Lake Fishing Strategies – How to Catch Trout in Lakes

By Peter Langlands

In this article I will discuss some aspects of lake craft, successfully locating trout in lakes and lake fishing strategies. Canterbury has many large lakes and deciding where to fish on our lakes can be a daunting feeling. l will outline some parts of the lakes where trout are concentrated. I will focus on fishing on our high country lakes using fly fishing methods.

Early December to mid-February is in my opinion, the best time of the year for lake fishing in Canterbury’s high country. In this article, I will discuss some key parts of the lake that anglers should check out.

Successful locations to fish on lakes:

Inflowing Streams and Cold Springs

Rainbow trout congregate around cold water springs or streams slightly cooler than the main body of the lake. Around mid spring large numbers of rainbow trout shoal up before spawning. These fish can be targeted in larger lakes, such as Coleridge, fishing during the night using luminous flies near the Ryton Rivermouth. When lake temperatures are at their highest over the summer, rainbows typically move to the coldest part of the lake.

Brown trout also seek colder inflowing water, especially in lakes like Ellesmere. River mouths such as Harts Creek are exciting places to fish, with schools of trout moving in to seek sanctuary from warm lake temperatures from mid-November to late March. Yet river mouth fishing can be either an on or off affair, and should not be depended upon.

Snails are frequently dislodged from weed beds and tumble into the waves. A prime food source for trout cruising in stony shallows.

Patches of Sand

Patches of sand are also key areas, as the trout can be easily seen cruising. Expansive shallow lake flats are prime areas to sight fish to cruising trout, whether the bottom is sand, mud or shingle.

Trout frequently feed on small prey such as water boatmen, snails and flies over such areas, and reflect the small size of the prey trout are feeding on. A small dark fly such as a black and peacock or boatman should tempt a cruising fish in shallow water.

Quite often the shallow flats of a lake have a small stream adjoining. Such a spot is worth a look at early in the morning before becoming disturbed by other anglers.

Rocky Points and Snags

Shoreline structures such as snags or rocky points jutting out into the lake are haunts of territorial brown trout. Brown trout are well known for their habit of snagging anglers’ lines in submerged branches. Brown trout also like the cover that large rocks provide. Areas of rocky shoreline have large numbers of dragonfly nymphs – a food bonanza for lake-feeding trout!



Trout will often patrol along the shoreline in search of bullies and will ambush small fish along indentations of the lake’s shoreline where the prey can be trapped. The lower Selwyn River, near where it flows into Lake Ellesmere is one such location where trout can be seen exploding on the surface when chasing smelt.

Stalking along the southern shoreline of Lake Forsyth in the channel between the main lake and Birdlings Flat is also successful. Cast a small light-coloured lure to any swirl you see in the shallows. Native fish are not an important part of the trout’s diet in our high country lakes.

Deciding where to fish on lakes can be difficult. These two anglers are fishing a drop-off at Lake Aviemore.


Areas where the shoreline steeply slopes away are prime locations where trout are confined to cruising over a narrow self. In many such situations, a steep hillside or mountain falls away into the lake, making casting from the shore difficult.

Therefore, if regulations allow, anchor a dingy and cast parallel along the drop-off. Lakes such as Coleridge and Pearson have these narrow bands of shallow shoreline before the lake shelves away into deeper water to at least 15 metres. The trout often cruise along the shallow ledge throughout the day. If you have found a good spot, it could be worth fishing for several hours, as the fish constantly cruise up and down along the ledge.

Wind Vanes

Frequently along the lake’s shoreline, a wind vane will be seen Where there appears to be a line of glassy water surrounded by rippling water on either side. Such areas of oily water are known as wind vanes where floating objects are concentrated. Wind vanes concentrate flotsam and jetsam, drifting leaves, and terrestrial insects like green beetles.

Fishing a foam beetle along these edges during the summer is extremely successful, especially from mid-December to late February. These drift lines are usually about 5 to 10 metres from the shoreline and within casting distance.

Stony Shorelines

As expected, fishing along the shorelines of lakes where the prevailing nor’wester hits the shoreline can be dynamite. Waves wash up food close to the shoreline. Snails are frequently dislodged from weed beds and tumble in the waves against the shore. The trout will often cruise right into water less than 30 centimetres deep, and their fins may be seen in the waves, or as large olive shapes slowly moving in the wash. A short cast on an angle into the wind and slow attentive retrieve in the waves should be tried.

