Want to learn how to start fly fishing for lake trout? This guide will equip you with everything you need to get started!
Fly fishing for lake trout involves using fly rod ranging from 4 to 10 wt typically with moderate to fast action. These rods can range from 9 to 11ft. Presentations include heavy sinking lines and big streamers or floating lines with added weight for smaller fly delivery. Ice off, spring and fall are great times as lake trout are more likely to be feeding during these seasons. Lake trout typically will be in the shoals in low light, early morning and late afternoon/evening, and in deeper water during high sun.
While all of this information is valuable, there is still so much more for you to learn. If you read on, then we’ll cover everything in more detail so you can start fly fishing for lake trout with more success than ever before!
What Does a Lake Trout look like?
Many species of trout live in a lake. These can range from Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Brook Trout, and hybrids such as the Tiger Trout or Splake Trout. And these can be found throughout the world. But if you are specifically going for Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush), these particular species originated in Canada and the Great Lakes region. They are now found across North America as they have been introduced into other waterways.
This fish can grow to be very big and can be anywhere between 5 to 12lbs in weight. Some have been weighed at around 50 lbs, but this is rare. Fun fact, the heaviest lake trout weighed 102 lbs!!
Lengthwise, these trout can average around 24-36 inches. So, you're on the lookout for a substantial fish here, and they're pretty hard for you to miss.
Lake trout tend to have a spotty body with a white belly and white edging on the fins. Be sure to look out for these visual clues to tell you that you're dealing with a lake trout.
If you keep all of these things in mind, then you will be able to distinguish this fish from any of the others in the lake. Another good way to tell if you've got the right guy is to see how they react on the line. They're incredibly energetic and love to put up a fight. So, if you hook one and it timidly gives in, then it's probably not a lake trout. But, if you feel a massive tug on the line that threatens to pull you overboard, then you've got yourself a winner!
How to Fly Fish on a Lake
No matter what type of trout species you are targeting on a lake, you will naturally have a few challenges and differences from saltwater or river fly fishing. For one, the water is considered still, as opposed to flowing.
So you will have to create the movement of the fly versus the water moving the fly to entice the trout to take.We also have a significant drawback of fishing for trout in a lake - the water depth. Depending on where you are fishing, the water could be extremely deep or shallow, with a lot of vegetation at the bottom. They also can be surrounded by trees and other hedges. So, wading in to conduct your fly fishing can be challenging at times. For optimal success, if you have a boat or float tube, this will give you the best advantage at reaching optimal feeding locations.Some fishermen like to drift or paddle around on their boats, but you need to be pretty skilled to operate your boat like this, and most people aren't capable of it. Perhaps if you have a buddy with you, then this is easier to do. But, most people will have better success anchoring their boat to have more control over your casting, and you can focus on fly fishing and not the drifting boat.
Now, when you initially get yourself set up, you may start regretting your decision. You look out across the vast lake and realize that you can't see any trout at all. Not only that, but the lake just seems so massive! How on earth are you going to find anything here? But don't get to concerned as this is a natural thing to worry about if you're never tried fly fishing for lake trout before.
What Part of the Lake Should You Focus On?
Your initial concern will be where you start fly fishing for trout on a lake. Lakes can be pretty big things. So, what part of the lake deserves most of your attention? It would be hard to imagine you could try and cover the entire area - some lakes are massive.
So for the most optimal location and time to catch a trout, you should consider these five things:
- Water temperature
- Water Depth
- Weather Systems
Temperature is one of the most important factors when fishing for trout species. Generally speaking, lake trout love water that sits in the 55 to 60-degree Fahrenheit range. This temperature is like the Goldilocks of temperatures for trout - it's not too hot, it's not too cold, it's just right.
When they're in water that's within this range, they feel far more comfortable. It lets the trout's body metabolize food a lot quicker.
We recommend you bring along a thermometer or another type of temperature-reading device to check the temp of the water in the lake. Paddle around until you find an area that fits within the 55-60 degree range.
Trout like most species like to feel secure or protected. Even though trout are predatory animals, they do have the same creature comforts as most of us. We need shelter, we need food, and when things get rough, we need an escape plan.
Let us first discuss shelter. Trout are carnivorous and feed on biomass that is found in lakes. This biomass can be invertebrates, insects, crustaceans, and other baitfish. The majority of your biomass is going to be found in or near vegetation. So when you are first approaching a lake, start at the shoals. This is where the water is shallow enough that sunlight can penetrate the water so vegetation can grow.
These areas of vegetation not only provide shelter but also give them locations for them to find safety within the weed beds. The best time to fish the shoals is early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the sun is setting. Trout get weary and spooky during high sunlight and typically recede to deeper locations during this time.
Also, keep an eye out for soft muddy bottoms. Large amounts of biomass live in these areas as well. If you find yourself over an are with rocks on the bottom and no vegetation, you might want to try and find another location.
