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In this guide, I take you through the basics of fly fishing on a lake. I love lakes because they’re often less crowded than rivers, located in beautiful places, and full of trout.
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I grew up fishing for trout in lakes in South Africa. To some anglers, river fishing is what brought them to our sport. But, to me, targeting a trout in a large lake is as close to the heart of fly fishing you’ll get.
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What Makes Fly Fishing on a Lake Different?
Fly fishing in a lake or still water is entirely different from working a river or stream. There are several reasons for this, which we discuss below:
The obvious difference is that a lake does not have the same current formations as a river does. Remember that the water that drains out of the body of water, whether human-made or natural, creates some current.
Current plays a massive role in the way river anglers approach fish. For instance, trout mostly face in an upstream direction, making it possible to predict where and how they lie. In a lake, this is not the case.
Wind replaces the importance of current when fishing lakes. On large bodies of water, you’ll notice current lines form due to wind. Current lines are excellent forms of “structure” that usually holds fish.
Working structure is crucial in all forms of fly fishing. Whether you’re on saltwater flats, in the deep sea, in rivers, or on lakes, structure holds fish. The only difference between all of these scenarios is the kind of structure you’ll work.
On lakes, I always look for submerged trees, weed beds, and rocks. Another excellent form of structure is drop-offs. Predatory fish patrol these ledges and, therefore, should be one of your primary focus areas when fishing a lake.
Another form of structure is depth. Trout, for instance, don’t like warm water. So, in the hottest time of the year, they tend to hold deep because of the water temperature.
How to Fly Fish on a Lake?
So, you arrive at a lake that you’ve never fished before, where do you start, and how do you find fish? Below, I go through some of the fundamental tips and techniques to ensure that you always achieve success.
Float or Foot?
Will you be working the water from a foot or using a floating craft, such as a float tube? If it’s the latter, check out my article on Fly Fishing from a Float Tube.
If you don’t have a floating craft, don’t be dismayed, as you can still fish the lake very effectively.
Look for Structure
Structure provides fish with two distinct advantages. The first is it gives them cover from predators and heat. Here you’ll look for overhanging trees, giant boulders, and floating aquatic flora.
Many structure types provide fish with a constant or reliable food source. Look for weed beds, weed beds, and overhanging foliage. Work drop-offs well as fish, often patrol up and down ledges where they can ambush prey from the deep.
As fly anglers, we all know the struggle that wind poses. When fishing a lake, the chances are that you’ll have to deal with wind. It’s just the nature of the beast. However, I want to encourage you to make a mental shift regarding wind and start thinking about how it can benefit your day on the water.
When arriving at any lake, take note of the structure you want to fish. Then, look at the wind direction and intensity. If the wind isn’t blowing hard, you can fish from anywhere. However, if the wind is blowing at a considerable rate, position yourself so it can assist your cast and help set up good drifts.
Fish Two Flies
One of the best ways to increase your catch rate on a lake is to fish with two or more flies. This technique allows you to work on different sections of the water column and utilize different flies simultaneously.
The downside of fishing with two flies is that casting gets a little bit trickier. Depending on your leader’s length and the specific flies you’ve got tied on, you’ll want to open your casting loop slightly.
The specific flies to choose is a science itself and greatly depends on the target species and where you’re fishing.
Please note, some clubs or venues might prohibit the use of two or more flies.
Gear for Fly Fishing a Lake
If you’re fishing a lake only once or twice a season, you’ll get by perfectly well with pretty much any freshwater fly rod in your arsenal. However, the dedicated lake angler needs a dedicated rig. It all depends on the size of the lake itself, the size of the fish, and if you’re working the water from the bank or a float tube.
Here’s my advice on selecting the best fly fishing setup for lakes.
What weight rod you’ll choose depends on the size of fish, tippet breaking strain you’ll be fishing with, and the prevailing wind you need to combat. For most lake fishing applications, I recommend a 5 or 6 weight fly rod.
A rod of at least 9 feet in length is required. My favorite length for lakes is 10 feet, as this helps me open up my casting when fishing with a multi-fly rig. It also comes in handy when you have to manage the fly line over reeds or submerged weeds.
Lakes can hold some massive fish. Species such as carp, bass, and trout can grow quite big. These fish are super strong and can go on long runs. I recommend a reel that can take quite a lot of backing and has a dependable and smooth drag.
A good idea is to buy a couple of spare spools preloaded with your different fly lines. What this allows you to do is to adapt to fishing depth very quickly. Alternatively, buy a reel that comes with multiple spools as part of a package.
Fish lakes long enough, and you realize that fish are caught at various depths, depending on the conditions. A Muddler Minnow stripped just below the surface on a floating line on a chilly morning might do the trick. Later, as the sun’s angle increases, a team of nymphs on an intermediate line works well.
During the warmest part of the day, a di5 sinking line with two natural imitations, worked extremely slow, usually produces the goods. As the sun sets, nothing beats catching lake trout on a dry fly with a floating line.
As you can see, having a range of fly lines at hand could vastly increase your catch rate. Match each line with your fly rod’s weight and pre-spool them on spare spools for your reel.
Many of us don’t have the luxury to afford so many fly lines. In that case, if you can only buy one fly line, buy a floating line. Extend the length of the leader the deeper you need to fish.
As with many things in fly fishing, leaders for lake fishing is a science on its own. You get straight leaders, boiled leaders, tapered leaders, furled leaders, etc. If you’re an experienced angler, chances are you’ve got your personal preference.
The leader you’ll be fishing with will ultimately be dictated by the style of fishing you’re doing. For instance, if you’re fishing streamers on a fast-sinking fly line, all you need is about 5-6 feet. Dead drifting nymphs might, on the other hand, require leaders over 15 feet.
If you’re starting, buy a couple of 9ft 2X leaders and attach a tippet ring to the end of it. From the tippet ring, attach whatever tippet you require for your application.
For most stillwater applications, I carry the following tippet with me:
- 4X and 5X fluorocarbon
- 2X, 3X, and 4X monofilament
Best Flies for Fishing On a Lake
Let’s go through some of my favorite lake fishing flies. I’ll also briefly discuss what the most popular colors are and how to fish them.
The most versatile freshwater fly of all time. You can tie them up in a wide range of sizes, colors, and weights. I dedicate an entire side of my fly box to Woolly Buggers; they’re that versatile. My favorite color combinations are:
- Black and purple, or black and blue
- Black with a fluorescent orange tungsten bead
- Brown with some red flash
- Olive, with some variations of olive and red
- Yellow, red, and orange
I tie these combinations on hooks ranging from a size 6 long shank streamer hook to a size 16 jig hook. I love these small jig-buggers (or Micro Buggers) because you can retrieve them fast or fish them static.
Cast the Woolly Bugger up against the structure and retrieve relatively fast. Vary the retrieve until you find something that works.
One of my favorite lake flies is a Damselfly Nymph. The key to a good version is it should be tied sparsely, the abdomen must be very thin, and the head should be broad. The colors and variations I tie include:
- Olive with some chartreuse accents
- Olive with a flashback shell over the head
- Olive with red eyes
The damselfly is usually tied unweighted. It may be fished over weed beds using a long and slow retrieve. I also like drifting it with other nymphs and retrieving it with a figure-of-eight retrieve.
Time To Go Fly Fishing On a Lake!
I hope that this guide has awakened the urge to go lake fishing. With the current restrictions on moving around, I know I am dying to set my feet on the shores of a lake. Remember to be safe out there, and most of all, enjoy every second. If there’s one thing this past year has taught us is to savor every second of the life we have.
Until next time.
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