Fly fishing for trout is where 99% of fly anglers begin their lifelong addiction to fly fishing. It’s exactly what happened to me around 33 years ago on the slopes of Mt Kenya, and I haven’t stopped since.
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Since then, I have literally followed trout around the globe, (as well as other species), and have fished for them everywhere from the trout rivers of Montana to the chalk streams of the UK, mountain rivers of Ethiopia, and even in the Himalayas.
Trout fly fishing is the core in my eyes as it’s the most accessible form for all kinds of fly fishers. That being said, it pays to have some pro tips on how to fly fish for trout in rivers and lakes. Join me as I disclose a lot of what I’ve learned below, to make your life out on the water a little smoother.
More on Fly Fishing Different Species of Fish:
Introduction To Trout
Before one learns how to fly fish for trout in lakes or rivers, it’s best to understand a bit about the fish you’re trying to catch. The more you know about trout, the easier it’s going to be to fool them when you have a fly rod in your hand.
There are lots of different species of trout and they all belong to the Salmonidae family.
You can find trout all over the world from New Zealand to Patagonia, Kenya, and all the way to India. However, they are only endemic to North America and Europe, and were stocked in all the other parts of the world you can find them in today.
All trout love fresh, clean, cold water. They live in freshwater lakes and rivers that are between 45°F and 65°F (7°C to 18°C). This is why they’re found in the mountains or in colder parts of the world. Luckily for us anglers, almost all trout species have similar behaviors and feed on what the water provides them with.
30 Tips For Fly Fishing For Trout
Quite often, trout are tricky creatures to fool with a fly rod, and believe me, you want to know all the tips you can find, as one of them might just turn a frustrating day into an excellent one.
1. Approach The Water With Stealth
Whether you are fly fishing for trout in rivers or lakes, it pays to approach the water with stealth. This doesn’t mean you need to army crawl your way into the river, but a little thought goes a long way to ensuring that the fish aren’t disturbed and are willing to eat your fly.
Walk quietly; do not stomp your way to the bank. Think about the sun – are you going to cast a huge shadow on the water? Be sure to avoid it. Speak quietly, don’t shout, make it a whisper. If you need to wade, make sure you wade softly as sound travels much faster through water than it does air.
2. Fish Your Way Upstream
One of the keys to learning how to fly fish for trout in rivers is to always fish upstream. Trout in rivers and streams always face upstream and this is because the current is their food and oxygen source.
It literally brings them everything they need to survive.
By wading and walking upstream, you’re going to approach every trout in the river from behind. This means they won’t see you coming as easily, nor will they hear you as easily as the current will take any wading noise in the other direction, downstream.
3. Watch Out For A Trout’s Peripheral Vision
The last time I was fly fishing for trout, I was on a crystal clear stream in Switzerland and could spot trout holding from 100 yards away, but I was caught out on numerous occasions by their excellent peripheral vision.
To make the right cast with all the surrounding shrubbery, we fly anglers often have to get closer to the fish. I often push it and get caught.
Trout generally look forward, but with eyes on the side of their head, they can see a little way behind them with their peripheral vision. Don’t get too close and make the shot before they see you.
4. Cast Short And Progress Longer
When I was around 10 years old, fly fishing for trout was about casting. I’d make long casts across the lake or river on my first shot.
What I was actually doing was spooking every trout between me and where my fly line landed.
Start short. Cast your fly to the first pool on the river closest to you or close to the bank. Fish the water nearest to you first, and then progress longer and longer, before changing positions. Often the first fish you catch with be within 15 feet of where you’re standing.
5. Your First Cast Matters More Than Any Other
When you get to a new trout fishing spot, whether on a lake or a river, your first cast matters a lot. If there’s a hungry fish and you make a good cast, you’ll probably catch it. If you make a bad cast, it will most likely spook, and you’ll need to rest the spot for a bit.
This applies more to rivers, especially small streams, but it also plays a large factor in lakes as well. Make sure your fly lands exactly where you want it to and in a very delicate manner so that it doesn’t scare the fish.
6. Don’t Stay In The Same Spot Too Long
When fishing for trout, spending hours casting a line in the same spot is not the way to go. You can spend a bit longer in one spot in a lake, maybe 30 minutes, but on a river, you need to keep moving.
