Top 10 Habits for Success on Stillwaters

Phil Rowley is a strong proponent of being prepared when fishing stillwaters. This means having consistent and good habits. This also means having your equipment in order, knowing the entomology and locomotion of the bugs you will find in stillwaters and maintaining good and positive energy.

Here is a summary of Phil’s Top 10 Habits for Success on Stillwaters. I was introduced to his top 10 Habits at a “Stillwater School” he put together in Idaho. If you every get a chance to attend one of Phil’s Stillwater Schools or Seminars you won’t be sorry. You can check out Phil’s website at for lots of tips on fishing stillwaters or check out his schedule of events for schools and seminars.

(1) Equipment

Sage_DXL_BagEveryone should purchase a good kit bag and stock it with all the essentials for stillwaters. Dedicate this bag to stillwaters and don’t try to have one bag cover both streams and stillwaters. Use two rods and carry multiple lines. Here’s some of the equipment you will need to add to your stash.

Kit Bag – Maintain a well equipped Stillwater bag and restock as soon as possible. Sage makes a good one. You can also check out Fishpond and Cabelas. Just make sure its big enough and if possible water proof or at least water resistant.

Rods – Always rigg two Rods. I’d recommend a 9’6″ or 10’ six weight and a 9’0 or 9’6″ 5 weight. The longer the better. Of coarse, the size of the fish you are searching for may dictate other choices.

Lines – A well prepared stillwater angler should carry a Floating, Intermediate, Clear Camo, Outbound Hover, Sinking Type III through Type VII. If in a pinch for sinking lines, you can get by with two full sink lines. Carry a Type III and a Type V or Type VII.

Sunglasses – Always wear polarized glasses. You can see through the water and they add a level of safety. Who wants to get a fly stuck in their eye?

Watercraft – You can set up a Pram, Pontoon Boat or Belly Boat for fishing stillwaters. Make your choice, portability, budget and comfort all are factors, they all work.

Notepad – Keep a notepad in your kit bag. You can get waterproof ones from a surveyor’s supply store. They use them for doing their outdoor surveying work.

Extra Nippers and Forceps – Always carry extra nippers and forceps. You never know what can get loose when you’re fishing in a body of water.

Indicators – Carry Slip Indicators, Corkie Indicators, and yarn indicators in different sizes. You may need them all in different conditions.

Split Shot and Swivels – Carry an assortment of split shot and swivels for rigging your slip indicators.

Floatant and Desiccant – Carry your favorite floatant and Desiccant to keep your dries and emergers where you want them. Learn how to apply them properly.

Sunscreen and Insect Repellent – Can’t do without it!

Tylenol, Advil and Benedryl – Carry a bag with these items. You never know when you or a friend my need them.

(2) Electronics

Fishing_Buddy_120Fish Finder – The most common fish finder is the Hummingbird Fishin Buddy. The model 120 has side finding ability and with a black and white display runs about $160. Make sure you know all the features of your fish finder and which are applicable to your fishing methods.

GPS – More and more people are using GPS systems to mark shoals and productive areas of the stillwaters that they fish. Mark it. Find it Later.

(3) Observation

Fishing_JournalKeep your eyes and ears open and watch what mother nature is telling you.

Research and Obtain Local Knowledge – Use the web or call local fly shops to get as much recent information so you are prepared. Talk to fellow anglers.

Make Notes of Weather Conditions – Water Temperature and Clarity – The water temperature can tell you how active bugs may be or where they may be located. The clarity can dictate the way and length that you rigg your leader.

Examine Shoreline Vegetation – There are almost always bugs hanging out along the shoreline. You can get a good idea of the bug life and what stages are present by being a shoreline detective.

Check out Spider Webs – Spiders catch and eat stillwater bugs. You can see what they’ve been eating and can then get a good idea of what has been hatching.

Turn over Rocks and Logs – You can often find bugs hiding amongst the weeds, rocks and under submerged logs. Leeches are often found hiding in shoreline vegetation. You can get an idea of their size and coloration.

