We’re all a bit guilty of profiling. Now I don’t mean in any sort of that creepy uncle you don’t invite to Thanksgiving anymore type of way, but rather as hunters and anglers. It’s not our fault, of course, it’s just that in the natural world it just seems certain things go together. Agricultural fields make us think of big whitetail bucks hiding in the tree line. Deep muddy rivers make us think of catfish cruising along the bottom, and high rocky mountain sides put us in mind of elk, sheep, and mountain goats just beyond the next ridge. It’s an inherent part of being a sportsman and something we almost take pride in being able to predict. Yet there are times when our ideals clash with reality. Places where an environment isn’t so easy to read because it doesn’t fit with what’s conventional. Never is this more apparent than when you’re chasing trout in a pond, reservoir, or lake.
Though there are a few famous exceptions to this rule, such as Pyramid Lake in Nevada, for the most part, it seems that trout just belong in clear-running streams and rivers. We think of them as fish that dash and dart around in pristine pools and long runs. We never ever expect to find them swimming around in the same deep lakes or weedy ponds where you’d normally find bass, walleye, or panfish. Yet they do. These still-water trout, swimming and feeding in the vast and fertile depths of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs can grow to some truly massive proportions and are more than worth going after, so long as you know where and how to catch them.
Trout living in still water are an entirely different animal from those you’ll find living in rivers and streams. While the fish are almost always migratory no matter where you find them, going from faster flows or deeper water in streams and rivers as food sources and water temperatures change. Yet, in lakes, ponds, and reservoirs these relocations can be an almost hourly occurrence. You can find them in the early morning feeding on emerging insects, only to have them move into deep water in pursuit of baitfish in the afternoon all before they move back into the shallows to feed on insects in the evening. It’s enough to drive your average still-water trout angler insane. Yet this is a fate that can be avoided with just a little bit of understanding of still-water trout behavior.
There are a lot of places in lakes, ponds, and reservoirs that will hold and produce trout for you at almost any time of the day or year. In waterbodies with naturally occurring trout, your best bet for finding them is by hunting around areas of inflowing or outflowing water such as small rivers, streams, or springs. These spots produce a constant source of food and oxygen for lake-dwelling trout, and they also provide a place for the fish to spawn during the spring and/or fall months.
In places where trout are either stocked or don’t have inflowing or outflowing streams available to them, the fish will be in almost constant transition along areas of deeper water. Trout are cold-water fish and prefer to spend their time as close to a water temperature that they're comfortable with as possible which means they tend to stay close to the thermocline. Thermoclines are layers of colder water in the water column where warmer water meets colder water, providing a ton of nutrients and oxygen. Though they vary from waterbody to waterbody as a general rule, thermoclines usually occur in the bottom two-thirds of the water column (i.e. 20 feet off the bottom in 30 feet of water, 40 feet off the bottom in 60 feet, etc.) This is a general idea, but if you’re fishing from a boat, you can pinpoint the exact depth that the thermoclines occur using electronics.
If you’re fishing for trout in still water from shore, then your best bet for locating them is by targeting points of transition. Areas along the shore with long sloping banks and sharp drop-offs are great places to hunt for trout because they provide both shallow water for them to feed while still allowing for quick access to deeper water where trout will be more comfortable. You can find places like this by using aerial photos or satellite imagery on a mapping app or by using a bathymetric map.
Though the trout living in still water may grow bigger than their river counterparts, they won’t have river currents to assist them in the fight when hooked. This mono-e-mono aspect of lake fishing means that you can catch still-water trout using the basic equipment you would use while fishing for trout in a river or stream with only a few minor changes.
Spin fisherman will want a rod that has both the capability to cast a great distance from shore and the sensitivity to detect what are often very subtle strikes. Your basic light action to medium action spinning rod will work just fine, though for lake fishing I prefer to use a slightly longer rod of at least 6 feet long which will give you better control and casting distance. Match the rod with a reel strung with 6- to 10-pound test line, and you’ll have the perfect still-water trout catching machine.
Fly anglers will do just fine using the same 5- and 6-weight rods that they use for stream and river trout. However, boosting up to a 7-weight or a longer tip-flex version of the same rod isn’t a bad idea to compensate for the additional element of strong winds that occur on large open bodies of water with no cover. Additionally, such rods provide help with casting distance, and when you fish for trout on still water, opportunities can be limited, so you’ll want to be able to cast as far as possible when necessary.
While any Tom, Dick, or Harry can go down to the water with a jar of Powerbait and a few split shot and catch a couple of trout in a smaller “put ’em in and take ’em out” trout pond, it takes a bit more perseverance and technique to catch fish consistently in larger lakes or reservoirs. Not only are these places larger and deeper but the trout have more naturalized behavior.
Trout in lakes become more predatory and voracious overall and will feed on anything from small to medium-sized baitfish, insect larvae and adult insects, and even odd things like leeches, freshwater shrimp, and crayfish. This varied diet means that you’ll have a ton of options when it comes to baits, lures, and flies for still-water trout, so long as you use them in the right place and at the right time.