Once you’ve fished a pool/run/riffle of a river for 10 minutes, chances are you’ll have either caught/spooked the fish, or there aren’t any there. Once you’ve cast your fly around an area of a lake for half an hour, the fish are likely feeding somewhere else.
7. Fly Selection Is Key – Match The Hatch
Something that drives me a little bit crazy about trout is that they don’t eat anything/everything they can see – these fish are incredibly, (and annoyingly) selective.
You might see a huge sedge hatch happening on the surface, and the trout might be rising, but they’ll actually be sipping on a size 20 Adams that you haven’t quite noticed yet.
If you want to be successful at catching trout then you need to pay attention to what they eat and match the hatch. This means doing some seasonal research about which flies hatch when, what each life cycle of the fly looks like (nymph to dry), and loading up your fly box with the best fits.
8. 80% of a Trout’s Diet Is Below The Surface
There’s nothing quite like catching a trout on a dry fly. Seeing it come up and inhale your fly off the surface is a feeling like no other. However, if you want to catch fish, do not fish a dry fly until the trout tell you to. Trout do 80% of their feeding below the surface and this means nymphs.
You’ll catch more trout on nymphs in both lakes and rivers than any other type of fly, so fish nymphs all day long until the trout start rising consistently. Once there are consistent rises happening around you, then it’s time to switch to the dry fly.
Learn About The Diet of Fish:
9. Picking Flies – Size, Shape, Color
When picking a fly to match the hatch, there are three rules you should follow that will help guide you toward success. The first thing you need to match is the size of your fly with the hatch as this is the most obvious thing a trout will notice.
The next thing is the shape of your fly. Trout will look for the silhouette of what they’re eating which all comes down to shape. The final thing is color, and trout can see in color, (but not that well) – if you match the size and shape, 90% of trout will fall for your fly.
Find The Best Flies For Any Fishing Scenario:
10. Pick The Right Tools For The Job
Using the right setup in a certain situation is going to make life a lot easier.
Personally, I use a 10.5ft 3wt with a floating line on rivers for nymphing and an 8.6ft 4wt with a floating line for dry flies. These are both light setups that allow for a lot of delicate presentations and a lot of feel for subtle bites. When I go to lakes, I usually up it to a 9ft 5 weight so that I can cast long distances if I need to.
Fly Rods By Weight:
11. Pick A Remote Fishing Location If You Can
Trout are clever. The more experience trout have with fly anglers, the harder they are to catch. Showing up at a trout fishing spot that gets fished often is going to make your life difficult as the fish will be wise to your antics.
Look for a remote fishing spot where most fly anglers can’t be bothered to make the effort to fish. Not only will you be rewarded with happy trout that are willing to take a fly, but you’ll probably have the whole place to yourself, meaning you won’t have to fish around other fly anglers.
12. Keep Changing Your Fly
Trout are not only fussy eaters but they also change what they’re eating rather often. I was fly fishing with a zebra midge fly the other day and catching a fish every few drifts, and then it went dead. I changed the fly to a hare’s ear and soon started catching again.
If your fly doesn’t seem to be doing the trick after about 15 minutes, then it’s time to change it up to something else. Think about the time of year, where you are fishing, and what’s around you to make the call on which fly to tie on next.
Learn To Tie Flies:
13. Think About The Depth Your Flies Are At In A River
When fly fishing on rivers with nymphs, the depth your fly drifts at is incredibly important. Natural nymphs live in rocks under the river bed and are swept down to the trout in the current. This means they tumble along the bottom of the river, (or close to it).
This is where your nymphs need to be fished in the water column of a river. Make sure you have a selection of heavy, medium, and light nymphs so that you can ensure you’re always drifting your flies in the feeding zone of the trout.
14. Work Different Depths In Lakes
Lakes are very different from rivers and this is especially true when it comes to depth. The trout might be feeding in the top 5 feet of a lake or 20 feet below the surface. How do you find out where the action is? You need to put a fly there.
If the fish are feeding close to the surface, you can often tell by rises, jumps, and more.
But when there’s no surface sign whatsoever, you need to work at different depths. Use a weighted fly and a sinking line, let your fly/line sink for 5 seconds, then 10, then 15 (etc.) before retrieving – once you get a bite, you’ll know what depth the fish are at.
Best Fly Lines (By Weight)
15. Search For Fish On Lakes
Trout in lakes do not sit waiting for food like trout in rivers, they are constantly on the move hunting for their next meal. It’s therefore very important to bear this in mind when fishing for them and I would highly recommend using a searching casting pattern.
