In 1981, the movie ‘On Golden Pond’ found one of it’s main characters, Norman Thayer, bragging about an illusive lunker trout in the lake that his New England country home looked out upon.
That big Rainbow always seemed to elude the old man but Norman’s grandson Billy Ray finally caught that big fish before the summer was up. The trout was affectionately named Walter, and Walter is exactly what most of us are after when we head out in search of stillwater trout.
A lot of cities and towns throughout Canada and the U.S. can find trout lakes and ponds fairly close to home. You may be fortunate enough to live close to some self-sustaining trout lakes but for most of us, the lakes we fish are stocked annually by our provincial or state governments.
Although newly stocked trout (stockers) are fairly easy to catch, many anglers report that the larger trout –the Walters- in these stillwater fisheries are hard to find and not as cooperative as they should be. Or maybe it’s that the average fly angler doesn’t know where to look. To achieve positive results, reading the water on a lake is a secret best discovered sooner than later and knowing where big trout are holding or at least where they should be holding really is half the battle. Reading stillwater fisheries can be intimidating but like anything, practice makes perfect and lake fly anglers can learn where the high probability and prime holding areas are in the stillwater’s they fish. So how do you read a lake where there are no obvious fast riffles, deep runs or fish-holding boulders?
There may be no obvious structure like in a stream, but there is structure even if it is in a different form. A prime lie in a stream would be considered anywhere that the trout can find food, shelter from predators and suitable levels of oxygen (comfort zone). These are the three basic necessities of trout and the same needs must be met in a lake or pond. One primary difference between streams and lakes is that trout in streams tend to hold in one place waiting for food to come to them. However, in lakes, trout cruise around looking for food in specific, prime areas, and these are the places you’ll want to concentrate on. Stillwater trout search for most of their food at the drop-offs and shoal areas. But what are drop-offs, what are shoals and how does a lake fly angler find them?
A drop-off is the part of the lake bottom that, well, like the name implies, drops off. From the shoreline to the drop-off, you will find a shallow area known as the shoal. Usually somewhat weedy, the shoal is home to many insects like chironomids, dragonfly nymphs and damselfly nymphs as well as aquatic life including Scuds, minnows and leeches. Trout swim up from the drop-off, feed on the shoal and drop back down again. According to the depth of water, amount of light, how warm the water is and how much weed cover a trout has on the shoal will usually dictate when and how much time a trout will spend in the shoal area. The shoal is usually quite shallow making it to easy for predators, like osprey, to see trout. And trout being as cautious as they are will not stay on the shoal for long. During the day, trout usually make quick trips onto the shoal then drop back down the drop-off. The water in the shoal area can also be very warm and uncomfortable for the trout, which also make trips to the shoal brief. It’s in the evening, throughout the night and early mornings as well as cool overcast days we'll see trout spending more time in these shoal areas feeding. Autumn also sees trout spending more time on the shoals fattening up for winter. And early spring after ice-out will see trout in these shallow areas, as the water in the shoal area will warm up faster increasing insect activity quicker than in the deeper, colder sections of the lake. Sometimes when there is a lot of insect activity like the late spring damselfly migration, the trout may throw caution to the wind and hang on the shoal feeding for long periods of time even on bright, sunny, warm days. The shoal and drop-off transition is an important structure for fish—and for anglers.
Aquatic insects and small forage fish will frequently move near or beyond the drop-off area making easy meals for searching trout. This is what I like to refer to as the ‘Strike Zone’ and it’s where you’ll get most of your strikes and hook-ups on your flies. Anglers fishing these structures are best to get their presentation right down to where the trout are feeding in this transition area. Weed beds are another important structure for fish and anglers. Like the weed cover we see in the shoal areas, mid-lake weed beds also hold insects and aquatic life forms and give good cover to cruising trout. Anglers will often find large numbers of trout at anytime of day searching for food here even when the water is quite warm. You can find weed beds in many different areas of a stillwater fishery, many times right in the middle of the lake. Mid-lake weed beds usually grow on humps where the water is relatively shallow, quite often giving us smaller drop-offs to fish. Some weed beds can be seen from the surface and some are sub surface. You can have unbelievable catch rates by concentrating on this structure alone. Leech, damselfly nymph and many dry fly patterns work incredibly well when casting around the edges, directly into or overtop of these weed beds. Several presentations will work here and experimenting with floating and sinking lines will be the key to success.
