Stories and Articles
Dennis Dickson : Angling Author, Fisheries Biologist, Steelhead Flyfishing Guide
Flylines inventor: Yancy-Steelhead multi-head sinktip sytem & FLHS-Steelhead floating line
Fly Creations: Including Copcar, Crystal Caddis, Chum Candy, Humpy Chaser, Tarpon Gurgler
Latest Articles by Dennis Dickson
Fly Lines Are What Catch Fish
A look at the function of the most important piece of steelhead equipment you have, the flyline. What to look for in a line and how to match your line to the waters you fish.
Rafts and Hard-bottom Boats
Different anglers have different needs. How to choose the craft best suited for you and your style of fishing.
Six rules of the river that everyone should know.
Steelhead Flies: Fact and Fiction
Will steelhead ever show preferences in color and construction? Some things that you might want to know.
Leaders - The Steelhead Connection
Truth and myth about leaders and steelhead. Camouflage, abrasion, knot strength,good brands and bad.
- see more stories in our book - "Flyfishing Tales"
Not every lake is created equal but here are few generalities that make up a good fly fishing lake.
Look for waters that are convenient so you can get to know a particular lake well.
Alkaline waters grow fruit better than the Westside. They also better fish habitat, hence better faster growing fish.
Limited kill waters are going to have more fish and less fishing pressure unless you are willing to hike or travel to less attended waters. IE Selective gear waters & fly fishing only lakes are generally better fishing than public full kill lakes…. But not always
Fly-fishing lakes generally have shallow weedy sections. More on that.
Fly lines catch fish. To catch trout in lakes you need to do a few things:
1) Put the fly where the fish live. 90% of the trout feeding is done near the bottom. Why? Its where the weeds are and weeds produce bugs. Trout eat the bugs. 10% of the feeding in in or on the surface why the bugs are hatching trying to fly away.
The right line for the job:
A floating line can fish the flies on or near the surface. It can also be deadly for suspending a nymph over the weeds generally in less than 12’ of water. More on that.
A type 2 full sink will fish the bugs is a slow sinking fly line that will suspend the fly along the weed tops without dredging into them. Good lines for fishing flies in less than 15’ of water.
The type 6 sinking line is your mid-day fly line or when the fish are feeding in clear waters that are 10’ to 30’ deep.
If I were starting out as a new angler, I would probably get the floating and the type 6 lines first, then the type 2.
Leaders: There is great discussion on long leaders vs. short. Buy a commercial leader 9’-12’ and you should be good.
A couple spools of tippet material in 4x & 5x and you are golden. As your leader gets shorter from changing flies, tie on a couple foot section of tippet with a double surgeon knot for connecting leader sections, and a uni-knot (Duncan loop) to tie on the fly.
What the fish see in bugs:
Trout are keyed into: Size, color, location, movement
Bugs: (fly patterns for each insect are found later in this text)
You don’t have to know every kind insect but there are a few prevalent types to most lakes and it doesn’t take long to find out what is what.
Flies found in lakes year-rond:
freshwater leeches are found in most all our western lakes. They come in a variety of sizes and colors for reasons I won’t go into. Woolley Buggers (see below) in # 8-10’s are about right. Black is the most common, then green.
Woolley buggers are wonderful fishing flies because they can represent so many of the bugs in the lake. Sealbuggers are a little more exact, but made more for fussy trout, fussy anglers.
The aquatic dragonfly (nymph) doesn’t look anything like the helecopter fly you see flying around. Generally a spring time pattern. The nymph is in the water for up to 5 years before they hatch so the trout see them a lot.
Flies like the Carey special. Nyerges nymph, woolley worm (a wolley bugger with his tail lopped off), & Doc Spratley in the right sizes and colors are the ticket. Dark olive green, black. Dark brown are prevalent colors. Fly should have a fat dumpy body. # 8 & 10 are good, but # 6 is also common.
