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Small Water Secrets: the Approach to Guaranteed Success on Small Stillwaters

Published: 30th March 2021 | Author: Rob Edmunds

Small stillwaters, any waters under 40 acres, are often looked down upon by reservoir anglers. They often refer to them as “muddy puddles” or “stock ponds.” This belief is largely due to the fact that waters of this size have a high stocking density per acre of water (compared to large reservoirs) and a frequent stocking policy.  Reservoir anglers assume that catching a bag limit on such waters is virtually guaranteed and not at all difficult.

Unique Challenges

I think this is totally unfair. Small stillwaters present their own challenges, and I’ve no doubt that the fishing can be just as difficult. Catch & Release is now a common practice on many small still waters. There are also increased angler numbers (compared to a reservoir) in a much smaller area of water. This has a dramatic effect on the fishing and how the fish react. 

I fully accept that the recently introduced stock fish are extremely easy to catch. Any fly moved in front of them is usually enough to illicit a response. However they soon wise up and become very hard to catch, particularly at the end of the week when there have been no fresh fish stocked in the water for 4 or 5 days.  

Small stillwaters are often a case of extremes……extremely difficult or extremely easy. If you are fortunate enough to drop on a pod of recently introduced fish then you’ve hit the jackpot. You can enjoy an easy day catching fish after fish on almost any method or fly while those other anglers around you struggle. 

If you aren’t so lucky, read on and consider the following approach.

If you take the right approach on small stillwaters, you can have yourself a day!

The Small Stillwater Approach

Generally fishery rules at Small stillwaters only allow fishing from 8:00am. There is no fishing from first light as at reservoirs when the fish are really in the feeding mood, so “prime fishing time” is much shorter.

When fishing these waters I divide the day up into 3 parts no matter what the time of year and adopt a similar approach:

Small Stillwaters: The First Two Hours

When arriving at the fishery I always initially attempt to fish into the wind at the start of the day. The wind often increases as the day goes on, making some areas unfishable by 10:00am. I never wade into the water initially. I find it just pushes the fish further out or puts them off, and it can also colour up the water. So, I start on the bank and only wade after 5 or 6 casts.

Initially on almost every small stillwater, the fish will respond well to a lure. This is because they have not received any angling pressure overnight, and have not been bothered by anglers wading, or flies and fly lines repeatedly hitting the water. There is no better pattern than a Mini Weighted Olive Snake paired with a medium to fast roly poly on a floating or intermediate line. The undulating movement and the natural colours almost guarantee action.

A mini weighted olive snake.

Move and Repeat

However success will be limited. You often catch within the first 8 or 10 casts, but then the action stops. Rather than to spend the next 1 hour 45 minutes in the same spot fishing the same pattern in the same way to the same fish ( that have now become a lot harder to catch) I suggest you move, fish fresh water, and repeat.

A single lure is often the best option on small still waters multiple flies can put the fish off instantly especially those moved at speed. Plus a single fly allows for longer casts, less tangles and it creates a competitive instinct from any trout resulting in more positive takes. It’s also worth remembering that when pulling lures it’s far better to start off slow then speed up the retrieve at the end of your cast. With the odd faster pull only, the sudden change of speed is often enough to get the fish to take your fly. It’s a natural reaction the fish if it thinks its food is going to escape.

After an hour or two, especially if other anglers are adopting a similar approach, it’s time to change. The whole water will have been covered and the fish will no longer respond to a lure. Distinct changes are needed!

With the right retrieve, this tactic can be very successful.

Small Stillwaters: The Daytime Session

The initial bonanza is now over and the switch has been flicked “off.” No one seems to be catching, and the only action is a half hearted follow or two of a lure. It’s now the most difficult and frustrating time of the day for most anglers. Despite seeing fish move they are unable to consistently catch or work out a method. It’s not usual for anglers to methodically work through their fly box trying every fly with limited or zero success.

Experience has taught me a simple approach usually brings rewards at the most difficult times. Think logically, repeated casting, disturbance, large flies and movement only mean one thing to the trout: ”danger.” They have now been put off and you can’t catch a frightened fish.

Take a simple approach during the middle of the day.

Scale Down Your Leader

The first thing you should consider is scaling down your leader. Fish as fine and supple as you dare. I opt for 6.5lb Masterclass Flurocarbon that’s got a thickness of just 0.185mm. Presentation is now key if you are to be consistently successful.

