Dennis Collier Fly Illustration - Copyright Dennis Collier 2015Articles

Third Eye Enlightenment for the Stillwater Angler

Click here for the Third Eye Enlightenment recipe and tying sequences.
By Dennis P. Collier

Several years ago, a long and fishless day on Spinney Mountain Reservoir was coming to a close as the sun dipped toward the summit of Colorado's Sawatch Range in the distant west. In a last-ditch effort to save the day, my fishing partner and I decided to give the narrow channel of the south inlet a quick try before packing up and heading for home.

As we prepared to launch our float tubes, it occurred to me that this was as good a time as any to strap on my Lowrance fish finder and see what was happening below the deck. Minutes later, the screen was showing several large fish images suspended just above the twenty-five-foot-deep bottom structure; far below any reasonable expectation for our floating fly lines being able to present our flies to the fish. Our intended prey was sulking in the depths and we weren't even coming close to disturbing their slumber.

Quickly changing lines to fast-sinking shooting-heads, we were soon firmly attached to a couple of Spinney's spotted submarines. That was the first of many subsequent and demonstrative experiences on how finding the correct structure and fish holding depth of a lake factors into the success a stillwater angler might enjoy on any given day.

My quest for incorporating a fish finder onto my float tube came after considerable and frustrating exploration on the subject. First, the concept required some "Rube Goldberg" adaptation of components designed for use on a real boat, not a canvas covered truck tube. The task was exacerbated by the fact that I could not draw on an established resource pool of anglers who had already solved the problems.

Back then, float tubes were just starting to develop a following of stillwater fly fishermen in the Colorado/Wyoming region and pontoon boats were a long way from hitting the drawing boards of manufacturers. In the late 1960's and early 1970's these single person flotation craft – having migrated west from the southern regions of the country – were a source of humor to some and the brunt of serious ridicule by others. For those of us with thin wallets, they provided an affordable means to access fish that had previously been out of our land-bound casting range.

I won't labor over the details of those early trial and error experiments, but I finally found the solution to my folly and have been using the third eye fish finder on my float tubes ever since. Little has changed in the ensuing three-plus decades, except, that is, the subsequent design innovations of float tubes and the advent of pontoon boats – which spawned the necessity to get creative in how best to fit the equipment to the craft. I currently use a Super Fat Cat, front entry tube, manufactured by the Outcast Sporting Gear Company, and the only variation on my original methodology is to utilize a homemade base mount for the sonar viewing unit, instead of web strapping, so it will ride in one of the large side pockets.

In 2009 I took the plunge and invested in an Outcast Fish Cat 9-IR pontoon boat which has subsequently been outfitted with my trusty Lowrance fish finder as well. The approach is exactly the same as on my float tube, with even greater ease in attaching the components. The battery resides in one of the side pockets while the sonar unit rests right behind one of the oar locks, held in place by a single web strap. The transducer is strapped to one of the pontoons behind the seat position. If one were using an electric trolling motor, the Twelve-volt marine battery used to power the motor could also serve as the power source for the fish finder. More on that in a moment.

My old Lowrance unit was originally designed for use on full sized boats and is rather bulky compared to many of the new models. Several units now on the market – including those manufactured by Humminbird, Eagle, Garmin and Lowrance – are compact, lightweight, and the higher end units are packed with various advanced features. Entry level units typically range in price from eighty to two-hundred dollars.

If you'd like to forego the exercise of adapting a traditional fish finder to your pontoon boat, Humminbird offers a "Fishin' Buddies" model that comes complete with mounting clamp; power source which uses six AA batteries; transducer and sonar viewing unit – all self- contained in a single package. I have never owned or used a fish finder of this type so I cannot offer any personal insight as to how they compare to the traditional style. I'm also at a loss as to how you'd attach it to a float tube, but I suppose it can be done if you want to do so badly enough.

Topographic Lake Maps and GPS

If you're fortunate enough to have a company in your geographic area which creates topographical maps of local lakes and reservoirs, buy them and use them! I currently have several such maps for the lakes I frequent in Colorado and Wyoming. They are produced by "Fish-n-Map Company" and are included in a host of western states as indicated on their web site. Visit them at http://www.fishnmap.com for a listing of available states and lakes. These maps are now being printed on a waterproof, plasticized material, which makes it safe and convenient to carry them in a float tube pocket while you're on the water.

