Most knowledgeable anglers are well-tuned to the various types of fishing found across the Great Lakes.
Few areas can provide both the quality and variety of opportunities that exist here.
What very few anglers realize is that the Great Lakes are also world-class fly fishing destinations. With a bit of research, proper timing, and the right equipment for the job, most Great Lakes gamefish are catchable on flies.
With 11,000 miles of shoreline, hundreds of square miles of shallow flats, countless piers and breakwalls, and hundreds of tributary mouths, ample opportunity exists to find fish in locations where they are very reachable with fly gear. When combined with recent advances in fly equipment, in particular fly lines and flies themselves, a whole new world opens up for exploration.
All things considered, including accessibility, length of fishing seasons, variety of species available—the Great Lakes may offer the best “undiscovered” fly fishing on earth. The five Great Lakes, plus Lake St. Clair, and connecting waters such as the Niagara and St. Marys Rivers have fly fishing potential that has barely been scratched.
In fly fishing the line is the weight we throw, and our fly just goes along for the ride.
The first step in selecting a fly outfit is deciding the line weight you need to use.
This is based on the actual physical weight of the line and determines what size flies can be carried and how it will cut through wind. An 8-weight set up has become the starting point for most big-water applications. This weight can carry a wide range of fly sizes, can be cast for extended periods of time without causing fatigue, and can still be worked efficiently in a breeze.
Depending on the depth we are fishing, the line may be a full-floater or incorporate a sinking portion. The floating line is best used on shallow flats and depths to around 6 feet. Beyond that, we switch to sinking-head lines, where the front part of the line, generally around a 25-foot length, sinks. This allows a fly to be worked at a sustained depth for a period of time. Modern sinking-head lines allow flies to be fished effectively to depths of around 20 feet.
Modern sinking-head lines are a precision fishing tool with a known density and sink rate. We can count the line down to a certain depth and begin retrieving the fly.
After a day or two of experience and few fish hooked, most anglers become comfortable with these types of lines and confident in their use. The Textured series of lines made by Michigan-based Scientific Anglers have become favorites for Great Lakes fishing as they perform well in a wide range of air and water temperatures. Don’t let the initial cost scare you as fly lines will last many years with a minimal amount of maintenance.
Depending on the species targeted, the reel may or may not be an important piece of equipment.
Smallmouth bass, the most widely distributed of Great Lakes gamefish, rarely make runs of any length. Here the main purpose of the reel is to hold line. Steelhead on the other hand, will make fast, sustained runs, so a functional drag on the reel is a requirement. Bottom line—buy the best reel you can afford.
As mentioned earlier, an 8-weight line is the single, best weight for Great Lakes fly fishing applications.
The rod should be designed to handle this line weight. This would be comparable to a medium- to medium-heavy spinning or casting rod. The all-around fly rod length of 9 foot allows the rod to be used in any situation from wading, to out of a kayak or boat.
Graphite is the desired material and the rod should have a fast or saltwater action. This allows the line to be pushed a bit harder during casting and makes setting the hook easier on a long cast.
The leader, usually an extruded, tapered length of monofilament, connects the fly line to the fly. The end or tippet of the leader is the thinnest part and determines the breaking strength of the entire set up. A breaking strength of around 10 pounds is standard for most Great Lakes applications.
With a floating line, the leader is generally 9 feet in length. On the sinking-head line a shorter leader is used, often only 4 or 5 feet in length, to help keep the fly at depth. The leader can also be adjusted for extreme situations. For example, we may lengthen the leader up to 15 feet if chasing spooky carp on a calm, clear flat. For large, toothy critters we can increase the breaking strength of the tippet and add a length of wire or heavy fluorocarbon for bite protection.
The fly patterns used come in several different types.
Realistic patterns are made to imitate a specific food form such as a baitfish, crayfish, or goby. Attractor patterns trigger strikes through flash, color and movement. The single, most popular fly pattern for Great Lakes use is a Clouser Deep Minnow. Designed initially as a baitfish imitation for chasing smallmouth, the Deep Minnow can be sized and colored to match a variety of food forms.
A size #2 Deep Minnow with a chartreuse back and white belly is a great, general imitation of an emerald shiner, one of the primary forage species found across the Great Lakes. By changing the color of the back other baitfish are easily duplicated. For example, all white for shad or silver shiners, gray/white for smelt, olive/white for spottail shiners. These can be smaller in the spring when young-of-the-year baitfish are present and can gradually increase in size through the season.
Crayfish and goby imitations become more important around the rocky areas they inhabit.
These will often have to be worked close to structure to be most effective. The best crayfish patterns have soft materials with lots of movement. Avoid those tied with stiff components as these flies often spin when sinking to depth, tangling into the leader. Crayfish flies around 3 inches in length are most effective.
Invasive gobies have become a favorite food of many Great Lakes fish. When present, they are targeted by smallmouth bass, walleye, carp , steelhead, brown trout, and lake trout. Gobies are slow moving and soft-skinned making them an easy meal for gamefish. A number of goby patterns are now on the market, but Woolly Buggers 4 to 5 inches long in olive and brown colorations are productive imitations.
