Who else gets a little bit nervous before venturing out to a new lake? And I am not talking about what conditions you’ll find the outhouse in. I am referring to conquering the unknown with a fly rod, busting out the mapbook to research a new spot or going to a secret lake the guy at the fly shop recommended. Regardless, nerves will come into play. There’s the uplifting anticipation of returning home after catching a new PB or having to dread stepping back into that fly shop, tail between your legs, knowing that the lake humbled you, aka skunked.
Seasoned fly fishermen look at every lake as if they are building a puzzle. Whether it’s a lake they’ve never been to or one they’ve fished a thousand times. The day is spent collecting tidbits of information and piecing them together. Sure, you can catch fish by tying on an attractor pattern while you troll circles around the lake all day. And hey, don’t let anyone tell you there’s something wrong with that – or “that's not fly fishing.” Some of the best times on the water are spent trolling around, zoned out while drinking an ice cold beer. But on the flip side, an observant fly fisherman that constantly compounds key pieces of information has the potential to dial it in and build a masterpiece… or in this case, catch a lot of fish and go home with a sore arm and bragging rights.
So why is a new lake intimidating? One of my friends says all you need to do is follow a two step process to catch fish anywhere: Light a beer, crack a smoke, catch a fish. There’s a chance this was said after one-to-many. New lakes push us outside of our comfort zone. We put our fly fishing knowledge to the test and start from square one. Kind of like playing a golf course for the first time only this time, we need to think like a fish, no matter how weird it gets.
7 Tips to Fly Fishing a New Lake:
Do Your Homework
Look for Opportunities
Understand Basic Entomology
The Importance of Water Temperature
Have Your Tools Ready
Break The Comfort Zone
1) Do Your Homework – The first step to conquering a new lake is to be prepared. Find out as much information as you can prior to hitting the road. Steal tips from the internet or ask your local fly shop to help uncover honey holes. Before you head out, make note of the size of the lake, its depths and contour lines – this way you can begin to build a mental map of which areas you’ll be targeting.
Take note of your cardinal directions. The eastern side of the lake, which stays hidden from the sun in the morning, tends to hold more aquatic insect life, like shrimp. Pro-tip; the eastern side will also keep your drinks colder for a longer period of time. Subsequently, take note of the western side for evening fishing too. Trout frequent these low light areas at different times of the day.
Find out as much as you can about the trout as possible. Bank accounts, SIN numbers, etc. What species are you chasing; Rainbow? Okay, which strain; Blackwater, Fraser Valley, Pennask? How will this info affect your fly selection and overall technique? Blackwater’s are more shallow water foragers targeting meat & potato style flies such as Dragonfly nymph and leeches. Whereas Pennasks hit heavy on the Chironomid pupa and cruise open waters. These are all small pieces of the puzzle that we can piece together before our tires even hit the dirt road. Do your homework.
2) Be Observant – Be observant on the water. Take a look around and find someone constantly catching fish. Anchor down beside them and respectively ask to borrow some of their flies. No, don’t do that, never do that! Being observant starts before we get on the water. After we spend time setting up the boat and the rods, take a look around. Scan the water’s edge or nearby bulrushes to see if you can see any clues to what might be on today’s menu.
Once we are on the water, this is where being observant really gets kicked into overdrive. Your eyes should constantly be scanning the surroundings like you’re trying to find a server in a crowded bar. First and foremost, do we see any trout activity? Scan the water’s surface for signs of rising trout or trout sipping just below the surface. If we see multiple rises or indications of trout in a specific area, move to that area and find out why.
Keep a close eye on bug activity throughout the day and monitor how many pieces of pepperoni and beef jerky you have left before it’s time to head back and replenish. Look for floating Chironomid shucks, skating Caddis, or other types of insects, such as Damsels, Dragons or Water boatmen that might be swimming around. Oftentimes throughout the day we’ll see a cluster of adult Chironomids buzzing just above the water’s surface or a swarm of Mayflies dancing beside the bulrushes. Birds will be keying in on some of these hatches. Quite regularly we’ll see Swallows swooping down and eating adult Chironomids. The sign of a good hatch. As the saying goes, the early bird gets the… Chironomid, right?
3) Look for Opportunities – This section can be tied into “being observant,” but what we wanted to focus on here was specific geographical areas to target such as; drop-offs, shoals etc. Go where the fish are and set up shop. Trout are going to frequent areas where they feel protected. This brings out a level of confidence and trout can focus on feeding rather than dodging predators such as Loons, Ospreys, Eagles or those pesky fly fishermen.
As we cruise a new lake, there are several areas to pay close attention to and explore further:
Drop-offs - The king of all areas to search and guess what? Every lake has them. Drop-offs are high concentration zones for trout because they can find a quick meal or easily seek shelter. On one side they can forage on the shoal or they can choose to dive down into deeper water. You can find drop-offs by using your depth finder, reading maps or by simply opening your eyes and finding the junction between the light coloured shoal and the dark coloured deeper water. Cast your line either on a perpendicular angle, on a 45 degree, or even parallel to the drop-off zone. Fish hard.
Weed Beds - Go where the food is! Aquatic insects inhabit weed beds making these areas great zones to target hungry trout. Take notice of a gap or pocket in the weed bed (oftentimes a change in water colour) and cast your line along the edges as well. Lily Pads are also known to provide shelter for trout and reduce direct sunlight – making them a favourite area for trout to hide from bullies while keeping their lunch money to themselves.
