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Fly Fishing From Shore
A still water fly angler has an excellent chance at catching good trout from shore. While not always the optimal choice, by wisely choosing your time on the water and the lake itself, you will enjoy your fly fishing and maximize shoreline opportunities.
Why: During certain times of the year, lakes are very productive when fished from shore. Spring and fall are obvious examples, as water temperatures are most hospitable in the shallows around the margins. During these seasons, a fly fisher has good access to fish holding water, assuming the lake offers decent access and casting from shore.
Secondly, reliance on a boat is sometimes a limiting factor. Many still waters are simply too small for a boat, and kicking around aimlessly in a float tube usually does more harm than good on small lakes and ponds. On others, boats and floatation devices are simply banned. Short trips to the pond also become complicated, and rigging and launching a boat cuts into your fishing time. Sometimes it’s best to just leave the boat at home.
Lastly, a person new to fly fishing may not want to invest hundreds of dollars just to get into a float tube or pontoon boat setup. It makes sense for new anglers to get the best fishing possible while remaining on the shore of the lake, learning how to fly fish while keeping the bank account in the black.
When: In early spring, trout are sluggish after a long, cold winter.
The open water along shore warms slightly through the day as it is exposed to the sun. Accordingly, I purposely fish certain venues off the bank in early spring. If there is ice-free holding water near shore and decent casting, I’ll fish off the bank before taking the boat out. For better or worse, the lack of open water eliminates the guesswork on where to fish.
Food items, such as bloodworms, leeches, shrimp or minnows, will be active in the warmer, exposed water, so in general this portion of the lake is just more alive than ice-covered parts during the same time. Also of note should be a trout’s propensity to use ice edges as overhead cover, and fishing close to them can be productive.
After ice out and turnover, many lakes and ponds still have trout reachable by the shore-bound fly fisher. It may take some legwork to uncover waters that have accessible depths of six to 12 feet, which are ideal for trout. Casting room is needed, and the banks need to be stable and safe for walking. This sounds like a tall order, but around my home in Edmonton we have several perfectly viable shore fisheries that can be productive all season long. I suspect that other areas in the west are just as fortunate.
Morning is the best time to fish off shore during summer, on low elevation lakes. It has been my experience that trout will be cruising the margins at first light, probably being in these locations after a night of feeding in the shallows.
If you choose your spots carefully, you can hunt individual, cruising trout in a couple feet of water. A dry fly with a nymph dropper, or simply a small nymph or two, can work well when targeting individual trout in these conditions. For the best sighting, keep the sun at your back and try to stay a few feet above the water.
Late fall is another prime time to hit trout ponds and lakes from the shore. With cool air temperatures, water conditions will improve for trout. Sight fishing is possible at this time of year, but most of my fall trout succumb to searching techniques. Shallow water is productive again, and most of my best fall fish come from only two to eight feet of water.
Where: To generalize, most of my small pond trout fishing is done off shore. It is usually not difficult to reach holding water, as they tend to drop off quickly, and the small size of the water allows me to reach enough prime water to make my time on the lake productive. Where I live in Alberta, our trout ponds are usually man-made productions and are devoid of many trees and bushes that can hinder shoreline casting. These ponds are extremely common, too, from provincial waters, to game club ponds, to private prairie dugouts holding thick rainbows.
Even small ponds have given up surprisingly big trout, if they are capable of overwintering. Don’t write off a pond because of its size!
Some larger still waters are also fishable from shore. For example, lots of fishermen in southern Alberta migrate to Bullshead Reservoir each spring, and while I’ve never seen the spectacle myself, platoons of fishermen apparently incite a lot of carnage by fishing off shore and wading the shallows, regardless of the fact that the lake itself is over 140 acres and reasonably large by Alberta trout lake standards.
The other obvious examples of prime shoreline locations are alpine or high altitude lakes. With the only other alternative being to lug a belly boat a few kilometres up a mountain, it will probably come as a relief to know that most of my best alpine fishing has come from wade-fishing or fishing off shore. The deep water in the centre of the lake is sterile, too cold for trout and too expansive to effectively cover the relatively few fish in the lake. Fishers are better off targeting prime water along shore. Methodically fishing the shoreline or sighting for cruisers is more productive than mindlessly kicking around the middle of the lake.
How: As far as techniques are concerned, shore-bound anglers should be using the basics but with tweaks in rigging and presentation to provide more consistent sport. In my experience, it’s hard to beat using a couple flies below an indicator, a pair of flies fished slowly off a floating line or pulling a leech or streamer on an intermediate sink line.
In the early spring, I move my flies only enough to keep the line tight, adding the odd brisk pull. The water is cold and the trout are lethargic, so you can’t expect them to chase quickly moving flies. In these situations, I typically use two flies and an indicator, usually a small leech and a shrimp under a corkie or light yarn indicator – the latter especially in calm conditions. This allows me to adjust the flies’ depths, keeping them in the strike zone without needing to retrieve them quickly.
