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A Starter’s Guide to Fly Fishing Stillwater in The Rocky Mountain Region

Published: 25th August 2020 | Author: Joe Shafer


I’ve been fly fishing in the Rocky Mountain region for Forty years. I can assure you that there is no shortage of places to fish. While famous for its streams, the stillwater fishing is world-class. Because there are so many options, I’m going to narrow things down and provide a starter’s guide to fly fishing stillwater in the rocky mountain region.

I’ll focus on Colorado waters, but a lot of what I’ll talk about applies to the Rocky Mountain Region as a whole. With prairie lakes, high alpine lakes and everything in between, this region offers endless variety and many different stillwater types to explore. In truth, the options that this region provides can be mind-blowing. Not only that, but you can pick a stillwater and have it all to yourself. In some cases, you may not even see another person all day. Hopefully by the end of this you’ll want to get out and explore this vast wonderful area of the United States yourself!

There’s no shortage of action when stillwater fishing!

Where do I start fishing lakes?

The first question I always get in our stillwater 101 class is: “ Where do I start fishing lakes?” To be honest, this is a loaded question with many different answers. First, you have to pick your body of water. This may be the most important part to fly fishing stillwater in the Rockies. You have to do your homework and find out everything you can about the body of water you pick. This will save you a lot of time looking in the wrong places.

I tell folks to start with smaller, more shallow lakes. Less water will help you learn the lake quicker and make you more successful faster. In these shallow lakes, learn depth ranges, structure, shelves, drop offs and most importantly, where fish hold in that body of water. While you learn these things, it’s very important to fish it periodically from ice off in the spring to when it freezes over in the fall. This will give you a great look at bug life, holding areas, weed beds and fish transitions through the water columns for the entire season.

It’s not easy and it requires a lot of water time to figure out but in the end the whole experience is rewarding and fun. As you progress, add larger stillwaters with larger depth ranges and before you know it, you’ll have a range of lakes that you can target at different times of the season to produce fish. To get you started, check out Tarryall, Antero and Spinney Reserviors. They are popular areas but good options to get you rolling. 

The fishing is top-end, and the views don’t disappoint either.

What methods should I use?

The next question I get all the time from clients is: “ What methods should I use?” Typically, my answer is all of them—but a simpler answer would be to start with what you know. Nymphing and dry fly / dry dropper are very effective methods and anglers are often familiar with them so that’s a good place to start. 

In truth, from all the years I have put on the water in the Rockies, I can tell you that indicator nymphing is by far the most effective and consistent method on stillwaters. Many people would debate that, but it’s true for me! It works well because it’s simple, you can use many different techniques and fish different parts of the water column quickly. You don’t need any specialized equipment. Just grab the rod you already have, use a weight forward floating line and you’re in business. 

Rigging up.

You want your rig to be 10-16 feet long depending on depth of the lake you’re fishing. Use 8-12 pound test level leaders or 3X tapered leaders, and attach a micro swivel or tippet ring to that. The reason I use this tippet ring is because I make my adjustments in the tippet section, not the leader. Tie about 4-6 feet of Fulling Mill Master Class Fluorocarbon tippet in 2x-4x to your tippet ring and run two or three flies 24 inches apart off of that. Now, attach your favorite indicator and you’re ready to rock! Before we move on, I’ll give you a little hint: many of our Rocky Mountain fish feed somewhere in the first eight feet of the water column, especially in the higher elevations. Do with that what you will, but don’t tell anyone! 

Getting back on track, remember roll casting is your friend. If you like fishing and not spending your day untangling rigs, roll casting is the way to go. Once you’ve got your cast down, the trick to this method is to get your flies in the right part of the water column where fish are feeding and imparting some movement to trigger strikes. I impart movement with different stripping techniques, but the fish will let you know what works.

Fly Selection

As for fly selection, I typically have some kind of attractor fly—most often a smaller streamer—and the two flies that match what is hatching. Usually things like Chironomids, Damsels or Caddis get it done. One of the cool thing about picking flies for stillwater to use under an indicator is that anything goes and you’re not limited to certain flies. Be creative with your setups and fly positions in your rigs you will be surprised by the results. As a rule, I change depth before I change flies. For this to work, you need to know your depth at all times.

Dry Fly  / Dry Dropper methods work great especially when you’re seeing a lot of movement on the surface. A 12-16 foot leader with 2-4 feet of 3x-5x tippet will serve you well here. Attach your favorite terrestrial and dry fly pattern 24 inches apart and it’s go time! Or, you can put on your favorite bead head dropper. There are a bunch of combinations and configurations, so play with them and see what works the best on your stillwater.

For learning, the great thing about stillwater fish in the Rockies is that they’re very opportunistic feeders. The major key is getting those flies out away from you, especially if you’re in some sort of watercraft. But once you do that, you’re in business.

Do I need a boat to fish stillwater?

The third and final question I want to cover is: “do I need a boat to fish stillwater?” The answer is no! With that said, if you want to cover stillwater comprehensively and learn everything you can about it, then you need some kind of watercraft. If you do want to get a watercraft, I find the best way to fly fish is from a float tube that I can control with fins. While you can go without, it is most effect to learn our Rocky Mountain stillwaters from watercraft. The benefits are too numerous to mention for this post. 

A Rocky Mountain Trout gets netted.

In closing, I’d love to go over a few mistakes I frequently see. The first one is staying in one spot to long. Fish in our Rockies lakes tend to move a lot, so staying in one place all day doesn’t work. Move and explore, that’s how you’ll learn the stillwater and your catch numbers will go up. Another big mistake I see—and it’s a big one—is leaving when the wind picks up. We get a lot of wind in the Rockies, you have got to learn how to fly fish in it. Windward sides of the lake, mud lines and drifting in a watercraft can be some of the most explosive fly fishing you will ever come across! Fish these areas correctly and watch the magic happen. 

Stillwater fly fishing is such a great deal and the best part is you can never learn it all! I’ve been doing it forty years and I still learn something every time out. I hope my starter’s guide to fly fishing stillwater in the rocky mountain region will help you get started yourself.ou can do as much or as little as you want, but I will warn you it’s very addictive so don’t blame me if you become a Stillwater Junkie in the Rockies! 

If you’re interested in learning more about stillwater, check out some of Joe’s previous articles and look out for some follow-up pieces coming later this year!

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