All too often beginner fly anglers think that fly fishing requires a lot of space. Therefore, most people assume catching fish means using a float tube, boat or wading into the water.
From my own personal experience, I have learned that’s not always the case. Whether I’m hiking to a high mountain lake filled with rising brook trout or making a spontaneous stop at a small river along side the road, most of my fly fishing is done from shore.
So, can you fly fish from shore? Yes, you can. There are several ways to effectively find, stalk and cast to fish with fly fishing equipment right from shore. Even if you have trees behind you or you’re fishing in tight quarters, the right techniques will help you catch fish without getting your feet wet.
Now, let’s go over what you need to know to successfully fly fish from shore.
Tactics for finding shoreline fish
Just about every species that fly anglers target are within easy reach of the shoreline at one time or another. This may only occur at certain times of the year or during dawn and dusk as fish feed in the shallows. Regardless, it’s important to know the habits of the fish you’re after.
Another important consideration is the type of water you are fishing in. Shore fishing in streams is relatively easy to find fish within striking distance of shore. Fish occupy the same riffles, pools and eddies most of the season.
Lakes, on the other hand, are a bit trickier and don’t give up fish to the shoreline fly angler without some effort. Our goal is to make this a bit easier for you.
Fly fishing on lakes from shore
Success on any size lake while fly fishing from shore will benefit from some advanced planning.
For conversation sake, let’s assume you’re targeting trout. The best time to convince trout to gulp down a fly close to shore is in early spring right after ice out. Aquatic invertebrates and insects begin hatching in the warmer shallows and trout start moving towards shore as they gorge on prey.
Get a topographic lake map or look at Google Earth for the spot you want to fish. Find places where steep drop-offs occur adjacent to shallow flats within casting distance of shore.
If the maps are not helpful it may take in-person investigation to find bank fishing spots. If possible, get to an elevated location with a view of the lake and look for sudden color changes in the water. This indicates depth transitions that act as travel corridors for fish.
Also, focus your fishing efforts near structure like fallen trees or rock points that harbor concentrated food sources.
While wind is often a fly angler’s nemesis, it can actually help hide your presence to skittish shallow water fish. Nymph and chironomid patterns suspended beneath an indicator are perfect for windy conditions.
Summer heat will eventually drive fish deeper but early morning and late evening provide relief from the heat and fish will feed for a short time closer to shore.
Fly fishing on rivers and streams without wading
Some of my favorite fishing spots are small rivers that meander through tall stands of douglas fir and pines. Vine maple chokes the bank and any other openings near shore are occupied by dense scrub alder. This hard-to-fish stream holds beautiful wild cutthroat seldom caught by other anglers and is worth every effort to fish it.
As hard as it is to fly fish from a brushy shore, sometimes wading is not practical. Wading also seems to scare fish in smaller streams, effectively turning off the bite.
Just like fishing from shore on a lake, catching trout on a fly in a river takes a bit of strategy to do right.
The first step as a shoreline angler is to adapt your fly to the technique required to reach the fish. Here’s what I mean. You might be watching trout rise to surface insects but with limited room to adjust your cast from shore, a dry fly presentation won’t look natural. Instead, try a soft hackle wet fly on the swing. Role cast upstream and let it drift down. An imperfect presentation on the swing can still catch fish.
That’s not to say you can’t use a dry fly. Position yourself below rising trout and side cast upstream with an extra long leader to drop the fly just ahead of the fish. This presentation needs a delicate touch to avoid spooking the fish.
At times, getting the fly to the right spot may require moving upstream and drifting a nymph or wet fly down to your target. This technique is certainly not as accurate as casting and you’ll probably be at the mercy of the current but it might be your only shot to reach fish in tight quarters.
Fly fishing from shore won’t stop you from catching fish but occasionally it is simply not possible to cast a fly where you want it to go without wading into the water. This is especially the case on wider rivers.
Casting a fly rod with trees or brush behind you
It doesn’t matter what kind of water body you are fishing, at some point you’ll be in a spot that makes conventional overhead fly casting nearly impossible. Most places I fish in the Pacific Northwest have abundant trees and scrub alder that make a sport of snagging my flies.
Confined casting space and banks thick with trees frustrate most shore bound fly fishers to no end. Luckily, there are casting techniques that help spare our flies from the fate of the “hanging tree”.
There are two main casting methods I use when there are trees or brush behind me. They work on lakes, small streams and rivers. However, they take some time to master. Practice in the yard before you go.
The role cast
The role cast is the “bread and butter” cast when you’re fly fishing in tight spaces. With no room for the back stroke on an overhead cast, a role cast is the best maneuver when fly fishing from shore.
Rather than trying to describe the procedure for making a good role cast, I think you’ll get a better lesson from this instructional video.
Get your role cast dialed in and shore fishing won’t be as intimidating anymore. Often the limiting factor of the role cast is distance. You loose a lot of casting power by giving up the back cast. As a result, you see people trying to add distance to a role cast by wiping the rod as hard as they can. It doesn’t usually work.
Instead, extend your reach by adding a haul into the forward stroke of a role cast. For those who don’t know, a haul is a method of loading more energy into the rod by pulling on the line with your free hand as you propel the line on the forward and back cast.
With a role cast you obviously add the haul on the forward motion only. Starting with 20 to 25 feet of line on the water works well. Then, just begin the motion of the role cast and add the haul in as you flick your wrist forward.
Learning the right timing takes practice but eventually you’ll even be able to shoot some line on a role cast using this method.
The bow and arrow cast
This unusual cast is not used often but it proves invaluable in situations when I’m confined to shore on a small creek or back channel. Usually the brush is think and tree canopy blocks any attempt of holding a fly rod vertical. The bow and arrow cast is perfect for these situations.
Once again, it is far easier to learn this method of casting by watching an expert. Here is an excellent clip demonstrating one way to put this cast to use.
You can see that the instructor was grabbing the main line with the leader still on the water. I have also found that on smaller creeks you can shorten up the bow and arrow cast by hanging directly onto the fly as well.
Between the role cast and the bow and arrow cast you can effectively fly fish from shore in just about every situation. By no means are these the only methods of casting when trees are at your back. Overtime you’ll keep learning and find what works for you.
It always feels limiting to fish from shore. Sometimes every fish feels just beyond reach. More often than not though, fly fishing from shore can be highly productive by applying the right techniques.
Whether you are a novice fly angler or a well seasoned pro, getting in a boat or wading into water is not always an option. Plus, sometimes conditions are just right and make the shore line approach your best option for catching trophy fish on a fly.