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 warm water 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 warm water fly fisherman.
Fly fishing a lake for warm water 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 warm water 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 warm water fish. The three main elements are location of the fish, food sources of the fish, and the presentation of these food sources.
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.
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 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.