Finding The Strike Zone
Getting your flies into the strike zone is important when it comes to stillwater fly fishing. Just a couple of feet can mean the difference between a good day, a great day and a day when you tell your friends, "it was nice just being out on the water". Finding holding trout starts on the surface of the water and ends with your flies sitting at just the right depth below. But just how do you find the correct depth?
Let's start with maps. Bathymetric or hydrographical maps are great tools for finding a starting point when fishing. These maps can show you feeder creeks, underwater humps or sunken islands, deep holes, shallow flats and old river or creek channels. Utilizing these maps will not only inform you of some of the structure available and what areas you may want to fish but of course will also show how deep the water is in these areas.
Once out on the water and you've made your way into an area of choice, you now need to pin point what structure you wish to fish and get a clearer picture of how deep it is. A fish finder (or more appropriately, a depth finder) makes this possible. Even the cheapest fish finders offer the two most important features; depth and an image of the bottom. The other features like surface temperature, fish marking, GPS, and color graphics are just a bonus. With the information your fish finder gives off, you now have enough information to choose your fly line and the length of leader you'll need. If a fish finder is not a part of your arsenal, marking your anchor rope in 2 foot increments will also work for getting a more accurate reading of depth.
Let’s first concentrate on fishing with an indicator. The fish finder is telling you you're sitting in 15ft of water so you now have to build your leader for that depth. Before pulling off 8ft of tippet and attaching it to your 7ft leader, did you take water current into consideration? Is there any? Is there a good wind that would keep your leader from holding your flies straight under the indicator? Normally, your flies will not sit directly under your indicator but more of a slight arc in the direction of the lake current. The more current and the deeper you're fishing, the bigger the arc. On average, it's a good idea to make your leader 20% longer than the depth you are fishing. So if you're sitting in 15ft of water, your leader should be at 18ft. Keep in mind you'll want some extra leader so your indicator isn't being secured by the heavy butt section that attaches to your fly line. So an extra three feet should give you that extra line to play with. You've now made your 21ft leader and you've placed your strike indicator on along with your fly of choice. But how do you know where to attach the strike indicator to your leader so you can be sure you’re close enough to the bottom without your flies laying on the bottom?
A proven method for determining where to attach your indicator to your leader is to use some form of a weight attached to your fly. Maybe you prefer a bell weight or a pair of haemostats (very popular amongst fly anglers) or you've discovered a great little tool known as (what else) a depth finder. These little tools are perfect for letting you know where to attach your indicator. Depth finders are traditionally used in ice fishing and made up of lead with some form of clip (I prefer the alligator clip). To use the depth finder, you simply clip one onto your bottom fly and drop it down into the water. Once the depth finder and fly has reached bottom, use your thumb and index finger to pinch the leader where it enters the water at the surface. Now attach your indicator to this spot. You may be thinking to yourself right now "but that will have my fly sit right on the bottom". Remember the lake current and the slight arc it will form? If the lake doesn't have much current and you are indeed hooking up on bottom or consistently hooking up on weeds, pull your rig up and set your indicator one foot down the leader. You can continue moving your indicator down the leader while working the water until you find out what depth the fish are holding at.
This method can also be used when fishing deeper water with a sinking line (without the long leader or indicator). You simply strip off line from your real and drop your fly into the water with the depth finder attached. Once you hit bottom, place the tip of your rod to the surface of the water and reel up your fly one foot off the bottom. Now pull up your fly and remove the depth finder. Once again, let your fly sink to the bottom without the aid of the depth finder and when you feel your flies are straight up and down, lower your rod tip to the surface of the water and start your slow retrieve. When fishing in deeper water like this, fishing directly below your boat will rarely spook fish.
To find depth on a floating line without and indicator, build your leader in the same method you would use with an indicator as stated above but instead of a depth finder, use a count down after your cast is made. Count to a number that you believe should get your flies to the bottom. If you don't feel bottom or pick up weeds on your retrieve, count longer on your next cast and continue this until you find bottom. Once you're certain your flies are getting down, count to a smaller number on your next cast keeping your presentation just off the bottom or over top of the weeds while retrieving. You can work your way up through the water column by counting less on each retrieve. This same method works with sinking lines but without the long leader.
Getting into the strike zone by finding depth is just as important or maybe even more important than choosing what patterns you'll use when stillwater fly fishing. Finding what depth the fish are holding at could make or break “a nice day just being out on the water“.
Mike (Doc) Monteith is the owner of Alberta Stillwater Adventures specializing in one-on-one introductory to stillwater fly fishing clinics.