Fly fishing stillwater from the shoreline may seem overwhelming, particularly on bigger reservoirs and lakes. River and streams provide visual cues, seams and patterns we can try to decipher. Unless trout are breaking the surface or otherwise revealing themselves, fly fishing a lake from shore may feel like firing a shotgun blindly into the sky and hoping a duck or goose happens to fly into the path of the shot pellets. But there are a few tactics that can increase our chances of success.
Scout the Water First
If you can find a high vantage point along the shoreline, take advantage of the terrain to scout the water near the shore for obvious drop-offs, rocky areas, submerged logs, or other sheltered areas where fish may be hiding. It is much easier to see into the water from a high angle than from water level. If the water isn’t calm or clear enough to see into, look for inlets, points of land, or small bays. These areas are more likely to have sudden changes in underwater terrain where fish prefer to travel. Look for weed beds or grassy areas as these areas are habitat for insects and bait fish. Take the time to look for these spots and then spend more time focusing on these areas to detect signs of fish. You may see single fish or pods of fish cruising the shoreline and feeding, but many times the fish will be holding quietly near structure and resting and will be difficult to spot. If the water is slightly choppy, rising trout may be breaking the surface without detection. It may seem that the rising fish suddenly appear once the wind dies down, but they were likely there all along. The time we spend upfront observing the environment we are planning to fish will pay dividends later.
Choose your rigging
The first choice we need to make when fly fishing lakes from shore is the type of fly line to use – floating or sinking. The depth of the water and the type of action (suspended versus swimming) will dictate the selection of fly line. For most shoreline lake fishing a floating line can be used for both suspended and swimming presentations (and of course for dry fly fishing), provided the water is fairly shallow. The length of the leader and the weight of the fly will determine the depth of the presentation. An intermediate sinking line may be preferred in deeper water to present swimming action to imitate damsel fly nymphs, crayfish, or leeches. A fast sinking line may be necessary when fishing off deep drop-offs and ledges.
Fly selection may vary greatly from lake to lake, so ask a local or stop by the nearest fly shop for advice, when possible. Using a two-fly rig with a #12 to #16 weighted fly on the bottom will help sink suspended rigs below an indicator without using split shot. Tungsten beadheads like Garcia’s Tungsten Rojo Midge, McLellan’s Hunchback Scud, or a Hot Wire Prince Nymph are good options for weighted flies. Hare’s Ears, Copper Johns, Chironomids, Sand Juan Worms, and scud patterns tend to work well in most lakes for trout. For suspended rigs, select a highly visible and buoyant indicator such as a Thingamabobber plastic ball. Weighted black, olive and orange Wholly Buggers are good imitations of leeches and bait fish. Many dry fly patterns can be effective on lakes including the Griffith’s Gnat which imitates clusters of adult midges on the surface.
Fish the Water Conditions
Water conditions in lakes can range from clear to cloudy, calm to wavy, warm to cold, and various combinations of these. Some of these conditions affect the fish behavior and others affect our fishing success. Calm and clear conditions may seem ideal for fishing lakes, but these are often the toughest conditions since the fish tend to be more “spooky”, requiring more stealth and delicate presentations. Light chop on the water can provide cover for the fish and make fisherman, fly lines and water surface disturbance less visible. The bobbing of strike indicators on chop provides some action to the suspended fly which seems to solicit more strikes. Cloudy conditions can have some of the same effects with the added benefit of less sun glare off the water.
Fly fishing stillwaters from shore can be very rewarding and may produce some of the biggest catches of the year. Use a thoughtful and patient approach and your success rate will increase.