Start by casting short and along the bank to the left. Then cast the same distance moving your cast around 3 meters to the right, until you are fishing along the bank to the right.
Repeat this, but cast 3 meters further than you did the first time, then repeat again. By using this method, you’ll cover all the water around you while the trout are cruising and looking for food.
16. Use Fluorocarbon Tippet
We’ve already discussed being stealthy and quiet when approaching a trout river or lake. There’s no point in going through all that effort to then cast with a tippet that isn’t made from fluorocarbon.
Fluorocarbon has close to the same refractive index as light does in water, meaning it is pretty much invisible and it certainly makes a difference when you fish. Use at least 3 feet of fluorocarbon between your flies and your leader.
17. Do Not Wear Bright Clothing
Part of being stealthy when fly fishing for trout is blending into the background. This means wearing earthy tones such as green, tan, and grey. You can also go and buy full camo outfits if you want to, however, there’s no need to go that far.
Avoid wearing bright white, pink, blue clothes, etc. as these stand out a lot on the side of a river/lake as something foreign. As soon as a trout sees that, chances are its behavior will change, and it will stop feeding until it feels comfortable again.
18. I Highly Recommend Barbless Hooks
Barbless hooks are the way to go in my eyes. Grab some pliers and simply crimp the barb on your flies before you use them.
This makes life a lot nicer for the fish you catch as the fly will slip right out of their mouths and it ensures some safety for you or anyone you might end up hooking.
You might lose some fish using barbless hooks, but if you keep the tension during the fight, you should be able to avoid this happening.
19. Fish Two Flies At A Minimum
When I was young, I would only ever fish one fly, as I thought that was all that was possible (and my mum told me it was cheating to use 2!). Well, that changed a lot when I did my guide school in Montana – two flies is the way to go.
I will always fish two flies now wherever I am (lake or river) and no matter the flies I’m using (dry or nymph). To fish two flies, always put the larger/heavier fly on the line first with the lighter/smaller fly second. This applies to two dry flies, two nymphs, or a dry dropper rig.
20. Take A Sample Of What The Fish Might Be Eating (Rivers)
If you’re having trouble finding the right fly on any given day, seeing what food is actually in the river is going to help you no end. The best way to see what fish are feeding on, or to see what choices they have to feed on, is with a sein.
A sein is a very fine net. All you need to do is hold it in the current for 30 seconds and see what you’ve caught. Do it again at different depths – close to the surface and near the bottom. Study what you catch well and pick a fly that imitates it.
21. Learn To Czech Nymph
Cezch nymphing, aka Euro-nymphing or high sticking, is one of the most effective ways to catch trout with nymphs in rivers. What makes it so fruitful, is that the flies drift incredibly naturally, close to the bottom, and no fly line touches the water so the fish are not spooked.
When Czecy nymphing, you want a long 10-11 ft rod and to fish in small pocket water. Cast out only your leader and tippet, which should be a lot longer (15-20 ft), and then holding your rod high, gently bounce your nymphs down along the bottom of the pool.
If your line stops for a second or moves, set the hook because it’s probably a fish.
22. Think About the Time Of the Day
Trout don’t have eyelids and as a result, they don’t enjoy strong direct sunlight as it hurts their eyes. Think about how this might affect their feeding habits and adjust your tactics accordingly on the water.
When the sun is high and bright, trout will head into deeper sections and feed deeper too, avoiding having to look up into the sun.
They might also move to shady sections of a river or lake, under a tree, or an undercut bank. In periods of low light, such as in times of cloud cover or at sunrise/sunset, they are more likely to look to the surface to feed.
23. Use An Indicator If You Need To
Indicators are very useful things as they not only tell you when you have a bite but they allow you to adjust the depth of your flies. You can use an indicator in a lake or a river. Simply tie them above your files at your preferred depth and cast away.
Adjust the depth as you need to while searching different parts of a lake or when the depth changes in a river. Any sign that the indicator has stopped moving, go one, or is acting strangely, set the hook as it’s probably a fish.
24. Carry Split-Shot With You
There will be times when you’re trout fishing in rivers and your flies simply will not sink fast enough. This might be due to a super deep pool, fast currents, or other factors. You can use a heavy tungsten head fly as a good first try but there’s nothing that will help more than split-shot.
