Presentations for Lakes

By Scott Richmond

What's Covered in this Article

Basic fly fishing presentations for lakes are summarized here. These are not, of course, the only presentations for lakes, but they are the bread-and-butter ones that you'll use most often.

One factor is common to all the presentations described here: keep the slack out of your line. If you don't, you'll miss many fish because the take in a lake is often subtle. If you have slack line, a big trout could inhale your fly, decide it's a fake, and spit it out--and you won't have a clue it happened. To keep the slack out, place your rod close to the water, maybe even in it. Often, the top few inches of my rod are underwater. But it's never more than an inch or two above it. Then I watch my line to make sure wind and current have not worked some slack into it.



This presentation's most important elements are achieving the optimum depth and having the most attractive retrieve; these are even more crucial then your fly choice.

To achieve the correct depth, use a sink-tip line or a full-sinking line. Cast the fly, then count until the fly reaches the proper depth, then begin your retrieve in one of the ways described below.

What should you count to? Count to whatever depth you catch fish at. If you start hooking bottom or picking up weeds, your fly has dropped too far and you should count down a little less. Vary the depth until you find what works. Note: you will rarely find feeding fish more than eight feet below the surface.

Being able to count in a consistent way is important. Most people count slowly when nothing is happening and they're bored. Then they pick up the pace when they think there's a big fish around. A "ten second" count might take 20 seconds when they're bored, and five seconds when they're excited. That's why I wear a waterproof watch when I fish in lakes (it's the only time I wear a watch, actually). With the watch, I always know exactly how long my fly has been sinking. Then if I find the magic depth I can reliably reach it again--regardless of how stirred-up I am.

Keep in mind that your sinking line will continue to sink: if your retrieve is slow, the line may sink beyond the depth where fish are actively feeding. There is a balance between the sink-rate of the line and the speed of the retrieve.

The speed and method of retrieving is the other crucial factor in this presentation. Generally, the retrieve should match the movements of the natural food you are imitating. While these food forms can move in ways other than what is described here --and while there's no denying that unnatural retrieves can catch fish, too--these retrieves are good starting points.

  1. Damselfly nymmphs. Move about 18 inches of line in about three seconds, then pause about three seconds before doing it again.
  2. Dragonfly nymphs. Strip-in 2-6 inches of line in one second, then pause briefly before doing it again.
  3. Leeches. Strip-in 24 inches of line in about two seconds, then pause about two seconds before the next strip. When pursued, leeches can move much faster, so sometimes a quick retrieve of a leech pattern will make a trout think the leech is being chased and he'd better munch it before another trout gets it.
  4. Scuds. Short, slow, erratic strips.

Other retrieves are:

  1. Slow retrieve. I think this is so important that it gets a separate description; see the next section.
  2. Pull, then pause. With most small nymphs, a four-inch pull followed by a short pause works well. With larger flies, use a longer pull--up to 24 inches--followed by a pause.
  3. Short and rapid. Staccato two-inch pulls with a barely perceptible pause between each pull can be very effective in some situations.
  4. Hand twist. The goal is a slow, steady motion of the fly. You pull line slowly while twisting your hand first one way, then the other. Don't let the line wrap around your hand; when a big fish grabs your fly, the line needs to be free of restrictions.
  5. Fast. Sometimes a super fast retrieve is the only thing that will induce a strike. I've gone so far as to clench the rod to my body with my left arm and use both hands--alternately--to strip line as fast as I can make my hands move.

If you're not hooking fish, and another angler is doing quite well, then watch the other angler's hands when he's retrieving his fly. Duplicate the hand motion, and you will duplicate the retrieve.


Slow retrieve

A very slow retrieve of a nymph or pupa just under the surface can be very effective. Sometimes it imitates the behavior of emerging insects, while at other times it may just focus a trout's attention on your fly.

Use a floating or intermediate line, and an unweighted or lightly-weighted fly. Make sure the fly pierces the surface film. Retrieve very slowly-about an inch or two of line each second. I have a rule about slow retrieves: if it isn't driving me nuts, it's too fast.

Slow retrieves of midge pupae and Callibaetis nymphs such as the Flashback Callibaetis can be deadly in lakes. It can also work wonders when fishing leeches, Woolly Buggers, and damselfly nymphs.

During slow retrieves, most strikes will be subtle and will feel like a slight hesitation or stickiness. If you feel this, tighten up slightly by pulling line in with your free hand; don't strike hard by raising the rod! The reason for striking subtly is that the hesitation may not have been a fish, and if you strike too hard you will rip the line through the water and probably spook whatever trout may be around.


Static Midge Pupa

Midge pupae are very important in lakes. They often hatch at dusk, and fish will begin to rise, taking the tiny midge pupae and ignoring your big dry fly or streamer. When this happens, keep a stiff upper lip and tie on a midge pupa. Use a floating line.

Ideally, your fly should break the lake's surface film and hang vertically just below the surface. Dressing the leader with floatant to within a few inches of the fly can help prevent the fly from sinking too deep.

Cast the fly to an area of feeding trout. Then let it sit. And sit. And sit.

While you're sitting waiting for something to happen, wisps of wind or current may create slack in your line. This isn't good because when a trout takes your fly you will need to quickly tighten on it. So carefully manage your fly line to minimize slack. Ideally your fly should not move when you take up slack; good luck with that.

