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Alberta Stillwater Adventures

where flyfishing adventures begin

Working The Water And Observation

In stillwaters, finding fish may not be as easy one might hope. Many fly anglers will show up to a favourite fishery and immediately head out to a previously productive spot on the lake with hopes of having the same success they've experienced in the past just to spend several hours flogging the water will less than favourable results. Cast after cast and trying every fly in their box still leave some wondering why their success was limited. Unfortunately not every day is going to be like the last but knowing they’ve done their best before moving on to another area could have changed their luck. So how does one know when it's time to move on? Working the water and observation should answer that question.

With fly fishing, observation is key. Are you fishing a well structured area? Are fish rising in the area? What insects or aquatic life are you seeing on or in the water? Are the fish taking food items on the surface, just below the surface or is there no indication of feeding at all and if not, is there noticeable fish feeding in another area of the lake? Choosing an area to work with actively feeding fish should be first on your list. Determining what the fish are feeding on and where they are feeding will give you clues of what presentations and techniques you'll use as well as your preference in flies. But even after these determinations, only working an area will have you find the fish or let you know it's time to move on.

When I'm teaching stillwater clinics one thing I have to keep reminding my students of is to ‘work the water‘. After anchoring down and choosing your presentation don't continually work the same piece of water at the same depth with the same retrieve. Look at working an area as an experiment. Doing the same thing over and over again will usually produce the same results and if the results are unproductive, your experiment will be a failure.

Fan Casting

Fan casting is simply spreading your casts out, covering as much water as you can. Being right handed, I like to start on my left side casting over my left shoulder. My next casting will be 5-10ft to the right of the last cast and I'll continue this until my final cast ends up as far right as I can cast (usually casting with my rod on the left side of my body). After my final cast to the right I'll then start over and cast to my left again, over my left shoulder.


Fish can be peculiar. That quick, short, stripping retrieve that drove the fish nuts yesterday may not generate any interest today. Continually change your retrieve until you find one that interests the fish. Maybe today it's a very slow hand twist or a long slow pull. Could be a very fast, long pull will a long pause. Be imaginative with your retrieves and try and find what's turning the fish on that day.


Whether using a sinking line or floating line the depth you fish could determine how successful your day is. Fish will choose what depth they want to hold at on that particular day and success may be only a foot or two away. If you don't get your presentation into the strike zone your efforts may fall short. When using a sinking line, the count down method works extremely well. After you make your cast, you simply count down before you retrieve. Depending on how deep you are fishing and how fast your line sinks will determine how long you need to count. When I'm working an area, I like to find bottom and work my way up through the water column from there. I'll count down to say 30 and if I didn't feel any weeds on my retrieve then on my next cast I'll count to 40. When I do find weeds, I'll then shorten my count so I'm keeping my presentation just above the bottom and after working the area at that depth, I'll then shorten my count working my way up through the water column. When chironomid fishing with a strike indicator, I'll start with my flies a foot off the bottom and if I have no success after working the area at that depth, I'll pull up my presentation and secure my indicator a foot down the leader so my flies will now be presented at two feet off the bottom. I'll continue working the area and adjusting my indicator until I find where in the column the fish are holding. I'll use the count down method if fishing without an indicator.

Working the water and observation on a stillwater fishery are the keys to finding fish. If after working an area your success is still limited, you may then want to move to another area of the fishery and put these same practices to work again.

Mike (Doc) Monteith is the owner of Alberta Stillwater Adventures, specializing in one-on-one introductory to stillwater fly fishing clinics.