Also known as “freshwater shrimp” (a misnomer, because shrimp are all saltwater species), the scud are often found in many alkaline lakes. If your lake has them I can almost guarentee you, trout will be feeding on them throughout the year. A little homework in fishing reports and you will find out soon enough.
Often confused with the dragonfly, the little blue “darning needle” fly and are much smaller and always skinny. Every aquatic insect that hatch (goes from nymph to adult) goes through some kind of migration (hatch) to get airborn. Damsels need a a verical vegetation such as tules or reeds in the water.
Imitation: A skinny fly with spenty of wiggle. Dominant colors are olive greens and browns. Damsel fly nymphs all have buggy eyes. #8-12 will cover most sizes.
Nicknamed “midges”, this includes your mosquito family. These guys have three stages trout feed on. Laval stage, which is blood red worm found down in the weeds, a nymph which wiggles to the surface, and the adult fly, you see fling around. Trout feed primarily on the nymph. Dominant colors are black, brown, and green in that order. This nymph called a pupae has a distinctive little white tuft on his head called a primrose. Your fly will be skinny, appropriate color, with a little white tuft.
Also known as “periwinkles” they too are fed on in all 3 stages. Caddis build a caccoon like shell out of whatever the bottom substrate is. Pebbles in rivers, tiny sticks and stones in lakes. In B.C. they are known as “Sedge.” The adult fly is a tent winged fly. Again most fish need on the nymph migrating to the surface. Doc Spratley, Carey special, many of your dragonfly imitations in smaller sizes (# 8-10) in greens and browns are good sedge nymphal flies. It’s where and how you fish them that matters.
Mayflies: The adult Mayfly looks to me like a little sailboat on the water. (adult mayfly)
Fish feed on the nymph from the weeds all the way to the surface and on top. The nymph in olive greens and brown sizes (8-20), # 14-16 being the most common.
The ledge the hedge & the edge
In every lake these are the three parameters to consistently finding trout. Like isles along a grocery store, trout cruise particular zones looking for food (bugs).
The ledge: is any distinctive contour change along the lake bottom, especially from shallow weedy areas to deeper water. Trout know that the weedy areas produce the bugs, and depth is where they can run for safety.
The hedge: is the weedy areas along the lake bottom. Not all underwater vegetation is created equal. Lilly pads and the like are poor bug producers. An under water carpet such as Chara weed and elodia are good bug factories.
The edge is kind of a heady concept but it’s just like it sounds. Lets say you are fishing in a shallow bay and the lake is carpeted with vegetation (almost like a lawn). It happens to have some underwater sandy patches and you notice the bay drops off into deeper water along the one side. The sandy patches especially associated with the drop-off is a good place to look.
Inlets and outlets to lakes are always good places to fish because it is moving the water, bringing nutrients. Caution: Trout will migrate up these creeks to spawn each spring so check your regulations for closed waters, even if you are simply targeting the bays associated to the stream.
They say that even a third rate burglar cases his joint before he hits it. Rule number one: Do your homework.
Try to find out everything you can about the particular lake you are planning to fish. Where are the streams that flow into and out of it? What do contour maps show the islands and bays? Think “ledge, hedge and edge.” and of course, where are the public accesses to the lake. The boat launches.
Boat fishing: I could write an entire book on different lakes and boats required to fish them.
I will try to break it down. 90% of the time unless you are hiking into a remote lake, you probably using some kind of water craft.
“Float tubes” are handy because you can carry them in all rigs, they offer a low profile on the water, and you can cover your fishing water quietly and thoroughly. The rub is, unless you can launch pretty close to the fishing area, you are not going to cover great expanses of water. That and the fact that you are sitting up to your crotch in cold water all day in your belly boat. You will also have chest waders and fins to invest in.
Canoes, prams & rafts: Good for primitive to decent boat launches. If you can get to or near the lake side, you are golden. You generally don’t need chest waders except to get you craft on and off the water. You will need anchor(s) to hold the boat still while you fish. You can carry more gear than the float tube. Lake travel under a mile can be handled but watch out for storms in open water. Be careful.