The fly is cast to a likely area and allowed to settle or sink to a desired depth. The line is retrieved by pulling the line, one strip at a time, with the free hand, under the index finger of the hand holding the rod. The rod tip is kept low to the water as the fly is retrieved keeping as straight a line to the fly as possible. A strip strike is used to set the hook- when a hit is felt a long, strong pull is given with the line hand. Try to avoid lifting the rod, as this only creates slack and pulls the fly away from the fish.
The smallmouth bass is the most widely distributed of Great Lakes gamefish, being available from the west end of Lake Superior, east to the outlet of Lake Ontario and all points in between. They are tolerant of a very wide range of water temperatures and will hit flies starting in the mid-40’s to around 80 degrees. Smallies are arguably the perfect fly rod fish, perhaps even more so than trout as they are much more opportunistic feeders and tolerant of sloppy casts and less than perfect presentations.
Caption: This smallmouth was caught on a chartreuse/white Clouser Deep Minnow, one of the most productive fly patterns for use in the Great Lakes.
Smallmouth readily eat flies from top to bottom in the water column and spend a good portion of the year accessible to fly anglers as they are often in close proximity to shallow structure. The average Great Lakes fish will be around 3 pounds and give a good account of itself on an 8-weight rig. There is not a whole lot more that you could ask for from in a fly rod target.
Long considered a trash fish, carp have assumed an esteemed position within the fly fishing community. Combining their strength and size, propensity to feed in shallow water, and highly developed sensory system, carp have become a much sought after species in several Great Lakes locations. Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island, in particular, has become a mecca for carp chasers from around the world.
Muskellunge have become a primary target for fly fishers in recent years. This apex predator is developing a devoted following of anglers pushing freshwater fly fishing to its limits. Lake St. Clair is considered one the premier musky (and smallmouth bass) fisheries anywhere. With an average depth of just over 10 feet, it has anything a fly angler could want- gravel bars, weed edges, rock piles, and sand flats. Additional areas around the Great Lakes also hold significant numbers of musky.
A host of other warm-water species including largemouth bass, freshwater drum, walleye, and a variety of panfish also show up on the fly anglers radar screen.
Largemouth, in particular, are quite abundant across the lakes (except Lake Superior) and receive little attention from anglers in general.
Freshwater drum are strong fighters and developing a following of fly anglers looking to target them specifically. White bass or silver bass, cousins of the striped bass found in saltwater, are abundant in a number of locations and respond to flies extremely well.
Of the coldwater species native to the lakes, both brook trout and lake trout have emerged as seasonal targets for fly anglers.
Nearly extinct several decades ago, coaster or lake-dwelling brook trout populations have rebounded significantly in northwest Lake Superior thanks to strict regulations. Even lake trout, a true deepwater fish, can be predictably targeted on a fly in all 5 of the Great Lakes. There is a limited time frame for this, but lakers are definitely available to fly anglers.
Steelhead, brown trout, Pacific salmon species, and Atlantic salmon are all doable targets for Great Lakes fly fishers.
The best opportunities are often at river mouth areas where these species all stage before ascending streams on seasonal spawning runs. Stripping baitfish patterns can produce vicious strikes and knuckle-busting runs. Steelhead, browns, and coho salmon are all susceptible to this technique.
Caption: This chrome-bright steelhead was caught swinging a fly in a Great Lakes river mouth. Migratory species often stage at these locations before ascending rivers on spawning runs.
Atlantic salmon are native to Lake Ontario, but habitat degradation has limited efforts to reestablish them. Instead they have taken well to the St. Marys River which connects Lake Superior and Lake Huron. This program is being expanded to additional locations in Lake Huron. When they are located, Atlantics will take a variety of fly patterns.
Fly fishing in the Great Lakes has a lot of similarities to that in saltwater.
Anglers can cast to spooky fish on crystal clear, shallow, flats. Jetties, breakwalls, piers, and other manmade structures hold feeding fish ready to chase a fly. Blitzes occur where feeding predators push baitfish to the surface where they are then targeted by gulls.
Many saltwater-type situations present themselves to Great Lakes anglers.
The latest in depth finding equipment and GPS is available to help us find our way.
New kayak designs have been produced with the angler, particularly the fly angler, in mind. We have many tools at our disposal.
There are only a handful of fly fishing guides regularly working Great Lakes waters. Not because fish can’t be caught, but because we are so early in the learning process. This article is a first step in the learning process of fly fishing the Great Lakes. Take this step and let the journey begin.
- Written by Jerry Darkes
Jerry Darkes is a fly tackle sales rep, instructor/guide, and writer based in northern OH. He has over 4 decades of fly fishing experience in both fresh and saltwater and is recognized as an expert on Great Lakes steelhead and warmwater fly fishing. Jerry was the first “fly fishing only” guide on Ohio’s Lake Erie tributaries and helped to pioneer many of the fly patterns and techniques used today. Recently, he has been most active in promoting fly fishing on the waters of the Great Lakes.
Darkes has authored numerous articles in a variety of publications and has recently had two books published: Fly fishing the Inland Oceans-An Angler’s Guide to Finding and Catching Fish in the Great Lakes and Fly Tyer’s Guide to Tying Essential flies for Bass and Panfish.