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Fly Fishing Stillwaters

Our sport has what I think of as an image problem. All too often you hear “It’s only for those with loads of money” or “it’s too complex to start”.

This page introduces you to the basics of fly fishing on stillwaters. We’ve cut out all of the unnecessary jargon and present you with the facts in an easy to digest format, this will get you started in the quickest way possible.

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It’s very easy to overcomplicate fly fishing, and many people do – to make them seem more knowledgeable, we’re only interested in equipping you with the knowledge you need to get you started on a stillwater. It’s amazing how quickly you will amass knowledge, once you’ve taken the leap.

A Brief History

Fly fishing is defined as:

“An angling method that uses a light-weight lure—called an artificial fly—to catch fish. The fly is cast using a fly rod, reel, and specialized weighted line. The light weight requires casting techniques significantly different from other forms of casting. The flies may resemble natural invertebrates, baitfish, or other food organisms.”

Fly fishing in its current form dates back to 1496, things have obviously moved on since then, but the techniques and equipment are not that far removed from their originals.


If you’re looking for the most effective way to catch fish in stillwaters, fly fishing is not the best option, however it is one of the most enjoyable because:

  • Generally fly fishing on stillwaters always takes place in peaceful locations with fantastic scenery.
  • It’s good for the soul – the majority of time when you are on a stillwater, you are watching and waiting, surrounded by wildlife – generally in the middle of nowhere.
  • It makes you think – every time you arrive at the water the conditions are different, you have to crack the code on what tactics to use – more of that later.

It may sound obvious, but fishing on stillwaters does differ quite widely from fishing rivers.

When fishing stillwaters the angler has to keep a keen eye on what is going on around them - weather conditions and water temperatures play a large part. Successful stillwater fishing is all about being willing to adapt your tactics to what you can see happening around you.

When fishing stillwaters the type of fly (and depth) you present the fly to the unsuspecting fish is key. Presentation is the ability to make the fly seem as natural as possible to the fish be it a dry fly on the surface, or a nymph fished deep. Sometimes on stillwaters you want to provoke an agressive response in a fish, to cause it to attack your fly - keep reading for more info on fly choice.

Therefore the way you approach the stillwater, the tactics and flies you use are the key skills to master, once you begin to recognise the signs you are half way there.

Stillwater Fly Tackle

Often described as an art form, casting is the way we get the fly onto the water (and in front of the fish). Casting is the most important aspect of fly fishing – done correctly (or even just adequately) it will make all the difference to your success rate. All of the decisions you make when selecting tackle (rods/ lines/reels etc) should revolve around making casting the fly as easy as possible. There are various types of casts (see later in this book for descriptions of the most common casts used when fishing a stillwater), the tackle you choose to use is key to make casting the fly easier

Fly Fishing Tackle – What You Need

So, you know you want to have a go on a stillwater, but what gear do you need to start? The first thing to note is that when casting a fly to a fish, the weight used to get the fly to the fish is all in the fly line.

Rod – Every fly rod is described by its length and weight rating, this shows what weight fly line it will cast, for example a 9’ 5wt rod is 9 feet long and is designed to cast a 5 weight line (remember, when casting a fly the weight to launch the fly is distributed through the length of the fly line). For small stillwaters an ideal length of rod is 9’ as you will generally only be casting fairly short distances. For larger stillwaters and reservoirs (or when fishing from a boat) a longer rod is required as you generally will need to cast a little bit further, so a 9’6" to 10’ rod is best. Remember (in general) the length of rod is dictated by the size of the water you are fishing. When fitted with a similarly rated reel, the fly rod should balance on the cork handle. It is always better if the balance point of the rod is roughly where you hold it.

Reel – Fly fishing reels are rated by the weight of fly line they will hold (i.e. one rated 4 to 6 will comfortably hold a 4wt, 5wt or 6wt line). When selecting a reel to match your rod, choose one which has a drag included - a drag is basically 2 friction plates built into the reel that lets you control the amount of line you let out while catching a fish, playing a fish from a reel with a drag is much easier and allows you to put less strain on the line allowing the flex in the rod to cushion any runs. When starting out on your stillwater fishing journey in the UK, reels don't need to have the best drag, you're not usually going to be catching fish which will run and run.

