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.