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Fishing Shallow in Stillwaters

Published: 7th July 2021 | Author: Joe Shafer

Over the years I have learned that going shallow in stillwaters can be some of the most explosive fly fishing you will ever see! In truth, four feet of depth to the surface is probably the most overlooked area for anglers in lakes. Studying this part of the water column for years has taught me that, if fish are actively feeding, they will be looking up for a meal. Many times I have witnessed fish traveling from eight feet or more of depth to crush flies sitting at two feet or less. I’ll share with you some specific tactics for fishing shallow in stillwaters that I use and give you some tips on targeting this part of the water column. Keep in mind, each one of these sections has endless amounts of information I could include, but I’ll try highlighting the main points to get you on the good stuff.

The Methods

Indicator setups, dry dropper, and sinking line setups are my favorite tactics to approach shallow stillwater situations.

A healthy stillwater bow.


Indicator setups are very easy and beneficial for shallow situations. You can hang your flies in very specific parts of the upper column and keep them there with no effort. The indicator does all the work. One key here though, is to NOT use bright colors! As fish look up many times a brightly colored indicator will deter them from attacking your bugs. Black and white are my go to colors, but my favorite is a clear Air Lock. Unfortunately they don’t sell them anymore, but their new white color works very well too.

One thing to note here is I’ll switch from a quick release indicator to the previously mentioned Air Lock indicator in shallow water situations. There are many reasons why I do this—play with it and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Your leader system has to be flexible so you can shorten to three feet or less. Straight long tippet sections in your leaders will help with this. I typically space my flies two feet apart in multiple fly setups on my indicator rigs. When I’m really targeting the upper column I’ll change that to 12-18 inches apart. This helps you keep those multiple fly setups in that first three feet of water.

Another big tactical thing I use in this method is short strips. These are less than three inch pulls with long pauses in between to help trigger those eats. Give it a shot some of the takes will blow your mind!

If fish are actively feeding, they will look up.

Dry Dropper

Dry dropper is always a great choice for fly fishing shallow in stillwaters. Attractor flies that you can hang a variety of weighted patterns from are typically what I go with. Another big key here is that you shouldn’t be afraid to hang larger patterns below your dry! Leaches, bait fish and catch all patterns like hairs ears and birds nests work well at attracting aggressive strikes! You certainly shouldn’t always go small. Keep in mind a little movement imparted on your flies can really trigger those feeders.

Sinking Lines

Sinking lines are very helpful in shallow water. Midge tips and full intermediate sinking lines with low inches per second sink rates work the best. Longer leaders are key, and I start at twelve feet or longer with my flies spaced out by 3-5 feet. It’s not an exact science, but the main thing I tell people is to tailor your leaders on this system for your comfort. Not everyone enjoys casting a twenty foot leader with three flies on it. I know I don’t! You can watch a thousand things on the internet about fishing. Remember that the best way to figure out what works is by going out and putting the work in and seeing how it all fits together for you.

One more thing to remember is: pay attention to your fly selection of weighted and un-weighted flies. Remember you line is sinking your flies. Many times fish are feeding in specific patterns and depths, so you want those flies fishing in specific zones for as long as possible. If you have too much weight in your flies, you won’t be able to hold those depths for long enough periods of time. There’s a very fine line in this method and it takes a lot of practice to get it all down.

No shortage of energy in this fish.

The Situations

Fish must be actively feeding for these upper column situations to work. Water temperatures, weather conditions, hatches and seasonal variation will all effect these feeding patterns. In my experiences fishing shallow in stillwaters, you can always find fish feeding in the upper water column at different times of day. I could do a book on just this topic, but I will keep this short and sweet. Tap into your situational awareness! Pay attention to what’s going on around you. Be observant. You will be surprised at how much more you pick up! Best advice starting out—change those depths frequently and make sure you test the upper three feet of water column periodically. Patterns will emerge and you will find out when and where to fish in these situations! It takes work, but if you put in the time you will figure it out and your catch rates will go through the roof. 

What to Look For

First, look for signs of bug life approaching the body of water. What’s moving around? Do I see anything different? A couple bugs I’m looking for are: ants, beetles and hoppers. I’m telling you folks, find any of these and you’re in business in the upper levels of the water column!

If you find hoppers, ants and beetles you’re in for a fun day.

We’ll take the obvious next, look for fish breaking the surface. I know what your thinking, this clown is stating the obvious! I am, kind of, but not entirely. You have no idea how many times I’ve seen anglers go chasing after surface breaks right away. I’ve even witnessed people running with their equipment, which always makes me laugh. The key to remember here is to watch for patterns. See if those rise formations are traveling. Many times fish feed in and around structure and vegetation as they travel throughout the lake. If you wait and observe what is going on water’s surface it will give you clues where to start and where you need to work to. Then you won’t have to run!

Lastly, fish the shelves. They’re also referred to as shoals! Anything from a gradual drop in grade from the banks to a deep drop off are prime areas to target shallow water eaters. If all else fails, find a shelf and you’ll find fish feeding in and out of the deep drop-offs.

An evening stillwater rainbow trout.

Hints for Success

In rivers I’ll typically start on the bottom of the water column and work my way up to find where fish are feeding. In stillwaters I typically will do the opposite by starting at the top and working my way down. Many times I’m patterning the early morning bite towards the top and then as the heat of the day arrives I follow those fish down through the water column. I will also do this with incoming and out going weather patterns, and as hatches come off. There’s a rhythm to it and it is not always the same on every body of water. Be willing to switch methods periodically. Remember the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

Try some of these tactics and use the hints on your local stillwater. Have fun with it, and don’t be afraid to think outside the box on this stuff. Be creative in your approach. These tactics work on multiple freshwater species in stillwaters, not just trout—another little hint there. The game of fishing shallow in stillwaters is very important and if you give it a shot I’m pretty sure you will be amazed at the results. 

Fishing shallow in stillwaters isn’t just effective for trout.

To learn more from Joe, you can read his other articles on the blog here.

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