Fly Line - When fishing stillwaters you will usually be fishing with flies which are larger than those used on rivers. When using larger flies you will need a heavier weight of line to cast them out so a 6 weight line is a perfect weight as this will allow you to fish any style of fly on a stillwater. As well as their weight, fly lines are also classed by their taper design. All fly lines have different styles of taper (this is what allows the energy to transfer along the fly line in the most efficient way), each of the tapers give a slightly different presentation of the fly. The most common taper to use on a stillwater is a Weight Forward (WF), for the more inexperienced these lines are easier to cast. You will see these identified as WF6 – a weight forward 6 weight line. One other consideration to make is the line density - either floating or sinking. Usually the beginner will start with a floating line, this will allow you to fish most stillwaters. It's only when you start to fish the deeper waters or you want to use some of the more advanced techniques, that you may want to consider using a line that sinks. Lines that sink are identified by their sink rates, measured in 'inches per second', sometimes called Di lines or 'intermediate' lines.

Fly Line Backing – This is just a way of padding out your reel so the reel is full once you have added your fly line. Backing is generally an inexpensive braid which you add to your reel before you install your fly line.

Tapered Leader – In the above section on fly lines I mention that the energy created by the cast travels down the fly line due to its taper, if you just attach a length of fishing line to the end of the fly line the energy will not effectively travel to the fly (which is what you need to allow the fly to land in front of the fly line). So a tapered leader is used, this is a length of fishing line which continues the taper of the fly line down to the size of the tippet. When starting out, choose a tapered leader of 9’ – choose the thickness of the tapered leader based on the thickness of the tippet you are using, i.e. if you are using a 4X tippet, then use a 9ft 4X tapered leader.

Tippet – Tippet is just a fancy name for the fishing line which you attach your fly to. You always add tippet to the thin end of the tapered leader and then attach your fly to the other end of the tippet. Tippet is specified by it’s ‘X’ rating, this dictates the tippet’s diameter (not its strength), with 2X being thicker than 8X. The ‘X’ system originates from the times when catgut was used, and the ‘X’ was the number of times the gut was fed through a machine to make it thinner (i.e. if you fed it through eight times it would be thinner than if you only passed it through twice). A common ‘rule of thumb’ that helps you determine what ‘X’ size tippet to use, is to take the size of the fly you will be using, say a size 12, and divide the fly size by 3. In this example, our fly is a size 12, divided by 3 gives you 4. That would work out to be a 4X tippet size. It’s a simple and easy to use rule to help you determine the correct diameter tippet to use while out on the water. You will find that manufacturers often list the 'X' rating of the line along with its diameter in milimeters, making it easier to compare lines across different manufacturers.

Note: Whenever you change flies you will eat into the tippet you have added, once you have a small amount of tippet remaining, just replace it with a fresh, longer length of tippet. This way you will never eat into the tapered leader and in turn never change the taper of the leader.


All of this really boils down to the following:

For Bigger Stillwaters & Reservoirs – Choose a 10’ 6wt rod, 6 to 7wt reel with a WF6 line. Pair this with a 9’ 4X tapered leader and 4X tippet.

For Smaller Stillwaters – Choose a 9' 6wt rod, 4 to 6wt reel with a WF6 line. Pair this with a 9’ 4X tapered leader and 4X tippet.

Flies – When choosing a fly - there are two main types - depending upon your tactics, you will be either trying to:

    Matching The Hatch - Where you present a fly to the fish which imitates the flies which are hatching around you – there are lots of resources available online to point you in the right direction for matching your fly to the insect (here’s one – https://which-fly.flyfish.education). When you are starting out it’s best to start with only a few flies. Call any reputable fly shop (try www.barbless-flies.co.uk first though!) and we will be more than happy to help you select the right flies for the time of year you will be fishing.
    Lure Fishing - The larger fish in any water need lots of food to maintain their weight, this cannot be maintained by eating insects alone, so they turn their attention to the smaller fish which also inhabit the water along side them. Lures are larger flies (some can be more than 4" in lenght), which are there to provoke a fish to eat, this type of fly often imitates another fish and are long and slender.

Fly Box – Does what it says on the tin (literally), it’s a box to store your flies in.

Landing Net – A stillwater landing net (one with a long handle - you will be fishing from the bank and will need to reach to net the fish) is essential for ensuring the best welfare for the fish you will catch. Always practice the best fish handling care you can. Stick to the principles of Keep Fish Wet (more details lower in this article). Before handling any fish always make sure your hands are wet and never lay the fish on the ground.

Clothing/Footwear – When fishing stillwaters you will not usually be entering the water, therefore you will only need a waterproof jacket and a pair of waterproof boots (or wellingtons), you will generally be standing on the edge of the bank and may need to enter the water at the edges to net a fish.

Nippers – These are used to cut tippet and are really cheap, they are essentially a pair of nail clippers which can be bought for a couple of pounds.

