Ask the Expert: Dry Fly Fishing on Lakes

September 24, 2019 By: Skip Morris

Dry Flies on Lakes

Carol Ann Morris photo

Question: I fish for trout sometimes in lakes by trolling with a sinking line. When fly fishers talk about lakes it’s always about trolling or fishing a chironomid down deep with a strike indicator—is there ever any dry fly fishing for trout in lakes?
– Irene L.

Answer: Yes, Irene, there absolutely is dry-fly fishing on trout lakes. On the whole, I believe, it’s fishing that’s overlooked, unappreciated, and great fun. And some of it’s about as challenging as trout fishing gets.  But that’s too general to be of much use. So, specifics follow.

Rising Trout

Hatches of mayflies and caddisflies will bring trout up to feed at the surface of a lake. But that’s not all. Flying ants, mayfly spinners, and adult chironomids will drop onto lakes and trout will rise for them too.

When trout in lakes are rising for bugs, find an imitation that’s close to the natural in size and form and, if you can, color. Toss the fly out near a rise, and if the natural is wrestling from its shuck or darting across the water—that is, if it’s active in any way—give the fly little twitches or skids between pauses. These movements mimic the insect’s actions, but also just suggest life to catch trout’s attention. If, however, twitches aren’t drawing strikes or the fish are turning away short, don’t hesitate to let the fly rest undisturbed. I’ve caught scads of trout, trout rising on lakes, on quietly floating flies.

You can go after those rising trout with floating flies other than what we normally classify as a dry fly: half-sunken, half-floating emerger-flies can be just right, probably more often than dries. Don’t lock in to one or the other. If your dry fly or emerger isn’t working or you feel it should be working better than it is, switch.

There’s also the nymph, retrieved just a few inches below the water’s surface. But, then, you asked about dry flies, Irene, so I’ll stick with flies that at least partially float.

Trout may rise in a disorderly way, as they often do in daylight (I’ve come to call these “searching” rises). Or, especially towards sunset, they may rise in rhythms, that is, in constant spans of both time and distance, a series of ever-wider circular wavelets in a line across the water, each new one appearing up front on cue (I’ve come to call this “path rising”). If the trout make searching rises, just keep putting your fly out among those rises. If the trout are path rising, catch the timing and determine the rise line and try to get your fly out where the next rise will come, before it comes.

Topwater Anarchy

That covers the sedate, civilized sort of floating-fly lake fishing for trout; next comes the opposite. Often, where the floating fly is concerned, that’s caddisfly hatches. Caddis in lakes often pop out, stretch their wings up to dry them, and then scurry away. It’s a mad scurry, zig zags, straight dashes, sudden halts. At any moment in an adult caddis’s antics atop a lake, the insect may flutter up and away—and trout know it. So in trying to chase down a rampaging bug and grab it before it’s gone, the trout have no choice: they must attack each insect. Irene—this is exciting stuff! And if the caddis is the huge Traveler Sedge, big trout will come up for it. A three-pound rainbow on a dry fly is nothing special during the Traveler hatch.

So you put on a pattern matching the adults (a Traveler imitation if the adults are Travelers, but caddis on lakes can be much smaller than that), toss it out among the explosions out there, and skim and pause and skid it back. Brace yourself—the trout will try to jerk the fly off your tippet.

Perhaps even more violent than trout on lake caddis is trout on water boatmen and back swimmers—these plump submarine/rowboats can at any moment dart about underwater by stroking their two long, powerful swimming legs; scurry across the top of the water; or fly. They never hatch, but go on swarming flights in spring and fall. They can match a size 10 hook, so you can imagine the violence that erupts when a bunch of them drop onto a lake of hungry trout.

Searching on the Surface

Most dry-fly and emerger fishing on trout lakes is about covering rising (or slashing) trout, but not all. Especially when trout are working a lake’s shallows, in water, say, six feet up to only two feet deep, those trout may be open to a floating or only slightly sunken fly. (Trust me: at times 20-inch trout will feed in water that won’t wet your knees.) This is a pretty straightforward business: you work along the shoreline, keeping watch for near-shore rises, and keep putting out the fly. Sometimes you can actually see the trout, gliding along, tipping up to take some floating thing now and then—that’s sight fishing, and that’s . . . superb.

That next-to-last thing you really need to know about all this, Irene, is that finding surface fishing on trout lakes is about like finding it on trout streams—typically, you have to seek it out in order to find it consistently. Go to most streams without any planning and the trout will probably stay comfortably down waiting for a deep nymph and will ignore your dry fly. Same with most lakes—unless you figure out the time of year and day and what sort of weather puts bugs atop the water, you won’t be allowed much dry-fly trout fishing on lakes.

The actual last thing is that some lakes, like some streams, almost never, perhaps even never, provide any real dry-fly fishing. That’s not the norm, though. Most trout lakes (and I say this after fishing hundreds of them) do offer a fair share of top-water fishing. Some offer a lot. So finding the right lakes really counts too.

Trout lakes, trout streams—there’s real dry-fly fishing on both. You just have to find it and figure it out. Thanks, Irene, for asking.