Reservoir Fly Fishing Techniques – A Basic Guide

This page is designed to act as a first port of call for those that are new to reservoir fly fishing or those looking to start using new methods. I recognise how daunting reservoir fishing can be to new fly fisherman. Many anglers’ start fly fishing on small Stillwater’s, before progressing to reservoir fly fishing. It can be a difficult transition. However, I would implore all fly fishermen to give it a try, as it can be brilliant sport and immensely rewarding.

The wide expanse of water can seem impossibly large when reservoir fly fishing for the first time. Locating and adequately covering fish is the first challenge, particularly if you are new to fly fishing and struggle to cast long distances. However, casting distances is rarely crucial, in fact, fishing close in can be highly productive at times. Getting out on a boat is ideal though, as casting distance is of even less importance. From a drifting boat you can cover lots of water and more importantly lots of fish.

My first recommendation when reservoir fly fishing would be to talk to local anglers, fishery staff/ baliffs etc… these people will probably have an intimate knowledge of the water in question and will certainly be able to point you in the right direction. But make sure that you point out that you are new to the sport or that particular reservoir, some anglers (particularly the competition crowd) can be a little bit cagy, and wary of people tapping them up for information ahead of matches. Once they know that you are a genuine novice or new to the water, 9 times out of 10, our fellow fishing folk will be very forth coming with guidance.

Selection of Reservoir Flies

A Selection of Reservoir Flies

If there is nobody to talk to or you feel uncomfortable asking for advice, just observe what other fishermen are doing. For example, what areas of the reservoir are they fishing? Are they fishing with a floating line or a sinking line? Are they retrieving fast or slow? Once you ‘get your eye in’, you can recognise almost exactly how other anglers are having success from a distance of a few hundred yards. “What about the fly?” You may well ask. In truth, the actual choice of fly is nowhere near as important as the style of fishing e.g. depth/ speed etc…

Reservoir Fly Fishing Techniques:

Most reservoir fishing techniques can be grouped into one of the following five methods:

  • Dry Fly
  • Buzzers & Nymphs
  • Wet Fly
  • Lure fishing (pulling)
  • Booby fishing

Outlined below are the basics of fishing these methods, including tackle setups and techniques. Each of these methods could, and in some cases have, had their own entire books written about them. Therefore, this piece should be regarded as a basic outlined upon which further learning will be required.

Dry Fly Fishing

This is my basic setup for dry fly fishing:

Essential flies:

  • Hoppers – these are good general suggestive dry fly patterns that are excellent for reservoir fishing. They can roughly represent many species including adult buzzers, daddies and hawthorn. These are good dries to try before you know exactly what the fish are really feeding on.
claret hopper trout flies

Claret Hopper

  • CDC dries (F fly and Shuttlecock) – again these flies are generally suggestive of many species, but usually they are tied to represent emerging or adult buzzers.
F-Fly CDC Dry Fly

F-Fly CDC Dry Fly

F-Fly CDC Dry Fly

Shuttlecock CDC Dry Fly

  • Beatles – imitates the natural beatles (e.g. coch-y-bonddu)
Black Beatle Trout Fly

Black Beatle

Coch-y-bonddu reservoir fly

Coch-y-Bonddu Beatle

  • Dung fly – does what it says on the tin! When the trout are on dung flies you can be in for some awesome sport.
Dung Fly Rainbow Trout Pattern

Dung Fly

  • Sedge – predominantly in mid/ late summer. Try scuttling these across the surface on warm evenings.
Sedge Reservoir dry flies


It is a good idea to look at what insects are flying around and in the water, this should give you the first indication of what type of fly to try first – try and match the hatch!

I generally fish two or three dry flies at a time (generally two). With two flies, I use a 16-18ft leader with the dropper half way along. However, if you are a novice you will probably want to use a shorter leader, there is no point in trying to fish too long a leader and ending up with tangles every 5 minutes. If you are just starting out, try fishing a single fly on a 10ft leader. Sometimes a single fly can actually be more effective than multiple.

I would suggest using fluorocarbon not monofilament, and I would recommend degreasing your leader every half hour or so (see my best fluorocarbon post for details on leader materials). By degreasing, I mean rubbing fullers earth on the line to remove the shine and to help sink the leader. It is important that your leader sinks when dry fly fishing, if your leader is on the surface, discerning fish will definitely turn away.

When you are dry fly fishing there are two methods:

1)      Casting in a fan (i.e. cast in different directions), dropping your flies on a different patch of water each time, searching for cruising fish;

2)      Target and intercept rising fish.

If fish are rising, it is usually worth trying to intercept them. Generally rising fish will be moving up-wind just under the surface, you can confirm which direction they are travelling in when they come to surface. Try and cast your fly 2-3ft in front of the fish, give your line a quick strip to straighten it out and then hold tight and wait for the take… it can be very exciting. Sometimes it can help to twitch the fly just before the fish gets to it. You have to lift into the fish quite quickly, but don’t strike instantly; you usually want the fish to turn back down before you set the hook.

