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.

Five Tips for Fly Fishing Lakes

We call our podcast “2 Guys and a River” for a reason. Both Dave, my podcast partner, and I are fond of rivers and streams. We like to fly fishing moving water. But neither he nor I are “anti-lake” kind of guys.

Dave has had some fantastic days catching cutthroat trout on dry flies on lakes in Colorado’s Collegiate Wilderness area. Some of the largest trout I’ve caught on streamers have come out of Henry’s Lake in southeastern Idaho. We have fly-fished lakes all over the Western states and have had slow days and terrific days. It’s just like our experiences fly fishing rivers.

If you are new to lake fishing, here are five tips that will give you a better chance of catching the trout when fly fishing lakes:

1. Do your homework

This seems obvious, but I’m surprised how many fly fishers don’t take the time to learn anything about the lakes they intend to fly fish. I’ve been there, done that. But over the years, I’ve done much better when I’ve taken the time to read a guide book or check a fly shop website or talk to a guide at a fly shop about the lake I intend to fish.

When my friend, Jerry, introduced me to Hyalite Reservoir in the mountains above Bozeman, Montana, he pointed out certain places where the fish seemed to concentrate more than others. He knew spots where the lake was deeper or where the trout had a favorite hang-out by a drop-off or shelf.

I remember the advice I received from a fly shop owner in Estes Park, Colorado on how to fish Spruce and Loomis Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. I would have wasted a lot of time wondering where to fish and what flies to try without his expertise.

2. Don’t ignore the shoreline

Lakes resemble rivers in at least one way: some of the best fishing is right along the bank. Now this is not true for every lake. But I’ve caught my share of rainbows (years ago) and Greenback cutthroat (more recently) in Spruce Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park by casting to feeding fish along the shore. This technique also worked well in Upper Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park.

Personally, I’ve found that early morning or early evening is a perfect time to find feeding fish along the shoreline of a lake.

3. Go deep

When the fish are not feeding on the lake’s surface, it’s time to fish streamers. But you’re going to have to go deeper than usual. Again, the right guide book or fly shop website or the guide behind the counter will tell you how deep to fish.

Going deeper may be as simple as using more split shot. But if you spend much time fishing lakes, you’ll be wise to invest in a sink-tip line. I carry an extra spool with a sink-tip line for these situations.

I suggest buying a sink-tip line at a fly shop so a guide can explain the different sink rates and which one might serve you best. For example, sink-tip lines are rated (often as Type I, II, III, etc.) for their sink rate. This rate can be anywhere from two inches per second to eight inches per second. If you need to get down eight or ten feet, you can do the math and figure out how long to let your line sink after you cast it before you begin the retrieve.

Also, keep your line tip in the water when you strip in your line. This prevents slack, enabling you to control your line more effectively as you retrieve it.

4. Try a float tube

This is a convenient, inexpensive way to make your way around a small lake. It takes a bit of practice, but after you do it a couple times, you’ll get the hang of it. You’ll want a nine-foot rod (rather than something shorter), because you are a lot closer to the surface.

It’s like casting when you are sitting down rather than standing up.

Safety is critical. I don’t recommend float-tubing alone. Also, you really do need to wear a life-jacket.

Yes, a float tube has at least two air compartments so that the entire tube will not deflate in case of a leak or puncture. But I never fish in a float tube without a life-jacket. Proceed with caution if you are new to float-tubing.

5. Fish the outlet and inlet if you can

This tip is not simply based on my love for moving water. The outlets and inlets can sometimes provide some fantastic fishing. They can get overlooked by fly fishers, yet the trout will sometimes congregate in these places because the food line is rich.

I’ve had days where I’ve done much better in the outlet of Upper Two Medicine Lake than in the lake itself. When I hike beyond Mills Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park to fish The Loch Vale or Sky Pond, I typically do better in the outlets and inlets than in the lakes themselves. In fact, one of my sons asked me the other day when we can go back to this glacial gorge just to fish the outlets to these lakes.

Two Guys and a Lake?

Dave and I still love our rivers. Neither one of us thinks we’ll change the name of our podcast any time in the future. But there is some great fly fishing on lakes. We look forward to our next opportunity to cast a fly on one of them.