What is the most essential tool you should never be without when stillwater fishing, the one item that directs your choice of line, where and when you fish, your presentation approach, retrieve styles, and fly selection? Hint: one tool answers all of these questions.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus

Did you guess thermometer? If so, you got it! Using a thermometer and understanding how water temperature effects feeding behavior is critical to success. Water temperature is the supreme ruler in determining where trout seek shelter, find food, and whether they have adequate oxygen. If their basic needs are not met, trout will not feed. External conditions such as low barometric pressures, northerly winds, and a full moon can stop the bite or at a minimum drastically slow it down. Water temperature, however, is key to determining what, where, and when fish eat.

A quick trip over to one of the Oregon Fishing Club lakes offered a delightful respite from the long, dark and rainy Northwest weather. Lakes in the Portland Valley lose their ice in January as they are low in elevation. Frigid air temperatures have cooled the surface water temperature which causes the water to stratify into layers separating the cooler water above from the warmer regions below. During winter conditions, fish hold in the deeper water where it is warmer. Fish are cold-blooded and are unable to regulate their core temperature. In colder water their metabolism slows, their movements become lethargic, and their need for food reduced. Fish holding in deeper water are not feeding, so all you can do to catch them is to provoke a reactive bite. In this case it is not a matter of line selection, specific pattern or retrieve that assures success.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

Since the water temperature warms first along shallow shoreline areas, I began by probing the shoreline. Since there were no insects on the water, I used a full sink intermediate line with a sealbugger, a suggestive pattern. Yielding no results, I moved into deeper water, probing depths of 4-7 feet. As water warms, a thermocline layer develops that separates the warm and cooler levels of the lake. Fish will move into this layer which is normally 4-6 feet below the surface. The timing that this occurs is relative to external elements including elevation, size, and depth of the lake.

Slowly I moved along in 7-foot water using a slow 6-12 inch retrieve. Long slow retrieves caused the fly to sink deeper in the water column. Stopping the retrieve allowed the fly to sink even deeper. I took a break from fishing to enjoy an energy bar. While eating my snack, a trout took the fly. I started the retrieve, realized I had a fish on, and my energy bar went flying into the water as I tried to land the fish. The hook up occurred because the fly was slowly sinking and provided the necessary time for the fish to react without having to chase the fly. As a result, I added a 4-6 second pause between the strips resulting in hooking another fish. I yearned for the energy bar that had sunk to deeper depths of the lake.

I continued scouting the lake looking for underwater structure and weed beds where trout would be holding. Weed beds provide prime habitat for various food sources as well as protective cover and oxygen for the trout. During the daylight hours, plants in the top layers of the lake absorb energy from the sun and absorbing carbon dioxide while giving off oxygen through photosynthesis. I located some weed beds and cast the fly in between the weeds. This yielded a few more hook ups from the lethargic trout. With very soft takes the trout took the fly during the pause between retrieves.

In summary, during early spring conditions, start your day by taking the temperature of the water. If water temperature is below 50 degrees, fish will be reluctant to chase anything. Adjust to the cold water conditions by slowing down all aspects of the presentation, allowing more time for the trout to see the fly. Retrieve twice as slow as normal and then slow it down even more. Another form of presentation is the use of a floating line with an indicator and present a chironomid a few feet above the bottom. This can be a killer approach in attracting reluctant trout who are not willing to move in cold water conditions.

Tips when fishing in cold water:

Probe shoreline areas where water temperature warms up first.

Fish in between weedy areas that offer trout shelter, food, and oxygen.

In early spring fish mid-day when the water temperature warms.

Use suggestive patterns such as a seal bugger, leech, or minnow patterns when aquatic insects are not available.

Use slow retrieves with pronounced pauses in between.

Watch for the February Blog which discusses the question – “Which is more important fly or presentation?”