Reduce Your Casts

The next thing is to reduce the number of casts you make and reduce the disturbance. Fish a method that requires an ultra slow retrieve, or is static. Wading should also be kept to an absolute minimum if at all. 

Fish Small

Finally flies should be scaled down. Fish small, especially in clear calm water. Size 12’s and 14’s should be your “go to” sizes as anything bigger will dramatically reduce the amount of takes you get.

Fish Static

Although often frowned upon by reservoir anglers, your first thought should be to “ fish static under an indicator or bung.”  It’s perfect when casting is to be kept at a minimum.

I always keep things really simple on small still waters and fish just 2 flies under an indicator with the dropper at 3.5ft and the point fly at 7ft. In most instances you will only be fishing in water 8 to 12ft deep. Longer leaders or additional flies are just not needed and in my opinion are counterproductive in most instances. At prime buzzer time—between April and the end of June—would see me fish an Olive, size 12, Two Tone Buzzer on the dropper. On the point I’ll have a size 12 beaded Traffic light buzzer. The extra weight from the bead will set the cast quickly and mean you are effectively fishing almost immediately. Success at this time of the year is again almost guaranteed.

Other Options

At all other times of the year I would fish a small weighted blob on the point in pink or sunburst. Although tied on size 10 hooks, they have been dressed short specifically for this method. Again, the weighted head pulls the cast down so you are fishing almost instantly. The dropper can be varied, but I suggest a size 12 nymph rather than a lure. For example, a Green cheeked Diawl Bach that is often taken for an olive or damsel nymph.

It’s just a cast of casting out and keeping in touch. Fish the flies absolutely static and just wait for the fish to take them. I accept it’s boring and a lot like watching a float, but it is an absolutely devastating method on hard fished waters. 

An alternative method would be to fish a “Northern Spider” or an “Apps” type pattern created by Peter Appleby on a slow intermediate line. A single fly is best on a leader of around 13 – 15ft. You simply make a cast and let everything settle for approximately 5 – 15 seconds before commencing your retrieve. This should be 3 short, sharp six to eight in strips and a pause of 3 seconds before repeating. This unusual retrieve makes the rubber legs of the fly pulsate like an octopus with takes often coming on the drop or the initial pull. The Olive and Amber versions are my particular favourite

Spider Northern Olive Red

Small Stillwaters: The Last 2 Hours

The last few hours of the day on small stillwaters often mean that many anglers have given up and gone home. This is a mistake in my opinion as this is often provides the best opportunities of the whole day and some truly fantastic sport. It’s especially good in the spring and summer months.

The switch is again flicked “on” and the fish seem to come on the feed again. During the cooler months, reverting back to the Olive Snake or a Cat’s Whisker Snake would again almost guarantee success. However there are other options especially during the warmer months.

The last few hours of the day can be the best fishing opportunities.

Top Water Tactics

Small stillwaters aren’t as deep as reservoirs so the water warms up much quicker. It’s not unusual for top of the water tactics ( ie. Washing Line method and Dries) to be very effective from April onwards. 

My typical washing line set up would be fished on a Floating line and a 14ft leader of 6 – 8lb flurocarbon with 6ft to a top dropper, a further 4ft to the middle dropper and a further 4ft to the point. Dropper patterns would be size 12 buzzers or diawl bachs with the point fly a Mini Blob Booby. Cast out, strip 3 times to “pop” the booby the just slowly figure of 8 the cast back. 


However my favourite method is to fish dries. Again I keep things simple and opt for a 12ft leader of 7.9lb Co Polymer (that is degreased) with just 2 flies. My dropper pattern at 7ft is always a size 12 Shimpan’s Sugar Lump buzzer in black. This pattern lies fly on the surface just like a buzzer shuck. The foam breathers means that you don’t have to grease it up. It’s the perfect dry when the light is fading and fly maintenance needs to be kept to a minimum.  My point fly is usually a size 12 ginger hopper well greased up.

A selection of some of my top stillwater patterns.

I tend to make a cast and leave my dries out rather than repeatedly casting over the water and disturbing fish. Remember, you are not covering fresh water as you would on a drifting boat. The Shimpman’s will lie flat so you won’t actually be able to see it on the surface. Instead, look at the point fly and if anything rises just in front of it that it’s taken the Shipmans and lift into the fish. If not, you are ready to make the cast and cover it.

If you enjoyed this piece on small stillwaters, you should read Rob’s other pieces on stillwater fishing. You can find them here!

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