When there is nothing rising, or rising with range, cast in a fan so that your flies are fishing a new patch of water with each cast. Whilst doing this you need to watch your flies in case of a take and at the same time scan the water looking out for moving fish. This can be tricky as you really need to be able to watch two areas at once.

Depending on the hatch that you are imitating you may not need to retrieve the fly much. When fishing beatles and CDC dry flies, I tend to drop them on the water, twitch them a few times and then pick them up and move to a new location. Unless you are targeting a specific fish, you want to be covering as much water as possible. It can be a bit different if you are fishing sedges, these are often very effective twitched or scuttled along the top of the water.

Buzzers & Nymphs

This is my basic setup for buzzer/ nymph fishing:

Essential flies

  • Hares ear nymph
Hares Ear Nymph Variant

Hares Ear Nymph Variant

  • Cruncher


  • Diawl bach
Diawl Bach nymph

Diawl Bach

  • Epoxy or superglue buzzers (essential colours: black, olive, claret red)
Reservoir Fly - Black and Red Buzzer

Black and Red Buzzer

Take a look at this video from David Strawhorn’s youtube channel, this shows you exactly what you are trying to imitate:

I like to fish three buzzers equally spaced on an 18ft 5lb or 6lb fluorocarbon leader. As with the dry fly fishing, if your casting cannot withstand multiple flies on such a long leader simplify to two or even one fly on a shorter leader (at least two is better if you can manage it).

Generally with nymphs and buzzer fishing, you are looking to fish as slowly as possible. A slow figure of eight retrieve is usually the order of the day when fishing buzzers or nymphs. It is good to fish across the wind when bank fishing, this allows your flies to swing around in an arc with the wind. Sometimes no retrieve at all is required. Often when fishing buzzers from a drifting boat, the figure of eight retrieve will just take up the slack line produced by the boat drifting towards the flies, without the flies themselves actually being moved.

The selection of flies will dictate what depth at which you are fishing. For example, with an 18ft leader and 3 heavy epoxy buzzers, you’re point fly can easily be fishing at a depth of 10ft or more below the surface after your flies have been on the water for a few minutes. However, a team of diawl bachs or hares ear nymphs will fish in the top 3ft, unless tied on heavy hooks.

It is important to strike as quickly as possible when fishing nymphs and buzzers. Watch the end of your fly line or your line where it enters the water. Any unusual movements in the line should be lifted into instantly. Sometimes you just see your line stop, when previously it was drifting in the breeze, and sometimes you see the end of your line shoot forward. Keep the tip of your rod about 6 inches above the surface of the water. This keeps you directly in contact with your flies, as oppose to there being a lot of slack in the system if there is a length of line between the tip of your rod and the water’s surface.

Some people like to use strike indicators. These can be good, but can also be annoying when fishing a long leader as they get tangled in the top eye of your rod when landing fish on the point fly. I find that you can detect takes effectively using the methods above. In the past, I have put some gink on the braided leader on the end of my fly line, which makes it float high in the water, thus acting like an indicator.

There are many alternatives to the above setup and fishing method, but this is a great starting point. One quite new method is the washing line technique. This is where a sinking or intermediate lines is used, with a boyant fly on the point (usually a booby) and two or three nymphs or buzzers on the droppers. With this method, when you retrieve the flies they move downwards, before floating back up towards the surface when the retrieve is paused (due to the buoyant point fly). This has the benefit of making the chironomid patterns move upwards in the water column (between retrieve pulls), which is ideal as a representation of the naturals moving towards the surface before emerging (as shown in the above video).

Wet Fly

This is my basic setup for wet fly when reservoir fly fishing:

Essential flies

  • Bibio
Bibio Trout Wet Fly


  • Dabbler (variants)
wet fly dabbler variants

Dabbler Variants

  • Soldier palmer
Soldier palmer wet fly reservoir

Soldier Palmer

  • Claret bumble
Claret Bumble wet flies for reservoir fishing

Claret Bumble Variants

The traditional setup for wet fly fishing is to have three (or more) flies equally spaced on a 15ft leader. Generally the top dropper will have the bushiest/ bulkiest flies, with flies lower down the leader being slimmer. I like to use a double on the point where possible, this makes your flies come through the water at an angle and provides an excellent ‘anchor’when bobing/ dibbling your droppers.

Just to explain, the technique to use when wet fly fishing, is to cast a relatively short line down the wind and retrieve with reasonably fast pulls. When your flies get within c. 20ft of the boat you should lift your rod and skate your droppers slowly across the surface (this is known as bobbing you’re flies). The majority of the takes come either within the first couple of pulls or when bobbing the flies. If you see a swirl around your flies when lifting off, it is often worth dropping your flies straight back on the same patch of water. The fish will often come again and take. This is a fun way of reservoir fly fishing.