Take notice of Bird Activity – As we know when fishing rivers and streams, birds buzzing the water signify that something is hatching. This can also happen on stillwaters and can give you a clue as to where to fish in a larger lake. Bugs sometimes emerge and hatch in certain areas of lakes and the birds are a good indicator of where a hatch may be happening.

Check out Surrounding Topography – The surrounding topography can give clues to the depth and topography of the lake’s structure. For instance a steep slope entering a lake will typically mean the water in that area continues to gain depth quickly with little shoal area. A flat shoreline will typically indicate shallower depths and shoal areas nearby.

Study the Water’s Surface – Look for bugs on the water. Use an aquarium net to catch them. Look for rise rings and rise forms. Do you see callibaetis struggling to hatch? Are there blue damselflies buzzing around. Are the rise forms showing a bubble, which means they are taking duns or is there a bulge with a dorsal fin and then a tail, which is an emerger rise. Determine if the fish are feeding on top or just below the surface.

Look Into The Water – Look for weed beds, shoals and drop- offs. How clear is the water? Are there any bugs swimming around? Damselflies swimming to shore or structure? Do you see fish? What Depth?

Pay Attention for Shucks – For instance, look for the shucks of callibaetis mayflies and chironomids that may have recently hatched.

Observe Other Anglers – You should pay attention to who’s catching fish and where they are fishing. You may be able to determine what method they are using or what type of retrieve.

Make Notes and Maintain a Diary – One of the best things you can do if you want to become a better fisherman is to take notes or maintain a diary every time you get out fishing. Record the weather conditions, water temperatures, flies and methods used. What worked as well as what didn’t. Record anything that may help you at a later date.

(4) Water Conditions – The wind, weather and water conditions (Temperature and Clarity) affect decisions when on stillwaters.

ThermometerWater Conditions affect the choice of:
(a) Retrieve method
(b) Line Choice
(c) Pattern Selection
(d) Presentation depth

Water Temperatures Affect the:
(a) Fish and Invertebrate Activity
(b) Location of Fish
(c) Retrieve Speed

(5) Approach

jwcast1Stealth is Always the Key – Always maintain as much stealth as possible when fishing. Be methodical and don’t hurry.

Lower Anchors Gently – Don’t make a big splash when you drop the anchor and they enter the water. Fish don’t like grenades.

Keep Noise to a Minimum – Especially when fishing out of a boat or a pram. When using a kick boat or pontoon boat, kick silently and don’t splash when kicking.

Use Carpeting – If fishing from a boat or pram cover the bottoms with carpet or other noise dampening materials.

Approach – Approach from the deep water when setting up to fish an area.

Move About Silently – Drift, row, kick or use an electric motor. Don’t use an outboard motor to survey the lakes topography or to move into your fishing position. Shut off the motor and glide into position.

Stretch your Line and Leaders to Remove Memory – Fly lines with coils in them will not fish properly or allow you to keep a more direct contact to your flies. Take the time to stretch out your fly lines and leaders.

Use a Correct Rod Position – Keep your tip in the water. For the most part your rod tip should always be in the water up to 2 or 3 guides. This keeps you in direct contact and enables you to make consistent retrieves.

Strip out slack once your cast has landed – Keep contact with your flies as soon as they land. Strip in excess line instead of re-casting. When using intermediate and sinking lines fish will often take your fly as it sinks. If you don’t keep tight to your flies you will not detect the take.

Make straight line presentations – A straight line cast shot above the water and then allowed to straighten out and fall to the water is the best way to keep in contact with your flies as soon as they hit the water. It is also the most stealthy presentation.

Don’t water load your casts – When wanting to maintain stealth, using water load casts is like throwing rocks into the area you want to fish. Learn to keep your line in the air and minimize the false casts.

Use your watch to countdown retrieves – Know your sinking lines sink rates and what depth you want to fish. Calculate the rate of sink, times the desired depth to get the time the line needs to sink. Use your watch to time the sink. Be patient and wait. You can jig the line as it sinks to get the fly moving and stay in contact. A fish may take it on the way down.

