Approaching a New Lake – Fly Fishing Tactics by Brian Chan

Most, if not all anglers have their favorite stillwaters, ones that we have gotten to know over the seasons then years and so have developed a great deal of confidence when fishing that particular water body. We have learned that the most productive areas of trout lakes are the shallow water or shoal areas and the edges of drop-offs. Timing of specific insect hatches such as the multitude of chironomid emergences or when the big caddis emergence of the year occurs and how the mood of the lake changes as it moves through the annual cycle of seasons are all key pieces of information that are learned from fishing the same body of water season after season. Therefore, approaching a new piece of water, one we have never fished before, can be intimidating to both seasoned and beginning anglers. There is so much to learn about a water body before the confidence factor is secure. Fortunately, there are numerous tactics that can be enacted on and off the water to ensure the best chances of having an enjoyable day when actually on the lake.

Dale "The Bulldog" Freschi with a big Rainbow Trout

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to fish four, new to me, lakes in the southeast corner of BC. While I knew what to look for in terms of general insect emergences and the representative tactics to use I still had to spend the time researching background information about these lakes. Then when on the water, I had to locate the hatches and find the best “fishing areas”. The methodology I used to approach these lakes will hopefully benefit both seasoned and first time fly fishers. In the end the goal is to fit a few more pieces of the fly fishing jig saw puzzle together and have fun doing it.

Pre- trip Information Collection

The preparation for fishing a new lake should begin well in advance of the scheduled trip. A lot of my planning occurs during the winter months when time can be spent searching out a variety of electronic and print resources. This is the time to learn or refresh your memory about the common food sources of trout in stillwaters. This is “must know” information and it should be firmly etched into the fishing part of your brain. Next, take the time to learn about the lake in terms of its basic biology, presence and diversity of aquatic invertebrates, water chemistry and the physical structure or morphometry of the water body. Understanding the structure of a lake and knowing the life cycles of the available food sources that are living in the water are critical pieces of information that one should have a firm grasp of before fishing any stillwater. One of the best sources of information about lakes or streams are the fisheries management agencies, including state, provincial or federal jurisdictions. Many fish and wildlife management agencies maintain inventory and management databases that offer detailed information on lake limnology, biology, morphometry, stocking records etc. These are often accessible through the internet and are always the first place to try and find information about specific water bodies. For example, in British Columbia is a tremendous resource for anglers seeking details about the thousands of productive stillwaters in the province. Information available includes lake contour maps, basic limnology, access information and current fish stocking records.

Next, the fishing regulations synopsis should be consulted to not only find out about general fishing regulations but also information about the management objectives for specific water bodies. This is particularly important information when seeking out quality or trophy managed waters. Provincial or state regulations will list gear restrictions, catch limits and seasonal closures depending on the management objectives. These water specific regulations can then be matched to stocking programs for that particular water body. Quality lakes are often stocked with small numbers of trout and in many instances with non-reproductive or triploid fish. These low stocking rates combined with reduced catch quotas or “no kill” restrictions will usually offer anglers the opportunity to catch some bigger fish. The same would hold true for finding lakes that have larger populations of trout and perhaps more suitable for beginner fly fishers or lakes that are ideal for family fishing. More liberal limits, higher stocking rates and less restrictive gear restrictions are the key ingredients for these types of fisheries. Most regulations are now available on-line which makes it that much easier to plan trips.

Your local fly shop or fly shops in the area you will be fishing can be excellent sources of information. More often than not one of the store employees has been there or knows someone that has so that you have the opportunity to get first hand details of the fishery. As well, the fly shop staff can help out with local fly pattern selection and more specific fishing tactics. Another good source of pre-trip information are commercial guide books, magazine articles and video productions. These resources often hilite the more popular fisheries with information ranging from detailed access descriptions to where to fish on the lake and suggestions for fly patterns. On-line fly fishing bulletin boards can also be a good source of information. Many anglers within the fly fishing community are more than willing to share information and all that is required is a polite request.

On the Water Tactics

In a perfect world your trip to a new lake would be planned to coincide with major aquatic insect activity such as late spring chironomid or mayfly emergences or during the peak damselfly nymph emergence swims. This type of water specific information is relatively easy to find during the pre-trip planning process. Once at the lake, one of the first things to do is spending a few minutes walking along and in the waters edge. This exercise will tell you a number of things about the lake. Turning over a few logs or rocks and looking through a clump of aquatic vegetation will reveal information about the invertebrates in the lake. More specifically, one will get an idea of the size and color of the important food sources such as scuds, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, leeches and caddis larvae. The presence of the cast shucks of chironomids or mayflies will tell us that an emergence or emergences occurred that day or the previous one.

A vial full of chironomids

Humminbird Fish Finder

There are several pieces of equipment and/or on the water tactics that can significantly increase the success of the stillwater fly fisher. A portable depth sounder allows us to know the depth of the water that is being fished. There are a variety of sounders made that are adaptable for use on float tubes, pontoon boats and hard hulled fishing boats. The majority of fishing we do on productive stillwaters is in water less than about 25 feet in depth and often much of the feeding activity is within a few feet of the lake bottom. Depth sounders also tell us where the shoal ends and the slope of the drop-off begins. A properly calibrated sounder can also record fish that may appear below or to the sides of our fishing craft.

Once on the lake it is really important to be looking on and into the water. Many of the most common aquatic insect emergences leave tell tale signs of their presence and emergence activity. Mayfly nymphs, damselfly nymphs and caddis pupae can be seen moving through the water or chironomid pupa can be observed wiggling up towards the surface of the lake. A long handled aquarium net is perfect for capturing these emerging insects so that their color and size can be closely imitated. Water temperature plays a significant role in determining insect emergence activity. The most common insects emerge during the mid-morning to late afternoon period. This 5 to 7 hour time frame allows the nymphs or pupae to take advantage of optimal water temperatures. The bottom line is you want to be on the water when the preferred food sources are most available to the trout.

Where to Start Fishing

The majority of the most important aquatic invertebrate food sources of trout are found living within the shoal and drop-off zones of the lake. This is where one should concentrate when exploring a new lake. Row or motor out to the shoals (which you have identified on the contour map) and start looking around for insect activity, feeding birds or moving fish. Keep in mind the time of year it is and where the lake should be in terms of aquatic insect emergences. Seeing nymphs or pupae in the water are good signs as that means the trout will not be far away. Start fishing patterns that represent food sources that are available for the time of year and that have further been confirmed by actually seeing them in the water. If the trout are not on the shoals they will most likely be somewhere along the drop-off zone where there is both food and deeper water for protection from predators. Not seeing any food sources in the water does not mean the trout are not feeding. They may be rooting out scuds from the bottom of the shoal or cruising the deeper edges of the drop-off in search of leeches or migrating dragonfly nymphs. It always comes back to understanding the food sources that trout eat, verifying they are in the particular water body being fished and then applying the appropriate fishing tactics to imitate them.

Double header! Two Rainbow Trout in the net

Fly fishing is a continual learning process and that is why it captivates so many of us. Some days on the water are memorable than others and that’s what keeps us coming back for more.

-Brian Chan