Shoals - Targeting trout that are forging in the shallows can make for some exciting fly fishing. Shoals are typically on the receiving end of many casts in the spring and fall months when the water temperature is cooler and there’s a higher level of oxygen. They are also great to target in the early mornings and the late evenings after the sun dips behind the mountains. Casting and retrieving a floating line or intermediate sinking line is often the key to success. Scuds, leeches, dragonfly nymphs and damsels are a good fly pattern to tie on – and whiskey will be a good thing to sip on.
Creeks - If the lake is creek fed, these areas are rich with cold oxygenated water and can provide an additional food source for trout due to insects being carried downstream. Be on the lookout for creeks and you’ll be sure to find fish in the area.
Bulrushes - Again, go where their food is! Bulrushes are one of my favourite areas to cast a line close to. They provide a great environment for insects to inhabit both in and out of the water. Generally, they are “fishy areas” and hot spots for Trout to meet up and discuss weather and local sports teams.
4) Understanding Basic Entomology – It’s no secret that fly fishermen need to have a basic understanding of entomology. It’s always nice to be able to identify which bugs fly into your mouth and why we tie certain ones on the end of our line. But identifying bugs is only half the battle, actually, it’s much less than that.
Understanding basic entomology stems from memorizing hatch charts and knowing when specific bugs should be present on the trout’s à la carte menu. In stillwater fly fishing we mainly focus our attention on 8 different types of aquatic insects. Go ahead, name them! Damsels, Dragons, Chironomids, Scuds, Leeches, Mayflies, Caddisflies and Water Boatman (& Backswimmers). For many of these, we can break them down further into other fishable lifecycle stages such as; larvae, pupal, nymph and adult.
When we’re exploring a new lake, having an indication of what the trout are after gives us an idea of what we may want to tie on the end of our “not yet broken tippet.” For example, if we are fishing in early spring, we’ll know to focus mainly on the Chironomid and Mayfly hatches. If we are fishing in early summer, well then go buy (don’t tie) some Gomphus Dragonfly nymphs.
But understanding basic entomology doesn’t stop there. Knowing how to retrieve the fly and give it life in the water is a crucial point not only for each insect, but each applicable lifecycle stage as well. We need to mimic the movement, speed and present our fly at the correct depth. Become the puppet master!
5) The Importance of Water Temperature – Water temperature is arguably one of the most important things to make note of while either hitting a new lake or returning to that ye ol’ faithful lake. It can tell us a lot about fish behaviour, feeding tendencies and where fish might be located. It’s also going to tell me if I am going swimming or not.
The ideal temperature for an active feeding Rainbow Trout is between 50-67 degrees Fahrenheit. I wish I could say between 10-20 degrees Celsius, but my depth finder displays temperature in Fahrenheit. Of course now I am used to it and I’m not sure if I want to change it. This temperature range allows trout to eat happily and get the oxygen levels they need to have a healthy metabolism. If the water is too warm (or cold) the trout will stop feeding. But how does this help with finding trout in a new lake? Well, it helps us locate the trout’s position. When the water is on the colder end of the spectrum, trout tend to move into the shallows areas of the lake to feed. When oxygen levels decrease in the shallow areas and temperatures begin to increase, trout will retreat to the depths. As the water temperature begins to warm in the spring, this is when we start to see insect activity and bugs begin to hatch.
The water temperature will also help determine our retrieve speed for fly patterns. In cooler temps use a slower retrieve and in warmer water conditions we increase the speed. Keep in mind that when temperatures reach the high 60’s (67+ degrees) we should STOP fishing. Give those fish a break and work on your farmer’s tan. Trout become stressed and with low oxygen levels in the lake, the conditions become unsafe to handle trout and the mortality rate increases.
6) Have Your Tools Ready – Let’s talk tools! If there’s one certainty that remains true across all fly anglers, it’s the constant need to buy new toys and accessories. I don’t know why, it’s a problem, I am aware. We are all guilty of wanting the latest tool or gadget but what are the most important tools to use when fly fishing at a new lake?
For the longest time I never used a depth finder (or fish finder, whatever you want to call it), I almost considered it cheating. Until, finally one came into my possession and I’ve never looked back. A depth finder is single handedly one of the most important tools you can buy for your boat. Knowing your depth takes the guesswork out of leader length and tightens the accuracy on finding the right locations. Being able to map out specific drop off points and seeing what’s beneath me has been an absolute game changer. Plus the surface temp thermometer is a huge bonus.
Although often overlooked for stillwater fishing, a good pair of polarized sunglasses goes a long way. Being able to see structure change, weed beds and yes even fish is a no-brainer. Every fly fisherman should invest in a good pair of polarized lenses. They also come in handy when spying on other fishermen if you need to see what’s working.
Stomach pump and a glass vial are powerful tools. Although as I’ve mentioned in other articles, I like to call it a throat sampler. Is a simple tool to effectively match the hatch or baste a turkey. It’s like cheating on a test. Find out exactly what the fish are keying in on and adjust your presentation and fly accordingly.
7) Break The Comfort Zone – We’ve made it to the last point of the day – If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. If you can take anything away from this article, it should be that fishing a new lake is all about having fun. It’s time to hone your skills and practice new techniques. Plan a trip with the guys, get outside and take on new adventures. There’s a good chance you’ll stumble on a new lake that soon becomes an annual tradition. There’s no telling what you’ll discover or what new stories you’ll share around the campfire… like that big one that got away.