One thing to keep in mind, especially if you're fishing an irrigation reservoir which is subject to seasonal drawdown, is the fact that actual surface-to-bottom depth recordings on the map – as compared to the indications on your fish finder – will sometimes change due to water level fluctuations. However, the subsurface structural contours will remain the same and prove invaluable to your dissection of the featureless water surface. These maps do a fine job of illustrating things like old railroad beds, former stream channels, building foundations, and etc.

The objective here is to find the structure to minimize the looking and maximize the catching.

Once you've located some of these fish hotels yourself, lock in the location on your GPS unit if you have one. Fish will migrate to and from shallow feeding areas in the early morning and evening hours, but you're more likely to find them around deeper structural locations during midday when the sun is high overhead. Being able to pinpoint these chosen spots will save you untold hours of floating around and fishing over vacant lots. Being adequately equipped with a few fly lines with different sink rates will also facilitate getting down to the depth at which the fish are holding.

Taking the Temperature

Many of the modern fish finders now include temperature sensors in addition to depth indication and fish symbols. Use this to your advantage if your unit has this feature; if not, tie a stream thermometer to a short length of cord and drop it over the side of your flotation craft. Check it on a regular basis as you traverse the lake, taking note of any temperature changes, especially if you start seeing several fish images on your sonar screen, or start catching a number of fish in a localized area. If you also see the water temperature dropping by several degrees, chances are you've located a natural artesian spring which is pumping cool, oxygenated water into the lake. Fish will naturally seek out these locations, especially in the warmer summer months when ambient water temperatures begin to climb and oxygen levels drop.

Night Vision

Years of stillwater angling experience has demonstrated that the vast majority of anglers head for the barn when the sun starts to set. To me, this is the "call to action" for another night of crowdless fishing adventure. Your depth finder now becomes your best friend, letting you know if you're drifting over three-feet, or thirty-feet of water. This orientation aid becomes even more important when your normal depth perception and landmark references become lost in the darkness. On particularly dark and moonless nights we will leave a light on in the camper or a lantern burning bright back on shore so we can find our way back home.

The visual aspect of angling now becomes a blind sense of feel, touch and hearing. Try this exercise sometime: close your eyes and practice casting using only your sense of feel to know when the rod is properly loading and unloading; when your sense of feel tells you the correct amount of line remains outside the rod tip and it's time to pick up for the next cast…and, etc. As an added bonus, this little diversion might also make you a better caster when your eyes are wide open.

Night fishing on a lake is a relatively safe and relaxing way of angling for those fish that typically shun the shallows during bright daylight hours – especially plus-sized brown trout. Dress warm and refrain from drinking a lot of liquids for obvious reasons. Frequent entry and exit from the water is discouraged at night in the interest of safety, since this is when most tubing mishaps occur. Again, for safety sake, I also encourage fishing with a partner at night just in case a problem does arise. The possession and use of a personal life vest should be a part of your gear complement as well, especially at night!

Night fishing also calls for simplifying your terminal tackle for the task at hand. Tandem fly rigs are put aside in favor of a single fly – usually a big streamer – and leaders are further shortened to minimize the potential for nasty tangles. Tandem flies and barbed hooks are notorious for catching one fly in the net mesh while the fish, still attached to the other fly, goes ballistic in its bid to escape. This is a recipe for lost fish and tackle, darkness only amplifies the problem. Carry a good head lamp or other form of compact flashlight, but use it sparingly. Once you've turned on the light, it will take several minutes for your night vision to return. You might be surprised how well you can tie a triple surgeon's knot, and etc., in the dark, once you've trained yourself to do so by feel alone.

Thoughts on Lines and leaders

If I could have only one fly-line for stillwater fishing my first choice would be one of the specialized "Stillwater" lines currently on the market. Scientific Angler's, Rio, and Cortland all produce these lines, which consist of a transparent material bonded to a monofilament core, have a very slow sink rate, and are less visible to the fish than traditional sinking lines when submerged.

Secondly, unless I'm fishing "dry" during a specific insect hatch, I do not advocate floating fly lines for stillwater fishing. Floating lines are much too subject to the effects of wave action, which usually translates to a large belly in the line and loss of direct control of the fly. If a fish strikes, the angler has to remove the excess line before it tightens and sets the hook. Using a Stillwater line and keeping your rod tip slightly submerged will prevent wind influence and allow you to maintain direct contact with the business end of the terminal tackle.

