When it comes to stillwater fly fishing, there is simply nothing more exciting than targeting fish in skinny water. It’s one thing to catch fish blind casting in the deep, but it’s an entirely different game when you can select your target before making a cast. With a well-presented fly, a fish will dial in on your offerings and chase it down before committing to it only feet from the boat. Once a fish is hooked in shallow water, the battle is usually nothing short of spectacular as the fish races to leave the shoal at an alarming rate of speed. If this scenario doesn’t excite you, then maybe it’s time to take up a new hobby.
Most aquatic insects live in relatively shallow water, as the sun’s rays must penetrate to the bottom for the vegetation and insects to thrive. Insects require vegetation and other forms of shelter to feed on and hide from predators. When fishing a lake for the first time, always start by scanning over the shoals in search of rises and cruising fish. Fortunately for anglers, trout are highly visible in shallow water when viewed through polarized glasses. When a few fish are spotted on a shoal, anchor the boat on the outside edge and wait for a fish to cruise by within casting distance. Sight fishing is an exciting way to pursue trout, but you should be aware that these fish are very wary and will leave the shoals when disturbed.
In early spring, trout go on a major feeding frenzy shortly after the ice leaves the lake. For this reason, always cover water from three to six feet deep when fishing lakes during the months of April and May. In mid to late spring, trout start to move around more as insects start hatching and more food options become available. In late afternoon, when the sun warms the water, the surface action usually comes to life. Most of our interior lakes get excellent sedge and mayfly hatches, which makes shoal fishing even more exciting. If trout are visible, rising and swirling in shallow water, it’s time to put on a dry fly and target these fish. Dry-fly fishing can be fast and furious as the fish race around to pick off the insects before they fly away. It is important to drop your fly in front of a rising fish as quick as possible and start moving the fly right away.
When covering cruising fish in skinny water, drop the fly at least 10 feet in front of the cruising fish and let them swim to the fly. If you cast over the fish, you will “line them” and the chase will be over as fast as it started.
A variety of different fly lines can be utilized to achieve success when covering fish in shallow water. My three favourite lines include a full floating line, a clear sink-tip line and a fast-sinking wet line. Clear sink-tip lines are considered intermediate sinking, which means the tip sinks at only one to two inches per second. With sink-tip lines, a leader from eight to 10 feet long works best, as it will assist in getting the fly in front of the cruising fish.
Floating lines are another great choice, as they are ideal for dry flies and any form of weighted fly patterns. Again, a leader more than eight feet long is required to cover the bottom efficiently.
Sinking lines also work well, as these lines can get your offerings in front of the fish much quicker than the other two options. My go-to skinny water line is a type 6 full sinking line, as it quickly descends to the bottom where it can lay in the sand waiting for the fish to swim closer. When fish are within a few feet of my fly, I start stripping quickly to draw attention to my offerings. Popular flies to use with a quick-sinking wet line include dragon nymphs, leeches and attractor patterns. Flies tied with deer hair or foam are also productive, as the buoyancy allows them to remain just off the bottom without snagging up. Productive flies to use when covering the shoals with the other two lines include shrimp, dragons, damsels, water boatman and leeches, as these insects are all present on the shoals year-round.
To make this style of fishing work, first and foremost you must have a clear, wind-free day with the sun high in the sky. If it is overcast or the surface is broken, it can be difficult to spot the fish and sight fishing will not be possible.
Next time you arrive on the shoreline of your favourite lake, spend a little time visually scanning over the skinny water before heading out. If you spot fish on the shoals, spend a little time working them over; the reward can be well worth your time.