Boats & motors: For those big expansive lake so common in British Columbia, Your boat launch may be down here, but your map shows the areas to check out are way down over there. If it is legal to have motors, getting around on larger lakes is the only prudent way to go. (Canoe people will passionately disagree)
Pick your poison: You can choose your craft for the waters you fish, or you can choose your waters by the craft you fish.
Guys just cannot help but talk about their success, especially online. Washingtonlakes.com is a great source in selecting that next piece of water. Once you have narrowed your selection of lakes, do everything you can to find out everything about them.
You should have a reason and a purpose every time you fish. You won’t necessarily catch all the fish every time you go out, but you should learn something new. It’s part of the fun.
Just as you don’t want to to keep pounding the same home waters time after time with bismal success, don’t jump around from lake to lake so much, you don’t get a chance to learn any one lake very well.
Yes, if there are those guys on that lake that seem to be consistently successful, you can assume they have put in their homework. Which leads me to my next point.
Don’t be afraid to ask. I have handed out more lakeside flies then I hope to imagine. Why? Because there has been plenty of times I was on the asking end. Treat other the way you want to be treated. Seems like I read that somewhere.
The right area on the lake, the right bug, the right time to match the hatch, don’t be afraid to learn something.
Before I get farther in to the fishing strategy I should say something about water safety.
As a guide for nearly 30 years, I have seen many wonderful experiences to turn to tragedy over a simple lack of thought.
“There is no fix for stupid.” If and when you are heading out, have all your safety equipment. Know your boat and know it (and your) limitations. If ever it doesn’t feel safe, assume it’s not. Get out of there. Live to fish another day.
Weather: Use your electronics to decide when and where you want to fish. As a general rule, fish feed most going from unsettled weather to warm pleasant weather, especially in the spring when the lakes are warming up. By contrast, a stretch of warm pleasant days and the weatherman says you are heading into cold blustery weather that is not comfortable for you or your fish. A sheltered water might be a better choice for safety reasons as well as well as fishing success. Or simply abort.
More fishing strategies:
So you have picked your lake. You have a craft you are comfortable in. You have narrowed to your lake down to a few key areas using Dickson’s “The ledge the hedge, & the edge.” You have scoped your maps, you know the boat launch, and the fishing regulations.
You are now out in the lake. As you make your way to the fishing, you quietly approach.
Feels like cheating but it is not:
My number one asset on the lake now is my fish finder, Not just any fish finder but a buddy 2 side winder. These piece of electronics is huge because I can spot not only to fish under me but around me as well.
The other day I was checking out a local lake I would be conducting a flyfishing class in the next few days.
I had done well previously on a black/red # 8 wooley bugger. That day was cold and dark. Today was the second of a warm and sunny bright day (we simply don’t get enough of these in western Washington.)
Anyway, I was so confident in my fishing, I rowed right over to where we had caught fish after fish just a few days before. Nothing. Not a bite.
I brought out my buddy 2 fish locator, and scoped the area. Sure enough, the trout had moved. The finder said they were all out in the deeper water down the bay.
I kept on my leech pattern but tied on a small Doc Spratley as a trailer. The Doc is a good caddis emerger imitation. The fish locator said the bottom was 13’ and the trout were cruising at 10’. I slow trolled the area, and shortly thereafter caught a chunky wild cutthroat about 14”. The fish had taken the Doc.
Don’t try this at home. Another few minutes later I caught another. Again the fish was taken on the caddis imitation. I pulled out my little stomach pump, and pulled the food from it’s stomach.
This is an absolutely awesome technique for finding out what bug, size & color they are feeding on.
