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Ice-Off Still Water Fly Fishing Strategies

After fishing mostly tailwaters through the winter months, we always look forward to the ice melting from our favorite mountain reservoirs. Fishing to big, cruising trout in the shallows is always exciting. But if you’re new to fly fishing still water, it can be difficult to know where to begin.

In celebration of ice-off season, here are several tips and strategies to help get you started:


Finding Trout

In most lakes and reservoirs, trout spend the winter in the shallows, where there’s a narrow band of oxygenated water. When the ice melts in the spring, you can expect trout to be cruising these shallow water areas.

No matter what time of year we’re fishing still water though, these shallow depths are important – those parts of the lake or reservoir that are less than 15 or 20 feet deep. That’s where the light is, and therefore that’s where the food is. During these spring months, look for warming water and the first aquatic insects of the year to emerge on the north ends of a lake – that is, the sunny, south-facing sides.

Just like you’d break a large river down into smaller rivers to find fish – don’t be overwhelmed when you approach a lake. It’s not that different. Break it up into pieces. Look for areas where shallow, food-rich waters meet deeper waters, weed beds, or areas of security for trout. Look for points, drop offs, submerged outcrops and other transition zones.

One great way to find these areas is to do some homework before you hit the water. Check out the satellite view on Google Earth or your favorite mapping application. You might be surprised what you can find from a bird’s eye view of the water.

Indicator Fishing Strategies:

For some specific still water strategies, we spoke with Anglers All Assistant Manager, Dakota Wentworth. According to Dakota, an effective ice-off strategy is to fish with an indicator rig. But having the right tackle is important.

“A standard indicator like an Airlock is great for shallow lakes like Antero Reservoir,” Dakota told us. “But at Spinney Mountain Reservoir, a slip indicator is ideal because it will pop apart while landing a fish so that you can get your 15 foot leader into your guides to land the fish.

“Begin your rig with a minimum of 3x fluorocarbon to your fly,” Dakota continued. “These fish are strong! Then, use a balanced fly as your lead fly, like a leech or minnow. From there, attach 24 inches of tippet to a smaller chironomids or callibaetis pattern. Later in the summer, it can be a good idea to replace those patterns with a caddis larva. Play with depths and bring split shot as needed.”


Fishing Without an Indicator

Dakota added that fishing at ice-off can also be a great time to use a full intermediate fly line without an indicator, because weed beds haven’t started forming. Hanging up on them won’t be an issue early in the season.

“When you use a full intermediate fly line without an indicator, run a shorter, stout leader to your first fly,” Dakota explained. “Then, add about 24 inches of tippet to your second fly. Try different sink counts and small, short strips. Early in the year before weed beds form, fish will cruise shallow bays and sand bars.”

After the weed beds appear in the lake, Dakota recommends using a floating line with an intermediate or midge tip – but then following the same basic strategy.

“As the wed beds form, you may need to wade deeper or hop in a belly boat to reach the inside edge of those weeds,” he added. “Drop offs can be a great place to find cruising fish too. On windy days, look for cloudy water lines against the wind beaten shore, where that wind has pushed food up against the shoreline.”


Recommended Fly Patterns

Dakota mentioned that the first major spring food source in mountain reservoirs will be chironomids.

“Color is more important than size,” he said. “Stock your fly box with olive, red and black chironomids. Rotate through them until you find what the trout are keyed in on.”

Dakota added that after chironomids, callibaetis will appear into the mix. Here, size is more important than color variation. Again, rotate through a few different flies to find what they are after.

“Next up are the Damsels,” he continued. “Color is important. Try fishing olive and tan. Also experiment with weighted and unweighted damsel patterns. Another important food source are scuds. Use colors for live scuds like olive or grey. And don’t be afraid to go big! Load up your box with sizes 10 through 14. Scuds can be very effective on windy days when the water is churned up. Fish the edges of clear and cloudy water near shore.”


Fishing Big Streamers During Ice-Off

A list of ice-off fly fishing strategies wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the opportunity to throw big streamers. For some advice on this particular approach, we asked fellow Anglers All Media / eCommerce Team Member Larkin Wilson.

“Take advantage of the opportunity to go big,” Larkin said. “There are two prime windows for fishing giant streamers in western lakes: in the spring, right after ice-off; and in late fall, right before the lakes freeze. During both windows, trout are looking to pack on calories. While a hearty, 6-inch streamer might get refused during the summer, there’s a much better chance it gets crushed in the spring by a hungry trout that has been locked under the ice all winter. Try throwing streamers in the 4-inch to 8-inch range. But size down if you aren’t getting any strikes or follows after a few hours.”

Larkin advised us to hit the lake as early as possible. “Joining the dawn patrol can help you beat the crowds and allows you to cover the best water first,” he said. “Although I’m a little biased - the majority of the large trout I’ve landed in still water during ice-off season have eaten before 9 a.m.

“Rig HEAVY,” Larkin emphasized. “At least, heavy for trout, that is. Twelve-pound, 16-pound, or 20-pound leaders and tippet are ideal for turning over large flies and fighting big fish. There’s nothing worse than breaking off an $8 streamer and losing a seven-pound cutbow just a few feet from the net. A heavily forward weighted line is also a must. I like the new multi density RIO Predators Series Fly Lines for exactly this type of fishing”

When it comes to pattern selection, Larkin says his strategy breaks down like this: 50% confidence flies / 25% confidence colors / 25% ‘throwing the kitchen sink’.

“Basically, half the streamers I’ll throw are the ones in which I have confidence and have produced for me,” he explained. “These patterns include the Drunk & Disorderly, the Cheech Leech, Mini & Original Sex Dungeons, and the Double Dirty Hippy.

“If those aren’t working, I’ll switch focus to my confidence colors,” he continued. “Which, in the majority of western lakes, will be white, black, or tan. There is a lot of crossover between my confidence flies and confidence colors - like the Mini D&D in white, the Cheech Leech in Halloween, and the Double Dirty Hippy in tan.”

Finally, if his usual confidence patterns are striking out, Larkin says he’ll deploy the kitchen sink strategy. “Meaning, you test out as many flies in your streamer boxes as possible and see what you can learn from the experience,” he said. “Take note of the profile, length, color, contrast, and weight of the streamer you’re throwing. Take note of your retrieve speeds, duration, types of strips, action of the fly, etc.

“The goal is to learn as much as you can about what the streamers in your arsenal can do and how fish respond to them in different situations,” he added. “Doing this usually helps you find more confidence flies and continue to get your streamer selection strategy dialed in.”

Larkin continues on with casting tips, "When it comes to covering water and finding fish, I've had a ton of success with fan casting on peninsulas. I look for prolonged points, islands, and dark spots in bays of the lake. Basically, any hideout that offers protection from incoming fronts and can be used as a spot to ambush prey.

The fan casting method is simple. I'll usually wade out to anywhere from waist to chest deep and then look at the water in front of me like the top half of a clock face. 9 o'clock is to my extreme left, while 3 o'clock is to the right. I'll then work my way from 9 to 3 and back again, with 1-3 good casts thrown at any given "hour." 

If you're fishing from a boat or float tube, you can treat your casting windows like a full clock face and work all the way around your watercraft".

Contact Us With Questions

Need advice getting ready for your next day on the water? Whether it’s your first day fishing still water or your 500th, let us know how we can help. We’d be happy to answer any questions. From fly rods to to the terminal tackle, we’d love to help set you up for success.

Visit us at the fly shop in Littleton. Or give us a call at 303-794-1104. We’re still offering free curbside pickup or free shipping on all those online and phone orders. Let us know what you need, and we’ll get you out the door and onto the water.