Shallow Weedbeds

Some Canterbury lakes have extensive shallow weed beds. Moving your flies through the weed can sometimes be difficult without snagging up. It is worth persevering with though because trout graze on bountiful amounts of small snails in the weed beds and chase damselfly nymphs. Flies such as damselfly nymphs work well in lakes such as Grasmere, Sarah and Evelyn. The nymphs should be retrieved slowly over weed beds.

Shingle Banks

Several Canterbury lakes have shingle bars which are usually submerged, except when the lakes are at low levels. Snails, dragonfly nymphs and bullies thrive on shallow shingle banks. Midges also hatch over shingle banks. These areas are worth fishing with a small Hare ‘n Copper nymph or Water Boatman fly, as trout like to cruise the shallower water along the shingle banks.

Raupo around the shoreline of the small Maori Lakes, Canterbury High Country.

Raupo Stands

Areas of shallow shoreline sheltered by raupo beds should be looked at for cruising trout. Trout frequently cruise in these lake backwaters along the raupo. A small damselfly or dragonfly nymph is very effective when retrieved along the edge of the raupo. The shoreline of the Maori Lakes is swampy and hidden by reeds making them challenging to fish.

Overhanging Trees

Beech forests adjoining the shoreline are also favoured areas for cruising brown trout, which are low-light predators. Trout frequently seeks shade during the day and will cruise under overhanging trees. Trees, especially manuka, are home to many terrestrial insects such as green beetles and cicadas which fall onto the water. A small foam green beetle fished underneath or, next to, overhanging trees can be deadly.

Trout often rises in lake shallows, often just on the edge of weed banks, although where forest or scrub adjoins the shoreline, trout will move out of the depths to intercept a fly such as a Black Gnat. The Black Gnat is a universally successful fly on Canterbury’s high country lakes and should be in all keen fishermen’s fly boxes. It is easily seen during dark light conditions or over rippled lake surfaces.

Successful Flies

Although this article has primarily been about successfully finding trout on lakes, it is worth re-capping on successful flies for fishing Canterbury’s lakes. I believe a selection of 5 flies would allow you to catch 95 per cent of the trout you encounter.

The Five Flies Are:

Wiggle Nymph Damsel tied in two sections to simulate movement. Rabbit fur tail and legs also add movement.

l. Damselfly nymph. Excellent for blind fishing in shallow water over weed beds. A range of colours from light brown to bright green should be tried. Also imitates small bullies.

Hare and Copper nymph.

2. Hare ‘n Copper. Excellent when fished near river mouths, or when blind fishing over stony, sandy shorelines, in water several metres deep. A good fly for blind fishing.

A sparsely tied Woolly Buggar makes a passable dragonfly nymph.

3. Dragonfly nymph. Excellent for fishing deep drop-offs. Can be used with a sink-tip and sinking lines in larger lakes such as Pearson and Coleridge. Especially effective when fishing back into the shore from an anchored dingy.

Peacock and Black.

4. Black and Peacock. Excellent snail and water boatman imitation – effective for stalking fish in water, less than a metre deep.

A deer hair body, a green beetle with a foam body, and a brown beetle with a foam body.

5. Foam green beetle. This fly is extremely effective, especially when fished near scrub or overhanging trees.

Putting It All Together

The general approach to lake fishing. I have outlined many fishing scenarios in this article. If one technique is not working then try another. Do not become locked into one method when fishing lakes. A good pair of Polaroids is invaluable for lake fishing as they are for river fishing, not only for spotting fish but for looking at the bottom structure and locating weed beds. Remember, that many of our high country lakes are vulnerable to overfishing and anglers should practice catch and release.

A good quality pair of polaroid eye-glasses are essential for the critically thinking lake angler.

This post was last modified on 15/03/2024 12:18 am

Leave a Comment
Published by

Recent Posts

The Big Fish Edition – How to Catch Fish and Where

The Big Fish Edition - How to Catch Fish and Where - The Complete Kiwi…


How to Catch Fish and Where

How to Catch Fish and Where - The Complete Kiwi Beginner's Guide By Mike Rendle…


Fishes of Aotearoa by Paul Caiger

Fishes of Aotearoa (includes both fresh and saltwater fishes) By Paul Caiger New Zealand has…


Fishing the Tongariro – A History of Our Greatest Trout River

Fishing the Tongariro - A History of Our Greatest Trout River By Grant Henderson  Since…


Porare – Girella tricuspidata

Porare - Girella tricuspidata - How and Where to Catch Porare By Allan Burgess Although…


Jack’s Sprat Trout Fly

Jack's Sprat Trout Fly - An old favourite for targeting rainbow trout in the lakes…