Caution: Until you get really good at handling fish, it is best not to use the stomach pump, unless you know you can keep the fish. Simply kill the fish, gut him, and slice open his stomach into a small dish, slouch with water, and Voila the bugs. You have just went forensics! What did I learn? The leech was not black and red, it is actually black with dark green mottles. Even though I had the size right, they wouldn’t even touch it. Besides they were now feeding on the emerging caddis. The olive green in my fly was a bit lighter than the natural, but the size was right, and according to my fish finder, I was fishing where the trout were now actively feeding.
Bugs and movement:
Let’s recap for a minute:
I said the key in bug imitation was size, color, and movement.
We have talked about size & color. Lets talk about movement.
Just as you are going to freak out if you were sitting at your favorite restaurant that T-bone steak you ordered, so perfectly cooked, crawls off your plate….because it doesn’t act right. So goes your bug.
You can have the most realistic fly pattern in profile, size and color…..and if you don’t fish it where the fish are feeding and or if your imitation doesn’t act like the real Mc Coy, the trout simply won’t recognize it as food. They won’t eat it. Hence, the right movement.
Break it down. As a general rule, bugs move at three speeds, slow, slower, and stop. What do most anglers do? Troll around at water skiing speed. Not really but you get my drift.
Leeches generally swim in a slow undulating motion. Any of your marabou/chenille combos such as the before mentioned Woolley bugger imitates this action well. Fish the fly just above the weeds and slowly and if they are on it, you will know it.
Because virtually all our lakes have leeches, this is a very good ‘searching pattern” for scoping out a new area of the lake. When it is bright out, always fish the leach along the bottom. Conversely, when the lighting is low, leeches will swim just under the surface, so there you can fish a long leader and a floating line. Daylight and dark, before and after hatches is wonderful leech time.
Black woolley Bugger
Dragonfly nymphs migrate to the shore in the spring and
early summer but they crawl around the weedy bottom in the lake year round. Fish this fly anytime in the spring, slowly along the bottom. Want to know what color he is? What color is the vegetation, he usually a shade or two darker than that, dark olive being the most common. Another good searching pattern….but go ultra-slow. Remember, he is crawling.
Peacock Herl Carey Special
Not any really common scuds patterns locally
Green Baggie Shrimp
Pregnant Baggie Shrimp
Orange Crystal Shrimp
My favorites are probably the green baggy shrimp and the werner shrimp. Again, local water that have these scuds are going to have local pet patterns. Check out the local shops to that area.
Scuds hang out in Chara weed. Fish the sandy patches around the edges on a slow sinking line…..very slowly. Olive green is the most prevalent color
Any skinny sparsely tied fly in olive green will do it. Second color is a olive brown.
Fishing strategy. The damsel migration is usually in the late spring. Nymphs swim just above the weeds or to the surface and always migrate into shore to standing vegetation. Slow hand twist retrieve will get it done. Hang on, the trout hit these hard!
These nymph midges appear and wiggle like worms in the water.
Trout key into both size and color. If you have to choose between fat one or skinny ones, choose a skinny fly pattern,
The one shone here is in green. My favorite colors again are black, brown & green in that order.
This is probably the most common insect in the lakes during the spring. The rub is fishing it correctly.
Determine you have fish out in front of you. Anchor your boat directly upwind of the feeding fish. If the wind is swirling in from several directions, God help you.
You will need a second anchor in real chironomid fishing because any boat boat sway at all, will ruin the fly presentation. Cast directly downwind. Your fish finder has predetermined the depth of the water and the fish location. Huge.
use a floating line, along leader with a strike indicator (bobber). Your bobber should be no bigger than it it takes to float the fly just above the weeds. Set your indicator for the weed depth. I like to use a couple flies of different colors and sizes until I know what the fish are selecting. Your leader needs to be perfectly straight.
Fishing the fly is way worse than watching paint dry. You can twitch it once in a while but generally you will do best by just pointing the rod down the line and leaving it alone. Trout will swim by, eat the bug, and the tiny indicator will go under the water. It is a painful way to fish but if the trout are turned to chironomid, they will select that over anything else.
