How to Fly Fish on a Lake

It’s hard to beat a crystal-clear alpine lake as a base for relaxation and calm fly fishing.

But whether it’s a glassy Rocky Mountain tarn or a vegetation-filled reservoir, you’ll need different gear and skills for fly fishing in a lake than you would for fishing in either big rivers or small streams. 

Gear for Casting

Lake fishing typically involves longer casts and the room to make them, so size up to a 4- to 7-weight, 9-foot-6-inch or 10-foot rod. Longer rods can also be helpful on a boat, allowing you to “steer” a fish around motors, oars, or other obstructions. 

In the evenings, think about tossing dry flies with long leaders. That’s when lake fish are typically rising, and longer leaders counteract fish that can take longer to study your flies in still water. During the day, fish with nymphs closer to shore and in the weeds. 

While waders can help get you clear of shoreline vegetation, having a craft opens up a lot more water to fishing. Think about how you might be able to use a canoe, kayak, packraft or float tube (U-shaped inner tube seats that keep you mostly out of the water, using fins on your feet to move). 

a man fly fishing, close up on fishing rod

Where and When To Look

The features in lakes that attract and hold fish aren’t as obvious as they might be in a river or stream with current, but anglers should look for certain markers. Spots with vegetation (and a change in the thickness of vegetation) indicate more oxygen in the water and more cover from prey. Logs, rocks, or other solid structures are also worth your attention. For manmade lakes like reservoirs, natural structures might be harder to find. Instead, look for drop-offs and ledges, which are often farther out. Many reservoirs have available depth maps worth tracking down that show some of these features. 

Lake fish are more likely to feed at night when they have greater cover, so the evenings and mornings are when you’re most likely to see fish rising and taking dry flies. If you would prefer to fish during the day, pick a day after an evening with no moon. Fish rely on moonlight to find insects and will be more willing to feed in daylight hours after a dark night. During the day, look to shaded zones and vegetation, which provide more cover and comfort for the fish. 

Finally, look for inlets and outlets. Any movement in the water increases its oxygenation and makes it a more preferable fish habitat. Inlets can also be cooler than the main body of the lake, which fish like trout enjoy. Each species of fish has its own preferred temperature range, so keep an eye on the lake’s air and water temperatures—and its depth. You may need to get your fly deeper some days for certain fish.

Lake Visibility

While calm days with gin-clear water make for incredible scenery, easy wading, and exciting fish-spotting, they might not be best for actual fishing in lakes and ponds. Too much water clarity can make vulnerable fish that spook easily. You’ll need to be more careful, keep a greater distance, watch the location of your shadow, plus use longer leaders, more accurate flies, and more delicate casts. 

On the other hand, cloudy days are ideal: Shadows are hard to come by, water clarity is reduced, and fish are feeling more secure, on the hunt for their next meal. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.