On the other hand, wind and current may keep your line tight, but the fly may be dragging unnaturally. This can be hard to detect, and there is no panacea for the problem or its detection. Just be aware that it may be happening, and throw a little slack into the line if needed.

Trout usually take midge pupae with a leisurely sip or head-and-tail rise. This can be subtle and hard to detect--just a gradual tightening of the line or a swirl near your fly. If you think you have grab, strike by pulling in line with your free hand; if you've managed your slack as described above, this should be easy. If you feel no resistance, relax and let the fly settle again. Don't strike by raising the rod; it's very common to have a fish rise to a natural insect near your fly. If you strike hard when no fish has ingested your fly, you'll disturb the water and spook the fish.

If your fly has been sitting for a minute or two with no grabs, sloooowly retrieve a small amount of line so the fly rises. Then let it sit again.


Trout can be very selective on midge pupae, both as to size and to color. So you may need to experiment with different flies to find one that works. Some flyfishers do this by tying on two or even three midge pupae at once, with 18 inches between each and the flies kept in place by blood knots. With this technique you can experiment with different sizes or colors and see which works best. Or you can use identical flies to increase our odds. You may also increase your frustration because this rig is a bear to cast without tangling, and tangled leader in fading light with big fish rising all around you may not be your idea of a satisfying fishing experience.


Deep Midge Pupa with an Indicator

Many spring midge hatches--and some fall ones, too--are at midday. Under bright skies, trout can be reluctant to come to the surface and expose themselves to predators. They prefer to take their midge pupae closer to the bottom, and this tactic is the best way to reach them.

Tie on a fly with a bit of weight, such as a beadhead, or use a mini-shot on the leader. Put in indicator on the leader; the distance between the fly and the indicator should be enough to let the fly sink near the lake bottom.

Once you're rigged up, cast and let the fly settle. After a minute or two, give it a couple of twitches. Let it settle again, wait a minute, then slowly draw it towards you two or three feet, then let it settle again. Repeat the sink, wait, twitch, settle, wait, draw, settle, wait, etc. until it's time to cast again (or you can't handle the excitement any more). Most strikes will occur as the fly starts to move.



The lift-and-settle presentation is useful for imitating the pre-hatch behavior of some insects such as Hexagenia and Callibaetis nymphs.

Cast a sinking fly on a floating line and let it settle to the desired depth. An indicator is optional, but sometimes very useful. Slowly retrieve enough line to bring the fly up a few feet. If there is no take, let it sink again and repeat.

That's it. Very simple. And sometimes very deadly.


Vertical Retrieve

Some trout foods rise quickly from the bottom to the surface; caddis pupae, for example. Imitate this action with a vertical retrieve. This is really the same as the lift-and-settle retrieve described above, except you pull the fly all the way to the surface with one steady pull. You can use a sink-tip line or a floating line with a long leader.


Wind Drifting

Wind drifting lets you cover an expanse of water, which is why it works well on large lakes. Done right, wind drifting feels like cheating.

Use a full-sinking line; an intermediate line is usually the right choice. Good flies for wind drifting include Woolly Buggers, damselfly nymphs, or Flashback Pheasant Tails.

Cast into the wind at about a 45 degree angle to your direction of travel. Now don't do anything. Just let the wind push you across the lake, dragging your fly behind you.

The reason for casting at an angle is so your fly will be presented in water that your boat or float tube has not passed over, so the fish are less likely to be spooked.

After awhile the fly will be trolling through water that your boat has drifted through. When that starts happening, retrieve the fly and make another cast. Some boat anglers will leave the fly in the water and use an electric motor to push them a few feet out of the way.

Most takes feel like slight hesitations, like you just stuck a weed (often, of course, you have stuck a weed).

Sometimes the wind is blowing too strongly, and your fly will be moving unnaturally fast. If you're in a boat, you can slow your drift by using a small drogue, or sea anchor. Just toss it over the side (after tying it to the boat!), and the extra drag will slow you down.



All the above presentations were with wet flies. While most fly fishing on lakes is with wet flies, there are times when a dry fly is the right choice. For example, during a Callibaetis hatch an Adams, Callibaetis Cripple, or Sparkle Dun can be very productive. Other situations include Hexagenia hatches, ant patterns on high lakes, a Griffiths Gnat during a midge hatch, and when trout are taking adult damselflies.

Use a floating line and dress your fly with floatant (unless it's a CDC pattern). Cast the fly and let it sit. If nothing happens after a couple of minutes, cast to a different place.

When you spot a cruising fish, cast ahead of it so the fly can settle before the fish arrives. If you spot a rise and the fish is not cruising, cast to the center of the rise. During a hatch it is often better to wait until you see a rise, then immediately cast to it.

A dry fly presentation in a lake has to be more delicate than in most rivers. On a river, the fly goes whizzing by in the current, and a fish has to make a quick decision. In a lake, the line, leader, and fly sit where they land and are exposed to unlimited scrutiny by suspicious trout.

This is particularly a problem under calm, windless conditions. When confronted with this situation, I do one of two things: seek wind-riffled water that will mask my line and leader, or give up on the dry and use a wet fly so the line and leader are underwater.

Another time to forget the dry is when there's too much wind or current. For example, a windy day may create so much drag that your fly is not being presented naturally. The real insects may be scudding across the surface while your fake is barely moving. You'll catch few trout on a dry under these conditions.


Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).