Wet fly fishing is standard technique to use when fishing for wild brown trout, particularly when fishing upland lakes and reservoirs. The majority of the trout fishing on the wilder lochs/ loughs of Scotland and Ireland is done with using wet fly methods.

I would encourage people to try to fish multiple flies as soon as you are capable when wet fly fishing. Traditionally a four fly setup is often preferred, but I believe that three flies is generally fine, with two flies being significantly better than just one. Casting distance really isn’t important with this method. When boat fishing I only cast about 15 yards whilst drifting. When bank fishing, I like to work my way along the margins. Try fishing close in, with short casts, taking a step between each cast.

Lure Fishing (Pulling Lures)

This is my basic setup for pulling lures when reservoir fly fishing:

Essential flies

  • Blobs
Blobs for reservoir fly fishing


  • Sparklers
Sparkler reservoir lure


  • Catswhisker
Reservoir Fly fishing lure

Cats Whisker Double

  • Dabbler variants
wet fly dabbler variants

Dabbler Variants

When boat fishing, I like to fish three lures evenly spaced on a 16-18ft leader. If bank fishing, I will often reduce the leader length to 14ft with just two flies. It is best to cast as far as you can (consistently) and vary your retrieve until you find what the fish are looking for. Sometimes the fish want it stripped as fast as possible or ‘rolly pollied’ in, on other occasions the fish prefer a figure of eight.

Generally when using this method you will be catching fish that have been stocked reasonably recently. These fish are very keen on chasing/ following all the way to the boat or bank. If you do not hang or bob your flies the fish will turn away without ever being seen. When fishing DI3 to DI7 lines, I hang the flies, fishing intermediates and floaters I will bob the flies. The key thing is to give the fish as long as possible to take the fly.

When you are bobbing your flies, try to get your rod up as high as possible and start dibbling your flies as far away from the boat/ bank as possible. Bob the top dropper first then gradually work down and bob the second dropper. You will often get takes on the lower flies when skating the flies further up the leader.

Similar methods should be used when hanging your flies. I like to hang the flies so that the top dropper is about six foot below the surface of the water. Pause for about 10-20 seconds and then bring the flies up in an ark by lifting your rod, then hold the flies again with the second dropper about six foot down. As with bobbing you fly, you will often get takes on the flies lower down the leader when hanging the top flies. You will get very subtle rattly takes, which should generally be struck early.

Look out for fish moving on the surface. If you can intercept a fish they will often turn and chase your flies if you strip them quickly. This is exciting as you will see a bow wave behind your flies.

When pulling lures, it can pay to vary your fly line and retrieve before changing your flies. It is often the depth and speed of retrieve that is crucial.

See my Stockie Bashing Post for more details – click here.

Booby Fishing

This is my basic setup for pulling lures:

Essential flies

  • Cats whisker booby
Booby lure fishing

Cats Whisker Booby

  • Candy floss booby
reservoir fly fishing Candy Floss Booby

Candy Floss Booby

  • Orange booby
Orange booby for reservoir fishing

Orange Booby

  • Cormorant booby
Cormrant Booby

Cormorant Booby

  • Sparkler Booby
Reservoir fishing sparkler booby

Sparkler Booby

  • Dark Flashy Booby
reservoir fly fishing booby

Dark Sparkle Booby

With regard to flies, you really need a selection of boobies in all colours and a range of sizes for reservoir fly fishing.

The ‘traditional’ way to fish a booby is to twitch the flies back across the bottom of the reservoir/ lake on a high density sinking line. My favourite line for booby fishing is the Aiflo forty plus DI7. Sometimes it can be useful to have a DI8 line, which will sink even faster.

The original booby method is to use a single fly on a very short leader (around 3ft), so that the fly is kept very close to the bottom. These days, I often fish 2 or 3 mini boobies. This will allow you to fish at various depths, with the fly closest to the line being deepest and the point fly being higher in the water column. This a very effective method for reservoir fly fishing.

The flies will descend when being pulled and ascend when paused, due to the buoyancy of the flies. This gives the flies a brilliant action. Try doing 3 or 4 fast pulls followed by a pause of 20 seconds or so. Fish will sometimes take as the fly starts to float upwards during the pause. These takes translate up the line as rattles, which should be struck quickly to avoid the fish swallowing the fly.

An alternative to the sticato retrieve described above, is to use a slow figure of eight, this can be very effective. It can pay to put occasional pauses in when using the figure of eight retrieve as well.

Most important of all when booby fishing is to ensure that you always hang the flies as described in earlier sections. Lots of fish take when the fly is being hanged.


I hope the information on this page is useful and helps people catch a few more fish. It is really just a quick run through of the basic methods of reservoir fly fishing used these days. Each of the sections could (and will in future) be the subject of extensive posts in their own right, however this will hopefully provide a good starting point for new comers  to reservoir fly fishing.


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