For spin anglers looking to get into trout from a boat, it’s hard to beat trolling. Trolling covers a lot of water, allowing you to find and lock onto suspended and wandering trout hunting for a meal. It’s best to troll for still-water trout using a downrigger which will allow you to drop your lures and baits to a consistent depth and keep them in the strike zone. As far as lures and baits go for trout trolling, your best bets are large baitfish imitations like the Classic Rapala, Shad Raps, and Tail Dancer’s. Spoons like the Red Eyed Wiggler, the Mooselook Wobbler, and the Thomas Buoyant are great trout trolling options as well.
If the fish are being picky or just not reacting to your lures, then there are a few baits that are worthy of a troll as well. Large pieces of meat such as nightcrawlers, minnows, or leeches will work very well for trout, but it’s still best to troll your baits using the same worm harness or Lindy Rig that you’d use for walleye. These rigs come with large spinner blades already attached which provide a bit more action for your baits and will call in big still-water trout from a distance.
Shore anglers will also do well casting and retrieving the same lures used for trolling along edges of drop-offs and around deep holes. Small inline spinners like the Roostertail and the Panther Martin are great options for this strategy as well.
If you’re more of the “sit and wait” kind of angler though, then your best bet for catching still-water trout is by bait fishing (if your state allows it). This can be done in several different ways, but you’ll have the most luck using a simple weighted bait rig. These rigs are extremely easy to set up. Just take a large ⅛- to ¼-ounce egg sinker and thread it onto your line. Take a small barrel swivel and tie it to the end and then add 12 to 20 inches of fluorocarbon line. Add a wide gap bait hook to the end of the rig and then bait it with either a small minnow, leech, or an inflated nightcrawler.
While fly fishing is generally associated with stream trout fishing, fly anglers can do extremely well on still water. A trout’s varied diet in these environments provides plenty of options as far as techniques and fly patterns go, and using the right combination at the right time can turn you away from chasing rising trout on streams forever.
The absolute most consistent and easiest fly fishing technique for fishing in still water is nymphing with an indicator. Now many purists reading this probably don’t consider this technique to actually be fly fishing. Well, you can call me a “bobber lobber” if you want to because this technique really works well on still water. Set up with a long leader that’s slightly shorter than the depth of the water that you’re fishing, say anywhere from 7ft to 16ft long. Attach a large strike indicator to the top of the leader a few inches below the fly line and then add a couple of flies to the bottom. These flies can be anything from a small bead head Wooly Bugger to a Hares Ear, to a Bead Body Scud, depending on what sort of food sources are in the water you’re fishing. However, if you don’t quite know what’s swimming around in the lake you’re fishing then your best bet is using chironomids.
These small insects are found in almost every body of water in North America and trout absolutely love them. My favorite patterns include the Mad Bomber and the Dawkins DD, but almost any pattern will work so long as they’re fished right. Rig your flies with a larger bead head fly tied directly to the leader and then add a smaller fly as a dropper. Do this by tying it with a length of tippet to the shank of the first fly's hook. The dropper should hang about 6 inches below your top fly. You can add a split shot or two to the rig as well, but that’s only really necessary when fishing at depths greater than 10 feet. Once you have the rig together, all that remains is to cast the flies out into the water into a fishy-looking spot then wait for the indicator to disappear.
If you’re a more active fly angler or prefer to use a more traditional approach, then you can have a lot of luck using streamers and even dry flies when the occasion calls for it. Small- to medium-sized streamers like a Zonker or Clouser can be incredibly effective on still water fisheries, especially in bodies of water where there are a lot of baitfish swimming around. If you’re hunting for a monster though, then you may be better off using some larger bugs like the Game Changer or the Dragon Tail. These big flies will move fewer fish, but the ones you end up tangling with will usually be monsters. Fish streamers by casting them out along sharp drop-offs and letting them sink almost to the bottom before stripping them back at a medium to fast pace where hopefully the erratic motion will cause a hunting trout to move in and absolutely murder it.
Fishing dry flies on still water is a feast or famine type of scenario. You may have a hatch happening that’s causing trout to cruise the shallows along the shoreline where you can drop the fly in front of their nose. You may have a heavy wind blowing terrestrials like grasshoppers, ants, and beetles into the water where the trout absolutely explode on them and all you have to do is drop a big fly in their general direction to hook up. Or—you may have nothing.
The real key to having success when fishing dry flies on still water is to only fish them when you’re actually seeing surface feeding activity. Without it, you don’t have any targets to cast to, and you’re essentially blindfolded trying to play “pin the tail on the cruising trout.”
However, you may have some luck, especially in the late evening, skating and twitching large foam flies like the Hog Caller or even mouse patterns like the Master Splinter across the surface of the water. The action and movement of the fly can trigger a deep-water trout to rocket up and absolutely torpedo your bug on the surface.
One of the most fantastic things about the outdoor world is that no matter how well we think we know an environment, technique, or species, there’s always something out there that goes against the grain. An aspect that takes you out of your comfort zone, challenges you, and makes you start looking at your world a little differently.
From hunting ducks in a cornfield, to catching panfish on lures, to chasing big trout in a lake or pond, it’s the things that seem odd or out of place that make us better outdoorsmen. They expand our horizons, make us think outside of the box, and make us more open and willing to anything the wild places of the world have on offer.
Feature image via Maggie Hudlow.