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Top Five Stillwater Flies

Published: 9th March 2021 | Author: Joe Shafer

One of the most common questions I get is “what are your top stillwater flies?” An easy answer to that questions is: flies that are working on that particular day. I don’t mean to sound like a smart-ass, but it’s true! We all want an easy answer, but the simple fact is there are very few guarantees in the world of fly fishing. Just like anything in life, you must strive to refine and perfect your craft. 

There’s No Magic Bug

In my experience, there’s no magical bug that will work one hundred percent of the time. I believe your presentation and placement in the water column is far more important than the flies you choose. That said, I do have flies that I typically begin with. Then, depending on what is going on in the water on that particular day I adjust accordingly. Usually I begin with variations of these flies on all my rigs whether I am nymphing, fishing a sinking line, and using dry dropper methods. You most likely already have these flies in your box right now, so if you’re looking to try stillwater this season it will be an easy transition.

Prince Nymphs (sizes 10- 18)

Whenever I tell people about Prince Nymphs on stillwater they think I’m nuts! For some reason, most people only think of it as a river fly. That said, the old-timers out there know that these nymphs are a stillwater fish catching machines. 

It’s an effective fly because it looks like nothing and everything at the same time. Honestly, the best flies are ones that resemble different food organisms all in one package. Another great thing about this pattern is that it’s variations are completely endless! My favorite variations include adding ice dubbing, using CDC feathers on the collar, and changing bead colors. One thing I never change is the white wing buds on the top. I feel it’s vital to this flies’ success in stillwater. These white wing pads have serious fish attracting powers.

This fly is great in dry dropper setups, indicator nymphing setups, and on sinking line rigs. I fish this bug at all depths in colors ranging from black, peacock and rust to pink, purple and blue. There is really no limit on this one. Just make sure to have different sizes to match the bug life in the stillwater you are fishing.

Hares Ears (sizes 10- 20)

This fly is another prime example of catch all bug! It’s another great fly with endless possibilities. Different colors, feathers, dubbing and synthetic materials can all be incorporated to get the job done with this fly. Some of my favorite styles are the Holy Grail and Guides Choice, but there are truly endless options. I always recommend having a great range of these in different colors and sizes when heading out on stillwater. You can never have enough hares ears.

I love to mix hares ear dubbing with synthetic dubbings to add some subtle flash. With beads or without, you can fish hares ears in any part of the water column and catch fish. If you add the correct presentations to this fly on your rig, you undoubtedly can trigger action from fish. 

Woolly Buggers ( sizes 6-14)

Woolly Buggers have been around forever. In fact, just about every streamer today has basic principles adapted from the Woolly Bugger. It’s another fly that simply works time and time again. My favorite colors are black, olive, brown, white and wine. Subtle hints of flash always add good variety to your selections, and if you pair them with different beads and cones you should be all set. You can dream up some great combinations that catch all types of fish in lakes.

My favorite Woolly Bugger is my Ella’s Beast pattern. Olive brown marabou, UV Polar chenille and olive brown dubbing paired with a metallic orange bead tied in true Woolly Bugger form. This fly is pretty standard on all of my setups for lakes around the Rockies. Its fish catching power still amazes me today; I have been using it for more years than I can remember. The the beauty of the Woolly Bugger is finding a couple of colors and sizes that work on your local lakes and you won’t need much more. The dinner bell will be sure to ring!

Stunning colors.

Pine Squirrel Leech ( sizes 4- 16 )

First off, let me clarify something: lake fish love leeches! Over the years I have found that if all else fails, go to the Pine Squirrel leech and you’ll get something to eat. The beauty of the Pine Squirrel is that it breathes and moves in the water exceptionally well. It can look like many different food sources available to fish in lakes.

I believe the key to this fly is length of your Pine Squirrel and its colors. My personal preference is for the Pine Squirrel not to extend more than two inches off of the hook. My preferred colors are black, natural, brown, rust and purple. There’s a time and place for big lengthy Pine Squirrel leeches, but I’m typically running the smaller sizes—especially in highly pressured stillwaters. Even the picky non-feeders love to munch a small Pine Squirrel imitation and it can definitely change the course of a day if you have a good assortment in your fly box.

My favorite Pine Squirrel imitations include a little subtle flash wrapped on the hook with a sparse collar, or no collar at all. It’s also worth noting that some beaded variations are for dry dropper and indicator rigs, which can be deadly. Placement in the water column is the key to success with this bug. Put them in front of fish and they will eat them!

The Pine Squirrel Leech.

Chironomids ( sizes 10- 22)

As much as I hate to admit it, midges are probably the most effective fly type for lakes. There’s a reason I refer to them as midges: folks get confused with the between the terms chironomid and midge. The truth is that they’re one and the same. The stillwater guys call midges by their family name, chironomids. The river guys simply call them midges. I don’t know why this difference exists, but the main thing to remember is that they are a very important food source. These guys are available 365 days a year in stillwaters. Having a good selection of sizes, colors, weighted and unweighted will keep you catching fish on stillwater. Pair that with different flash combinations, wires and synthetic materials and the possibilities are vast.

A key strategy to remember on midges is to match the size and colors of the midges in the lakes that you fish. Some lakes may have size 10 red midges, and others may only produce size 22 chartreuse midges. The key is to match what’s in the lake you fish during different times of day and different times of year. For example, in many of our South Park lakes an early morning size 24-22 chartreuse midge hatch happens. As the day progresses a yellow and tan midge hatch comes off mid morning that’s in the 18-16 range.  By noon the big olive and black midges get rolling in sizes 16-14. You should have these bugs in your river boxes, all you have to do is increase the size options a bit and you’re in business! 

Joe’s top stillwater flies deliver consistently.

Get Out and Try My Top Stillwater Flies

Hopefully these tips will help you get started on fly selection for stillwaters. The truth is that many stillwater anglers make it way too complicated. If you stick with these fly types and pair them with the right presentations, you will be successful on stillwater. Remember we are not performing brain surgery here. Fish the right bug, at the right depth, with the right movement and the fish will come in bunches. 

Are you interested in learning more about Stillwater Fishing? Joe has several excellent articles on the topic, which you can read here.

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