For many years I’ve been rather reluctant to fish stillwater. Not that I was prejudiced against it or suffered from some obscure form of purism, favouring one type of water over another. I love lakes. I live near two big ones: Wanaka and Hawea, and there are host of others within an easy drive: Dunstan, Benmore, Wakatipu.
So it wasn’t access or the lack of proximity. It was just that, after the animated action on rivers I fished, after seeing trout holding station against hard flow, darting across current to take or inspect flies, I found stillwater – that’s stalking the edges of lakes, not trolling lures or haunting river mouths – a little uneventful, and well, more than a little hard.
Sure enough, mile for mile, I’d see a lot more fish along the lake edges than on any river. But getting them to take something, and succeeding, always seemed to me like a minor miracle. It probably did not help that my long-time friend and fly fishing mentor, a Wanaka guide Ian Cole, is a stillwater specialist. Every time I’d go out with him fish – nice fish too – seemed to materialise out of the deep black water that stretched beyond the drop-off, come into the shallows among the rocks, weedbeds and sandy patches where they were much easier to see, and they’d actually take our flies with amazing regularity. Every time I’d go back on my own, often to the very same spot like the famed but often hellishly hard Paddock Bay (Ian’s favourite) I’d get skunked, frustrated and disheartened by endless refusals and spooking.
But then something happened. A change of heart and fortune. One February day I was walking my dog, a spirited Airedale terrier named Mops, along the edge of lake Hawea when we noticed an unusual spectacle over and in the water. Seagulls were bomb-diving the surface with a metronomic beat and to say that trout were doing the same from underneath would not be too much of an exaggeration. I ran back to my truck to get my Stalker #4 rod and the vest and over the next 30 minutes caught six magnificent browns, any of which would make your day on a river. I never thought stillwater could be so good. Many times I’ve travelled long and far to seek quality dry-fly fishing and this, as good as anything I’ve ever found, was happening only minutes from home.
For the next two weeks I fished every day (you’ve gotta walk that dog, you know,) until the cicada madness tapered off. The fly the fish took most readily was a Yellow Humpy which is odd considering it looks nothing like a swimming or drowning cicada. The trout cruised just under the surface, whiskey-gold against the black-blue of the deep, and they moved with remarkable confidence, zigzagging from one bug to another. At times they moved so fast I had to run along the shore to keep up with them and cast. One fish refused my fly about a dozen times yet each time I offered it again the fish came to investigate (on the run to keep up there was no time to change flies.) But overall, refusals were rare. My first Yellow Humpy began to unravel after more than twenty fish.
The oddest thing was that after that unforgettable cicada summer I started to catch fish in stillwater consistently, no matter what season or style. I caught them on bully and damsel imitations in early spring, on generic Pheasant Tail and Hare’n’Copper type nymphs later on, then on midges and manuka beetles, Black’n’Peacocks and water boatmen as the season warmed up. I even began venturing back into Paddock Bay and if not quite “slaying” the hordes of fussy browns that inhabit it then at least picking off the less careful ones with satisfying regularity.
So what was different? Maybe I raised my skills level just the right number of notches, or undid some stillwater hex that plagued me before, I’m not sure. But here are some distilled thoughts from a stillwater convert. Take heed of them if you will or ignore them at your peril. Like many good things, they are born from much frustration, questioning and time on the water spent with some of the best fishermen I’ve ever known.
First of all, you need to slow down to the pace of the water you fish and with stillwater this means going REALLY slow. In fact, you’ll spot most of your fish because they are moving and you are not. Determine in which direction the fish is going then cast a long way ahead to intercept it. Do not cast at the fish or just in front of it as you would in a river. Three-four metres ahead is not too far.
Straighten the line and leader and let things settle. Then, when the fish is about a metre away, lift the rod a foot or so to animate the fly. After that, stop and let the fish take the fly. Unless the fly is a bully imitation, moving it more than once looks unnatural and often spooks the fish.
Go easy on the take. In stillwater fish have plenty of time so the action often happens in somewhat slow motion. Particularly with a dry fly it is all too easy to strike before the fish properly took it. Though purists like Ian Cole would disagree with vehemence I feel for the rest of us mere mortals using small strike indicators may be helpful, especially in slightly corrugated water. Just make sure the indicator is not too close to the nymph. When you lift the rod to animate the fly a simultaneous overhead movement of another object e.g. indicator can spook the fish or at least distract its attention.
If you haven’t so far, try some stillwater this summer. Beyond the initial frustrations and disappointments there lie endless shorelines of opportunities to stalk some very nice fish. These shores remain fishable after even the most cataclysmic rains and they are never crowded. I might see you there. I’m still dreaming of another cicada summer.