Trophy Still Water Trout - Fred Steynberg

South Africa has over the passed couple of decades established itself as a notable destination for catching trophy, still water trout. More and more suitable, land locked still waters are being created and stocked with trout to support the ever-growing fly fishing industry.  However, many of these still waters are not suitable for trout reproduction as they lack the qualities necessary for trout to spawn and eggs to hatch (eg. flowing water and gravel beds).  On the other hand, with careful stocking from reputable hatcheries, quality fish can easily grow in excess of 10 pounds.

Still water fly fishing for trout has often been regarded as humdrum or unexciting when compared to the stalking of trout on rivers. I believe this view can be changed if fly fishers will take a moment to understand the behaviour and feeding patterns of these still water trout. The selectiveness of large or mature fish in still waters is often underestimated and often a less successful angler may place the onus of his failure on weather conditions or the fishery.

One of my biggest mistakes I made in the past when fishing still waters, was to use flies that act as aggravators instead of flies that imitated the food source available in the system being fished. My retrieval rate was also way too fast and with this arbitrary technique of using an aggravator and a fast retrieve, I would often attract more of the smaller, aggressive fish. The mature, large fish would simply not be interested in my offerings.  

Woolly Buggers, Mrs Simpson’s and Walker’s killers are examples of some flies that can be extremely effective on many dams and lakes but are often ignored by selective, large and mature fish, especially in very clear water situations. These flies are simply not imitative enough for selective fish.

The notion that flies should be retrieved fast through the water column to trigger a reaction is also unfounded if targeting large trout. Flies that are retrieved too fast can be mistaken as fleeing aquatic creatures and aggressively taken, but an imitative fly slowly retrieved, simulating a more natural movement will almost, always undoubtedly be accepted if within the fish’s range.

Dragon and damselfly nymphs are perennially present in still water systems and are an important food supply and seldom slip the attention of mature trout, no matter how selective they may be. I have often checked the stomach contents of trout caught on these patterns when fishing has been slow and hard. I have found fish stuffed with only daphnia, no larger than a millimeter or two each but these fish have accepted my large brown dragonfly nymph imitation of 5cm long, which was slowly retrieved along the bottom. On another occasion I watched a large fish gulping down helpless size 20-22 trico spinners off the surface in an under-stocked dam at dusk.  The same fish gladly accepted a damsel pattern slowly retrieved just below the surface. The fish weighed over 8lbs and had in its stomach a couple of small midge larva, some trico nymphs and many of the above mentioned spinners. This was obviously a selective fish witch understood that, to maintain its weight or, grow bigger, it should never pass on an opportunity to eat a protein filled damsel nymph.

In order to fish protein filled morsels such as damsel or dragonfly nymphs, correctly, one should take time to study their movement and appearance. I have fished incorrect imitations of both these food sources at the correct speed for many hours, and with little success. In order to attract the attention of a fish that inspects the fly, and to trigger the take, it is important to closely resemble the natural shape, colour and size of the natural food source. On the other hand, patterns that closely resemble the natural food source are at times also refused because the retrieval rate is incorrect, most often being too fast.  Different dragonfly nymph species such as the swimmers (Aeshnidae), crawlers (Libellulidae) and burrowers (Gomphidae), can move through the water column at different rates. A swimmer, for example, can swim in spurts, when hunting or fleeing at an astonishingly fast speed whereas the crawlers move more slowly and in a chameleon-like fashion. Even though the swimmers can, with their jet-propelled swimming method, attack or flee very fast, they prefer to conserve energy and more than 99% of their water breathing time is spent moving at a snails pace. Larger fish that cruise around the still water slowly, also conserving energy, would rather pick off a slow, realistic looking pattern than to chase after a fast, unconvincing pattern out of range.

A damsel nymph, especially the well distributed Coenagrionidae type, often swim     towards structures such as protruding grass or weed to hatch on, with an erratic wriggling action. The speed that the nymph travels is often more than a couple of seconds per inch and with intervals of floating, resting periods in between. At first glance it looks as if the nymph is traveling at quite a speed but it only seems this way because of the vigorous body movement. It is also important to understand where these insects are to be found and why one would fish specific areas more intently with these patterns than others.

When prospecting with a large, swimming type dragonfly nymph, such as the Aeshnidae, I choose deeper sections of the still waters and use a 9ft, 2-3x leader and 2-3 ft of 3X tippet. A non-slip mono loop should be used to attach the fly to the tippet so that the fly moves as freely as possible. Even though a faster sinking line would get me to the bottom faster, I prefer a slower intermediate line for the job. The intermediate line manages depth variations a lot better and avoids the line from dragging on the bottom or the fly from snagging.

