Lakes: Learning to Read Again

Fly Fishing Lakes

Sunrise reflection at Sprague Lake | photo by mnryno

Question: I am so used to fishing for trout in rivers and streams, and I’ve figured out where they hide. . . but I am perplexed when it comes to finding trout in Lakes. How do I find trout hidden in a body of lake water, when everywhere I look, it all looks the same? Help!

—Christine P

Answer: Help, Christine, is here. I’ve fished a heap of trout lakes over several decades, have even written a book on the subject (with trout-lake wizard Brian Chan: Morris & Chan on Fly Fishing Trout Lakes)—I’ll guide you to those pesky, elusive trout you seek.

For starters, you’re right: reading lakes is daunting if you’re new to it, and perhaps even more daunting if you’re new to it but are used to reading streams. Reading streams is really about reading currents—take away all the currents and what you have left is an intimidated stream angler, a deflated soul with no hope. But that’s not you, Christine. You have oodles of hope. Oodles.

You just need to find, in your lakes, the places where trout congregate, these places: shoals, drop-offs, points, bays, the mouths of feeder streams, and springs. Trout can go wherever they please in a lake, of course, but those are the main places they prefer.

Tips for Fly Fishing Lakes

A desert trout lake. But any lake—be it alpine, desert, low-elevation—is a stream-angler’s nightmare: no currents to read | photo by Carol Ann Morris

Definitions are in order. A shoal is a small to big flat spot on a lake’s bed; deepening slowly as it extends out from shore. A drop-off is where, at its outer rim, a shoal turns sharply down, as shoals often do. A point is just a finger of land extending out into a lake. A bay is any sort of indentation along a lake’s shoreline, from too small for a boat to enter to, well, big. A feeder stream can be river or creek; in either case it provides oxygen, cold water, and sometimes hatching insects. A spring in a lake is like a spring that emerges from land, except submerged, water seeping or bubbling up from underground (or, rather “underlake,” which I now declare a real word meaning “under the bed of a lake”).

Of all these, the shoal is the trout’s and trout fisher’s Top Pick—shoals are exposed to lots of light to grow lots of bugs and such that feed lots of trout. Trout understand this—so if they aren’t over a shoal, feeding, they’re probably thinking about feeding over a shoal. That’s what makes shoals so good.

Sometimes when they’re thinking about feeding over a shoal but, because the shoal is quiet, aren’t, they’re instead hanging just past the lip of the drop-off, waiting for the shoal to pick up. That’s what makes drop-offs good.

Next question (I know you didn’t ask this one, Christine, but it logically follows): How do I find shoals and drop-offs and the other trout-lake lies? Easy enough—bays and points and feeder streams are out in plain sight, just look.

Fly Fishing in Lakes

In spring and fall, when a lake’s shallows are cold and hold ample oxygen, trout, even big rout, may go shallow | photo by Carol Ann Morris

The underwater stuff’s another matter. In a really clear lake you may actually be able see shoals and drop-offs, and identify springs as patches of clear sand from which bubbles rise. But most lakes aren’t all that clear. (Some of the richest grow a lot of algae that can bloom into a truly opaque layer of something like fine lawn trimmings.) How do you find underwater features when you can’t see them? You can inspect the shoreline—how it angles above the water probably about matches how it angles below. Therefore a slow, wide slope entering the water probably extends out as a shoal. You can watch other anglers, if they’re around, and see where they catch fish. You can dig up some info at the local fly shop and on-line, perhaps even find a topographical map of the lake’s bed on-line or in a fishing guidebook.

Or you can invest in a “fish-finder,” a sonar device whose screen displays symbols representing bottom contour, depth, weed beds and boulders and mud flats, and. . .fish. Yes: fish-finders find fish. There they are, Christine, on that screen and straight down below your feet—fish! Since you’ve no river currents to read on lakes, fish finder: invaluable.

And that’s really the thing, isn’t it? Lakes hide their trout and most of their features that attract trout beneath a blank face. By we fly fishers are a crafty and determined bunch; we’ve figured out how see past that poker face and find a lake’s trout. It’s been a collective effort. So, speaking on my own behalf and (with absolutely no authority to do so) on the behalf of all the trout-lake enthusiasts and pioneers, of today and before, who got us to this point: Welcome to trout lakes, Christine! Now, armed with all your oodles, go find a shoal and hook some trout.