Playing the Stillwater Game from Scratch Pt 2: Timing Tips

Lakes for the Rest of Us...



Let’s next establish a set of four simple priorities to follow when fly fishing in lakes. In fact, the rest of this article will be about these four priorities for one very good reason - they work. Furthermore, they’re all you’ll ever need out there. You will also see that, as much as there is to learn about stillwater fly fishing, it all still fits into the same set of four priorities. I’ll explain:

It works just like hunting, and sometimes we even call it that. Whereby, there’s no successful hunt without first tracking, locating, and getting oneself within range of the animal; before you can present your fly and draw a strike, you must first cross paths with trout. And in lakes you have expansive and voluminous amounts of water, much of it void of fish a lot of the time. So, the game tends to be more about putting yourself on active fish than anything else. The good news is we have ways of accomplishing just that. The great news is, once located, active trout tend to be rather liberal, even forgiving, in terms of willingness to take a fly, or any form of bait for that matter.

Always keep them in order - Logically, figuring out timing, or when trout are active, comes before deciphering where they are which, in turn, comes before deciding how to present to them which, finally, determines the appropriate fly (what) to use. That seemingly small progression may take a fair amount of time and effort to get from ‘when’ to ‘what.’ Let’s look at those parts and pieces more closely.


Think of timing as a two-dimensional search for active trout. First, consider conditions in general throughout the year, think seasons and weather. Second, in the span of a day, or outing, you’ll be concerned with timing of activity or ‘the bite’ at your chosen lake, and what factors may be influential. We’ll contemplate each separately.

Seasons and weather – Water temperature is king here. We’ll discuss wind, rain, and other forms of weather next, but in the big picture think first of the seasons, or which parts of the year will help or hinder your search. First rule of thumb, trout activity is driven by mild or middle temperatures. As such, spring and fall are easily the best seasons to pursue trout, not to mention the most comfortable for you and me.

What’s more, in western Washington, you have the good fortune of a year-round fishery for trout in lakes short of frozen surface periods, which occur less frequently and for a shorter duration than in many other states. So overall, you can catch fish all year long, but peak trout activity will be in spring and fall when lake temperatures are in the 50°F range, ideal for trout and their food sources. That means you can expect best results in spring and fall, but can still fish in summer or winter, just with less favorable results.

Know that winter and cold-water conditions can make fishing downright difficult, and a skunking is certainly a strong possibility. I tend to enjoy winter fishing and its added solitude, along with the opportunity to sharpen my skills and creative ability when the bite is scarce to nonexistent. You can decide if that’s a fair trade for numb hands and frozen feet.

Summers tend to be more forgiving in the ways of trout activity and overall comfort for the angler. In general, you’ll still have a few food sources to work with, plus more of a window of activity, just not on the level of spring and fall. Watch for sluggishness among trout this time of year and pay attention to water temperatures. If they go much above 60°F, start looking for lethargic behavior. That should be your first sign to begin laying off until temps fall back into range.

Final note on weather and temperatures, a spike or sudden rapid change in either direction tends to slow activity down. If you find this to be a likely culprit for lack of strikes out there, give it a few days, they’ll be back. Trout thrive in stable conditions and need time to adjust when their environment suddenly takes a turn.


Ice-out is a welcomed sight in spring and can even occur at times in the dead of winter. If you partake, expect a few lively trout to join you.

The day of – We’ll start with the bite in general. Really this is what we are all looking for in an outing. In simplest terms, the bite goes on and off throughout the day and, when it’s on, we’re trying to get all we can before it goes back off. Without knowing anything else, that’s already a good premise to work from. Moreover, that’s about all I had early on, but I certainly caught fish by it.

The bite can last any length of time, and occur any number of times in a day, depending on a lot of factors. But on average, it tends to come on a couple of times a day in normal conditions. Of course, I’ve seen days in spring and fall when a lake produces all day, and I’ve been out in winter when it comes on once and produces very little for not long. Let’s look at the more common factors that influence trout.

Weather can affect fish activity but is certainly not an exact science. Look for ways in which different conditions impact either visibility or food sources. Instinctively, trout care a great deal about how hidden or visible they are at any given time. As both predator and prey in the food chain, they spend a lifetime caring about seeing and being seen. In general, conditions that make them more visible, direct sunlight and lack of wind (calm surfaces) for example, will keep them wary and less likely to strike a fly. It follows that grey skies, wind and rain tend to reduce visibility in the water, thereby increasing your chances for a take.

With food sources, weather has a hand in when and how they occur. Attempting to lay all that out here would be a reach to say the least. For now, just know it’s another factor and worth making observations about as you gain experience.

Food sources lie somewhere in the middle of ‘when’ and ‘where.’ On the water, you can look to them as, perhaps, the best indicator of time and place for feeding fish. As you can imagine, this is a big one. Here we’ll introduce some of the more prevalent trout foods you can expect to encounter on lakes. I’ll come back and discuss ways to approach each with your fly a little further on.