As stated at the beginning of this article, I did then, and still do, keep a set of sinking shooting-heads and a spare spool loaded with the running line with me when I'm on the water – just in case I have to go depth probing. The "heads" are neatly packaged in a wallet and range in sink rates from "intermediate" to #5 fast-sinking. Changing spools and lines is quick and easy, affording a great deal of flexibility to meet changing conditions. If you choose not to invest in a set of shooting-heads, a #3 or #4 fast-sinking line on a spare spool will still allow you to get the fly down quickly.

For leaders, I suggest that you fit the leader and tippet to meet the conditions at hand. If ultra clear water and spooky fish dictate the use of extra long leaders and tippets – somewhere in the fourteen to fifteen-foot range – then do it. But keep in mind that leaders of this length are difficult to control in the wind. Consequently, my general rule of thumb is: the shorter the leader the better, as long as I can still consistently catch fish. Much has been written about keeping the fly in the fish's strike zone and shorter leaders allow you to keep the end of your sinking fly line and the fly in close proximity. As a result you can use the known sink rate of the line and the countdown method to gauge the depth at which the fly is being presented.

I like and use Umpqua "Power Taper" leaders, which come in six-foot, seven-foot-five inch, and nine-foot lengths. Depending on the pattern(s) and methodology I'm using at the time, I'll usually add a foot or two of fluorocarbon tippet in an appropriate "X" rating. The "weight-forward" Power Taper leaders facilitate turning the fly over in the wind and alleviate a lot of the frustration associated with fishing in stiff breezes – which are pretty much a constant companion while fishing in our western lake and reservoir settings.

Stillwater Fly Patterns

While countless stillwater fly patterns have been created over the years, and localized favorites will always hold considerable weight among those who have caught their fair share of fish with them – by design, some still remain a lot better than others. In all fairness, I'm sure a typical scud and/or chironomid pupae pattern will work just as well in one lake as another half a continent away – as long as it is fished properly! However, the crafting of our own "killer flies" is part and parcel to the endeavor of fly fishing. To view just a few of my personal favorites, click on the "pattern archives" link. Some of these patterns are of my own design, while others are time tested flies that sprouted from the vises of other inventive tiers. I'll spare the yawn by not illustrating the more obvious – like a Wollybugger, for instance. Regardless of who came up with the idea, these flies have caught a ton of fish over the years, and there's a lot to be said for that!

No lake too large, no puddle too small - and safety first!

While boats, pontoon boats and float tubes, each have their advantages and disadvantages, I still enjoy the compactness and convenience of my front entry float tube. They offer a very low profile for effectively working the shallow, food-rich perimeters of lakes and ponds with little fish spooking disturbance. As evidence, I frequently have fish rise within a few feet of my tube while quietly drifting or trolling.

I also believe that most entry level belly boaters invest in low-cost, poorly designed and undersized fins, which quickly exhausts and discourages even the most physically fit. After my first bad experience on an expansive, wind-swept Wyoming lake, I purchased the largest, most powerful set of professional scuba diving swim fins I could find at the time. My Scuba Pro fins are still in service after three-plus decades of use. I've gone through a few sets of straps over the years, but an annual application of silicon based rubber preserver has kept the fins in great shape.

I recall a photo many years ago in a popular fly fishing publication, in which angler, Del Canty, was holding the freshly caught Utah state record rainbow. He was sitting in a belly boat which had been tethered to land by a long rope in order to keep him from being blown from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Kansas by gale-force winds. He maintained that the biggest fish went on the feed during high seas and this was reasonable validation of his theory. The last time I was there, the mount of this fish still resided in the restaurant at Flaming Gorge Resort… and it is HUGE!

I've also witnessed wind sheers come up on large Wyoming reservoirs in a heartbeat and without warning. What was a glass smooth surface one moment was frothing with huge whitecaps the next. Fortunately, I happened to be on shore at the time. That scenario makes any type of small craft being on the water a recipe for disaster. As a general rule of thumb on our western lakes and reservoirs, the daily summer winds will start to pick up in mid to late morning – usually in the 10:00 to 11:00 A.M. time frame – and increase in velocity as the afternoon progresses. Plan your safety strategy accordingly. These winds are usually the precursor to afternoon thunderstorms as well, and you really don't want to be on the water with a nine-foot graphite lightning rod in hand when they blow in! Like any other sporting endeavor – a healthy dose of common sense goes a long way out there.

