Just on a whim a couple of years ago, one of my fishing buddies, Merle Shuyler and I decided we were going to try fishing Rock Lake, in Eastern Washington. We had never fished there before, but we had heard there were some trophy-sized brown trout in the lake, and we decided we would go give it a try.
So, on the following Saturday morning, about two hours before daylight, Shuyler, towing his 18-foot Lund, picked me up at the park-and-ride outside of Yakima, where I live, and off we went.
When we arrived at the lake we discovered the boat launch was not much of a launch, and the only other boat on the water was a mini-hydroplane boat that was spinning donuts around in the water in front of us. As we sat there trying to figure out how we were going to get the boat in the water and through the miniature race course, I wondered if we were on the verge of wasting a precious day off.
Arriving at a new lake to fish is always a little bit daunting and can present a surprise or two. But there are things a person can do to help make sure they have a decent chance to catch some fish. Here is what I like to do when I want to try someplace new.
OLD SCHOOL RESEARCH
It used to be that trying to find out information about any body of water meant phone calls and maps. And, those are still some good options when determining when and where you want to fish.
There are plenty of books out there that give information on lakes and rivers in virtually every state in the country.
I live in Washington State, and keep a current copy of Terry Sheely’s Washington State Fishing Guide at my desk at all times. The book gives a by-county recap of virtually every fishable body of water in the Evergreen State.
DeLorme’s Atlas and Gazetteer in another excellent resource. It shows all lakes, gives locations of boat launches, and show camping areas, State Parks and other good information.
After looking at those and other publications, I will then try to find the closest sporting goods or tackle store to the lake I am wanting to fish and will call and chat with them. Sometimes that works, and other times it is a waste of time. But usually if you can get the right person on the phone, they are willing to tell you if anyone has been in talking about the lake you are wanting to fish, and if so, what they were using to catch the fish.
If a phone call won’t work, if there is time, a quick visit to the shop is usually worth the effort to do so. If you are standing there wanting to buy some bait, flies or a few lures based on what the local guys have been using, most of the time the clerks will give you the straight scoop.
Yes, those are some rather old-fashioned tactics, given the fact that we now all possess a hand-held device that will connect us to just about any information we need on any subject. But doing everything you can ahead of time will help make sure you’re in the best position to succeed.
In today’s “posting everything on the internet” world there is a ton of information out there if you are savvy and willing enough to look for it. Most of the stuff you find is helpful, but you need to remember that some of the people posting photos and information may be “friends” you don’t know all that well...and you may have to take their information with a grain of salt.
Overall though, I have found some good information about different waters, and some good current reports on how the fishing has been.
READING THE LAKE
Depending on what kind of fish you are after, knowing the depths and contours of the lake bottom will at least give you a starting point on where to fish.
If you are fishing for rainbows you probably want to fish a little closer to shore, and if you are fishing for kokanee, you will most likely want to be fishing out in the lake over deeper water.
Remember, all fish are cruising and looking for food. But some, like rainbow and brown trout, normally cruise closer to the bottom. Kokanee will be in whatever depth they are finding mysis shrimp, plankton or other microscopic foods. And most of the foods are found along the thermocline, especially in bigger, deeper lakes.
All that being said, a good depth/fish finder is worth its weight in gold. Good electronics will save all kinds of time in helping you learn the lake.
LOOK FOR OTHER CLUES
Fish are like all other living organisms. They need just a few basic things to survive:
Let’s start with the last item first.
Sometimes we forget this because fish live in water, but they need oxygen to survive, just like people do.
They just get their oxygen a different way. Many lakes have places where there is more oxygen and places where there is less oxygen. Finding a spot such as where a creek feeds the lake, or where there is an underground spring bubbling up in the lake, will almost always attract fish, because those spots are rich in oxygen.
If I am on a new lake and I find one of these spots, I always start fishing there.
Cover may be less important, but there are times when fishing around cover can help. For instance, if you are fishing a high mountain lake, that has shallow shorelines and is crystal clear, look for places where trees have fallen into the lake. Rainbow and cutthroat trout love to hide under fallen logs, to keep them hidden from danger above, and to give them an ambush point when bugs, tadpoles and other aquatic life meanders by.
Finally, food may be the most important factor. Knowing the type of fish you are after in the new lake will help with your success. The old fly-fishing adage of “matching the hatch” comes into play, whether you are fishing with fly gear or not.
For instance, if you are fishing for predatory fish, such as trout, and you see a bunch of dragon flies flying around, you can pretty much guess that the trout will be feeding on dragon fly nymphs. Even if you aren’t fishing with fly gear, you can usually find a lure, such as a small FlatFish for instance, imitating a swimming bug, which should get the fish to bite.
LURES VS BAIT
I love to troll for trout and kokanee. And almost always I can find a lure that will work no matter where I am fishing. But sometimes bait will work better than a lure. When fishing a new lake, be prepared for both.
Fishing from the bank will often times dictate what and where you fish. Bait fishing can be incredibly productive when fishing from shore. There are plenty of bait options, some pretty obvious, and others not so much.
Power Bait and other dough baits will work well on lakes that have been stocked with trout. The secret to using those is to keep the bait - up off the bottom.
Some float naturally, but often times they don’t float enough to get them up above the weedy lake bottoms. Using a Lil’ Corky as a bait floater works great in those situations.
Salmon eggs in different colors and flavors work well, and a good old-fashioned night crawler will also work. Again, adding some floatation will definitely help. One bait I like that not many people use is a small piece of salad shrimp. Again, add a marshmallow or a Corky to help float it works great.
Casting and retrieving lures from the bank will also work well. A spinner like a Rooster Tail or a small Mepps will often times trigger strikes. I like Rooster Tails because I can try different colors until I find the one the fish want. Other small lures like Kastmasters will work too.
There are a hundred different options for trolling. Again, knowing what you are trying to catch will help dictate what lure to use, how deep you should fish, how fast to troll and other factors.
BACK TO ROCK LAKE
Merle and I did get the boat launched at Rock Lake, and once we got past the speedster in the mini-drag boat we decided we would start trolling along a rock face on the north side of the lake. We wanted to try to get one of the big browns that we had heard were in there so Merle put on a Rapala minnow imitation lure, and I threw on a Mag Lip diving plug.
We each put enough weight on to help the lures get down near the bottom and began trolling...
I can’t remember just how many fish we ended up catching that day. We caught a few browns, including one nice fish that was pushing four pounds. And we caught several fat rainbows too. Not bad for just showing up to a new lake and giving it a go.
When the day was done, I was glad we had done a little research, had brought a variety of lures, and put all that to work for a good day on the water.
- Rob Phillips
About the author: Rob Phillips is a lifelong angler and an award-winning freelance outdoor writer who has written hundreds of articles and columns for publications around the West.