Fly Fishing Lakes - Modern Loch Style Fishing
First Published in Fish and Game Magazine
By Rene Vaz
Looking at the quality of our New Zealand rivers it’s easy to understand at times why our stillwater fisheries get overlooked. This thought rung true a few months back as a friend and I launched a boat at Turangi’s Lake Otamanakau. We had fished the rivers the day before and constantly came across other anglers on every pool. In contrast at ten am on Sunday morning we launched the only boat onto one of New Zealand’s best known and best fished stillwaters.
To break our stillwater fisheries down simply, from a fishing technique point of view we have three types. Firstly and rightly most popular are our smelt based fisheries of the North Island. Namely the Rotorua lakes and Lake Taupo. Secondly are the many brown trout dominated fisheries primarily in the South Island where cruising fish can be targeted along the lake margins. Thirdly both our North and South Island’s have a number of nutrient rich lakes that harbor fantastic fisheries primarily around aquatic invertebrates such as midge and damsel and caddis fisheries this last category of stillwater is prime target for modern loch style techniques.
In essence modern loch style fishing is, stillwater fishing from a drifting boat. Although the techniques are primarily founded around UK’s stillwater fisheries the advent of the international competition fishing circuit has popularised these techniques around the world.
You’ve probably heard the explanation before that the primary difference between fishing in stillwaters versus rivers is that in a river the water moves and the fish stay still (relatively of course) intercepting the food brought to it. Versus in a lake the water stays still and the fish moves in order to forage for food in the water column. This concept is true in many stillwaters when fish can roam in and out of an area. For example fish in the Rotorua and Taupo stream mouths will move in and out of the stream mouths following smelt and or as the day progresses. In many cases however stillwater trout roam a small given area, or beat. In these cases once you’ve made a few casts into an area. It’s time to move on. Fishing from a drifting boat enables you to cover a wider range of water. Making one or two casts into each spot before the boat has drifted into the next feeding zone. There are a number of situations that fish best from an anchored boat such as fishing river mouths or extreme drop offs. However in most other circumstances it is more effective to cover water on a lake from a drifting boat, the more water you cover, the more fish you cover and the more fish you cover, the more you catch.
In light winds drifting is a simple process, you just don’t put an anchor down. You start your drift from up wind of where you’re wanting to go, and importantly try and position the boat so it will drift along a weed bed, wind lane or drop off where you’re expecting to find some fish. If you don’t quite get the drift right the first time you simply motor back to the top of your drift and angle yourself better next time. In stronger winds the use of a drogue or sea anchor is essential to slow down the drift of the boat. The drogue can also be positioned to drift the boat on the right angle. A drogue is essentially a parachute that drags behind the boat to help slow it down. If you want to give this a try without going to too much expense, a plastic bucket with a hole in the center makes an adequate drogue.
Now that you’re drifting along here comes the important stuff. If you cast behind the drifting boat then essentially you’re trolling and that’s fine if you want to sit down, drink a beer and relax. But to effectively fish loch style you make your cast in front of the drifting boat. Remember that you have the wind on your back, so casting a long line is easy. You throw a tight loop back into the breeze on your back cast and an open loop on your front cast that the breeze will carry for you. Make sure you fan out your casts to the left and to the right to make sure that each cast is reaching new water.
The best single piece of advice an angler new to stillwater fly fishing can take on is “you need to understand and focus on what your flies are doing”. If you’re fishing a dry fly on a river then it’s obvious what the fly is doing because you can see it. When you’re pulling flies through the water column of a stillwater then it gets a little more complex. Do you know how deep it is? How fast is your line and flies sinking? At what speed will you need to retrieve just to keep up with the drift of the boat? When fishing from the bank or a stationary boat then your flies are going to follow the exact movement that you impart to them from your retrieve. From a quickly drifting boat however you may have to do a double handed retrieve just to keep up with the flies.
Consequently the retrieve needs to be switched to the type of flies you are fishing. For nymphs a slow figure of eight retrieve is enough to keep you in contact with the flies and move them steadily through the area you’re covering. Alternatively nymphs also fish well static, many anglers use indicators to do this effectively. I personally prefer to fish bright coloured floating lines for my nymph fishing. This way I can see the line movement from takes and also so I can easily watch the drift of the line in the wind. Lastly a rise and fall retrieve is an extremely effective way of moving a team of nymphs through the water column. Once the nymphs are given a couple of short strips on a floating line they come up towards the surface and upon resting they fall back down through the water column, it’s common for fish to take the flies on the drop so make sure your ready to detect the take.