I may also use lightly weighted flies on a floating or intermediate line. If I were to use a fast sinking line or really heavy flies, I would be snagging bottom for much of the retrieve, as I’m fishing shallow parts of the lake in most situations.
If I see tailing trout, though, I’ll use no indicator, because the trout are rooting around in the lake bottom looking for food. Tailing trout are tilted downwards, so you can see the tail periodically break the surface. In these situations I want my flies right on the bottom, because that’s where the trout are looking. Many people use indicators for all their sunken fly, floating line work, but a long leader and floating line with no indicator is a great tactic in shallow water and sight fishing situations, as it avoids heavy splashes on the surface that do little but scare shallow-water trout. Lightweight flies such as Hares Ear nymphs can be deadly in these situations.
During summer, if I can locate the drop off, I’ll try to wind drift my patterns along it. I’ll get a long drift by casting at a slight angle across the wind – this keeps my flies active and in the zone I believe the fish are in. Casting directly up wind moves the fly quickly, which can be good for finding the fish. Casting either more or less steeply across the wind can help you control the speed of your drift, once you’ve found them. For example, on windy days, I’ll cast less across the wind and more with it.
I make a habit out of fishing the windward side of the lake. The wind pushes food in the surface film towards the bank on this side of the lake, and while casting can become more difficult, it’s worth the trade off. But what if the wind is blowing exceptionally bad that day? A heavy fly on the point – the furthest fly on the leader – will help to anchor the leader in the water by sinking deeper and providing more drag. This can slow the drift quite substantially in a moderate wind. If the wind is exceptional, I’ll use a slow sinking, intermediate line that dips beneath the waves and eliminates wind drag.
During fall, when leeches and scuds reign supreme, I usually use a floating line and indicator. Notice the trend? Suspend the point fly just above the lakebed weeds in two to eight feet of water. The takes are often very light, and an indicator will register subtle takes.
A notable exception is when backswimmers are active, as a slow sinking line and floating backswimmer pattern will get a lot of action, and is a must-use technique.
Lastly, I like a hanging dropper when using additional flies. Tie a triple surgeon’s knot, leaving a long tag on the end of the knot leading towards the tippet, or attach a sliding dropper by slip-knotting your dropper line above the tippet knot using a perfection loop. The hanging dropper allows each fly to move freely, as it is on its own seven to nine-inch piece of tippet and is not being influenced by other flies on the cast. For the best fly action, I favour a non-slip loop knot to attach my flies to tippet. I try and keep my flies three to five-feet apart to cover various depths.
What: Gear is a relatively personal matter, but a few considerations should be made if you plan on doing a fair amount of fly fishing off the bank.
First, your rod should likely be heavier than what I usually see being used on area trout lakes. I favour a quick-action, six or seven-weight of 9.5 feet in length for still water work. The heavier weight and slightly longer length allows me to cast further – to cover as many fish as possible – as well as easily carry multiple flies in the air and cast into a prairie wind. These are serious considerations if you are limited to the bank, where versatility is key. I use a four or five weight if I’m stalking, dry fly or alpine fishing, but I also appreciate that this limits my options as far as techniques and locations are concerned.
I use, almost exclusively, weight forward lines on still waters. I prefer a line with a short front taper, so it can easily turn over a long leader and cut through wind. For sinking line work, I’d be sure to have an intermediate and maybe a type three or four for certain, deep waters. You can also use sinking poly leaders as impromptu sink tips.
I prefer Rio fly lines, as the durability, slickness and tapers are excellent. Leaders are simple for me: I use six or eight-pound Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon as my main leader material, for sunk fly work, as a short butt section of heavier leader material helps turn over a long tippet. This type of level leader is a bit tough to cast, but sinks evenly because of the consistent diameter, giving me more control over the flies.
You should also have a landing net, preferably a long handled one. I hope you’ll need it.
10 Essential Flies
No. 8-12 Beadhead Mohair Leeches or Woolly Buggers (brown, maroon, black, olive)
No. 8-16 Chironomids (black, brown, olive, maroon, silver)
No. 12-20 Pheasant Tail Nymphs (some with bead heads, others without)
No. 8-14 Backswimmers/Water Boatmen
No. 10-16 Elk Hair Caddis (brown)
No. 10-18 Parachute Adams
No. 8-12 Dave’s Hopper
No. 10-14 Baggy Shrimp (grey, olive)
No. 6-10 Dragonfly Nymph
No. 10-14 Stillwater Nymph
Essential Shoreline Gear
Cap/wide brimmed hat
9-inch to 10-inch No. 5-8 fly rod
Weight forward floating line
Intermediate sinking line
Six to eight-pound fluorocarbon for sunk-fly tippet material
Long-handled landing net with knotless cotton or rubber mesh
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