through 14 works best. 


As with scuds and other aquatic invertebrates damsel nymphs are masters of camouflage so the stillwater fly box should reflect a variety of colors including olive, brown, brown olive and insect green.  The clearer the water the lighter the nymphal color.


The most challenging aspect of duplicating damsel nymphs is their sultry sinusoidal swimming motion.  Patterns incorporating soft supple materials such as marabou, rabbit fur and aftershaft feathers are recommended.  Bodies need to be skinny as the widest part of the nymph is its prominent head and eyes.  Many tyers imitate the eyes as they provide realism coupled with angler confidence.  Popular eye materials included mono eyes and knotted vernille.  As with most patterns today the addition of a metal bead aids most damsel designs by providing an additional jigging motion to further animate the pattern.




Facing the vast expanse of a lake for the first time most fly fishers reach for the largest tidbit within their fly box, a dragon fly nymph.  There is nothing wrong with this approach.  Dragon nymphs are a large year round food source that trout seldom pass by.  In stillwaters there are two families to consider, the large stalking nymphs of the family Aeshnidae and the smaller reclusive sprawlers from the family Libellulidae.


Dragon patterns should be tied on long shank hooks ranging in size from #4 down through #10.  For the climbing nymphs a size 6 would be average size while for the smaller sprawlers opt for a size 8.  Although a high calorie meal donít overdue the body proportions, Aeshnidae nymphs have a distinct hourglass shape while shy Libellulidae nymphs have a fuzzy spider like appearance.  Consider a buoyant approach to pattern construction to avoid constant hang-ups while probing the bottom reaches where dragon nymphs roam.


Dragon nymphs have a mottled color scheme.  In clear lakes shades of olive and green predominate while in clouded algae or tannin waters dark olive and brown take precedence.  Let surrounding vegetation and bottom debris guide color selection.  As with most insects dragon nymphs grow through a series of molts or instars.  Immediately after a molt the distinct neon green dragon is an overt standout, their usually aggressive disposition switches to shy and evasive until their new exoskeleton has hardened.  Reserve a place within the fly box for a few bright green patterns to take advantage of these molting nymphs.




Be sure to have a comprehensive collection of leech patterns.
With probably the worst reputation of any food source imitated by fly fishers worldwide itís a good thing trout arenít concerned with reputation.  From a stillwater fly box perspective leech patterns are probably the pattern of choice when plying unfamiliar waters or new to flat waters.  In many instances it is tough to fish a leech incorrectly fast, slow, up in the water, down near the bottom all types of presentation can produce.


Although capable of attain sizes of close to a foot trout prefer leeches in the one to three inch range and are best imitated on long shank #6 through #12 hooks.  Donít discount the smaller sizes, as these baby or mini leeches can be lethal.  Weighting the front portion of the hook with lead wire substitute, beads or cones provides a seductive jigging motion animating the soft materials good leech patterns are noted for.  Beads and cones provide added flash too.


Favored leech colors include black, maroon, brown, olive and various mottled combinations.  A mixture of a dark and light olive aftershaft feather body and matching marabou tail works well when trout seem wary of the traditional solid color cuisine.  I keep a mixture of somber and bright patterns within my fly box, somber for moody days and clear waters and garish patterns for clouded water or aggressive fish.  I utilize this approach for many of my stillwater designs.


For any stillwater fly fisher sticking to one of these stillwater staples is a sound tactical approach.  Unless alerted to other specific items, by hatch or local knowledge, staples form the backbone of any stillwater fly box.  Use them as a cornerstone to further pattern experimentation and design, building upon them to include other stillwater food sources such as mayflies and caddis. 

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