As though an apology from nature, the best still water fishing of the year in Colorado coincides with the worst fishing of the year in our rivers. As our rivers flow high and dirty our high country reservoirs and lakes begin to experience insect hatches dreams are made of and, consequently, the fly angler is blessed with some of the best fishing of the year. Many fly fishing enthusiasts shun still water angling. But they are, effectively, choosing to miss out on some very good fishing. I often hear that fishing still water is too much like fishing with a bobber and bait. I get that. I don’t much enjoy hanging a scud or egg pattern off of an indicator and waiting for, no, hoping for, a trout to randomly swim by and eat one of my offerings. During a hatch, whether that hatch occurs in moving water or still, trout are anything but random feeders. Trout in still water actively seek out the hatching insects. At its best, the action during a strong still water hatch is fast and furious, requiring intense concentration so as to not end up with more “takes” than “hook-ups.” Still water fish are often surprisingly strong. I have seen many a skeptical client get “knuckle-busted” trying to stop the run of a powerful, 20” Spinney Mountain rainbow. When the hatch is over, and the action has slowed to a bobber and bait crawl, either go shopping or head to the nearest tailwater—which is often just below the reservoir you are fishing!
Here are the insect hatches you can expect to encounter while fishing still water in Colorado, and the hatches you should target: the Giant Chironomid (Midge) hatch, the Damselfly hatch, and the Callibaetis hatch. When any one of these hatches occurs it is time for you to get to the water! Luckily, these hatches are easily imitated by the fly angler. Any good fly shop (including ours) will have patterns that effectively imitate these insects. Let’s talk about tactics we can use to entice the trout in our reservoirs to eat our flies.
Trying to catch a hatch on a still water is usually a mid morning (8am-9am) to early afternoon (1pm-2pm) affair. It is during this time of the day that most of the insects hatch in our lakes and reservoirs. Maybe more importantly, this is also the typical window for the best weather. Being blown off the water by an early afternoon storm is common; probably more common than leaving a reservoir because the hatch didn’t materialize or because the fishing was poor.
Be prepared to spend most of your day fishing under the water. Although you will see fish feeding on the surface, and you may be able to catch a few of them, you will catch more fish if you stay with an underwater approach. That said, I often have a second rod rigged with a dry fly just in case I can’t resist the urge to throw at a sipping trout. As an aside, you can of course fish any flies you want when fishing in still water, including Wooly Buggers, but most often “matching the hatch” tactics will provide the best action.
Use as many flies as the local regulations permit. In Colorado, the use of 3 flies is the standard legal limit. Set-up your rig like you are going to nymph fish a river; only be prepared to go longer between your indicator and your first fly. You may not need to fish deeper than 3-6 feet, but you may have to go as deep as 12-15 feet. Access the water clarity. Fluorocarbon tippet may be necessary.
A typical, initial set-up for still water is the same as for nymph fishing a river except that extra depth is often required when fishing still water. The standard, initial set-up depth of a still water rig is 9 feet. 9 feet is a good “starting out” or “searching” depth ( A depth of 9 feet is achieved by making the distance between your first fly and your indicator equal 9 feet). It helps to start with a larger (beaded and/or weighted) fly as your first fly. It will attract a trout’s attention and encourage any other non-weighted flies to “get down” to the depth specified by the distance between your indicator and your first fly. Avoid adding pinch-on weights as they tend to fall off while casting. If you don’t notice a weight is gone, you may end up losing your bet with your fishing buddy and have to buy the beer, or worse. The next two flies should be more realistic imitations of what is hatching, or what you expect to hatch soon. The next two flies can be attached simply by tying a piece of tippet from the bend of the first (weighted attractor) fly to the eye of the second fly. Repeat the process to tie on the third fly.
Often, the first fly is a weighted Damselfly nymph, the second fly is a large midge larva (Black, Zebra, Red or Olive), and the third fly is a nymph of the Callibaetis persuasion; all purchased or tied hastily the night before on some fly shop’s website recommendation. Be prepared to cut those first flies off and experiment with what is working that day. If the hatch is on, and you aren’t hooking up, try different depths before changing flies. Don’t over-look shallow set-ups—especially if you spot fish sipping or cruising just below the surface. Many times during a hatch a shorter set-up will provide amazing results.
Everyday on the water is different but, in general, successful still water angling involves finding the right flies for the day, the right depth, and keeping the movement of those flies to a minimum. Slow Down! Insects do swim in the water but their movements, while perhaps “twitchy,” don’t cover a lot of ground. I can’t remember the last time I saw a moving angler catch more fish than a stationary angler. An anchored boat, whatever the design, will keep you in the fish longer and encourage a slower presentation. If you aren’t hooking up from your anchored position, but believe you are in a good “spot,” move in 30 foot increments until you start hooking up.. There is rarely only one hot spot. But there may be the “hottest” spot! If someone else has the “hottest” spot, tip your hat to them and hope their boat springs a leak. Maybe also mark that spot on your GPS for next time.
Many times the breeze on the water, or the slight chop on the water, is all the movement needed to fool a trout into munching your offering. When experiencing a dead calm when fishing a still water location, it is often very effective to twitch your set-up or to slowly retrieve it. Be sure to pause during your retrieve, especially if you aren’t getting any strikes, as the real deal doesn’t constantly swim without resting! Sometimes you have to experiment with techniques to find what works best for any given day. On occasion, a quick retrieve of the flies is required to entice a strike. But, more often than not, slow is the way to go!
Spinney Mountain Reservoir, Antero Reservoir, and Delaney Buttes Lakes are all excellent choices for a day out on the flat water. They have good populations of trout and experience reliable hatches of Midges, Damselflies, and Callibaetis. So stay in touch with what insect is hatching on which still water and go fishing. Don’t let run-off get you down. We are entering one of the best times of the year to fish in Colorado………..as long as you are cool with fishing still water.