Fishing lures or wetflies should be equally varied. In this case your imitating baitfish, crayfish, dragonfly nymphs or just fishing general attractor patterns. Regardless it’s important to note that you will never out strip a trout and baitfish in particular will really move to get out of the way of a predatory fish. Consequently lures can be fished from as fast as you can move them down to a slow crawl. The important thing isn’t that you should be retrieving fast or slow, the point is your trying to make your flies look alive so use a varied retrieve with plenty movement to induce more takes.
The next factor in understanding how to retrieve your flies is adding in the speed of the boats drift and movement. First and foremost the drift speed needs to be added to your retrieve speed. In high winds you may need to strip flat out just to keep up with your flies, in contrast in light winds there is less to compensate for. Remember the rule? You need to focus on what your flies are doing and what you want them to do.
The final factor to understand in your retrieve is the sink rate of your flies and line and the depth that you are wanting to fish at. For example an ultra fast sinking line such as a Di-7 (7 inches per second) will sink quickly into the fish catching zone and will normally require a quick retrieve to keep the flies off the bottom. In contrast if fishing an intermediate sink line (normally around 1.5 inches per second) you will need to slow your retrieve down in order to get your flies into the fish catching zone, of course if you are wanting to slowly crawl a team of nymphs that may be exactly what you are wanting your line to do and the intermediate will be the best choice.
Many of you will have fished a stillwater before and as you pulled your flies out of the water a fish swirls at the surface. Or a fish races in on your flies only to see you and your boat and quickly spooks. In fact it must be scary to know how many fish actually see or even take our flies that we never even notice. Fishing the “hang” is a method whereby towards the end of your retrieve you stop retrieving and give a following fish a chance to engulf the fly. With a sinking line the line will naturally drag the flies deeper as the line sinks, this creates a dramatic change of direction for the flies and will often result in a last minute take that would have been missed otherwise. The hang is such a critical part of the stillwater fishing process I’ve even had days when every fish for the day has come on the hang. To aid this what I’ve done is marked all of my stillwater sinking lines with hanging markers using flat fluorescent tying thread. Each line has an orange marker at 10 foot and a green market at 20 foot. I know I should get metric for you but as my stillwater rods are 10 foot long I use this as a guide. Once the marker hits the tip ring you’ll feel a click telling you to stop the retrieve. The reason I’ve made two markers is dependent on the conditions, in clear lakes I like to hang the flies at 20 feet to keep them well away from the boat. In rough conditions or in murky water 10 feet seems to work best. I’ve seen a number of anglers hang once they see their top fly reach the surface, although it’s exciting to see a fish swirl at the boat I find this too close and most following fish seem to have given up once the flies are in this close. In this instance there seems to be some confusion between hanging the flies and what Scottish anglers call dibbling. In short, hanging works and is an important part of loch style fishing dibbling is a totally different ball game which suits some fisheries when the fish are active on top. The critical thing about fishing the hang is that you keep doing it cast after cast. It’s a guarantee the time you don’t do it a fish will boil on the surface after your fly as you pluck it out of the water to recast.
A number of anglers I know effectively fish indicators when stillwater nymph fishing. Personally I prefer not to, when fishing with a floating line I will either watch the end of the fly line which I prefer to be brightly coloured or I will watch the loop of line that drops from the rod tip down to the water. This technique of “watching the loop” was popularized by the French team that won the 2000 world fly fishing championships in England. More often than not it is difficult to see the end of the line due to glare or especially if you’re fishing a long line. In this case I’ll stick with the loop method. With a strong take you’ll see the loop straighten with subtle takes it will merely stay straight after a strip. By and large most takes you’ll feel by hand especially if you are fishing a non stretch line.
To strike regardless of your retrieve speed the most effective method is not to use the rod but to strip strike. This way you keep your rod down in the fishing position and just make a couple of large strips to set the hook. This way if the fish doesn’t hook up you can keep fishing your flies back and he may have another go. The strip striking method has become more and more popular with saltwater fly fishers for the same reasons. Once you’ve made a solid hookset you simply raise the rod and play the fish as normal.
When fishing sinking lines because you are in direct contact with the flies at all times you tend to feel everything that is going on through the hand. I also prefer putting the rod tip on a slight angle and watching the rod tip for movement, many subtle takes are easiest seen as a bounce of the tip. Again you’ll feel 100% more through a non stretch fly line than a traditional line for this style of fishing especially if a fish picks up a static fly at the end of a thirty meter cast. I run a wide range of lines that cover slow intermediate 0.5 IPS (inches per second), fast intermediate 1.5IPS, Di-3 3IPS, Di-5 5IPS and Di-7 7IPS. Although I like nice fly reels to keep costs down I’ve gone for relatively low cost reels and prefer to make the investments into the lines which really help to make the right presentations for me.
