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Warmwater Flyfishing at the Core

Core elements of fishing will boost your fly fishing success
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When you decide to do something that not many people are doing you end up with a steep learning curve most of the time. So it is with warmwater fly fishing. Although the sport goes way back in time, it has nowhere near the following of its counterparts, making it difficult to find insightful information to help you get on your way. Revisiting some of the most basic elements of fishing will help you become a better warmwater fly fisherman.

Fly fishing a lake for warmwater species is as much a puzzle as is fly fishing trout in a river, just in a different box. With knowledge of the lake environment, the habits of the species you are after, and the dynamics of the food sources these fish focus on you can attack a lake much like you would a river.

In this article I will cover three basic elements that you can apply to most warmwater species, and will help you at least go to a lake with an understanding of what is most important to know when trying to hook warmwater fish. The three main elements are location of the fish, food sources of the fish, and the presentation of these food sources.

Common Shiner from CDOW

Finding fish
Fly fishing is not an efficient way to cover water for the most part. Shooting a long line out takes a bit longer than flipping a tube jig. If you don’t know how to find the fish you’re looking for you will be doing a lot of casting and not so much catching.

Water temperatures are a good start in understanding where fish might be located. Knowing when fish are in pre-spawn, when they are spawning (or false spawning), when they are in post-spawn, and what their comfort zone is will lead you to areas that hold fish. Know that water temps can vary greatly even on the same day on the same lake. Paying close attention to your thermometer may clue you in to some important details.

Early in the season look for warmer water that may hold active fish as well as areas that cater to the pre-spawn activities. Also look for feeder creeks that carry nutrient-filled water into the lake that has been fairly stagnant all winter. During mid season, look for structure at the depths most attractive to the fish you are after. In the early fall, go back to warm areas and shallows. In the late fall, before ice sets in, look deeper for fish getting into winter mode

Water temperatures will also affect forage, so take into consideration what the fish are eating and how that food will be affected by water temperatures. For instance, crayfish are fairly inactive in the winter in this region, but when the water warms they kick into gear. Once they start moving and doing their thing, game fish begin keying in on them, more than you might imagine.

Colorado Gizzard Shad from CDOW
What the fish are eating
No matter what you are fishing for, it is always a good idea to determine what they are eating. They may be opportunistic and eating several different things, but try to figure out what is most prominent in their current diet. This may change throughout the day or on a daily basis. Most fish prefer to eat what is most available to them and that provides the greatest nutrition for the effort, just like trout in a river.

Understanding the fish, their habits, and the lake you are fishing is important in determining what they are eating. If you are hunting a top-of-the-line predator like a tiger muskie or northern pike, chances are they’ll be keyed in on soft fish such as suckers, shad, and trout. Wipers, white bass, walleye, smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass will often take advantage of baitfish populations such as the prevalent gizzard shad or shiner, but will also salivate over crayfish when they are molting or available. Crappie, perch, and bluegill will eat small baitfish and insects. Carp eat most anything that looks/tastes good, but concentrate on insects and crayfish.

Presenting food imitations
Try to emulate the food of choice in the strike zone of feeding fish. Fish sinking lines and streamers to reach fish lower in the water column and fish floating lines and lighter streamers to fish in the shallows. Fish nymphs with floating line and a strike indicator like you would in a river, or fish dries and poppers on the surface. Short sink-tip lines are useful in getting to the bottom in shallow areas or in rocky sections when fishing crayfish patterns. If you only have a floating line, use longer leaders combined with split shot or weighted flies to get your streamers down deeper.

Varying retrieves with minnow and crayfish imitations is fundamental. Experiment throughout the day with fast retrieves, slow retrieves, twitchy retrieves and everything in between. You want to present a realistic representation of the bait you are fishing, so keep in mind what your fly looks like underwater. Once you find a retrieve that is working, keep at it. If you are not getting much action, keep changing.