As stated earlier, a pontoon boat equipped with an electric trolling motor can greatly expand your access to waters that would otherwise be beyond the reasonable reach of a float tube. They can also hasten your retreat to shore when strong winds do hit the water. I queried Outcast as to the appropriate thrust rating for my nine-foot Fish Cat and was told "thirty-six pounds would be a good choice." Cabela's offers a Minkota, Endura-34, with a thirty-four pound thrust rating for only $120.00. A marine battery and battery charger completes the ensemble.

A fishing friend actually uses his trolling motor to hold him in position when fishing in choppy waters. By reversing the prop thrust and setting the speed to counter the wind and wave effect, he can idle in one location while covering the water in front of him. Using fast-sinking lines, he will typically allow a brace of chironomid pupae to sink to just above the top of the weed beds; then, by raising the rod tip several feet, he effectively imitates the ascent of the pupae toward the surface. This frequently results in arm jarring strikes by some very large fish.

No Bass Left Behind!

While I readily admit that, for the most part, my stillwater experiences are limited to trout venues, the utilization of fish finders for warm water applications is equally appropriate. The variety and abundance of lakes, reservoirs, and warm water fish found along Colorado's Front Range – and in most geographic locations around the country as well – offer a virtual cornucopia of angling opportunities for the individual willing to explore their world. Largemouth Bass; Smallmouth Bass; Wipers; Crappie; Walleye; Northern Pike; Tiger Musky…and more, are just waiting for the educated and well equipped fisherman to come find them.

One day long ago at Wyoming's Diamond Lake, we were sitting on the tailgate of my pickup eating lunch, when we observed another fisherman slowly walking the shoreline back to his own vehicle. As he approached, he stopped dead in his tracks and heel-spun 90 degrees in our direction – pointing to the depth finder residing on my float tube which was sitting a few feet away. Four letter words slipped from his pursed lips as he both questioned and exclaimed: "what the hell is that gadget on your tube?!" "A depth finder", I replied. At that, he proceeded to scold me and insist that this lake was too small and shallow for the need of such a contraption. I didn't bother telling him that I had successfully located a fish rich channel that went from a twenty-foot-deep bowl to a small earthen dam – or that he had walked right past this fish factory without stopping.

That was then, this is now, and I still see few, if any, of those @$#% contraptions attached to other personal water craft while fishing my favorite lakes. This is unfortunate. With just a minimal amount of effort and adaptation, there is no valid reason today for not utilizing this technology to enhance your angling experience. Hopefully I've presented a key to the door of expanded stillwater fishing success by removing a few of the hurdles associated with fish finders and personal flotation craft. Good luck and good fishing!

The Setup - End to End

  • Figure 1:

    Rechargeable Twelve-volt battery with the altered Lowrance power cable. These compact batteries and chargers are available at most box store sporting goods retailers, such as: Cabela's, Sportsman's Warehouse, and etc. The original power cable was shortened to a manageable length, and then spliced to eighteen-gauge solid-core wire, positive/negative leads. The factory supplied Three-Amp fuse was spliced in-line per manufacturer instructions. Appropriate battery terminal clips have recently been replaced to accommodate the new rechargeable battery. All connections are covered with electrical tape to discourage moisture penetration.

  • Figure 2:

    Cable splice – wire-nuts filled with silicone sealer to prevent moisture contamination. DO NOT overlook this important step!


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  • Figure 3:

    Homemade sonar unit mount and my decades-old Lowrance fish/depth finder. This arrangement is specifically designed to accommodate a comfortable and convenient ride in one of the side pockets of my Outcast, Super Fat Cat float tube. Two stove bolts protrude upward through the base, which correspond to holes in the unit mount. These have been expoxied in place on the underside. Wing nuts then secure the sonar unit to the board.


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  • Figure 4:

    Transducer attached via two short stove bolts and wing nuts. The heads of the stove bolts were ground down flat to prevent any chaffing of the tube fabric. The bolts are then inserted through two-inch nylon web strap. Brass grommets were secured in the web strap to provide a solid back support for the bolts, and Nylon "quick release" buckles allow fast and secure attachment to the tube. As an aside: make sure that your transponder is located in a position that prevents it from coming out of the water during use. If this happens, the unit will "zero out" and you'll have to re-set your program settings. It also needs to be secured in a location that will prevent surface clutter on the sonar as a result of paddling action.

  • Figure 5:

    The entire setup, from front to back, showing how compact and convenient the components conform to the float tube.

  • Figure 6:

    Ready for launch and some serious fish catching! Note the turbocharged, oversized Scuba Pro swim fins.

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