Finding Fish

Where to start when fishing on an unfamiliar lake

Upon arrival at an unfamiliar lake, a variety of questions must be answered to make the fishing trip a successful one. While doing a visual scan over the lake, we always wonder if the fish are going to be down deep, on the shoals or right up on the surface feeding on emerging insects. Many times, these questions can only be answered once a little time has been put in on the water. If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that two trips are seldom alike. In fact, it is very seldom that two days play out in the same manner when it comes to stillwater fishing. In the broad scheme of things, this is what makes this sport so exciting, as it keeps us anglers on our toes.


A little research before heading out on a new lake will go a long way to getting fish in the boat. Check the water’s edge to see what kind of insects live there.
A little research before heading out on a new lake will go a long way to getting fish in the boat. Check the water’s edge to see what kind of insects live there.

Exploring The Shoreline

Once at the lake, a little groundwork must be completed before heading out on the water. First and foremost, it is important to find out what insects inhabit the lake you are about to fish. This information is useful, as insects differ in size, shape and colour from lake to lake. Insects like dragonfly nymphs can live in the nymphal stage for up to four years, they can also differ in size depending on the time of year you are fishing the lake. The first thing I do when arriving at any lake is explore the water’s edge in search of aquatic insects. Exploring a shoreline only takes a few minutes and the information gathered will come in handy when selecting a fly pattern to start with. With a small aquarium net and small clear container in hand, look under rocks, logs and decomposing weeds where insects seek out shelter. While observing the insects, also watch closely to how they swim and wiggle, as we can mimic that movement while retrieving our flies back to the boat. For example, when using a shrimp imitation, a short, choppy retrieve works well since this is how shrimp naturally swim. The most common insects you will find along the shorelines are dragonfly nymphs, damselfly nymphs, leeches and shrimp, as these insects are in most lakes year-round. While exploring, also look for insect shucks from recent hatches. These shucks are often found on bullrushes and bushes along the edges of the lake and they will help you determine the overall size and shape of the insect. Once our lines are in the water, the closer our flies are to the real thing, the better the odds we have of convincing the fish that our offering is worth eating. Exploring the shoreline is a good habit to get into, as it will make you a more successful angler overall. Once all the exploration is complete, it’s time to hit the water and apply the knowledge you just gathered.

Searching For Fish

Being able to read a lake is an essential part of locating fish within a timely manner. As an average fishing trip is only a couple of days, dialing in on where the fish are holding should not take more than a couple of hours at best. It’s simple math — the sooner we find the fish, the more we will land by the end of the trip. Some anglers feel that fish can be found anywhere in the lake at any given time. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case, as fish tend to hang out in specific areas based on food sources. Over the years, I have come to realize that fish inhabit a relatively small part of any lake. As anglers, we must concentrate our efforts where the fish congregate and eliminate the areas that do not hold many fish. Learning when and where the fish are at any given time is exciting for anglers of all skill levels, as it is a rewarding feeling when a fish is hooked.


Being able to land a fish on a new lake is a great feeling, and it’ll bring you back for more.
Being able to land a fish on a new lake is a great feeling, and it’ll bring you back for more.

While sitting on a lake watching other anglers, I am always surprised when I see trollers out in the middle of a lake where the water is often very deep. The occasional fish might be hooked in these depths, but the odds are simply not good, as fish are most often found in depths of under 30 feet. While fishing, always observe other anglers to see if they are having success; this will help determine where the fish are holding. If they are trolling fast and hooking fish, then chances are the fish are close to the surface; and if they are trolling slow, then the fish are often holding down deep. I always say do not be afraid to ask how other anglers are doing, since their success can often help you achieve success. The easiest way to fish a lake for the first time is start in shallow and gradually work your way out into deeper water. By doing this, you will be able to locate fish regardless on the depth they are feeding in.

Covering The Shallow Water

Most aquatic insects live in relatively shallow water, as the sun’s rays must penetrate to the lake’s bottom for the vegetation and insects to grow. Insects require vegetation and other forms of cover to feed on and hide from predators.


When fishing a lake for the first time, start by looking over the shoals for cruising fish. The reason for this is simple: trout are easily visible in shallow water when viewed through polarized glasses. Once a few fish are spotted cruising on a shoal, simply drop an anchor and start working them over. Sight fishing is the most exciting way to pursue any species of fish, as you can see the target prior to taking a cast. This type of fishing is cherished by many anglers, since you can often watch the fish chase after your fly before committing to it.

Rainbow trout.

In early spring, trout go on a major feeding frenzy shortly after the ice leaves the lake. The most productive depth to fish during this time is in water less than six feet deep. When covering skinny water, drop the fly at least 10 feet in front of the cruising fish and let them come to the fly. If you try to cast too close, they will spook and leave the shoal at an alarming rate. When covering fish in shallow water, always use a full floating or clear sink-tip line. Clear sink-tip lines are considered intermediate sinking, which means they only sink at only one to two inches per second. Full sinking lines are not recommended because they will sink too quickly, hanging up your fly before the retrieve is complete. There is one exception though, a full sinking line can be used if the fly floats, as it will stay above the bottom due to its bouncy. When anglers use this technique, they often use flies tied with deer hair or foam.

When targeting trout in shallow water, try to refrain from bumping around in the boat if possible and keep a lower profile by staying seated. These fish are wary and spook easily.