Slow down your retrieves – Fish your flies slower than you might think. When you think you’re going slow, go slower. This is when you are using imitative retrieves that match the locomotion of the natural.

Watch Your Line – If using a floating line watch the tip where it enters the water. Keep an eye for subtle movement, set when it moves. If you don’t set, you’ll never know if it was a fish.

Fish the hang when retrieving – How many times does a fish take right as you lift the rod to re-cast. Fish your flies right to the end. Pay attention when you pick up to recast. Let the flies hang for a bit, lift and hopefully a fish will have been following and will take right at the end.

(6) Droppers and Loop Knots

non_slip_loopFly Selection – Vary the sizes and colors of your flies when using droppers, especially when you are searching.

Use Dry Dropper – Suggest different stages of the bug you are imitating by using a dry dropper. Use a dry, emerger or cripple on the surface or in the film and use an imitative nymph as a trailer.

Use Droppers When its Windy – Using droppers add weight in windy conditions.

Cover Different Depths – Droppers cover different depths, You can rigg two or more nymphs when fishing a slip indicator to cover different depths.

Use an Attractor on the Point – Using a flashy or larger attractor pattern can draw the fish’s attention to your more imitative flies trailing.

Non Slip Mono Loop – Use a non-slip knot to attach all your flies. It is a strong knot and simple to tie. It allows your flies to be presented in a lifelike manner with the open loop.

(7) Entomology and Throat Pump

Throat_PumpDo your Homework – Study to have a basic understanding of all key stillwater food sources.

Locomotion – Study the locomotion of all key stillwater food sources so you can develop retrieve techniques to match them.

Emergence – Study and learn emergence behavior. What time of year do they emerge? What time of day? How does the weather affect their emergence?

Seasonal Availability – Learn the seasonal availability of all the key stillwater food sources. In the spring what bugs are available to the trout? What about summer and fall?

Throat Pump – Learn to use a throat pump properly and remember that the welfare of the trout is paramount. When you purchase a “Throat Pump” they are usually called “Stomach Pumps”. Do we want to pump the contents of the trout’s stomach? No! When properly using a throat pump, only sample what is in the trout’s throat. That’s what they are currently eating anyway.

(a) Using a throat pump will identify the food sources the trout is currently feeding on.

(b) Using a throat pump will help determine if the fish was actively feeding or just happened upon your fly.

(c) Using a throat pump can help determine the feeding location within the water column by the type of invertebrates in its throat.

(8) Versatility

Slip_IndicatorDon’t get Static – Avoid one dimensional line or presentation techniques. If one thing isn’t working change. Change depths, change retrieves, change lines, change flies, change locations. Get it?

Lines – Learn how to use every line in your arsenal. Learn each lines sink rates and how they relate to getting to the desired depth to be fished. Count the lines down. Use your watch.

Double Anchors – Always use double anchors when fishing out of a boat, pram or pontoon boat. This will allow you to present your flies in a controlled manner.

Drogues – Learn how to use drogues (water socks) when drifting in the wind and presenting flies. This will help control the speed you are drifting.

Retrieves – Know all the different retrieves as they relate to your prey. Vary your retrieves and pattern of the retrieves.

Imitative and Attractive Retrieves – Learn and use both imitative and attractive retrieve techniques. Learn how the various retrieves relate to the locomotion of the invertebrate you are imitating.

Move – Move often to cover water

(9) Patience

Patience – Patience is a virtue that all fisherman must develop.

Patience – Allow your lines and flies to sink to the correct depth. Count them down.

Patience – Use your watch for accurate sink times

Patience – Know the sink rates of all your lines and present then correctly

(10) Attitude & Belief

Fish with “Quiet Confidence”

PFA” Always show up to fish with “PFA”, Positive Fishing Attitude

Remember to be patient

Channel frustration positively

Belief comes from experience


If you integrate even a portion of Phil’s Top 10 habits you will be on your way to becoming a better and accomplished stillwater fisher person.