The natural home of a fly rod is the river setting, but fly rods should not be limited to river fishing. They are also great tools for warm water species in lakes. When you start targeting lakes, you open up a whole new set of fishing opportunities and challenges for catching fish. There are literally lakes everywhere, and in states where poor access laws can be an issue, lakes provide an excellent way to get out and fish while not having to worry about trespassing.
Certainly, we would never pass up a chance to fish for trout or saltwater fish, but at DUN most of our day-to-day fishing is for warm water species. When we say warm water, we are talking about bass, sunfish, catfish, carp, and our personal favorite these days, gar. If you're new to fly or taking children fishing, then in the lake setting sunfish are one of the best species to target. They are abundant, very willing to take a fly, and they pull hard.
Using a watercraft of some type
With small lakes and ponds, you can access the water by foot and be successful. At some point, however, you’re going to want to explore more and a watercraft of some type will allow you to cover more water. Unfortunately, not all watercraft types will fit all lake fishing situations, so before purchasing any type of watercraft, think about what type of lake you’re going to want to fish. If you live near large impoundments and natural lakes, a boat with a motor is a great choice. If you’re looking at smaller lakes and ponds, kayaks or float tubes are your best bet.
When choosing the right watercraft, there are a couple of things you will want to consider. 1) Is there a boat ramp? If there is no boat ramp or you cannot back up a trailer to the water, you should choose a watercraft you can carry or move on your own. 2) What are the rules of the lake? There can be restrictions on motor type and size, and many areas do not allow inflatable boats. Knowing the rules before you buy will help you make an informed decision. 3) Keep yourself safe. Make sure you always have room for your required safety gear. Every year we lose too many anglers to drowning. Don’t forget to wear your life vest when you’re in a small watercraft in bad conditions, cold weather, or while running from location to location. Stick to the “better safe than sorry” motto.
Using the wind to your advantage
The wind plays a huge role in lake fishing, it moves warm and cold water, pushes baitfish, and makes boat control harder. Water temp changes can be the difference between catching fish and not. During the spring and fall, we need to find the warmest water on the lake to find active fish. Look for bays and areas where the wind is pushing the warm surface water into. The bait will most likely be there. And, when you find bait, finding the predatory fish is much easier. The wind is not physically pushing bait fish around the lake, but it is pushing their food sources around. When the food moves, so do bait. What this means is you will want to target the shores and areas that wind is blowing to or the windward part of the shore.
Matching the hatch
Even in lake fishing, it is important to match the hatch. When fishing lakes we tend to talk about the forage base of a lake. That means what types of food sources live in the lake. Healthy lakes have a lot of aquatic insects in and around the lake that makes easy targets for smaller warm water fish. We usually target the large fish in the area, and these predatory fish need a more substantial protein source like minnows, crawfish, and worms. We do this by choosing a fly that is similar in size, shape, and color depending on what we want to imitate. For example, if the primary forage base in a lake is gizzard shad, we will choose flies that are large-bodied and fairly round. A fly like the Bad Hair Day is a great shad imitation. If the forage base is a smaller type minnow, then a thin-bodied fly is a great choice and a scarcely tied Clouser minnow will always work. Never hesitate to put a Clouser on the end of your hook when you’re fishing for bass.
Color is where fly choice gets really complicated. There is no doubt that fish see color differently than we do. Many people have theorized that most fish are colorblind, but it is our experience that color does matter. We have spent time on the water testing this theory by fishing the same pattern in different colors. The fish will key in on one particular color and eat that fly more often than the other color we are fishing. Don’t be afraid to go a little wild with your colors. Pinks, purples, oranges, greens, and yellows can all work. Tie the same pattern in multiple color ranges and start working through them until you find a color profile that works for your situation.
As fly anglers, we rarely think about using electronics. Trolling motors, shallow water anchors, and SONAR units have revolutionized warm water fishing. Having a trolling motor makes it easy to quietly move around a body of water without disturbing the fish. They also free up your hands so you don’t have to keep a paddle or oar in your hand while fishing. Forever the standard way to control a trolling motor was with a foot pedal. This technique worked well but the fly line would always get caught on the pedal making fishing with them a nightmare. Today using a trolling motor has become a lot easier. A system like the Minn Kota iPilot Link allows you to navigate around the lake with ease. Set the path you want to follow and let the GPS inside the unit do the rest. In addition, the iPilot has a feature called spot lock which we love. This feature makes it easy to stay in one place while fighting fish or changing flies.
