Tactics for Fly Fishing a Lake

I’m a river guy. That should be obvious from the name of our podcast. Yes, I love fly fishing rivers and streams. I find moving water fascinating and energizing. But I’m captivated too by the lakes I fly fish. In this post, I offer several tactical ideas for more success when fly fishing a lake:

While I’m not ready to rename our podcast “2 Guys and a Lake,” I am always happy to match wits with the trout in a high mountain lake. If you’re new to fly fishing lakes, here are few insights to help you succeed:

Do your homework

Yeah, yeah – this seems so obvious. But unlike most rivers and unlike all small streams, you can’t see the bottom of a lake when you get there. This means you can’t figure out where the fish will lie in wait for food to drift by.

You can sight-read a river you’ve never seen before. But it doesn’t work so well for lakes.

So read a book or a blog to discover where the deepest sections might be. Talk to someone at a local fly shop to find out if there are any shelves – that is, places where a lake suddenly drops in depth. The trout often hang out near these drop-offs There might even be other obstacles, particularly if you are fly fishing a reservoir. Large rocks or trees or even the original stream bed might be places where trout are located.

Also, you need to know what patterns work best at different times during the year. Can you count on any insect hatches that will send trout to feed off of the surface? Do certain sizes or colors or patterns work better than others?

Just recently Dave, my podcast partner, trekked four miles in to a high mountain lake in Colorado. He had called and then visited the local fly shop, purchasing some stone fly attractor patterns that the shop monkey recommended. But when he got to the lake, Dave saw some midges and tried fishing on the surface with a dry fly that was small and black. No luck. He immediately put on a size #14 attractor pattern, which he had just purchased, and for the next three hours was in cutthroat heaven.

It pays to do a little homework.

Bring the right gear and tackle

The right gear is important. Make sure you bring your lake split shot, lake waders, lake fly vest, and lake wading boots. No, no. Just kidding!

You’ll use most of the same gear you use on the river. Seriously, though, there are a few differences.

The key is to think long. You will want a nine-foot fly rod. Some experts even go with a ten-foot rod. Honestly, I’ve never felt the need to go that long. But I definitely want a nine-foot rod rather than an eight-and-a-half foot rod. The extra length helps you handle more line so you can make longer casts. Longer leaders are often important, too. A nine-foot leader may be fine, but I’ll sometimes go with a leader as long as twelve feet.

There is also a lot of overlap when it comes to fly selection. The same dry fly patterns I use on a river will often work on a lake, and that same is true for streamer patterns. I will even use some nymphs—particularly those which imitate emerging insects. But I tend to use streamers unless there is action on the surface. So toss in more streamers than usual and go a little lighter on nymphs.

Start at the shore

Lakes can be so intimidating because the “good water” seems to be out fifty to a hundred feet.

But what is true of the current along the river’s edge is true about the water along the lake shore. It can be a prime place to catch trout. At certain times of day, trout will cruise the shallow water along the bank. Or, some lakes have a deep drop-off just a few feet from the shore line. Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park has a shelf like this. I’ve often caught trout by casting my fly a couple feet beyond the shelf—that is, the place where there is a sudden, steep drop-off.

In some lakes, you can wade out far enough to cast into some deeper water. But don’t let the lack of current give you a sense of false confidence so that you get out too deep.

Go deep

If nothing is happening on the surface, and if nothing is happening in the shallow water near the shoreline, you need to go deep. If the fish are twenty feet below the surface, it will do you no good to fish ten feel below it. There are two considerations here.

First, you’ll need to put on extra split shot or use a heavily weighted fly. A beadhead or conehead pattern can give you extra weight.

If you are going to fish lakes regularly, I encourage you to invest in a sink-tip line. This is the best way to get your fly down to the trout. You will need to purchase an additional spool for your reel in addition to the line and the sink tip. The folks at a fly shop can connect you to the right sink-tip for the kind of lakes you will be fishing. Basically, these sink-tips drop a certain number of feet per second so that you can count out the seconds until your fly has reached the desire depth. Then, you’ll begin retrieving it.

Second, if the deep water is in the middle of the lake or further out than you can wade, you’ll need a means to get there. A simple, inexpensive way to do this is a float tube. That’s a discussion for another time. But most fly fishers I know who are serious about lake fishing end up with a float tube. Of course, access to a canoe or raft or boat can solve the distance problem too.

Head for the entrance and exit

Finally, don’t forget to check out the inlet and the outlet to the lake you’re fly fishing. Trout often congregate near an inlet because the current brings food. It can work the same way with the outlet. Sometimes, the best fishing may be in the inlet or outlet itself.

I’m still a river guy at heart. But I’ll never pass up the opportunity to fly fish for trout in lake. There are too many big trout waiting to nab the fly you strip by their noses.

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