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How To Find Trout In Lakes

All that lake water and only 10% of it, usually much less, holds any trout! How do you find fish there?

lake view

Where do you start? Have a breakdown is a good idea – not the nervous kind – the geographic kind.

Trying to fish a lake as a whole, unless the lake was very small, would be a bit like trying to shoot an elephant with an air-gun. You could get lucky, very lucky, but chances are your efforts will not amount to much. Breaking the lake down into manageable bits will increase your chances of catching fish – and increase your knowledge on an incremental basis.

Lakes can be fished by just about all the methods of trout fishing – from land and from a boat – but regardless of what method, or combination of methods used, it is important to recognise that each area of a lake should be treated as unique from other areas.

What sets most of the water in a lake apart from the water in streams and rivers is that lakes have little discernible current, except close to where water enters and exits.

In still-waters trout must feed by actively pursuing or hunting their prey. In rivers and streams much of a trout's food is brought to it courtesy of currents.

This fact is key to deciding how to fish lakes, because much of what will work in rivers and streams does not work on lakes.

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Quick Definition

The terms ‘trolling’ and ‘harling’ are used interchangeably in some places and by some fishermen. Fact is they both mean exactly the same thing, except harling was derived from salmon fishing and trolling (sometimes ‘trailing’) from trout fishing. For the purposes of this book however I will use the terms in what seems to have become the usual in many places, including New Zealand.

Reefs, Points, and Drop-Offs

The deeper water in lakes is a challenge simply because there is so much of it!

The good news is that any bottom feature that changes the bottom contour – or shore feature that interrupts the bottom contours – often congregates feed for trout.

But there is some bad news – there is still a lot of water around these features – and even if the fish are in that general area, you still have to find fish within it, and at what depth the fish are holding.

The best methods for fishing the deeper areas of lakes are by jigging, trolling or harling and all three of these methods require that you know where the fish are, in terms of the area they are in and at what depth.

Sounder Advice

A sounder or fish-finder has become almost a necessity for successfully fishing the deeper areas of lakes.

Jig fishing, trolling or harling without a sounder is too much like fishing with Lotto-type odds. Sure you might stumble across some fish by fishing blind, but it is very hit and miss.

But a sounder is only of any use if it is being used to pinpoint fish – or bottom structure likely to hold fish – within the general areas where there are likely to be fish.

Recently I read an article in an American magazine where the author was championing the idea of banning the use of sounders for non-commercial fishers. His whole argument was based on the theory that sounders gave fishermen too much of an advantage.

Silly sausage! The writer had forgotten that a sounder is pretty much useless if the boat with the sounder on it is not in a place where there is a good chance of finding fish anyway.

To repeat myself - a sounder is no guarantee of success in finding fish.

Unless you have done the homework and studied the charts to determine the likely holding spots for fish, the sounder will show you nice pictures of the bottom and not a great deal else.

To further make the point, if you turned the sounder on when you left the mooring or boat-ramp and just motored out into the lake hoping to find some fish, it is unlikely you would find any fish, unless you get lucky.

As I have tried to emphasise, luck should be the smallest part of any planning in a fishing trip.

A sounder is at its most effective when you turn it on near likely fish-holding areas. If you have not identified likely fish-holding territory prior to the trip you may as well leave the sounder at home and fish any-old-where and hope you get lucky.

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A brief story on fish-finders.

At my tackle store, ‘Just Fishin’ in Auckland, New Zealand, we sold many hundreds of fish-finders over the ten years I owned the shop. I guess for every 25 or 30 sounders we sold we got one similar complaint.

“This sounder you sold me is no good. It shows lots of fish under the boat from the time I turn it on, but damned if we can hook any. The thing can't be accurate.”

So we took the customer over to the display rack, and on the same fish-finder as his, asked him if the fish on the screen on the display model matched what he was seeing.

Yep, you got it, they were driving around with the finder in Demo mode!

Reading the Lake

Big Rainbow trout in Lake Otamangakau

Careful study of Lake Otamangakau lead to this very big Rainbow for Guide Graham Dean's client.

The most successful fishermen I fish with are those who know from careful study the general areas where fish are likely to be and then use the sounder to pinpoint the finite target area. If you can lay your hands on charts of the lake's bottom you are way ahead. From these you can identify reefs, drop-offs, channels - a whole book-full of opportunities to begin a more definitive search.

Even if you cannot obtain underwater maps of the lake you are fishing, the lakeside terrain can provide some good clues to the likely underwater structure.

If the land around an area of a lake is low-lying and relatively flat it is likely this same structure continues into the lake. Shore-line structure can provide clues to bottom structure in the lake.

Steep cliffs dropping into the water are likely to continue down underwater. A rolling hill dropping into the water is likely to produce a rolling hill for some distance under the water.

Colour can provide good clues to underwater terrain – deep blue or green means deep water – lighter blue or green colour means shallower water. Colour changes are a great way of finding and following drop-offs. Of course in some lakes water clarity is such that you will be able to see underwater features.

more informationgraphicWeed and weed beds are another good indicator of water depth. This is covered in the section on fishing [weed beds].

Viva wet fly


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