Another structure that is highly overlooked when stillwater fishing is along the shoreline. Many aquatic life forms are found very close to the shoreline in shallow water including water boatmen, scuds and leeches. Although you will find these life forms throughout the lake, concentrations will be much higher closer to the shorelines. In low light conditions trout will be less cautious and feed in these areas due to the vast number of bugs here. It’s not uncommon to arrive at a body of water at first light and see trout swirling only a few feet away from the shore. On windy days, it’s in the angler’s best interest to head over to the shoreline being pounded by the wind driven waves. These waves will not only give the trout a choppy cover from predators but will also stir up insects from the bottom and force then into these shorelines. A floating line or a slow sinking line will produce well along shorelines while keeping your fly from consistently picking up weeds and debris.
The deeper sections of a lake will also see big trout. On hot summer days you’ll find trout moving deeper where conditions are cooler and more oxygen rich, feeding on bloodworm, chironomid pupa, dragonfly nymphs and other aquatic life forms but oxygen levels usually dictate how deep fish will hold. A section of a lake may be 50 feet deep but trout may only hold as far as thirty feet if the water below that depth is anoxic (oxygen lacking - Ed.). A full sink line or a floating line with a long leader, strike indicator and a weighted fly will do you well in these deeper waters. Finding out what depth the trout are holding at will be the key to success here so experimenting with your presentation is very important. When fishing deeper water, try changing depths up the water column one foot at a time until you find the strike zone.
The biggest problem angler’s seem to have while trying to find structure is seeing it. Of course you can’t see a lot of structure when it’s underwater, or how deep the section of water is that you may be fishing. The shoreline of a lake however, can give away some secrets about what’s under the surface. Try and study the contour of the shoreline. These land features often continue below the water. A steep bank at the shoreline usually means a quick drop-off and a very flat shoreline usually continues on that way well below the surface. Also look for clusters of stumps, downed logs, brush piles, river and creek mouths or other signs that may look like fishy hangouts. Try getting a hold of some depth charts or hydrographic maps of the lake you wish to fish as these maps can either confirm or contest what the shoreline is telling you and will also give you an idea where you can find deep holes, underwater humps, shallow flats and old river or creek channels. Also consider purchasing a fish finder or depth finder. These units are great for finding depth and bottom structure in a lake and can easily be attached to your float tube or pontoon boat with a homemade or commercially available bracket kit. The small gel cell batteries needed to power these units will easily fit in the storage pockets on your tube and there is no need to get anything expensive, as even the cheapest units will have the two most important features, depth and bottom structure.
Prairie pothole Lakes - It’s important to note here that in many prairie pothole lakes there may not be a drop-off making the lake more like one big shoal. These prairie potholes may gradually drop down as deep as twenty feet or even more but don’t actually offer a transition from shoal to drop-off. If you find yourself fishing a lake like this it’s important to concentrate your efforts on other structures. Prairie pothole lakes are usually very fertile meaning lots of plant life and insect activity, which can produce some very big trout but because most of these lakes tend to have both a lack of depth and surface area, winterkill and summerkill are quite common. As of late, aeration in Alberta prairie pothole lakes is becoming popular and some angler research as to what lakes are hosting these aerators and what lakes will be coming on line next will be beneficial. These new project lakes also tend to have special regulations giving anglers higher catch rates and a greater opportunity at catching Walter.
Alpine Lakes - High mountain lakes are known for gin clear water, this means a stealthy approach is important. Float Tubes and Pontoon boats are both advantageous but good results can come from a rowboat as well. Fish tend to be a little more skittish in these mountain lakes due to this clear water as well as the lack of bottom vegetation compared to the lower mainland and prairie pothole lakes but because of this crystal clear water, sight fishing is an exciting bonus. Rocks and sunken logs or other structures that may provide protection for the trout are places to concentrate here in early mornings and evenings. Drop-offs will do you well during the heat of the day.
Like stream fishing, reading the water and knowing where the fish are holding is half the battle. Being able to read a lake will at the very least have you fishing in the high probability areas and in no time you to will be pulling in Walter at your favorite fishin’ hole.
Copyright © 2002-2010 Mike Monteith
About the author
Mike (Doc) Monteith is the owner/guide of AlbertaStillwaters.Com, owner of the information web site Fly Fishing Edmonton and owner/administrator of the Alberta Fly Fishing Forum.