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Targeting Big Stillwater Fish

Published: 20th October 2020 | Author: Joe Shafer

Targeting big stillwater fish is no easy task. Often, when I talk to clients before our stillwater trips, they tell me they would love to catch a big fish. I always tell him them we’ll give it a shot.

Unfortunately, targeting big fish in stillwater is no exact science. If it was, everyone would be fly fishing stillwater! The good news is, there are some tips I can give you which will up your chances of catching one of the biggest fish in the lake.


Timing is a big a deal when targeting big stillwater fish. Seasons, water temperature fluctuation, food source, time of day and weather all can be huge factors. What’s my favorite times for catching big fish, you may ask? I’m not telling you! Get your butt out on your favorite stillwater and figure it out.

Joe putting in his time, and being rewarded for it!


I’m joking, of course. With that said, time spent on the water is the best way to figure out timing on big fish on your home water! In the spring or fall, cloudy days a little chop on the water and water temperatures over 50 degrees are optimal. That’s a perfect world though, and I’ll tell you it rarely happens—especially here in our Rocky Mountains.

In contrast, bright sunny days with no clouds and flat water are the worst! If you pair that with a full moon phase, you will probably have a really tough day. The big fish simply don’t move a lot at these times. What’s important to note here is that timing is different on each individual stillwater. Lots of trial and error will help you find when those conditions are perfect for big fish on the move.

Looking to get into stillwater fishing but don’t know where to start? Check out Joe’s recent piece: A Starter’s Guide to Fly Fishing Stillwater in The Rocky Mountain Region!

A happy client with a big Rock Mountain stillwater rainbow!


I’m always thinking about when those big fish are moving and where I need to be to catch them, and a lot of that has to do with time of day. Traditionally, early morning and late afternoon are the simple answers to catching big fish.

In truth, though, a lot of the big fish I have hooked into have come all throughout the day. Big fish have to eat just as much as any other fish, and they have to be smart about it. They don’t get big by being dumb. So, you should always plan to fish through the entire day in all conditions, not just to wait for the “perfect” time. Try different water types at different times of day, and eventually patterns will develop.

One thing I would say about early mornings and low light conditions is the bigger fish tend to cruse the shallows. They don’t feel as threatened and the food sources are more abundant. 

Simon Robinson offers some tips on stillwater fishing for beginners, check it out!

Joe’s daughter, Ella, has a talent for catching big fish!


Locating big fish is not easy! One thing that helps, though, is to look for obvious movement. Fish breaking the surface, shoreline disruptions and movement around structures are all examples of this. If you don’t see any signs around, work water around points and edges of current lines caused by wind and wave action.

When planing your strategy, use dry dropper setups, indicator nymphing rigs or sinking line setups to target these areas. With that said, you have to be careful and not disturb their feeding patterns. One wrong smack of the water or misplaced cast, especially without chop on the surface, and you can scare the big fish completely out of the area.

Covering water also helps a lot, so don’t spend to much time in one area especially if you are on some sort of watercraft. Big fish will learn that you’re there and they’ll move. It will also help to change methods—my clients and I have caught many big fish after switching up. One of my favorites is switching from an indicator rig to dry dropper during cloudy periods throughout the day and especially when hatches get rolling.

Another one of Joe’s client’s with a quality rainbow!


I use a lot of smaller “catch all” patterns. These are patterns that look like different food sources all in one setup. I also rarely use flies larger then 3-4 inches long. And as far as big fish go, methods and techniques will always beat flies. You’ve got to be dialed in your techniques, or else the flies won’t matter.

One good example is with leeches. Many anglers use large leach imitations, and while they look great in the bins, they don’t fish well. I tend to lean to the smaller end using leaches that are less than 1.5 inches long, especially for trout species. I will give you another hint, in highly pressured waters these smaller patterns can be the difference in you catching TroutZilla or catching the babies.

They don’t always agree to going in the net…

Hares ear nymphs are an all time favorite of mine, and with all the different tying materials out there the options are endless. Have a good selection of sizes from 18-8. Size really does matter on the big fish, so if you’re presenting at the right depth with the right movements and the right size flies you will hook into one of those beasts!

To dial in your nymphing game on stillwater, give this piece by Simon Robinson a read!

Hopefully this gave you a look at some things I do to catch bigger fish. It’s a great game with lots of options, water types and tactics. I feel the most important part of catching those big dogs is knowing that you can never completely figure them out. But that’s the best part, and it’s what keeps you coming out for more.

To learn more from Joe about stillwater tactics, check out some of his other pieces on our blog!

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