Midges (year-round with hatches spring/summer/fall) – Easily the most abundant food source, these mosquito-like nonbiting insects are responsible for probably half the trout activity you’ll see in a year. Midges usually become obvious as soon as March, get roaring throughout April, and continue to be a presence throughout summer and fall. In an active hatch, they’ll provide plenty of opportunity from lake floor to surface. Known as Chironomidae, the larvae and pupa forms (pre-hatch) rise from the bottom with the appearance of short, segmented worms that develop a small white puff near the head. During these phases, trout are known to gather and feed vigorously on this readily available meal. As these “bugs” pierce the surface film and begin to hatch, trout may continue to take advantage, now in plain sight as they break the surface themselves to pursue.


Adult midge. Like the mosquito in appearance, the midge adult can vary widely in size, even within a single body of water. Hatches are commonly abundant and spread out across a lake, often giving rise to bird activity. In many Washington lakes, a crowd of Swallows overhead is an obvious sign of midge activity. (Illus. Dave Hall)

Mayflies (spring/early summer/fall) – If midges are the most prevalent food source, mayflies are probably my personal favorite. The action on these when they hatch can make for some of the most exciting fishing all year. Think large aggressive fish on dry flies, and lots of them. Adult mayflies have long curved bodies, forked tails and large upright wings. In nymph form, they may last several months or longer, dwelling near the lake floor among vegetation. Callibaetis, Hexagenia and Tricorythodes are common in stillwater species. Hatches are shorter in cycle and duration, but often more pronounced as compared to midge hatches. A mayfly hatch can occur at differing times each day during a cycle but tends to take place in the same locations each day. Look for them in shallow areas with vegetation along the bottom.


Adult Callibaetis – Hatches occur in concentrated areas along a lake’s shallows. Look for some of the best dry-fly opportunities of the year, as a hatch can last over two hours, and the cycle can go on for several weeks during spring. (Illus. Dave Hall)

Damsels (late spring/all summer) – The prettiest and friendliest of them all, damsels are easily recognizable with their long slender shape and bright blue coloring. While other insects will come around and are well behaved, damsels seem to be the least bashful, often coming to rest on one’s arm or even the hand. At times I can offer up a finger and they’ll gladly land and sun themselves there for as long as welcome, and without being pests. Damsels hatch in good numbers along the shoreline in weedy areas. You won’t have any trouble spotting them and, at times, will even see trout working in the vicinity. Look for activity in late mornings and early afternoons. Damsel nymphs generally live among vegetation, and then swim up toward shore to hatch, usually climbing out onto a stem or structure that extends above the surface.


Prettiest if not the friendliest – I get my share of little bright blue visitors during the summer. At times damsels will stick around a while, sunning themselves from wherever they choose to land. Easily recognizable, damsels tend to hatch among the weeds near shore.

Minnows (year-round) – Minnows, fish fry, and other forms of small edible sized fish make up a good part of a trout’s diet. Compared to insects, these can be observed nearly anytime and anywhere, and minnows are also commonly supplemented in some lakes to enhance gamefish populations. At times you may see the minnows themselves, or just see trout as they give chase. Look for them to concentrate in the shallows along shore, especially in eves or low lighting situations.

Other Foods – Of course the list goes on. The following are some of the other trout foods you’re likely to find in lakes across Washington: Caddisflies are well known but somewhat less frequent in my experience than other insects mentioned. Dragonflies are around, but relative size and numbers would keep them from greater popularity among trout, although dragonfly nymphs are regularly fished as a general search pattern. Scuds are rather small bottom dwelling crustaceans; I tend to see them in eastern Washington waters most often. Crawdads or crayfish are found in a lot of lakes, preferring to hang out around rock structure. Some folks use crayfish patterns for larger trout with good success; I’ve never tried them myself. Leeches are around but I never see them, which is ok by me but, ironically, the fly I use most often is a leech in crawdad color…go figure.

As you spend more time on the water, pay attention to the overall cycles and durations of hatches, along with the occurrences of food sources. The more you observe and experience, the more predictability you’ll find, and the impact on your success can be exponential. Arriving before a hatch, for instance, then working it through till the end while also following the same hatch over a period of days whenever possible will tell you a lot about food and fish behavior. From many hours of doing just that, I can easily say it’s well worth it.

Beyond weather and food, look also to first and last light on any given day, plus any other sudden change in conditions, to bring about activity. Trout have a strong tendency to react to most everything that affects their surroundings.

Overall, know that the bite is affected by more than just a single food source, and most often we don’t really see everything that determines the ‘when.’ Operating on partial information comes with the territory when playing the stillwater game and, if you ask me, makes for better sport anyhow. And simply understanding how the bite works, that it goes on and off over and over, is much more valuable than you may realize. I’ll put it this way – most of my success has come from just staying put and waiting them out anytime the bite is off. I may not know when, but I do know for sure it’s coming back on. That’s really all you need.


Bright and brisk - Rick Lewis works the weeds for brookies on a sunny spring morning.