Spring Stillwater Fly Fishing Tips with John Horsey

Spring Stillwater Fly Fishing Tips with John Horsey



 Looking to enjoy a great day’s fly fishing this spring? Top guide and England International captain John Horsey has some great tips on how to read the water, choose the right flies and catch more trout.

“The effects of Climate Change are steadily making their mark throughout the World.  In fishing terms, this is becoming readily apparent on UK waters, where the seasons are changing and we are required to adapt to cope with these changes.  In February on Chew Valley Lake, I spotted reasonable hatches of dark grey buzzers and on calm days, trout rose to take them as if it was June!

Our Winters are nowhere near as severe as they were in this country and most major reservoirs now open for business earlier than ever before and if the weather is mild, the trout are already feeding on buzzer, hoglice and bloodworm.  Gone are the days when you simply had to fish a black lure on a sinking line in order to tempt the early season rainbows.

Changing conditions for fly fishing

Since Opening Day on Chew and Blagdon, we have had lots of days cancelled due to strong winds.  The air and water temperatures have been very low and we have also had one heck of a lot of rainfall – so much so, that Chew is currently gushing water over the spillway!

But with softer winds of late and warmer air temperatures, the buzzers are hatching in profusion and the fishing is fantastic.  Last week we had an 8 fish limit bag weighing 33lbs 15ozs – with the best fish at exactly 8lbs and four others well over 4lbs in weight – and all on nymphs.

As temperatures rise, trout start to feed harder.

Having established that water temperature is of paramount importance, the modern day reservoir angler needs to keep an open mind as to his tactics on any given day.  Large expanses of open water take an age to warm – even if the air temperatures have been unseasonably mild.  However, for some reason best known to fish and fish scientists, a short spell of mild weather can trigger the trout into an instant feeding frenzy.

Most likely, it triggers some activity in the insect population and that in turn gets the trout feeding.  Thanks to our recent trend of mild winters, many anglers actually expect to start the new reservoir season with teams of nymphs using floating fly lines. A far cry from the tactics of just a few years ago.

Fly fishing tackle and tactics for spring reservoir fishing

I normally fish on the drift, in order to could cover lots of water using a drogue to steady the boat.  My normal set up is a floating or 3’ Cortland Ghost Tip line, 18 feet of fluorocarbon leader material and a team of Buzzers and Diawl Bach nymphs.  Fishing nymphs on a slow – sometimes termed “static” retrieve – is best practiced using a long leader of between 15 to 20 feet – longer than that is unnecessary.  The long leader helps the flies to gradually sink to varying depths and by retrieving at around the same pace as the speed of the boat, keeps them there until a fish eats one of them!

Modern day fluorocarbon leader materials are perfect for static nymphing, as they incorporate similar light refraction properties to water and are thereby less visible to the fish.  I tend to use 8lb for most of my nymph fishing, as it is very strong and sinks extremely well.

Fish like this rainbow will really test your gear! Tough fluorocarbon is a must.

I would not recommend a leader any shorter than 15 feet for nymph fishing – if you can handle longer leaders of up to 20 feet, then so much the better.  The distance between droppers is 5 feet when using 3 flies and about 3.5 feet for a 4 fly cast.

However, regardless of the overall length of leader, the distance between top dropper and point fly must be no longer than the length of your rod.  If you have a 10 foot rod and the distance between top dropper and point fly is 12 feet, then you will need to climb onto your boat seat to net a trout hooked on the point fly!

Trying to find the cruise depth and feeding depth of the trout is the difficult thing.  By using long leaders and teams of nymphs fished slowly, it is possible to get the point fly down at least 20 feet –often several yards of the fly line is pulled sub surface as the flies sink so deep!  If you feel you cannot handle 4 flies and such a long leader, simply reduce the leader length to one you can manage and substitute the point fly with a Gold Headed version – this will help get the flies down in a similar fashion.

One word of warning though; if the fish are just a few feet down, too heavy a point fly can take your nymphs down through the fish and below them.  In my experience, trout will often rise up through the layers to take a fly, but will seldom drop down to take one!

Fishing the hang and tips on best ways to retrieve flies

Once the flies have been given time to sink and the retrieve has begun, throw in a long pull from time to time.  This has the effect of “lifting” the nymphs up through the water in much the same way as a nymph ascends prior to hatching at the surface.  River anglers know this as the “induced take”.  At the end of each and every retrieve, “hang” the top dropper close to the surface and then bring each fly steadily to the surface, watching and expecting a take at every stage.  You’ll be amazed how many fish take the point fly just as it comes within view and barely a few feet from the side of the boat! 

A fish takes on the “hang” – exciting stuff!

Many people wrongly assume that buzzer pupae, when it is their time to hatch, make their way from the silt to the surface in one stage and then hatch.  Those of you that have studied insect behaviour will note that buzzer pupae move up and down the water columns constantly throughout their lives.  That is why the trout also change their feeding depths so often and that is why, as anglers, we need to get our flies to as many depths as possible.  

Should I drift or anchor when fly fishing?

Drifting will cover more water and thereby more fish, but sometimes the winds are too strong to drift, or it becomes unpleasant.  In these situations, drop the anchor and fish from a static position.  If the boat is anchored at the gunnels, then there will be plenty of movement from side to side as the boat “yaws” in the wind.  If takes are not forthcoming after a decent spell where you felt you covered the area well, then pull up the anchor and move – sometimes moving just 20 yards can have the desired effect.

Five of the best stillwater fly patterns for spring:

Black Diawl Bach Nymph.


Red Headed Diawl Bach Nymph

Stripped Quill Buzzer



To read more from John, or to book a day with his guiding services, see https://johnhorsey.co.uk/  

For further tips, don’t forget to check out our exclusive YouTube video with John Himself in action on Chew Valley Lake:


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