Another great place is inlets and outlets. If the water coming in from an inlet is colder than the lake itself, the best place to target is where the temperature starts to get to that optimal 55-65 Degree range. You will find trout holding up in these areas getting bio-mass coming down from the inlet.
The water surface can also provide shelter. You might have heard the term, big chop, big fish. The reason behind this is when the surface area of the lake is disturbed with the wind, it refracts the light coming down, and the trout feel more secure to forage for food. Some of the best days of fly fishing you will have on a lake are the days where the wave are crashing in.
Now that we have discussed shelter let's talk about that escape plan. Trout feel comfortable coming into the shoals when the sun is low, and if the water surface is disturbed. They will spend the remainder of there time in deeper areas cruising in and out of those areas to the feeding shoals.
These deeper areas can be dropoffs or cliff edges that you find within a lake. They will cruise in and out of these all day long, looking for food when the conditions are right. So when you are looking for the most optimal spot, find a shoal that is adjacent to a sharp dropoff. Look for points, dropoffs, sunken islands, and even beaver dams.
When you are fly fishing a lake, the wind is your friend. But when more significant fronts are moving in, it can be both good and bad for your fishing trip depending on where it lands when you are out on the water.
If a storm is moving in, your fishing can be exceptional. The trout seem to know that things are going to get rough, so they will try and eat as much as possible before the low-pressure system arrives.
If the system has already moved in, you could find yourself in for a long slow day as now the trout are in a state of lackluster. Think of how you feel when a large front comes in, and your alarm clock goes off. I bet you don't want to get out of being either. If you are at the tail end of the storm or days before fly fishing for lake trout will typically be steady.
We touched base a little bit about this earlier when discussed fishing in the shoals. The best time to fish the shoals is first in the morning and late in the afternoon when the sun is setting. Trout get weary and spooky during high sunlight and typically recede to deeper locations during this time.
From the chart below, you can see the optimal location and times to be searching for lake trout and where they will most likely be feeding through the day. Early in the morning, focus on the shoals close to shore. In the midday, focus on drop off points and deeper areas as they will use the depth of the water as cover.
Then when the sun is setting head back out to the shoals to catch them feeding in the weed beds again.
As a general rule, these fish are usually found deeper during the hot summer months as they try and find the optimal 55-60 degree feeding temperatures. They will typically be feeding in higher water during the fall and spring and into the winter months.
Lakes goe through lifecycles and seasons like any other organic habitat. Typically a lake will turn over twice a year. Once in the fall and again in the spring. This is the time when lakes water flips itself or turns over hence the name "turnover."
During the summer, the top layer of water is the warmest heated by the sun. The deepest layer is the coldest as the rays do not penetrate the depths to heat the water. During the fall, the warm layer starts to cool and then becomes denser and sinks to the bottom. This dense water makes the lower level rise, and you get a seasonal turnover.
The same thing occurs in the spring as the warm rays are melting the ice and warming the additional layers.
During these times, fishing is not very productive. So if you have a spot checked out that you want to fish and you hear that the lake is turning over, look for another location to take your trip.
A great time to get early fly fishing is during "Ice Off." This is the first couple of weeks after the ice starts receding from a frozen lake. During this time, trout are incredibly aggressive, and larger trout come to the shores to feed after the long winter. This time of year can be the most productive lake fly fishing of the year.
GUIDE TIP FOR FISHING ICE OFF
During Ice Off, use jig style streamers such as cone headed muddy budy or a Black Slump Buster with Cone and cast to the edge of the ice and strip it just over the side. Let it sink for a couple of seconds and start your retrieve. Large cruising trout like to hang out on the edge of the ice and open water waiting for a quick meal from falling ice.
Plan out your attack in advance
When exploring new fisheries, it is always a good idea to plan out you're attacking in advance. A great trick to do is get a bathymetric map and look for the areas that you will most likely find schools of fish.
Look for areas that have more extended spaces between each of the lined out quadrants. For those who are not familiar with these types of maps, the closer the lines are together, the steeper the dropoff. Look for areas that have a wide area (shoal) next to a steep drop off. These will be optimal areas for trout as they feed on the shoals and retreat to deeper waters for cover.
What Equipment Will You Need?
We've already covered a couple of things in this guide. For one, it always helps to have a fishing boat or some way of getting out on the water as you will be able to cover more of the lake. It doesn't have to be large, just make sure there's enough room to fit you and your equipment. Then, ensure you have your flies ready - choose any of the ones listed below.
Lastly, we've spoken about the need for a thermometer. Remember, the water temperature is critical when searching for lake trout, you need this to help you pick the right spots.