In mid to late spring, trout start to move around more as insects start hatching and more food options become available. Always keep your eyes peeled for surface insects, rises and birds picking off the emerging insects. Our interior lakes receive excellent mayfly, sedge and chironomid hatches; therefore, I always have a dry fly rod ready to go. When a hatch occurs, you need to be ready, as often they last less than an hour. As the sun climbs higher in the sky, trout tend to move further out on the shoals, seeking deeper water. Positioning the boat with two anchors along the outside of the shoal can be productive, since a variety of depths can be covered using different fly lines.

It pays to have several rods already rigged up for fishing a new lake, that way you won’t waste time switching gear to find what works.
It pays to have several rods already rigged up for fishing a new lake, that way you won’t waste time switching gear to find what works.

Productive flies to use when covering the shoals include shrimp, dragons, damsels, chironomids and leeches. If it does not look like the fish are feeding, then try attractor patterns, including wooly buggers, Carey Specials and bright orange booby patterns. These flies will often anger a fish into taking when retrieved quickly. Whatever fly you use, always use leaders in excess of nine feet when targeting fish in shallow water.

Covering The Depths

When the sun climbs higher in the sky, it’s time to cover deeper water to see where the fish are holding. Fortunately for anglers, there is an excellent selection of sinking lines on the market to help us to cover any desired depth. Sinking lines are rated from intermediate to a type 7 that sinks at roughly seven inches per second. My personal favourite line when searching for fish in deeper water is a type 6, as it sinks at six inches per second, which makes for easy math when doing the count down in my head. In other words, when fishing in 15 feet of water, I would count to 30 to put my fly right on the bottom. The key is to always remember what depth you are at so you can cover it again once a fish is landed.

When covering deeper water, always anchor crossways along the outside edge of a shoal so you can cover the entire transition. By doing this, you can quickly determine what depth the fish are holding at. Somewhere from the outside edge of the shoal to 30 feet deep, you will intercept the fish.

Over the years, the popularity of strike indicators has exploded. You now see more stillwater anglers using them than not. The main reason for this is simple: indicators do an excellent job of keeping your fly in front of the fish, regardless of depth. In the beginning, indicators were solely used for chironomid fishing, but now they are used for all insects, including micro-leeches, shrimp, mayfly nymphs, bloodworms and any small, weighted patterns. In the past, indicators were more commonly used in depths under 10 feet deep, but now I see many anglers using them to fish for trout in depths to 20 feet. This type of fishing is not for everyone, but there is no denying it is a productive way to fish.

Trolling To Locate Fish

Trolling is an excellent way to locate fish in an unfamiliar body of water because you can cover a lot of water in a short time. With the use of oars or an electric motor, it is easy to troll along the shoreline or edge of a shoal in search of fish. Many anglers start the day trolling and when they see fish in an area, they drop anchor and start casting. While trolling, do not get discouraged if the fly drags on the bottom on occasion, this simply means your offerings are getting down to where the fish feed. Never go more than 15 minutes without stripping in the line and checking that everything is tracking properly. The last thing you want to do is troll by a school of fish with weeds on the hook.

The most productive way to troll a lake is simply following the outside edge of a transition. Transitions are easily identifiable in most interior lakes, as the colour changes from a light to dark green as the water gets deeper. In clear lakes, transitions stand out, but they are not as visible in tea-coloured lakes or on overcast days. If the transitions are not visible, a fish-finder will help identify the edge of the shoals.

Transitions are easily identifiable in most interior lakes, as the colour changes from a light to dark green as the water gets deeper.
Transitions are easily identifiable in most interior lakes, as the colour changes from a light to dark green as the water gets deeper.

When trolling in search of fish, varying the speed of the boat will help locate fish quicker. When I use an electric motor, I seldom troll faster than the motor’s slowest setting. In fact, I often turn the motor off for a few seconds, allowing the fly to sink deeper in the water column. Again, remember what speed you were trolling at when you got a strike, as it will help determine exactly what depth the fish are holding in and you can go back to it once a fish is landed. The ideal trolling outfit would be a six-weight rod and reel combo, with a medium to fast-sinking wet line spooled up. I usually let out most of the fly line on the reel, so the fly gets as far away from the boat as possible. As for fly selection, larger flies generally work best, as the odds on the fish finding it are greater. Some of the more popular trolling flies include dragon nymphs, leeches and damselfly nymphs. In the attractor world, Doc Spratleys, Carey Specials and woolly buggers are always a good bet.

Getting All Geared Up

This may sound a little extreme, but I often arrive at a lake with as many as eight rods set up and ready to go. On the outfits are the most popular insects for the area set, which I can change throughout the day if desired. My logic on this is simple: when I want to try a different insect in a specific area of a lake, I simply grab a different rod and I am back fishing in under a minute. At the end of the day, my flies spend twice as much time in front of fish compared to an angler that is constantly changing flies all the time. I also find that having more rod options at hand results in more experimenting with flies, as I do not have to search for snippers, glasses, flies and tippet material every time I want to try something different.

To help determine what the fish are feeding on at any given time, many anglers utilize a throat pump. With a fish upside down in the net, gently extract the contents of the throat to see what the fish was recently feeding on. Throat pumps are commonly used by chironomid anglers, as there are over 1,000 different varieties of chironomids in our interior lakes. Matching the size, shape and colour can make the difference between having an OK day and a great day on the water. When it comes to flies, obviously the larger the selection you have the better your odds on matching a hatch. Without going too overboard, make sure you always arrive at any lake with a good variety of imitations covering all interior insects. Also make sure you have at least a half dozen of the popular ones, as you really do not want to run out while sitting in the middle of nowhere.

Next time you arrive at an unfamiliar lake, remember to do a little shoreline exploration prior to hitting the water. The time spent will be well worth it when trying to figure out what the fish are feeding on.