Stillwater fishing with flies is, in some ways, the final frontier of fly fishing to the United States angler. Our rivers get all the attention and most people’s romantic mental images of fly fishing are of standing waist-deep in a trout stream, making long casts to rising trout. As such, many of our rivers are well known. Lakes are something we have in great numbers here in the US, but they are regularly overlooked, and solitude isn’t so hard to come by. Though I am still primarily a river angler, I have become more of a lake fishermen over the last 15 years. I owe much of this to my experiences in Patagonia, where the incredibly dynamic and exciting angling situations in stillwaters are numerous, eye opening, and in many ways, transformative.
In my years of guiding trout fishermen on the waters of Patagonia, I have often heard from guests that they “aren’t really into lake fishing” when they arrive. Nine times out of ten, though, anglers who are open minded enough to give it a go with me are converted by the end of the week after a few of the incredible experiences that I’m about to describe. Many of them learn techniques and gain enough insight and confidence to take this new perspective home with them and apply these methods to their home area. Their list of home waters usually grows significantly once they add their local stillwaters to their circuit!
In the Austral trout fishing zones, the lakes play an important role in the watersheds. Many of the rivers that hold large fish do so because they are connected to lakes both upstream and downstream. This allows for full range of movement of large trout, so they can choose the optimum environment depending on the food source and time of year. It is only natural that one chases these trout into the stillwaters when the larger specimens have retreated into the lake habitats.
In the parts of Chile and Argentina where I have spent a bulk of my time, most of the lakes are crystal clear, and the fish highly predatory in nature. Sight fishing situations abound, often comparing to angling scenarios one finds in a saltwater flats environment while fishing for bones, permit, snook, or tarpon. These Patagonian trout cruise in search of dragonfly nymphs, scuds, midges, caddis and mayflies. They can be found assaulting dragonfly and damselfly adults, snatching them out of the air, at times coming 3-4 feet out of the water to do so. The first time you experience this, a memory will be etched on your mind that will last your lifetime. On a calm day, they can be found sipping mayfly spinners or flying ants from the surface. Generally, if you can spot them, and you can make a good cast, you can coerce them to take your fly. If you are a hesitant stillwater angler, these situations can easily make a quick convert out of you as they bridge the gap between the sporty scenario of throwing dry flies to rising fish in a stream and the far less visual yet still challenging scenario of probing the depths with sinking lines in the search of willing participants.
Blind fishing methods are highly productive as well, of course. Throwing streamers and leeches on sinking lines is generally effective, as is skating large dry flies on the surface with floating lines. On some lakes, the scud populations are so large that the bigger trout will filter feed through clouds of scattering freshwater shrimp. In these situations, a slow retrieve with a scud imitation on a floating line or under an indicator can produce tremendous results. This type of lake produces trout with a body mass that can be astonishing. Some of the lakes around Esquel and Rio Pico are good examples of this. Perhaps the most well known lake of this sort is Lago Strobel (aka Jurassic Lake) in the arid steppe country of southern Argentina.
As for gear requirements, Patagonia Lake fishing is generally not very technical, but every part of the kit needs to be able to handle big fish, and big wind. I use the same line that I use in the big rivers for streamers, much of the time and its versatility is outstanding for both kinds of fishing. Hands-down, my preferred line for Patagonia sink tips is the Scientific Anglers Sonar Sink 25 Cold in 200 grain. The running line has zero memory and hardly ever tangles and the head is just long enough to carry a loop tight enough to fire into holes in the willows when river fishing. If things get a bit more complicated and we need to slow down our subsurface presentations, I’ll use a slow sinking line like the SA Sonar Stillwater Hover line, primarily with dragonfly and damselfly nymphs over shallow weed beds.
For rods, I always favor versatility, and a faster action rod is what I recommend for casting in the wind and covering water. I really like to use 6 weight, 9 foot rods for streamer and lake fishing down here. In recent seasons, my two favorites have been the SAGE X and Orvis H3F.
If you do decide to try your hand at the giants of Strobel, you will likely want to pack some more specific kit to account for the sheer power of the wind and the trout, and because the fishing is done from shore! Justin has found the following kits to be very handy over the last two years at Jurassic:
- Sage Igniter 10ft 7wt or G. Loomis Asquith 9ft 8wt, both paired with a Rio Grand 8wt floating fly line, and 8wt Rio intermediate streamer tip. The extra line weight really brings the Igniter to life!
- Sage X Switch Rod 7wt 11ft 4 pc with Rio Outbound Short 9wt floating and Type 3 shooting heads for overhead casting.
As for flies, standard lake food sources abound, and baitfish are often important to imitate. Many of the imitative as well as suggestive stillwater patterns and streamers that have become famous in the States and Canada are perfect. On many lakes, patterns with a hint of burn or bright orange are absolutely deadly. But regardless of pattern or color, one thing is absolutely critical – make sure flies are tied on stout hooks. When you travel so far and hook the fish you came all this way for, you want the best irons available to give yourself the best chance of being able to email your buddies a photo like this…