Using a fast retrieve as discussed before would only result in the odd small energetic fish being caught or if you are lucky maybe the odd trophy fish, but it should not be about luck. Rather use a slow hand-twist retrieve and as Dr. Tom Sutcliffe always suggests “take your slow retrieval rate and divide it by half…” It may feel uncomfortably slow at first and your buddy next to you may have a large smile on his face while hauling in small fish using aggravators and a fast retrieve, but fishing the correct way will produce bigger fish in the long run.     

Damsel fly nymphing around weed beds and within grass patches must be the most productive still water fishing technique, but yet again, the lack of understanding the food source and using an incorrect fishing technique will only result in a end product of lesser quality. Often when large fish swirl off a weed bed or fin in gaps between grass and weeds it is possible to present a small damsel nymph one or two feet off the fish without spooking it. The damsel should not be allowed to sink too deep before the fly is retrieved using a slow hand-twist retrieve. A long 11+ ft. 3X leader and tippet should keep the fish from spotting the floating or intermediate line.

In situations where weed beds are thick and openings where fish move are small, it is more comfortable to lift a floating line and replace it without too much snagging.

When fishing over weed beds into deeper water or in windy conditions, an intermediate line is better than a floating line as it sinks below the surface and does not get blown around on the surface.

When large fish fin or swirl close to weed beds it is because they have often scared food off their cover and are now feeding on them. Dragonfly nymphs and especially damselfly nymphs, are often in the mix and well sought after.   

Large fish in clear still waters are often spotted whilst they are seeking gravelly banks in the shallows to deposit their eggs in the spawning season. The large hen fish often venture into very shallow water especially if the dam offers an inlet of sort. Although the eggs in most Stillwater cases in our country would not hatch, some hens are stimulated enough by the gravelly bank to drop their roe. Cock fish follow aggressively in an act to fertilize the eggs, and often frequent the area long after the hens have left. The cock fish seem to ‘protect’ the nest from other male fish that would, in natural circumstances, demolish unprotected nests and feed on the loose, drifting eggs insuring the dominance of its own genes. Cock fish, as with the hens, are then often seen following or chasing each other around in the shallows and at times are unaware of anglers trying their best to entice them into eating their offerings. Early in the spawning season the cock fish and even some hens will fall for a well placed egg pattern fished on a floating line and suspended by a small indicator in the shallows. Later, after the hen fish have deposited their eggs and have returned to deeper water, the cock fish still cruise the shallows and become lock-jawed and refuse almost any fly during this season of spawning.

A productive and proven method to get these fish to eat as I have found out, is to approach them with a floating or slow intermediate line and long leader/tippet configuration of 3-4X. Use a lightly weighted # 14 Zak or G.R.H.E. and attach behind it in New Zealand tandem rig style, a # 16 or 14 orange hotspot pheasant tail nymph. The PTN should be un-weighted and attached to the main fly with 4X tippet. If you are concerned that the 4X tippet is not strong enough, just think back on all those photos in the magazines of 7-10lb New Zealand brownies that are landed on 5X tippet in strong currents. In most cases it is the rod handler that allows the fish to break the line and not the fish’s speed, weight or power. Try breaking a length of 4X tippet attached to your 5 weight rod tip and then to a tree, by pulling the rod in a way that you would fight a fish…it is almost impossible. Fly fishermen lose fish when stripping the fly fast and holding the rod at an incorrect angle when the fish attacks the fly. Retrieving the fly very slowly or not at all, will result in the fish gently taking the fly and all the angler needs to do is to lift the rod and set the hook.

It is necessary to follow the path of the cruising fish and to either float the flies on an expected route or to lead the fish by a meter or two when presenting the cast, so that the fly has time to settle at the correct depth before the fish reaches it. It is important at times to use a tiny indicator so that the flies are suspended just above the bottom, but figuring out the depth is sometimes tricky. The flies should not be retrieved but should hang in an almost stagnant position while, very importantly, the angler keeps in contact with the line and fly. To achieve this it is necessary to keep the rod tip as close as possible to the water surface and to constantly retrieve slack line.  Make sure that you are in a crouching position and not visible to the fish.

These cruising fish often ignore the fly especially if it is not drifting at the correct depth. Single fish may also be wearier but when they pass in pairs or in small groups, they often eat the hot spot nymph. It is not advisable to target spawning fish in an inlet that has all the qualities to act as a spawning bed and that produces hatchlings. There is no harm in, however, targeting fish in areas where spawning is not possible.

  With the correct technique and patience one can bag a number of sizeable trophy cock fish within a couple of hours. This type of fishing is well sought after because of the sight fishing element it offers and sight fishing is after all the most rewarding type of fly fishing. Many understanding and avid fly fishermen put a lot of time and effort and are well rewarded when well executed techniques come together. There are numerous other flies that will catch trophy, still water trout using different techniques, other than the ones I have spoken of, fishing either from the bank or from float tubes or kick boat, and these ones work well for me. An old friend of mine often replied that he had not luck at all but a lot of skill, when asked, if he had had any luck that day fly fishing.