Following this, we can start looking at the actual fishing equipment you'll need to bring with you:
Different people have different opinions on the type of rods you'll need when fly fishing for lake trout. However, it seems as though the consensus is that you need something within the 5-10 wt range. If you are dry fly fishing or nymph fishing, you can get away with a 6 to 8 weight range, but if your casting heavy sinking lines and big streamer you will need a rod with a good backbone.
Alongside this, you should aim for at least 9 feet in length. Most experts will recommend that a graphite fly rod is the best bet here. You get excellent durability, and it's heavy enough to help you reach the depths you require, but it's not overly chunky for you to hold onto while casting.
Reels are a fundamental part of your fly fishing equipment. If you don't bring the right ones, then you will struggle to reel in the big trouts. Seeing as you're fishing in freshwater, you can use either aluminum or machined. Either will work fine, but what you're most concerned with is the drag system, as this will be your primary defense against a running monster.
You see, lake trout tend to pull away and try to dive deep back down to their home. The longer they spend close to the surface, the more panicked they become. So, once they start pulling, they don't stop. There's a scientific reason behind this, and it's to do with oxygen levels at the surface of the water. In effect, lake trout struggle to breathe closer to the surface, which is why they're so desperate to go deeper.
Anyway, you need to look for a smooth drag with a large arbor. The large arbor fly reels are the most modern designs out there. They're specifically designed to give you an excellent backing capacity with a fast retrieval rate. In simple terms, you can wind back more of your line in a quicker space of time. So, with something like the lake trout that pulls away constantly, you need an excellent backing capacity that's smooth and doesn't catch.
When it comes to the drag system, Disc Drag is a great option. The traditional Spring & Pawl System sounds fantastic when that fish is ripping off your line, but it doesn't have the pulling power of a Disc Drag System. With a sound DD system, you can get up to around 20lb of torque, meaning it handles some of the healthiest fish in the water.
The line choice can vary depending on when you set out to do some fly fishing. Later on in this guide, there'll be a slightly more detailed explanation of when you should fly fish for lake trout. For now, you need to know that trout tend to be found in shallower waters in the fall or spring. During the summer, they're most likely more rooted in the lake.
When the trout are closer to the surface, you will only need short, fast sink tips if you are fishing surface streamers or popper. Floating lines can work great if you are fishing dry flies or nymphs with weight.
But for the majority of the time that you are fishing in the deeper dropoffs, a 24-foot fast sink tip or a full sinking line will be most productive. These are critical for getting the right depth during the summer months. But if you choose to use sink tip specific weights it's best to choose something that's around 24' 200 grain. 200 grain will be perfect for streamers in sizes #4 - #8. But, if you're looking for the trout lurking deep below the surface, then you may need a rod that has a 24' 300 grain or faster sinking line. If you're fishing at depths that extend beyond 20 feet, then we recommend this.
Usually, when bait fishing, you'd use live bait to try and catch the trout. However, seeing as we're fly fishing, you need to know which flies are worth getting for your next fly fishing adventure.
As it happens, there are three fly varieties to consider:
- The Dry Fly
- The Nymph
If you are looking to fly fish specifically for giant Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush), dry fly fishing might not be the best option because of the depth that these fish typically live in.
However, for the numerous other fantastic trout species that reside in lakes, this can be an excellent option, especially if you see them rising to the surface. Something is rewarding about luring a rainbow trout up to the surface, then reeling them in.
Four of our favorite for lake fly dry fly fishing are:
- Parachute Adams
- E-Z-Caddis, Tan
- Parachute Adams Indicator
- Royal Wolf
A nymph fly is one that drops under the surface of the water. It gets its name as 'nymph' refers to the stage of an insect's life where they live underwater. Many insects go through this stage, and they're all feasted on by trout. So, you have the advantage of attracting lake trout by posing as their food.
Depending on your location and timing, great patterns to use are Midge Chorominds assortments, Caddis, Mayfly, Worm, Scud, Leach patterns, and Damsel nymphs.
Retrieval rates on these change significantly, but you can find out more about what flies to use and how to retrieve it in depth at this article.
Four of our favorite for lake nymphs for fly fishing are:
- Rojo Midge
- Prince Nymph
- Flashback Pheasant Tail (Bead-head)
- Sparkle Worm, Red
GUIDE TRICK FOR NYMPHING LAKES
Use the countdown method. The biggest mistake first-time fly fishers on lakes have is that they don't let there fly sink long enough before beginning the retrieve. Start by counting in your mind "One One-thousands" for every foot of water that you are fishing in. So if you are fishing in the shoals in 8 to 10ft of water, count to "ten one-thousands" before retrieving your line.
Most people agree that streamers are the go-to choice here. These flies get their name as they're more massive than the other two varieties and usually have long bits of material that sway in the water. As a result, they give off a lifelike effect that attracts the attention of the lake trout. It makes the fly look like it's still alive, which leads to the trout attacking it full-force.