Adding some split-shot above your flies should get them into the zone very quickly and have you catching fish in deeper and faster sections of the river.
25. Polarized Sunglasses Are A Must
Wearing polarized sunglasses isn’t just a trout fishing tip, but a tip for all forms of fishing. Polarized sunglasses cut through the glare on the water and allow you to spot fish much more easily. This is such a big advantage, especially when fishing on a tough river or lake.
Polarized sunglasses also protect your eyes from the sun and from being hooked by a poorly cast fly. They are one of the most important pieces of fishing equipment anyone can own!
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26. Practice Catch & Release Fishing
There are some parts of the world such as the UK and USA where catch-and-release trout fishing is the norm, especially for wild fish in rivers. However, in countries like France and Spain, fishing to release one’s catch simply makes no sense culturally.
By catch-and-release fishing, you’re ensuring that the trout are worth more alive than they are dead. You’re contributing money towards protecting their natural environment and all the other animals that depend on it too.
27. Learn To Read The Water
If you’ve ever seen “A River Runs Through It” then you’ll likely recall the line, “Only a few more years until I can think like a fish.”.
Thinking like a fish is a big part of being a successful trout angler and a lot of it comes down to being able to read the water.
Where would a trout like to sit and why? In a river, trout like to be near a current as it’s their major food source, however, they don’t want to waste energy fighting it, so a strong current isn’t a good place for them. Behind a boulder or on the edge of a side current is more their style.
28. Think About the Water Temperature
Water temperature affects fish behavior a lot and by understanding how, you can increase your catch. Generally speaking, when the water on the surface is too hot or too cold, the trout will look for something better.
In lakes, this means going deeper to find a more comfortable water temperature with more oxygen, and usually more food. In rivers, this can mean moving into faster-flowing water or into deeper pools where the trout can find relief.
29. Make Sure You’re Comfortable
As fly anglers, we tend to focus on what the fish want and need a lot more than ourselves, but your comfort matters too.
Over my 30+ years of chasing with a fly rod, I refuse to do it uncomfortably. Anything I can control that ensures my mind stays focused and I enjoy the day, I do.
Make sure you’re warm, dry, comfortable, and have everything you need to have an awesome time. The more enjoyment you get out of it, the more fish you’ll catch in my experience.
30. Change It Up
Fly fishing is all about experimentation and getting creative, so never be afraid of changing it up and trying something new on the water. Try the “standard” approaches first, but when that “out of the box” idea presents itself, try it – it will probably work.
I once had a tough day sigh fishing in a crystal clear chalk stream with nothing to show for 12 hours of hard work. When I found a big pool, out came a giant streamer and sink-tip on the end of my 4 weight, and 10 minutes later I had got what I came for.
Different Trout Species
There are rather a lot of different species of trout one can go fly fishing for, particularly in North America and Europe. You can find almost all of them listed below:
- Rainbow Trout
- Brown Trout
- Golden Trout
- Cutthroat Trout
- Cutbow Trout
- Zebra Trout
- Marble Trout
- Lake Trout
- Brook Trout
- Bull Trout
- Tiger Trout
- Apache Trout
- Splake Trout
- Palomino Trout
- Gila Trout
- Dolly Varden Trout
What’s most interesting about them is that while each species has similar characteristics and behaviors, each one also has its own unique way of being. Understanding this “unique-ness” is going to help you catch more of them which is what we will look at next:
Rainbow trout are endemic to North America but can now be found all over the world due to stocking programs. I’ve fly-fished for rainbow trout a lot and they are far more aggressive than any other trout species, in my experience. They will always outfeed the browns in a system and are suckers for big surface flies.
More About Rainbow Trout
If I had to pick a favorite trout species, it would be brown trout.
In my eyes, they’re the wisest and most beautiful of them all. Brown trout are smart and annoyingly selective, but they can get aggressive. Endemic to Europe, they can now be found all over the world.
In my experience, big flies = big browns, especially at night. Strip a streamer, and wait for the dogfight of a large brown that will try and snag you every chance it gets.
More About Brown Trout
I have never had the chance to fly fish for Golden Trout as you only find them in the high-altitude streams and lakes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.
They are particularly beautiful with their golden color and are generally smaller than their rainbow cousins. These trout like small flies; think Adams’ and small nymphs.
Cutthroat trout are endemic to North America. You can find them in the Rocky Mountains, and along the Pacific coast from northern California to Alaska.