While we’re on the tackle the last piece of equipment I’d recommend is a 10' fly rod. The extra length from a 10 foot rod has a number of advantages. Firstly the extra length gives you extra reach to hang over the side of the boat and if you are fishing from an anchored boat the longer rod makes it easier to anchor on a weed bed and reach your rod tip over it. Longer rods also make it easier to handle and cast a team of three flies. To create the right action ten foot rods are more or less nine foot rods extended from the butts section. The result is a ten foot six weight will have a soft tip section like a classic nine foot six weight except it will also have a powerful butt section more like a nine foot eight weight. This longer stiffer butt gives the rod better leverage on larger fish and more back bone for casting long lines. This will really come into play when you’re casting a high density line like a Di-7. It’s also nice to know the flies are traveling an extra foot above your head when they come through on the cast.
Before you run out the door and buy your first ten foot rod, it would be worth taking on a couple of words of advice. When it comes to ten footers, to get a nice action you really do need to have a high modulus butt section. That doesn’t mean it needs to have an expensive brand name on the side of it. It just means that if you have a soft butt section on a long rod you are really going to end up with a long noodle and you would be better of fishing a low cost nine foot rod for the job. All in all if you can justify the cost then a good quality ten foot rod will give you the power to cast as far as you want to and enough feel to pick up a fish grabbing your nymph at distance. Add to this they make great rods for short line nymphing but that’s a totally different topic.
Lastly and importantly in your set up is the working end of the game. The leader. Whether fishing lures or nymphs it’s important to give your flies plenty of space, unlike fishing a river nymphing set up where the two flies tend to be quite close together. In stillwaters the goal is to be covering the water column, to do this I fish my flies around four to five feet apart. In clear water I place my first fly at seven feet, the second at twelve and the last at seventeen feet. In murky water or on deep sinking lines I drop that back to five, nine and thirteen feet. Note the value of a longer rod to handle these long leaders, also remember that you are casting down wind and throwing more open loops which make handling the long leaders easier.
To give the flies added movement it always seems to be best to place the dropper flies on traditional droppers from the tag ends of a water knot. Rather than tying the next fly from the hook shank of the one above it. The strongest way to build a leader this way is to take a single piece of mono the length of the total leader (say thirteen feet) and then add in the short twenty centermeter droppers at the desired points. This way the main leader is one piece and holds the greatest strength.
Now before I start making rules that are only going to be broken, I’m going to throw in a disclaimer. The best fly is the one on the end of your line, when it comes to wet flies (or lures) there are not many pattern that wont work. And if you’ve learnt how to cover water well; control your depth, retrieve well and hang your flies then you’ll catch fish on whatever fly you choose to use. In saying all of this good fly choice can and will improve on all of the good work you are already doing.
To set up a team of lures I like to do the following. The top dropper (fly closest to the fly line) will normally consist of an attractor style fly. In dirty water or in late season when trout are preparing for spawning then an orange or similar coloured fly will work well in this position. Or in smelt based fisheries a sparkler pattern is a great attention grabber. Whilst a fair share of fish will take the attractor pattern the role this fly plays in the team is to draw attention to your flies. For example cagey browns tend to prefer more subtle flies but will often follow an attractor pattern which is all we need to happen. The next fly in the team is the middle dropper, this is often the most subtle fly in the team, I’ll often place a natural pattern with no flash in here or even a nymph. A natural pattern placed in the middle dropper is often the key fish catcher during the hang, especially when fishing a nymph in this spot. Finally the point fly is the fly that tends to pick up the most fish. No doubt because it has the least amount of monofilament drifting around it. In this position I tend to fish longer flies. Such as bead head woolly buggers with long tails. In smelt based fisheries long rabbit flies work well in this position. I spent a year fishing these methods in the UK. Prior to fishing with the UK anglers most of my lures were short tailed , primarily based on American river patterns which we find in our tackle stores in New Zealand. I also had the concept that the longer tails elicited short takes and consequently missed fish. The guts of the matter is, I was wrong even my longest flies are only 8cm long and any decent trout has no problems taking this in one bite. I’ve seen a number of fish take a fly in front of me and more often than not they side swipe the fly. The main advantage of the longer tail is action and when coupled by a weighted head from a bead or a few wraps of lead wire then the resulting kicking action is a sure fish catcher. In smelt based fisheries we tend to be well educated with choices, versions of the traditional rabbit patterns are still effective as are modern epoxy patterns.
Stillwater nymph categories are often broader than those found in rivers. Like our rivers our stillwaters are laden with mayflies and caddis. Of equal importance are damsel and dragonflies, water boatmen and of greatest importance is the midge both in it’s larval stage known to most as a bloodworm and also the pupal stage.
