Part Two – The Retrieve
Due to the soft, often subtle way that trout feed in lakes, the presentation challenges for stillwater are more taxing than those of moving waters. Stillwater fly fishers develop their hand skills—not only to help meet the casting challenges lakes dictate, but also to manipulate the fly line through a variety of retrieve styles so their flies spring to life.
Once the fly has sunk (I like to target 1-3 feet above the bottom weeds and debris), it is time to begin the retrieve. All of my retrieves start with 2-3 brisk strips to confirm I am both tight to fly and also to induce sudden movement to attract any fish that might be nearby. If there are no takers, I default to my planned retrieve.
All stillwater retrieves have four key elements;
1. Length of the pull.
2. Speed of the pull.
3. Time between pulls, often referred to as “the pause”.
4. Overall pace of the retrieve motion.
Attracting strikes is just a matter of experimenting with these four variables. Although each food item moves with its own unique cadence, I use water temperature as my retrieve pacemaker: the cooler the water, the slower the pace. It is not uncommon for me to use three different retrieve speeds from slow to fast for each prey item.
The Hand Twist
The hand-twist (or hand weave) is the staple stillwater retrieve, involving a weaving or hand rolling motion. From brisk to snail pace, the hand-twist suggests all manner of food sources. Executed at medium or slow pace, it is a busy retrieve that helps prevent retrieving too quickly due to impatience. As I prefer to fish flies slowly, it is my primary retrieve.
To begin the hand-twist, pinch the line between your thumb and forefinger of your retrieve hand. Pull down a length of line at a speed to match the conditions. Roll your retrieve hand back up to the rod hand and pull down another length of line at the same speed and length, using the tip of your pinkie finger. Continue this rolling or weaving motion until the retrieve is complete. Gathered line can be stored in your hand, or allowed to drop once a single hand weave is complete. Once mastered, the hand-twist becomes second nature, although it might take some practice before you are comfortable with the twisting or rolling motion.
The hand-twist has a number variables you should try once you have mastered the basic retrieve motion. These involve the number of fingers used to gather line. Most fly fishers use the pinkie finger to pull the line once the initial pinch pull is complete. But by using the ring finger or middle finger to pull the line, you can reduce the length of the pull. Used with a slow pull, this variation makes really lethargic retrieves a simple matter.
Most inexperienced fly fishers struggle to retrieve their flies slowly enough. Dawdling retrieves are the experienced fly fisher’s secret weapon. Remember, other than a fleeing baitfish, stillwater food sources are not world class sprinters. They crawl, plod, wiggle, scull, undulate or elevate their way laboriously through the underwater world.
Flies can also be pulled through the water using a strip retrieve. As the name suggests, the line is stripped from behind the rod hand. Depending on the food source you are suggesting and trout activity, the length and pace of the pull varies. Leeches, scuds and baitfish can be imitated using a long, slow, 6”-12” pull followed by a prolonged pause. A curt, choppy, 3-4” strip suggests the erratic rowing motion of a water boatman or backswimmer. Popping the hand at the end of the strip, as though shaking a thermometer, adds additional retrieve action. There are a number of different strip retrieve variations.
When using an indicator, a slow 6-12 inch strip ( which makes the indicator create wake) can be deadly. The strip pulls the fly up, drawing the attention of any nearby fish. Once the strip ceases, the fly makes a fluttering descent beneath the indicator. Pay attention to the indicator after stopping the strip.
One drawback of the strip retrieve is that it’s too easy to make the mistake of moving the fly too quickly. In order to be certain of moving the fly slowly (a mandatory pace for suggesting chironomid pupa or larva), try the pinch strip.
Take your retrieve hand, palm facing you, and touch the finger tips to your rod hand. Do not allow your hands to separate. Reach up with the thumb and forefinger of your retrieve hand take a pinch of line and pull. As long as you keep your hands touching, there is only so much line you can retrieve before you have to re-pinch and pull again. The end result is a slow natural retrieve. The pinch strip is my favored snail pace retrieve. I use it often when imitating chironomid larva or pupa.
The Roly Poly
When fishing attractor patterns, flies designed to elicit an aggressive, territorial or instinctive response, the retrieve pace is often brisk. At times, a quick strip pause or hand-twist retrieve does the job. But to turbocharge your retrieve, there is nothing more effective than the Roly Poly.
The Roly Poly differs from the typical stillwater retrieve pose, as the rod handle and reel are stuffed between your arm and your body, freeing up both hands to gather line. The line is stripped using alternating rapid pulls of each hand. In most situations, the pace is breakneck, with your hands almost a blur. The Roly Poly is an excellent choice for animating Boobies, a leech-like pattern featuring a pair of prominent round foam spheres—hence the pattern’s moniker.
Trout, like most predators, target their prey when they are most vulnerable, such as when they stop for a rest. Consequently, the pause element of any retrieve is critical, as it makes the fly suggest a resting victim and offers a following trout the chance to grab it. Regardless of the retrieve style, I always integrate pauses, preferably prolonged pauses of three seconds or longer. Play close attention to the pause phase of any retrieve, as this is typically when strikes occur.
No matter the retrieve choice, always hang the fly before re-casting. Most fly fishers have experienced that vicious swirl, solid tug, or the flash of a thwarted fish when raising the rod at the end of the retrieve to make another cast. You may ask, “Why the last second interest in the fly?” The answer is simple. Two things occurred during the rod lift: the fly both changed speed and direction as it accelerated toward the surface—suggesting that it was trying to flee. As a predator, the trout instinctively attacked it.
Being aware of the flee response, we can take advantage of the trout’s predatory nature by pausing or hanging the flies at the end of the rod lift. Do this from a seated position to avoid spooking the trout, and begin raising the rod slowly while still retrieving line. As the fly sits at the surface, stop the rod lift. Any fish accelerating to catch their fleeing prey will be rewarded as the fly dangles at the surface. If you are fishing multiple flies, hang each fly. The virtues of a longer rod become apparent in this situation. Hang time varies: I often experiment with different pause times dangling the fly for up to thirty seconds on occasion. I recall one day on Idaho’s Henrys Lake, I let the fly hang over twenty seconds before a bright cuttbow rocketed from the depths to snatch it. Hanging your flies at the end of every retrieve will significantly increase your stillwater catch rate.
Presentation is the most critical element in mastering stillwaters, infinitely more so than pattern choice. Yet, most fly fishers always ask successful anglers what fly they are using before inquiring about their presentation tactics—if they think or remember to ask at all. Practice the casting techniques unique to stillwaters. Learn the different retrieves and their variables. Try wind drifting and always hang the flies at the end of each retrieve. Your enjoyment in fly fishing lakes will grow with each new experience, and you’ll almost inevitably increase your catch rate.
By Phil Rowley, host of The New Fly Fisher TV show, stillwater guru, and winner of the Fly Tyer Lifetime Achievement Award.