Floatant Powder – When fishing dry flies - as the fly name suggests - these need to be dry to float on the water’s surface. Once you have caught a fish, the fly will be wet, so use a piece of kitchen roll to dry the fly and then apply the floatant powder to the fly to expel any moisture and get your fly floating again.

Eye Protection – Always protect the most important piece of fishing equipment, your eyes. It’s essential that whenever you are casting a fly that you wear some sort of eye protection. Polarised sunglasses have two advantages; protecting your eyes and the polarisation allows you to see through the water and spot fish.

Setting up your Gear

When setting up your fly gear for the first time there are a number of different knots which are used to hold everything together:

Arbour Knot – To tie your backing to your reel.


Surgeon’s Loop – To connect your tapered leader to your fly line, using a loop-to-loop connection.


3-Turn Water Knot – To connect your tippet to your tapered leader.


Clinch Knot – To tie your fly to the tippet.


Flies Flies & more Flies

Ok, so you’ve got all your gear ready, what fly do you use? That is the million-dollar question, and herein lies part of the fun in fly fishing. There are thousands of different flies available, but every fly will fit neatly into one of three different categories:

  • Dry Flies – Flies which float on the surface of the water
  • Emergers – Flies which sit in the water film
  • Wet Flies/Nymphs – Flies which fish under the water

Generally, on stillwaters, you are trying to either imitate the flies which are hatching now – i.e., the one’s the fish will be expecting to eat or you want to provoke the fish to eat your offering. Once you have been fishing a while you will instinctively know what flies to use, but when you are starting out you will need a little help.

That’s where this website is your friend, take a look at our 'Which Fly Should I Use?' page - https://which-fly.flyfish.education - this will show you what flies are expected to hatch in your locality and give you a few ideas on the flies you may want to try. See further down this page for our monthly stillwater hatch charts.

Alternatively, you can always watch what flies are around you and then select a fly of similar colour and proportion from you fly box.

The Importance of Casting

The art of getting the fly onto the water is ‘casting’, this is what sets fly fishing apart from all other forms of angling. Remember that the weight you are casting is all in the fly line, so the general idea is to get the fly line to flex the rod so the rod acts like a spring. To do this we don’t just ‘waggle’ the rod about, we perform a specific motion with the rod, the 2 main casting styles you will need for fishing stillwaters are the Overhead Cast and The Roll Cast.

A quick point to note, the best investment you can make when starting your stillwater fly fishing journey is in some casting lessons.

Putting Fly Line onto the Water

Thread the fly line, leader and tippet through the rod rings so there is around 2m of fly line out of the tip ring of the rod, and then tie on your desired fly. Pull approximately one and a half to two rod lengths worth of fly line from the reel. Drop the tip of line into the water in front of you, with your rod tip low and the loose line in your free hand, wiggle the tip of the rod from side to side smoothly this uses the surface tension of the water to pull the line through your rod. This process means less thrashing of the fly line and almost no water disturbance or frightening the fish away.

Casting Style (Overhead)

The Overhead Cast is used when you have plenty of space behind you, this cast is the easiest to master and practice definitely makes perfect – this cast can easily be practiced at home on the grass. The Overhead Cast cast can be broken down into 3 sections:

The Pick Up: With your rod tip low to the water and the line straight in front of you, peel the line off the water slowly, start to accelerate using your forearm - remember not to break your wrist - into the Back Cast.

The Back Cast: Go high and hard stopping at around 1 o’clock. Now wait and let the rod ‘load’ – you will feel this. Again, don’t let your wrist break as the line loads the rod on the back cast. As soon as you feel the rod tip tug back move into the Forward Cast.

The Forward Cast: Accelerate your forearm forward. Don’t apply too much power too soon; accelerate gradually to a brisk forward stop at 10 o’clock. Let your rod tip drop by about an inch at this stop and no more, it will ensure you deliver an efficient loop at your target. Watch your fly line, after the line straightens out, lower your rod tip to the water having presented the fly.

Casting Style (Roll Cast)

The Roll Cast is used when you have very limited space behind you – like when you are fishing directly in front of bushes or trees. The main steps to the Roll Cast are:

The Pick Up: Lift the rod towards you in a controlled and smooth manner. Keeping the tip of the fly line on the water (Surface tension is required to help load the rod in this cast). Allow the line to pass behind you to form a loop – called the ‘D’ loop - the bigger the ‘D’ loop, the more the rod will load. Stop when your hand is almost at ear height and the rod tip is at 1 o’clock. You should be facing in the direction you want to cast.