A semi-fun way to fish, is to tie on a parachute Adams (shown below)
As the fly is fished as your bobber, a piece of leader is tied directly off the hook shank and down to the chironomid nymph. The Adams floats, the midge nymph is suspended below.
Trout can eat the nymph or the dry fly. Really works great when as hatch is coming off, trout are feeding along a weedy shoreline.
Doc Spratley Swimming Nymph
In lakes, 90% of the feeding is at the nymph stage. I have found no better fly than the Canadian Doc Spratley.
Elk Wing Caddis Dry fly
On rivers as well as lakes, the Elk hair Caddis is popular dry fly imitating the adult caddis on the surface.
If you see the moth like caddis skittering across the lake, you can be sure the caddis hatch is on. Trout rises will be big and splashy.
The nymph is a good swimmer, and thus a good trolling fly wherever the hatch is found.
In nature, the nymph comes from down in the weed growth, but then actively swims to the surface, emerging into a moth like fly. I have the best success using a moderate rated sinking line and a fairly long leader to the fly. I always start my retrieve when the fly has sunk to the weed growth and work my fly back up to the surface.
A good way to determine reaching the weeds is by do a count down. Your depth finder will tell you how deep you are talking about. By casting out and counting down after the fly has settled, you get a pretty good idea of the depth the fly is fishing. When you allow a sink that starts you pulling weeds in the retieve, you know you are at the weed level.
Let’s say you are fishing a moderate sinking line in 10 feet of water. You are counting down to 8 and start grabbing weeds in the retrieve, knock back to a 6 count, and now you realize you aren’t pulling weeds. A 6 to 7 count down is about right. You retrieve should always be with your rod tip at the waterline. Two reasons for doing so. #1) With the rod tip down, you are pulling directly to the fly. This will impart the most action on the fly with minimal movement…..just like the real bug. The retrieve should start out slow and twitchy. # 2 If you hook up, you can quickly barb the fish before he can drop it as a Judas.
If you don’t get a bite change it up by picking up the pace, always in a different casting location.
“No, hell no and, what are you thinking?”
When you make a cast out onto the lake. That is a location is called, “a zone”. If you complete the cast and retrieve without a bite. Assume the fish said no…..they all said no. By casting into the same spot and getting the same reaction, no bite, they just said, “Hell No!” Multiple casts with no response is simply a waste of time. Guess what most anglers do?
Moral of the story:
Never cast into the same zone time after time unless you are getting bites. Always plan a new location after each cast. Cast in all directions without a bite? Move the boat.
If I am fishing a caddis hatch and my fish finder is painting a few fish spread over a expansive area. I will often do a slow troll through the area, stopping occasionally, and retrieve the fly all the way back to the surface.
Trolling & mooching: Trolling secrets- anything but straight. Never row or paddle in a straight line even when you know you are fishing a ledge. If you are moving your boat along, in a zig-zag pattern, you are showing the fly in multiple angles at multiple speeds. If a fish grabs on the inside of your turns, you are probably going too fast. If they tend to hit on the outside of the swing, you are going to slow.
Often times if the wind is up at all you can simply drift with the wind, using you oars to zig zag along the way. I will often mooch my fly along, and if I miss a bite. (or a weed) I will simply retrieve my fly from there, often teasing the trout into a more solid hook-up.
There is no such thing as a hook too sharp. I wear a fishing necklace. On it I carry two hook sharpeners, line grease, (Cortland dab) and fly ointment (gink)for dressing dry flies. I have a pair of hemostats and these have nippers built in for trimming leaders.
I wear polarized glasses for eye ease as well as spotting fish and structure in the lake.
I have a $400 wading jacket because I hate getting wet. I wear breathable chest waders to keep the weather out, and loading and unloading my raft. I wear a billed cap to keep the sun and rain out of my eyes as well as an errant fly from me or client.
Other than that, not so much!
Best of fishing,