If you fish from a kayak, canoe, or a personal pontoon, an electronic shallow anchor is a must. These types of boats maneuver with a paddle or oar. That means when fishing you are at the mercy of the wind and current. With an electronic anchor, you deploy the anchor with the push of a button, allowing you to fish a likely holding area and then easily move on to the next area.
SONAR units, sometimes called fish finders, are game changers for warm water anglers. When we head to the lake, we initially use our finder to locate the places where the fish might live. Once we find an area that looks fishy (like this underwater structure left by a one-time house), then we see if there are any fish in the area. SONAR units allow you to see below the surface so you can stalk fish instead of just blindly casting for hours. In the past, fish finders just looked straight down under the boat and as fly anglers, this was not a lot of help. We would find the structure then have to move off it and cast back towards it. This was a logistical nightmare. The new models now have what is called a side-scanning SONAR. This means it looks out to the sides of the boat, as well as directly underneath. This technology makes it easy to find areas to fish and allows us to position our boat correctly in order to target the fish we find.
Getting comfortable with sinking lines
We all love catching fish on topwater and near surface presentations. Seeing fish come up to and blow up on a fly is always memorable. When warm water fishing, however, it is often necessary to get your flies down to the fish. There are many ways to do this. A weighted fly and a long leader is a great option, but you will lose control over your fly at some point and detecting strikes can be difficult. With sinking lines, we can get the fly down to a depth and keep it there during the retrieve. Sinking lines are not hard to use, but they do require a little practice. When using a sinking line, bring the fly back all the way to the boat before recasting. It is very hard to pick up and cast a fly mid-retrieve with a sinking line. If you need to pick up the fly mid-retrieve, use a roll cast to bring the fly line to the surface first. This will make the line much easier to pick up. You will also want to vary your leader length depending on the type of fly you are throwing. With unweighted flies, a shorter leader is a must so the line can pull the fly down. With weighted flies, it is easier to vary the depth the fly will run by changing the leader length. The longer the leader the deeper the fly will fish.
Increase your casting distance
The longer the fly is in the strike zone, the more opportunity you have to catch fish. Being able to make long casts is really important when fishing lakes. If you’re bound to shore, getting your fly farther from shore to some of the offshore structure can be the difference between catching fish or not. When fishing sinking lines, fishing a long cast will help the fly fish better and get down deeper. One of the most overlooked tips for casting farther in a watercraft is to stand up. If you are looking to purchase a kayak or canoe, you definitely should get one that you can stand up on and fish from. This will make not only getting the fly out farther easier, but it will allow you to see the structure you should fish. Make sure you aim your cast correctly. Stop the rod high and hard on the forward cast and keep that rod tip pointed up as line shoots out. Don’t aim your cast down at the water. The line won’t have enough time to get out there before it hits the water if you do that.
Be on the lookout for actively feeding fish
When fishing a lake keep your head on a swivel, constantly look around the area you are fishing. Watch for bird and bait activity, as they are a clear indication of where the fish are. When you see bait being pushed to the surface, head that way as quick as you can.
Don’t be afraid to fish in the middle of the lake
So often as fly anglers when fishing from a boat, we get into the rut of casting toward the bank and stripping back. In shallow lakes and ponds, this is a great place to find feeding fish, but not so much in larger lakes when the fish tend to stay deep during the summer. In larger lake situations, looking for weed lines and drop-offs out in the middle of the lake can be an excellent place to find fish. These mid-lake fish don’t see as much pressure as the fish on the bank and will readily eat a fly. To find this type of structure, start with a map of the body of water. Look for humps and holes in the middle of the lake. Clear lakes make it easy to look down and see the weed lines and drop-offs, but off-colored lakes will send you back to your electronics. If you fish the same lake often, spend some time cruising the lake looking for anomalies on the bottom. It doesn’t take long to get comfortable fishing in the middle of the lake in this way, and we promise it will be worth the effort you put in.