Think of three words: temperature, structure and visibility.
All three affect how you should fish any water, including lakes.
These three environmental and physical conditions simply vary in terms of sources, depths and habitat characteristics.
Lakes, as opposed to ponds, usually feature a greater degree of influences and habitat features. These can include feeder and outlet streams, deeper and more drastic drop-offs along shore and bottom, and many more temperature strata simply because most lakes are bigger and deeper than a pond.
A very large lake can experience micro-climates, such as rain, wind, snow or hail on one end and clear, calm, sunny skies on the other end.
The effect on fish from such extreme opposites should be taken into account when deciding where to fish on such a lake. It’s all about where the bait may be traveling or harboring and whether the fish you seek are seeking said bait or just waiting for better conditions in which to feed.
Temperature, structure and visibility determine how fish feed, where they are located and how spooky they behave.
In turn, all of this affects the what, when and how regarding your fishing tackle and approach to the fish. Let’s look at each influence one at a time.
Keep in mind that each species of fish favors a particular temperature range, whether it is for feeding, spawning or just moving from one location to another.
Each species prefers a particular stratum. For instance, feeding trout prefer a temperature of at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit and to as high as 65 degrees.
On the other hand, walleye—in the spiny ray category of fish—prove more active in a 65 to 70 degree Fahrenheit statum. If such temps are found near bottom, the walleye flourishes. This is where most of its food will appear.
Speaking of spiny rays, they earn their name. Their fins are spiny and sharp. Learn how to best handle them once caught.
Many anglers bring along a thermometer or read the temperature on a fish finder. Some sporting goods stores sell sophisticated anglers’ thermometers, such as those from BPS. These render approximate temperatures at various depths; it doesn’t just read the last temperature as you lift it through the surface.
If fishing for a species in the throes of spawning, find out which temps they prefer for spawning. That is where you will more likely find your prey.
When without a thermometer, you can usually deduce the best lairs for your quarry by eyeballing sun exposure, depth, shadows or cool water sources such as feeder streams.
While on the topic, take note of feeder and outlet streams. Some species—i.e., landlocked salmon among some others—start running up a feeder stream to spawn during their particular spawning season.
Some species simply forage in a stream—whether outlet or feeder—to find food not available in the lake. Some gamefish may simply harbor at the mouth of a feeder or outlet stream because that is where their food happens to be collecting.
Structure of the Lake
When talking about structure, we are mostly talking about bottoms of lakes or the drop-offs to the bottom—the exception being consistently shallow lakes, where snags, weed beds, rock beds and other surface or near-surface objects may lie.
A muskie angler might rely on these types of structures to a greater degree than depth in a shallow lake.
In most cases, the topography or structure of a lake greatly influences where baitfish, crustaceans (i.e., shrimp and crawdads) or insects might dwell. Some insects, for instance, are born on the bottom of a rocky part of a lake and swim to the surface while metamorphosing to an adult once they reach the surface.
The caddis or sedge, damsel and dragon flies, as well as mayflies, all begin their life as larvae well beneath the water’s surface if not on the lake bottom.
Also consider that many species prefer drop-offs not only because they host food to their liking, but also for protection from predators.
Depressions along the bottom also serve as protection from predators, whether birds of prey, otters, beavers—and, yes, even humans, specifically anglers.
Unless you are fishing for catfish, carp or similar warm-water species that respond more keenly than other gamefish to odorous offerings, visibility plays a dominant role in whether you catch fish or just enjoy a day on the water.
Too much water clarity can spook a fish, especially when an angler is looming above. If you are using a lure or similar imitation of food and it does not look authentic, a fish will turn its tail fin to you in such clear water conditions. Same goes with a worm or egg showing too much hook.
Clear water only exacerbates the angler’s challenge when it comes to wary fish.
Cloudy days can be an angler’s best friend. You can’t cast a shadow, the water clarity stays consistent without the sun and fish in generally will not behave as if they are vulnerable.
On the other hand, try to find an angler who hasn’t gotten skunked at least a time or two on a cloudy day.
Sometimes, gin-clear water demands lighter tackle: smaller pound-test line, smaller hooks, smaller-test leader and smaller swivels. If the water is extremely calm and clear, an angler can sometimes nix a weight and let the bait or lure sink on its own.
Always consider the visibility of the water to which you are casting and how easily visible you or your shadow is from the fish’s view. Try crouching or trying to blend into your background on incredibly clear lakes.
Common Lures and Baits for Lake Fishing
Lakes host a variety of foods for gamefish. Remember that 90 percent of a trout’s diet consists of insects. The remainder consists of crustaceans and minnows.
Some species, such as muskies, pike, bass, walleye and a slew of other spiny rays predominantly predate on smaller fish and sometimes even small rodents such as mice, amphibians such as lizards and frogs or even baby ducks.
Learn what lives in the water you plan to fish. Deeper lakes often host shrimp and other small crustaceans or scuds. Learn what kinds of minnows live in the lake, such as shiners, sticklebacks or sculpin. Crawdads often dwell at an inlet or outlet stream of a lake, as well as near underground feeder streams.
If you want to start from square one because you are at a loss as to what will bring fish to lure in your lake of choice, the ubiquitous earthworm is usually the best go-to choice. It appeals to all the species you likely will find in a lake.
If bait fishing for trout, try salmon eggs. Adorn them with a marshmallow for flotation off the craggy, weedy or mucky bottom.
If you ever pored through the bait section of your local sporting goods store, you undoubtedly noticed everything from scented marshmallows to Power Bait and bait balls.
Part of finding the perfect bait in a lake lies in experimentation. Try any or all of them when you can’t draw a strike at the end of your line.
If trolling, go with spinners, pop gear (a collection of spinners on one long wire) with bait at the end, flatfish, spoons or wobblers, combo lures like spoon flies and even a small flasher (large chrome wobbler) with lure or bait at the end.
What if I want to put my catch back into the lake?
You might catch a number of lake-dwelling fish that are either too small to make a meal or you simply want to let your fish live to fight another day.
Barbless hooks, a hemostat (too remove hooks) and the knowledge of how to handle a fish without injuring all result in best release practices.
Rule No. 1: Don’t stick objects or your fingers into a fish’s gills.
Gills are crtitical to the respiratory and filtering systems of a fish. They are extremely sensitive.
Want to know how to best handle a fish you wish to release? Watch this video.
Feel free to mimic
One of the best methods of finding out how to tackle a lake comes by simply observing what other anglers are using and whether that which they are using is catching fish.
Actually, most anglers are of a friendly fraternity and many will share their secrets with you once you strike up a conversation.
Combined with your research of the lake, watching what other anglers do should result in some fish or hits at the least.