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Water temperature is one of the major factors affecting fish feeding behavior and will dictate the best type of presentation. Why is this so important for being able to catch fish? In winter conditions when the water temperature is below 50 degrees, trout become sluggish due to a slower metabolism. A slower metabolism creates a lethargic feeding pattern. Trout will be scattered throughout the lake positioned in the top four to six feet of water. The bottom of the lake may not have enough oxygen and the top layer of the water often is colder since water freezes from the top down. With colder water temperatures, it is better to fish mid-day when the water will be its warmest. What is the best type of presentation to use in these fishing conditions?


Photo by Stan Low

A break in December’s cold Northwest winter storms turned my thoughts toward grabbing my rod and heading over to an Oregon Fishing Club private lake close to Portland, Oregon. My palms became clammy with anticipation of feeling a tight line straining against the pull of a leaping trout. That compelled me to brave the wintry conditions. However, upon arrival my first mistake was not to get back into the car and head to my favorite coffee shop: 80% of the lake was frozen over.

Fishing in these conditions required maneuvering my SuperCat pontoon boat through thick, viscous, and frigid water while breaking the ice with the fins on my feet; this generated visions of the story and ultimate fate of the Titanic. The viscous water felt like paddling through molasses. Since the fish were not going to race after the fly, my strategy was to get the fly to the depth where the fish were holding.

My first approach: I selected a floating line with an indicator and a chironomid fly pattern. While this approach is known to be deadly effective in cold water, the ice limited access to different areas of the lake creating a challenge in locating any fish.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

My second approach: I used a clear camo intermediate full sink line – which sinks approximately one foot in ten seconds – an all-purpose (aka A.P.) fly, made 40 foot casts in between the ice sheets where I knew the water depth to be seven feet. Without moving the line, I counted down 30 seconds, allowing the line to drop 3 feet below the surface, then used a very slow, 4-inch retrieve, pulling the line horizontally through the water column. This technique rewarded me with two 16-inch trout and another soft strike in 30 minutes. Why did this work? Most likely an even larger fly such as a leech or seal bugger pattern would have worked. The key element was being able to probe the water column to the depth where the fish were feeding triggering a reactionary response to the fly.

I continued fishing until the ice began reform around me, cutting off my retreat to the shore line. Realizing the I could be stuck in the lake until the spring thaw, I grudgingly worked my way back to shore breaking the ice and returned to my fly tying bench. I left the lake satisfied yet anxious for warmer conditions.

Watch for the January Blog entry on the topic of “Water Temperature

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The need to feed is the driving force that makes trout willing to move away from the safety of protective cover. Feeding trout are constantly on the move seeking food. When there are no visual cues and you’re not getting hit, it can be a perplexing and frustrating puzzle to solve. But finding where trout are feeding is like hitting a hole in one. Trout feed along shore line edges early and late in the day or in the top 1-3 feet when aquatic insects are hatching.  Remember if there are no visible water surface rings, that doesn’t mean the fish have necessary stopped feeding, they have moved to a different location or depth in the water column.  Knowing how to adjust your angling approach is the key to being able to catch fish consistently.

Photo by Vickie Loftus

Upon arrival at South Fork Reservoir in Nevada at 8:30 in the morning, the sky was partly cloudy and air temperature a wintry 23 degrees. Water temperature was a warmer 51 degrees, and the surface clear and glassy. Concentric rings appeared close to the shoreline edges indicating fish feeding on small aquatic nymphs near the surface. Seeing those rings made my rod hand itchy with anticipation. “OK,” I thought, “now I expect a potentially epic fishing adventure!” I grabbed my rod with a 7-foot intermediate sink tip line – my line of choice when I know that fish are feeding in the top few feet of the water column. The 7’ intermediate sink tip line maintains the fly up in the top feeding zone, extending the time fish may see the fly. The more fish see the fly, the greater the chance for hook-ups. The line also makes it possible to pick up the line and recast it anywhere during the retrieve causing minimal surface disturbance on the water.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

In my SuperCat pontoon boat I kicked near the shoreline edges where visible rings were forming. The water depth was 4 feet. Casting toward the shore I selected a peacock callibaetis nymph fly which is an effective pupae pattern when fishing in the top two feet of water. I used quick, 4-6 inch retrieves which kept the fly high up in the water column. I continued moving, fishing parallel to the shoreline and landed ten fish by 10:30 am.