Once more, your choice will depend on the water depth. For shallow fishing, choose small/medium-sized streamers. For deeper fly fishing, it helps to have a cone-headed or weighted flies to get it down to deeper depths. Most streamers are broke into three categories. Baitfish, which mimick other life fish in that environment. Leech patterns wich mimick leeches, and Sculpin which are readily found in most freshwater aquatic ecosystems.
Our favorite pattern for each category is:
- Baitfish - Muddler Minnow
- Leech Pattern - Bunny Leech
- Sculpin - Sculpzilla or the Butt-Monkey
If you are wondering how to set up your line and leaders for fly fishing on lakes, we have another article entirely on the topic. Check out this link for a more in-depth scenario for leader setups.
Where are the Best Lakes for Trout Fishing?
If you're planning on heading out to fish for some lake trout, then it makes sense to know the best places to go. There are loads of lakes across North America, but these tend to be the best:
Great Slave Lake (Northwest Territories) - home to some massive lake trout, there are reports of one's well over 50lbs appearing here regularly.
Lake Superior (Michigan, Ontario, Wisconsin, Minnesota) - The largest area of freshwater on planet earth, and a fantastic place to fly fish for lake trout. This lake has seen some of the biggest trout in the world, so it's well worth your time.
Flaming Gorge (Utah, Wyoming) - An extremely deep lake with cold waters, making it the perfect nesting place for trout. One of the best lakes in the US, mainly thanks to the speed with which the trout breed here.
There are plenty of other lakes across the continent that will have lake trout in them. But, these are the top three options if you want to catch the biggest fish and have the best experience.
Top Tips When Fly Fishing For Lake Trout
We're coming to the latter stages of this guide, so it's time to go through a couple of crucial tips and tricks to help you catch your fish.
Lake trout are pretty abundant, but don't expect to catch 40 fish the first time your out on the water. If you adhere to the advice on when to go fishing - along with the tips on where on the lake to set yourself up - then you will increase your chances of catching that trout of a lifetime.
Still, these fish can be more cunning than you think. The fact that they love the depths of the lake means that they might just chill there for a whole day. There's enough food for them to survive, so you might not get as many bites as you hoped. Be patient, keep casting off in different places, and switch up your flies and locations if you are not getting any hits.
Watch the current
Fly fishing requires lots of concentration, and you have to pay respect to the currents. If you're not careful, your line can get dragged off away from the trout nesting area. Also, if your trout pulls away with the current at their back, then you're in a lot of trouble
So, be mindful of where the wind's blowing, and where the currents are flowing. Ideally, you want to try and position yourself, so the current flows in your favor, giving you extra pulling power.
Get ready to reel in with all your strength.
After following all the advice in this guide - along with the tips above - you will have an excellent chance of getting a bite.
Ironically, this is the hardest step in the entire process. You should be aware that lake trout are very feisty. They fight for their life, and they have a lot of strength to pull away. Don't be surprised if the first couple of trouts get away from you. They can take you by surprise with their power, but you have to be prepared.
Never fly fish when your arms are sore as you will lack the energy required! You will have to reel in with all your strength to fight against the pull of the trout. Remember, they've got gravity on their side as they're swimming downwards, so it will be a struggle. As soon as you feel the tug, crank away as fast as you can before the trout gets a chance to get into its stride and swim away.
Summary: The Full Fly Fishing A Lake Process
All we have left are the full fly fishing steps but put all together for you to read through once more. At this point, you should already have a grasp on fly fishing for lake trout and all the different nuances involved. But let us finish by recapping some of the critical elements.
Step 1: Find a suitable lake for fly fishing.
Step 2: Make sure you go during the appropriate seasons more optimal for catching trout
Step 3: Get all of your equipment ready - including the rods, reels, flies, lines, and thermometer.
Step 4: Be sure to fish in the sholes in the morning and evening and concentrate on the dropoffs during midday.
Step 5: Make sure your line matches the fly that you are casting.
Step 6: Be ready for a bite, then reel in with all the power you possess!
One more thing to remember is that you shouldn't use barbed hooks if you're planning on letting the trout go. Also, make sure to wet your hands before handling them and only take them out of the water long enough to take your trophy photo before sending them back to catch another day.
About the Author
Matthew Bernhardt, a third-generation Coloradan, grew up at the forefront of the state’s fly-fishing revolution, enjoying time on the water, side by side with experienced guides and lifelong anglers.
By combining his passion for fly-fishing with input from other experienced fly-fishers and guides and his fine arts degree from Colorado State University, Matthew spent five years carefully developing the Drifthook Fly Fishing System, built to help every angler catch more trout.
When he’s not spending time with his wonderful family, you’ll find him out on the water catching MONSTER trout, and he anxiously looks forward to the day when his kids are old enough to join him there.