They get their name from the red band under their throat. I found they behaved a lot like brown trout when catching them in Montana and Yellow Stone National Park. They fight hard and are rather selective.
More About Cutthroat Trout
Cutbows are the children of cutthroat and rainbow trout, however, they can not reproduce as a “Cutbow”.
They have the wise side of a cutthroat but also give into their aggressive rainbow side. The fight on these fish is excellent, tearing around the surface while also trying very hard to snag you. You can find them in the same parts of the world as Cutthroats (mentioned in the section above).
Zebra trout are found in the high-altitude rivers and streams of the Alps and Pyrenees. They look a lot like brown trout but have dark and light bands across their bodies, hence the name.
I’ve fished for them in the Swiss Alps, and they behave just like brown trout in my experience. Living at high altitudes means small flies are what they like.
Marble trout are found in the mountains of mid to eastern Europe from Italy to Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and even Montenegro.
I’ve only fished for them once in Slovenia and annoyingly caught stocked rainbows instead of any marble trout. Being a close relation to brown trout, marbles are not easy to fool. Stealth, small flies, and delicate presentations are required.
Lake trout live in the big, deep lakes of North America, from the northern US through Canada, and into Alaska. They like deep water, big prey items, and are bigger than most trout species growing to 8-10 lbs on average.
The world record is 72 lbs, so you can see just how big they can get. You will need to fish deep to catch one or time your fishing with when they spawn in the shallows.
More About Lake Trout
Brook trout are one of the smaller species of trout. They live in the cold and clean mountain rivers of the US and Canada. I found them to be particularly aggressive when fishing for them in Yellow Stone, taking any dry fly that landed. They are little trout, so small buggy files worked best for me.
More About Brook Trout
More on Fly Fishing Different Species of Fish:
Trout Fly Fishing FAQs
Just in case I haven’t quite covered everything you need to know about trout fly fishing, I’ve put together an in-depth set of FAQs that should clear up any lingering questions or more detailed thoughts you might be having. If I’ve missed any, you can always ask in the comment sections below the article.
The best trout flies are Weighted Olive Wooly Bugger, Tungsten head GRHE with flash, Tungsten head PHTN, Tungsten Damsel Fly Nymph, Parachute Adams.
These 5 flies in a range of sizes will cover you for most scenarios, whether the fish are on nymphs, dries, or streamers.
Mending is lifting your fly line off the water; moving it up or downstream so that it doesn’t affect the drift of your flies is imperative. If your flies are being pulled downstream by your fly line, mend upstream to fix it and vice versa.
Getting your flies to drift naturally is the key to deceiving trout in rivers.
This isn’t always easy as the currents can run at different speeds right next to each other, and your fly line will behave a lot differently to your leader material in the current.
If you “Czech Nymph” (high stick) this won’t be an issue. However, if you have fly line on the water, you will need to mend it to get a good drift.
When fly fishing for trout on lakes, it’s best to always vary your retrieve to begin with in order to find out what the trout prefer. I tend to start with a slow figure of 8, then move into short slow strips, then longer and faster. Eventually, I will mix all of them into one retrieve if I need to.
When retrieving, remember that a slower retrieve keeps your flies deeper while a faster retrieve brings your flies up shallower in the water column.
The best time of year to go fly fishing for trout depends on where in the world you are fishing. Personally, I think the best time is always when a big hatch is on and the trout are going wild for dry flies.
In Europe, this has to be in May when the mayflies hatch and the trout become stupid.
In the US, in June, the salmon fly hatch on the rivers of Montana is legendary. Research when a great fly hatch is near you and then be sure to book some fishing time over that period.
The best time of day to fish for trout is typically in the early morning and late afternoon. This is based on a combination of low light and ideal temperatures.
Now You Know How To Fly Fish For Trout
With all the information from this article, fly fishing for trout should be a little bit easier for you now. In my experience, looking at the system or scenario as a whole, and connecting to it as a fly angler is the way I have the most success.
Zoom out and think about the season, the weather, the temperature. Then zoom in and think about the river, the depth, the flow, and the clarity of the water. Then go into more detail about the fish; where it wants to sit, what food it’s expecting to see, and more.
When you bring all your knowledge together into one systemic picture, you’ll start cracking the code, even on the toughest days. Take every day as a learning experience, and simply enjoy everything you see, as it is going to help you out the next time you’re on the river.
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