Then everything suddenly stopped. No strikes, no observable fish, no hook ups. What happened? In previous years I would remain in the same location on the lake since I knew it was productive and try changing flies. If that did not work I would have assumed that the bite was over, disappointedly packed up my gear, and left. Fortunately, I better understand fish feeding behavior now, and that has expanded my angling techniques and with it the possibility for continued fishing in such situations. Here is what had happened:

The clouds had dissipated and the sun moved higher in the sky. Since fish have no eyelids and are highly sensitive to light, either they had moved away from the shallows or into a deeper zone to feed. No visible rings on the surface indicated the trout had stopped feeding on pupae in the top two feet, and had moved into a deeper zone. This was because the clear sky and sunny conditions had removed the trout’s protective cover. Determining where they were feeding was now my goal. I kicked from the shallow four feet water over to a depth 7-9 feet. Still moving parallel to the shoreline, I cast to the left and the right of my pontoon boat.

As I moved through the water slowly casting to either side, I allowed the intermediate 7’ sink tip line to sink for a 10-second count before retrieving. Nothing happened. I expanded my count to 20 before the retrieve; still nothing. Now I raised the count to 30 and started the retrieve. Fish on! The motion and movement of the fly through the deeper feeding zone triggered a reactive bite. The fish which had been previously feeding in the upper 1-2 feet on pupae were now feeding in the 3-5 feet zone. A 30-second count put the fly 3 feet below the surface where the fish were holding. It was not necessarily the specific fly but the motion and movement of the fly that triggered a reactionary bite.

This approach was effective because the 30-second pause before stripping allowed the fly to sink three feet below the surface (intermediate sink tip lines sink approximately one foot for every 10 seconds). Probing the water with a 10, 20 and 30 count is an effective technique to discover where the feeding fish are cruising. If you don’t get hit with a count of 10, try a 20, and then expand to a 30 count. Once you start getting hit you know the depth in which the cruising fish are feeding. Hold onto your rod and await the action! I continued moving through the water while presenting the fly at three feet below the surface and landed eight more fish by noon.

Photo by Denny Rickards

By 3pm, I had landed a total of 39 fish (all catch and release), five of which were 26 inches. The day ended with my last cast hooking into a 26-inch behemoth which broke the tip of a new rod just out of its rod case. I landed two of the largest fish of the day without the upper third of the rod! It’s interesting to fish without a rod tip – it makes it hard to determine the size of the fish until you bring them in close enough to get look at them. The concern over the broken rod was offset by the delight of such a wonderful and productive day on the water.

Things to try:

  • Trout feed along shoreline edges early and late in the day. I’ve caught some of my biggest trout along the shoreline in one foot of water.
  • Trout feed in the top 1-3 feet of water when insects are hatching. You will see rings on the surface form when this is happening. Use emerging pupae patterns and keep your fly in the top two feet of water.
  • The lack of observable rings on the surface means that trout have either moved to a different location or are feeding at a different depth.
  • Changing location and/or probing the top 3 feet when insects are hatching, are effective techniques that can help locate those hungry trout.

Here’s my angler’s mantra: “You gotta keep on moving, baby!”

Information on fishing cold water conditions coming in December’s blog entry.

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IMG_0038-croppedThis blog will describe stillwater fly fishing techniques which you can immediately put to use and that are effective in landing trout. Join me in my adventures on stillwater as I travel across the country fishing various lakes. Share the humor and sometimes unexpected experiences that create memories in some of the most incredible stillwater fishery locations in North America. You can learn more about the blog here.

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