The noticeable quiet of a late summer morning on still water is unlikely to become a routine experience for many who devote the majority of their fishing time to the rivers of Henry’s Fork country. However, most will submit to a welcome change of pace as the season begins its transition into autumn.
While certainly soothing in its own way, the murmur of moving water denotes a quicker pace in the rhythm of water influenced by gravity when applied to the behavior of trout and what is required in their capture on a fly rod. With constant motion attached to all that lives in this environment we can find ourselves motivated by a sense of urgency to make things happen rather quickly in the false sense that what is moving is actually leaving. On still water, it seems different.
Reflected on a liquid mirror, the dual image of land and sky and all else that lies on or close to an undisturbed surface brings a visual calm to the perception of water that seems only able to be moved by the wind. And it is in this morning calm that I begin to understand how those like my friend, Gareth Jones can become as strongly connected to the still water experience as I am to moving water.
From Gareth, I have learned that a lake possesses unseen currents beneath the surface and that underwater organisms such as insects and fish are by necessity, always moving. I know now that finding the correct zone with respect to the depth I am fishing subsurface patterns will improve my success rate. Also explained is that fishing 3 or 4 different flies on a long leader can make more sense than applying a single pattern when probing the depths of lake or pond. Also to be considered is a trout’s reluctance to pursue prey in the direction of a low angled sun. Not learned from Gareth, however, is the ability to repeatedly cast 90 feet of fly line while seated in an anchored boat – the guy is that strong – But his ability is only half of it. Using and casting with the correct fly fishing tackle is the other half, you try punching a 4wt out over 90feet in consecutive casts throughout the day and you’ll know about it!
While I do not necessarily find dry fly fishing on still water to be more satisfying than the sudden weight of an unseen, subsurface take, I do confess to appreciating the visual excitement of fishing to an ever moving surface feeder.
Late summer is prime time for hatches of Callibaetis and Trico mayflies on many of our local lakes and reservoirs. Damsel flies and meaty terrestrials like hoppers, beetles, and winged ants also become active and available in this time frame, and this combined menu can bring the eyes of hungry and opportunistic trout toward the surface.
In calm conditions, the location of a rising trout in still water is often determined by sound as much as sight. The audible gulp as an insect is taken from the surface is a still water feature that relates to quiet, although calm is not always part of the package.
Perhaps due to a sensitivity to overhead danger from predators, still water trout usually display a reluctance to linger near the surface following a rise to a floating food source. And because they quickly disappear from sight and normally obey no defined feeding path, much guesswork is involved with regard to where the next rise will appear. In this situation, relaxed, efficient casting can give way to frantic flailing as a target fish takes a natural only a foot from your offering or turns to feed in a direction different from your hopeful guess. The real chaos occurs when you become surrounded by un-patterned feeding and try to change the direction of the cast in mid-stroke. Maintaining discipline and composure may be the most difficult aspect of this type of lake fishing, and a take is nearly always hard earned.
Like river fish, still water trout will often cruise the shoreline in search of what is often a random assortment of aquatic and terrestrial food items. Because water is typically more shallow along the edges a longer cast is often needed to avoid spooking trout that are more comfortable in greater depth. A more linear feeding path helps to simplify the task of getting the fly in front of the always moving target but careful calculation must be applied to placing it at a point that matches the feeding pace. Efficiency is paramount when fishing to a traveling fish that may allow only one or two casts before moving out of range.
In the right light conditions, subsurface feeders can also be spotted as they prowl the edges for nymphs and other underwater life forms. Sight fishing on still water with weighted fly patterns is especially exciting when the size of the objective is known and the reward of a perfect cast is as visual as the rise to a dry fly.
As one whose experience and expertise lies mainly in the details of fishing moving water, I have only respect and gratitude for those still water specialists like Gareth Jones who has taught me so much. This particularly applies to those times when their lessons result in a special catch that would not happen otherwise. Some of my most memorable trout in recent years have come while applying those shared techniques on local lakes like Henry’s and Sheridan. Hebgen Lake and Island Park Reservoir are also productive and enjoyable still waters as are numerous smaller lakes in the higher elevations of this region west of Yellowstone.
While the Henry’s Fork and, to a lesser extent, other rivers continue to own the majority of my heart, there will always be room for those quiet mornings on still water which, ultimately, are not so different after all.