Early Season Stillwater Tactics

By Brian Chan

You know it has been a long winter when the first “ice off” threads begin showing up on fly fishing bulletin boards in late February. By then, cabin fever is so rampant amongst the legions of die hard stillwater fly fishers that if there were such a thing as trailered ice breaking boats they would almost be worth their weight in gold. Some of my most memorable days each season occur while the ice is leaving, or has just left the local lakes. We still have a bit of time before those first low-elevation, super-productive trout lakes scattered throughout the inland regions of the western provinces and states begin to shed their ice. So, it is a good time to make sure fly lines have been cleaned, leaders changed out, reels lubricated and any worn guides on fly rods have been replaced. Of course, this is assuming fly boxes have been re-stocked with those proven patterns that worked last spring alongside rows of this year’s prototypes.

Ice off fishing offers some impressive action for trout that have just endured months of darkness and ultra-cold water temperatures. What makes ice off and the first couple weeks after ice off, prior to spring turnover so anticipated is that the fish are feeding in shallow water. How shallow? Much of it is done in 10 feet of water or less. Shallow water is warming up the quickest and that little bit of extra heat stimulates not only aquatic invertebrate activity but also that of any fish in the lake. Water temperatures are still not warm enough to stimulate any prolonged insect hatches but the trout are in the shallow water looking for a host of food items including scuds, leeches, immature damselfly and dragonfly nymphs, chironomid larvae and Water Boatman and Backswimmers. All these invertebrates are living in the aquatic vegetation and benthic substrate that covers the shallow water zone of the lake.

Anglers should be armed with a number of different fly lines in order to cover off any feeding situation encountered while fishing shallow water. Floating, Emerger Tip, Intermediate sinking and Type-3 full sinking lines will all see some time in the water. Because there are no insect emergences occurring to concentrate fish we must be prepared to move around the lake with the goal of seeing some fish movement. It could be fish that are jumping or rolling and while not feeding movements it tells us that there are fish in a particular area and that at least they are actively moving around. A good rule of thumb to consider is if you see three fish jump or move in a small area and there is nothing happening where you are anchored, then it is time to move to the fish. Once getting to the area start working through various likely patterns beginning with scuds and leeches, as they are favoured food sources during the first few days after ice off. Often, a faster than normal retrieve will garner more attention than the more natural movement of the fly. Keep in mind these over-wintered trout are looking for prey they have eaten before.

This is a good time to also fish some patterns that are just a little outside the fly box. Boobies and blobs are two that can often make fish eat. These attractor style patterns originated over the pond in the U.K. where stillwater fly fishing is deeply rooted. Why trout and often big trout will chase down foam eyed, fritz bodied flies is not completely understood but trust me, they do work more often than not.

The early season stillwater action will last until the lake undergoes spring turnover. This important ecological event mixes the entire water column of the lake and essentially supercharges the lake with oxygen. A lake undergoing turnover will have quite murky- or silty-coloured water and fishing success is normally quite poor. It takes a few days for the water to clear up and water chemistry to re-stabilize. The completion of turnover signals the start of the major aquatic insect hatches that stillwater junkies look so forward to each fishing season.

Early season fishing often means there will be several short feeding periods over the course of the day. These periods of feeding activity could be as short as 15 minutes or last for well over an hour, so that is why it pays off to stay for the entire day as the bite may not occur until late in the afternoon when most of the other boats are off the water. Once the ice starts leaving the lakes there will be no time to do what should have been done earlier; it’s time to fish!

about the author

Sage Ambassador ​Brian Chan has been fortunate enough to live and work for the past 35 years in Kamloops, British Columbia.  Brian's lifelong passion for fly fishing has resulted in his spending literally thousands of angling days on these world class waters. He has shared his extensive knowledge of aquatic biology, trout ecology, entomology, and lake fly fishing tactics with others, through a number of magazine articles, books, and instructional DVDs on fly fishing. Brian has been featured on many TV fishing shows and is currently a regular guest on Sport Fishing on the Fly and co-host of The New Fly Fisher.  Learn more about Brian on his website.