Simplifying the Stillwater Equation

With the stillwater season just around the corner, there’s no better time to brush up on your knowledge than now, and who better to talk about lakes than Brain Chan.

by Brian Chan

One task I seem to put off or only partially complete each winter is cleaning or thinning out my flies that are amassed in the many boxes in my boat bag.  I suspect that at least 70% of the flies I have never see the water simply because I routinely choose those patterns that have worked successfully over the past few seasons.  So, why do I tie new patterns up all winter long?  It’s that drive to perfect the ideal larval, pupal or adult insect imitation or the right leech or scud pattern for a particular waterbody.  However, for many stillwater anglers the choice of patterns is overwhelming  and confusing.  I often get asked questions about the most important trout food sources and simple patterns to successfully imitate them.  While there are many aquatic insects and other invertebrates that trout and char eat, the two that stand out for me are chironomids and leeches.  They are universal to all productive stillwaters and having a basic selection of them will at least get you in the ball game and catching fish be it spring, summer or fall. 

So, lets start with chironomids.  First, even though there are over 2500 species of chironomids that have been identified in North American freshwaters, your flybox can still be kept simple.  It comes down to imitating colour and size of the species found in the waters you are fishing.  Your box should start of with some larval or bloodworm patterns in maroon, which is the most common colour and range in hook size from 16-3X to 12-3X.  Chironomid larvae are worm-like in shape.  Their bodies are distinctly segmented so ribbings of red or silver wire or Flashabou in similar colours will add a lot more life-like appeal to the fly.  Imitating chironomid pupae is almost a science within itself but the most common pupal colours are black, shades of green or brown and silver- grey.  Pattern will range from as small as size 18 up to size 10-2X and their presence and abundance is related to the productivity of each individual waterbody.  The most productive abdominal rib colours are red, silver, gold, black and green.  Various colours of copper wire and holographic Flashabou are perfect ribbings to help accentuate the distinct abdominal segmentation and also the illusion of trapped gases which form between the abdomen and outer shuck as the pupa is preparing to make the transition to the adult phase.  There are also several brands of UV resins on the market that are ideal for coating patterns to further imitate the natural lustre of the live pupa.  Bead heads are an important part of effective pupal patterns.  White beads will accentuate the breathing filaments at the tip of the pupal head.  Black, brown, gold and silver metal beads are also effective in not only emphasizing the head and thorax of the pupa but adding weight to help get the fly down to the depth being fished.  If I had only one chironomid pupal pattern to fish it would be a black body with red wire or red holographic Flashabou ribbing with a white metal bead head.   This is a simple but very effective colour combination that has fooled a lot of trout for many anglers.   

Leeches are the other go to stillwater food source found in nutrient rich lakes.  Fully grown leeches can reach over 10 inches in length when actively swimming.  However, trout also love to eat small or baby leeches.  Leeches are most active in low light conditions.  They can be found hiding under logs and rocks or amid heavy mats of green plant growth that covers parts of the shallower shoal areas of the lake. Common leech colours include black, maroon, brown, green, mottled black and brown and mottled brown and green.  Patterns can be tied on long shanked nymph hooks or on jig hooks that are counterbalanced with a tungsten bead so that the fly can be presented in a balanced or horizonal position when suspended under a strike indicator.  I tie small or micro leeches on 14-2X and 12-2X nymph hooks and larger imitations on 10-3X to 8-3X nymph hooks.  The key to an effective leech pattern is using materials that breathe or move when the fly is drifting or being stripped in through the water.  Strung marabou and synthetic dubbing blends like Arizona Simi Seal or SLF Dubbing Products all produce realistic moving patterns.  Metal beads or cone heads in copper, gold or black will provide an undulating movement when retrieved or suspended under an indicator.  My go to pattern is the Ruby-eyed Leech with the original pattern tied with black and red Simi Seal and finished off with a copper cone head and silver lined maroon glass bead.  Improved or as successful versions of this fly uses a 50/50 mix of red and red and black Simi Seal with the same cone and bead head combination.  

I also fish a lot of micro leeches as these smaller patterns are often more effective than large leeches especially when fishing very clear water.  As well, micro leeches in various colours become suggestive patterns that could be taken for a damselfly nymph, mayfly nymph or even a caddis pupa. The BMW (Brian’s Marabou Wiggler) is a simple but very effective micro leech and general searching pattern.  I tie them using about a dozen pieces of strung marabou fibres that are twisted or spun together to form a single strand of marabou as the fly body.  Effective colours are black, maroon, olive to dark green and brown.  Ribbings of red, silver or gold copper wire help to enhance the natural movement of the marabou fibers.  Silver, brown or gold tungsten beads complete the fly. 

New and innovative fly tying materials are constantly being introduced and materials applicable to the Stillwater tier are almost overwhelming.  Those that are chironomid aficionados are especially fortunate as many of these newly released materials are ideal for refining existing pupal patterns or creating those new ones that have been drifting around in the fly tying area of the brain all season long.  Many of the newest fly tying materials seem to originate in the UK and eventually drift over to North America.  It makes sense as this is where the foundations for Stillwater fly fishing originated.  A quick google search of UK Stillwater fly fishing websites will provide more than a winter’s worth of interesting reading on tying and fishing tips that have applicability to our lake fishing scene.   

And finally, winter is a good time to practice your knot tying. When it comes to lake fishing the most important knot to learn is the non-slip loop knot.  All flies fished sub-surface have much more life-like action when tied on with this knot as it allows the fly to pivot or swing freely whether suspended under an indicator or being cast and retrieved.  There are lots of you tube videos on how to tie this knot and with practice you will be able tie the knot so the loop is no larger than about ¼ of an inch in diameter.  Keeping the loop small ensures even the smallest flies will not get tangled or twisted up in the knot.  Using this knot will definitely increase your hooking and catching success!