The Forward Cast: Move the rod forward from the 1 o’clock position, slowly, but gradually accelerating to a quick abrupt stop at 10 o’clock. Drive the cast through your thumb, closing your wrist at the 10 o’clock stop position. You must hold the rod still at this point and allow the fly line to travel forward to your target. I always think of this as the same action as hammering a nail into a wall!

Watercraft What to look for

Watercraft is the art of looking at your surroundings and translating that into how you fish the stillwater. At first glance there will not seem to be much happening but take a moment to sit down and actually watch the water and the air above it. You should see that there are numerous insects flying about (this will give you an indication on which fly to use), you will also see that eventhough its classed as a 'stillwater', that the water is actually moving. You will find that the water movement traps insects in the surface film and pushes it towards one side of the stillwater. This is generally where the fish will be, so start casting towards that.

Fish in stillwaters (especially smaller stillwaters) often circulate the water. The first thing to check is if you can see any fish taking food from the surface. If you can, it's pretty easy to have a look in the surface and see which insects are present and then tie on a fly which is a similar size and colour. If there is no acrivity on the surface then the fish will be feeding on nymphs under the water. The best tactic to use is the 'Countdown Method' - cast your nymph/wet fly out onto the water, once your fly hits the water count to 10, then retrieve your fly by gradually pulling your line in short 2ft lengths at a time - this raises your fly in the water and acts as a trigger for the fish to take it. Once your fly is near to the bank, cast out to the same place and count to 20 andretrieve. Repeat this proces until you start to catch the botton of the stillwater, then cast to a different location and start again from 10. This is a great way to search the water, once yoy start to get pulls and tugs on your fly take a not of how far you counted to - you now know the depth at which the fish are feeding. The depth the fish will feed at is largly dependent upon the water tepmerature, weather conditions and air pressure - the fun in fly fishing is working all this out (along with chosing which fly to use).

Hooking and Playing a Fish

So, your fly is now in the water and you are fishing, what next? Assuming the gods are looking down favourably on you, i.e. you have selected the right fly and cast it to the right place. Hopefully a fish will try to eat it, by taking the fly you have presented to it.


Again, this is all about timing, leave it too long and the fish will realise that it has a mouthful of fluff and metal, too quickly and you will pull the fly out of its mouth. There was a saying that you should say the words ‘God save the queen’ and then lift the rod to set the hook, but I much prefer to do it on instinct, you will only miss a few before you have the hang of the timing.

In stillwaters the fish will fight quite hard for a short period of time, it's your choice to either play the fish from the reel (in which case you need to wind any excess line onto the reel before allowing the reels drag to subdue the fish), or he easiest way is to play the fish with the fly line in your reel hand while pinching the line between the rod handle and the index finger of the rod hand. When playing a trout it’s very important that you keep the rod tip high. This allows the bend of the rod to absorb any shocks to the tippet as the fish struggles against the line.

When playing a larger fish you will need the help of the drag on the reel to subdue it. Normally when you hook a fish, you will have extra fly line coiled between the reel and the index finger of the rod hand. The challenge then is to reel the loose fly line back on to the reel. Once you have the line on the reel, you can use the drag system to tire the fish out.


Catch and Release

The majority of stillwater fishing is Catch & Release, which is the reason for the popularity of barbless flies, the hooks just fall out of the fish once they are in the net – an added advantage of barbless flies is that they are easily removed from clothing, and the back of your head! The main principle to adhere to are the ‘Keep Fish Wet’ principles:

Minimise Air Exposure - Just like humans, fish need oxygen to support essential bodily functions and keep them alive. What’s different is that fish get their oxygen from the water (it is dissolved), not the air. Fish respiration (“breathing”) involves moving water into their mouth and over their gills, whether by pumping it or when swimming with their mouths open.

Eliminate Contact With Dry Surfaces - Fish have a layer of protective mucus (slime) and scales that protects them from disease. Contact with dry, hard, or rough surfaces (such as hands, rocks, sand, and boat bottoms) can remove slime and scales making fish more susceptible to diseases, especially fungal infections. Keeping fish in or over the water, and holding them with clean, wet hands or a soft rubber net will help keep their slime layer and scales intact and the fish disease free.

Reduce Handling Time - Fish are wild animals and handling is stressful for them, whether they are in your hands or in a net. Most fish that are brought to hand are still amped up based on the release of glucose to fuel their ‘fight or flight’ response to being caught. It can take hours for a fish to physiologically return to normal once it is released.

The longer you handle a fish, the more stressful it is for them, which compounds the stress associated with capture.

You can read more about the ‘Keep Fish Wet’ principles here: www.keepfishwet.org

Keep Fish Wet