The principle for setting up a leader for nymphs is much the same as with lures. Again the flies need to be spread out so they can fish a variety of depths. The droppers can be lightly weighted or unweighted patterns with a faster sinking pattern placed on the point. The result is a team of flies that suspend vertically through the water column. The most important factor in choosing stillwater nymph patterns versus classic kiwi river patterns is to make sure they are slim. Also when I refer to a weighted pattern for the point fly, this doesn’t need to have a five mil tungsten bead but merely a copper wire rib on a heavy gauge hook. Remember that we’re not dealing with current here and if you’re only going to be slowly moving the flies then it wont take long for a light weight fly to reach the bottom. The super glue buzzer patterns are extremely effective at this, tied with no more than an epoxy finish over tinsel and tying thread. This simple pattern is all you need to anchor the end of a three fly nymph leader.
As a rule of thumb when you’re nymph fishing you’ll choose slower sink speeds in your fly lines than you will need when you’re fishing lures, primarily due to the fact that the nymphs will require much slower retrieves. Some of the most effective lines for this style of fishing are the intermediates, even when I’m fishing quite shallow water I will often switch to a slow intermediate line (0.5IPS) as the line will break through the surface and not be swung by the wind or bounced around by the waves like a floating line will.
Another effective method of fishing nymphs is to place a floating fly such as a booby fly on the point and suspend a nymph or two on droppers. This technique known as the washing line is a great way of suspending nymphs through the water column. It can be done with a range of sinking lines to put the flies into the target depth. I set up a rig like this on a lake a few months ago known more for targeting spawning fish on the lake edge. When I arrived at the lake there were already a group of anglers who were successfully fishing orange boobies. Not wanting to miss out I popped and orange booby on the point and suspended a claret and a black midge pattern from droppers. I was pleasantly surprised to get more than my share of fish that afternoon all on the midge patterns. It seems when given the choice the fish were a lot more comfortable feeding on natural patterns than picking up the attractor boobies.
Dry flies differ greatly between stillwaters and rivers. First and foremost stillwater dry flies fish best in the film (for more info on fishing the film refer to F&G Issue 59). On New Zealand stillwaters dries vary greatly from terrestrials such as cicadas and beetles, to hatching aquatic insects such as midge, damsels, caddis and mayflies. When it’s cicada time then a single fly such as Clark’s cicada will pull fish from the depths. Less understood and exploited are when fish are up and feeding off the surface in wind lanes. Wind lanes are formed in lakes when surface currents converge, collecting debris and foam in a lane running along the lake. Along with the debris are also gathered hatching insects and fallen terrestrial insects. Fish can often be found working their way up and down wind lanes readily feeding off the surface. My first real experience at this kind of fishing was on a stillwater called Lynbreneck in Northern Wales with Welsh fly fishing champion Gareth Jones. Having read about this style of fishing I had prepared myself with the right flies. Modern stillwater flies such as bob’s bits, shipmans’ buzzers and hoppers, all made with soft sparse hackles and seals fur bodies. And also CDC shuttlecock patterns and flat backs which suspended nicely through the surface film. We started our first drift along a prominent wind lane and on cast number two I noticed a swirl out of the corner of my eye. There was a pause and then Gareth lifted his rod into his first fish. Three casts later and Gareth was into number two, this continued through to number five when I piped up and confessed I had no idea what I was doing. Gareth passed a smug look back at me and guided me through the following changes. Firstly I knew all about throwing plenty of slack line into a cast on a river, however when on a stillwater I thought it would be fine to get away with simply laying out a straight cast. And as Gareth explained it the three flies simply dragged each other around in the waves. Secondly I had set up my leader using fluorocarbon which was sinking and causing my flies to drag and at times sink. Lastly and most importantly I wasn’t scanning the water and looking for swirls and back waves which were being created by fish that were moving up the wind lane.
A few minutes later after my lesson I threw a slack line cast, with a fine copolymer leader over what I thought looked like a disturbance in the waves, the flies had hardly hit the water when a spotted snout popped out of the water to engulf one of them. I still didn’t manage to keep up with Gareth’s catch rate that day but I did have a new technique to try out back home. I’d seen rising fish in our lakes for years without it ever dawning on me that I could actually get these fish to take a dry fly from the surface. It’s so easy to get into habits with our fishing approach and miss out on some of the best opportunities.
This article is merely a brief overview on some of the possibilities that lie within our world class stillwater fisheries. As angling pressure increases on many of our prized river fisheries expanding our knowledge and enjoyment of stillwaters will help our sport to both grow and sustain its future. So next time you drive into the carpark of your favourite river only to see that there’s a dozen anglers that have raced up the river ahead of you. Don’t follow them, find yourself a stillwater and find out what everyone’s missing.