  Crayfish from

Crayfish are one of the most challenging imitations to present on a fly rod, but worth the effort. You will want to present crayfish patterns tight to the rocks. The problem is that you will often get hooked up. To combat this, fish a weighted crayfish pattern with a hook point that rides up on a slow-sinking line and long leader. Using a slower-sinking tip will keep your fly line out of the rocks but will encourage your weighted fly to drop down and tick the structure while not getting hung up as often. Slow retrieves with twitches is key in presenting crayfish.

Improving your odds
If you know where the fish are likely to be hanging out, what they are eating, and how to present to them, you are significantly improving your odds at catching them. But you may find yourself frustrated when you put the pieces of the puzzle together and you still are not catching fish. This is where this advice comes into play: “doing what you’ve always done will get you what you’ve always got”. Re-think the key elements again and do not be afraid to change what you are doing. If the fishing is slow, fish fast – that is move and change quickly, not necessarily quicken your retrieves.

Always work to improve your odds. Fishing always factors in a bit of luck. When you research the species, the conditions, the lake, the presentations, you are significantly improving your odds. Be patient and work through the pieces of the puzzle again and again until you start seeing success. Consider all the elements that are presented to you. Are you finding good structure? Are you considering the effect of wind on the system? Are you considering the time of day and the time of year? And so on.

Using technology will go a long way to help increase your odds in, if nothing else, finding fish. A fishfinder will help you find structure and schools of fish or baitfish. A GPS unit will allow you to mark good spots and track where you’ve been. Use these tools to their fullest and you will be steps ahead of the game.

Go to reservoirs when they are low so you can inspect the structure that is invisible to you when the lake is full. Look for rocky areas with size-diversity. Look for shelves that are 5-20 feet below the typical water line. Look for a pile of rocks or strategically placed boulders in an otherwise featureless sandy flat. Look for brush, weeds, and trees that will be below the full waterline and inspect inlet and outlet channels. If you have a mobile GPS unit, walk around and mark these items.

And by all means talk to people. You will never get as much information as quickly when you talk with people who fish a specific lake. Go into the local bait, tackle, or fly shops, buy some stuff, and get a conversation going. Go fishing with someone who has fished the lake on their own and compare notes. Take all this into consideration with your own experiences.

One thing that will help you learn more quickly than anything about the various aspects of fishing for warmwater species is to read articles and books geared towards conventional tackle fishermen and apply that to fly fishing. Bass and walleye fishing are hugely popular and there are thousands of articles covering everything you’d want to know about these fish, their habitats, their idiosyncrasies, their biological makeup, etc. If you think river fly fishermen are scientific with their bug books and all, take a peak at some of the muskie articles written about secchi disk readings or zooplankton impact on an ecosystem. Lake fishing is a beast all in itself, so you can either spend your life learning it or shortcut the process by learning from the experiences of other fishermen no matter the technique applied.

There is a lot of experimentation to be done when you fly fish for warmwater species. If you keep in mind the main elements location, food, and presentation and if you go about the process somewhat scientifically you will improve your odds of catching fish. While fly fishing for warmwater species is not for everyone, it is definitely worth giving it a shot. Once you hook into a raging smallie on a 5-weight or heave a walleye up from the depths with a fly rod, you will feel the excitement that keeps us going. Break out your fly rod and get out to the lakes and ponds in your area for some of the most exciting fish you’ll find anywhere.
Largemouth Bass on the Fly


© 2024 Matt Snider
About the author, Matt Snider:
Matt Snider is a life-long fly fisherman who has turned his attention to the "other species" of Colorado, namely any non-trout species. Having caught multiple warmwater species in Colorado on the fly in Colorado alone, Matt built FishExplorer as a means for anglers to maintain updated lake conditions, an element he finds critical in catching fish and enjoying our resources. An advocate of alternative fly fishing and fisheries preservation, Matt is an avid wiper and muskie fisherman traveling with boat in tow in pursuit of these hard-to-find fish. If a fish is willing to eat something, his bet is that it will eat a fly...