Skip to content
5 Tactics for Fishing Big Lakes: Head out with Confidence to Your Favorite Lake

5 Tactics for Fishing Big Lakes: Head out with Confidence to Your Favorite Lake

By Jason Brooks 

Large lakes and reservoirs can be intimidating to anglers. Some of the largest bodies of freshwater are more like mini oceans, which means some of the tactics and techniques anglers use out on the open seas can also be used inland to great advantage.

My formative years were spent traversing Lake Chelan, the 55-mile-long deep-water fjord in North Central Washington. Immersed in fishing with my father, who was a guide, I learned how to catch many species of fish and to navigate confidently in big waters. The knowledge I gained throughout my childhood helped me when I switched to fishing in the Pacific Ocean. Looking back on the success I have had in both environments, I have identified several techniques that work just as well in large reservoirs and sizeable lakes as they do chasing salmon and bottom fish out in the open sea.  

Anglers find their targeted fish by carefully analyzing the body of water.  

There are several factors to consider when heading to a big lake or reservoir including the lake’s depth, shoreline configuration, bays, inlets, tributaries, and outlet rivers or streams for example. Even the surrounding hillsides can affect fishing. For example, Lake Chelan is a deep-cut canyon with mountains towering above, a topography that can lead to early afternoon shadows and funneled thermal winds.

Another large lake in the Pacific Northwest is Lake Coeur d’ Alene in north Idaho. This lake is spread out with many bays and inlets and is known for its kokanee fishing. The kokanee here spawn in the tributary streams as well as along the shoreline, a common way their sea-run cousin the sockeye spawns in Lake Wenatchee in Washington and Lake Osoyoos in British Columbia.  

Wolf bay along the northeast part of Lake Coeur d’ Alene is known for its kokanee spawning grounds and anglers are very productive in this area since this is where the fish congregate just before the spawn. Lake Chelan also has a great kokanee fishery but the landlocked sockeye only spawn in the tributaries. This is because the lake has a dam on it and each fall the lake level drops around 11 feet, exposing the gravel where the kokanee could have spawned.

Both lakes are large and have kokanee, but this one variable affects where and how you fish in each lake. Though each lake can vary, like Coeur d’ Alene and Chelan, most large lakes will also have similar attributes that anglers can use to narrow down where to start fishing.  

The species of fish an angler chooses to target will determines how and where the fish will be found in a large body of water.  

Some species lend to others. For example, landlocked chinook, coho and kokanee are often found mid-water where thermocline and food sources are optimal. Other species such as burbot, a freshwater cod, and mackinaw or lake trout, which is a char, can be found near the bottom. Trout, including rainbows and cutthroat, are often found near the shoreline and tributaries that feed the larger bodies of water since the inflow flushes insects into the lake. Bass are prone to living near and under structures such as docks, bridges, sunken logs, and other areas of cover.  

Maps, both online and in a sonar unit's chart plotter are key to finding a targeted species. 

Defining the structure as well as the make-up of the lake including shallow bays, deep pockets, and shelves or walls will increase your odds of finding your targeted species. The landlocked salmon angler needs to find food sources such as baitfish and Mysis shrimp.  

These sources are usually found in big schools and marked on the sonar unit. Just like fishing in the ocean where baitfish show up in bait balls and anglers target the salmon that are actively feeding, the freshwater salmon do the same thing. Here the same gear and techniques work well. A Mack’s Lure ScentFlash UV Paddle Flasher trailing a Cha Cha Salmon Squidder or the Wiggle Hoochie tipped with a herring strip will catch landlocked chinook just effectively as a salmon in the ocean. Landlocked coho and kokanee, which are sockeye, are often caught using similar gear, even though they have different food sources. Both species are much smaller than their ocean-living cousins and small lures such as the Hum Dinger and Cripplure will catch both.  

Warm-water species of fish such as bass and walleye prefer structure.  

Looking at the lakes on a topographical map will show points, underwater islands, gravel bars, and ledges where fish will be waiting. Food sources for these species are small baitfish, crayfish, worms, and a myriad of other prey. They are also often found in shallower water than other species, which makes shorelines a good place to look. Pitching a Rock Dancer Jig is an effective way to find these species. If you are targeting walleye, then a Sonic Baitfish works well. Some lakes and reservoirs also have native Pikeminnows, which are predator fish. While they are not edible and are often referred to as “trash fish”, they can be fun to catch.   

Trout are one of the easier species to find in large lakes and reservoirs because they like to eat bugs. In the early morning and late evening, trout give themselves away when they feed on the surface of the water taking full advantage of the day’s bug hatch. They also tend to cruise the shoreline and can be found near tributaries. Creeks, and rivers that flow into a lake also bring a lot of aquatic insects especially after a hard rain or during spring runoff. Trolling a Mack’s Smile Blade Fly out in front of a stream is an easy and surefire way to catch trout no matter the size of the lake.  

A few species unique to large lakes and reservoirs are lake trout, otherwise known as mackinaw and the freshwater cod known as burbot. Both fish tend to stay near the bottom and are predatory. The lake trout is a vicious fish and will attack about anything that is presented to them.  

PRO TIP: One way to get the bite going is to use a herring strip on the hook of the lure since the natural oils in this bait are a bite stimulant.  

PRO TIP: Both fish live deep in the water and that means the use of a UV-enhanced lure will work well. A Mack’s Lure Pee Wee Wiggle Hoochie has action as well as UV which illuminates in the deep water. When trolling for either species keep the gear deep and bounce the downrigger ball off the bottom of the lake every few minutes as this can draw attention to your gear.  

Besides species, there are a few other things that anglers need to consider when fishing big water.  

The first and most obvious is safety. Water conditions can turn quickly and if you are a long way from the boat launch you need to know how to get back safely or be willing to anchor up in a safe harbor. Be sure to check the weather forecast including the wind forecast and barometric pressure as this is an indication of a weather change. Winds not only cause safety concerns but can also affect fishing conditions. For example, large waves are capable of pushing a boat faster than desired when trolling.  

Big water often means deep water. Electric downriggers are essential on some lakes; however, even hand-crank downriggers give anglers an advantage. If jigging is the preferred method for fishing, then upsize to heavier jigs to get the line down to the fish. Depth and water clarity also affect fishing. When dropping into deep water, remember cold and dark conditions may mean a slower bite, especially if the fish are lethargic or cannot see the lures. Using scent is crucial for success. Adding bait oils, gels, and sauces increases your chances of hooking a nice fish. Same with the use of a glow finish or UV-enhanced lures.  

Though tides are not a factor, the water temperature is.  

Most large lakes will be deep enough to have a thermocline, which is an area of water that is either warmer or cooler than the surrounding water. It can be formed from various conditions, including feeder streams and rivers, sunlight, bottom composition, wind, shadows from hillsides and mountains, and other natural formations. Various thermometers on the market will give you a temperature reading and record the depth it was taken, which can give you a major fishing advantage.  

Treat these large bodies of water like a mini ocean and go catch some fish.  

Big water can be very intimidating, but if you break down the lake to the species you are targeting and study the lake make-up well, you can be successful. Knowing the limits of your boating skills, keeping an eye on the weather, and making sure safety is your top priority at all times, will enable you to enjoy fishing in larger lakes and reservoirs with confidence this season. 

Previous article Happenstance: Displaced Dentist to Lure Designer
Next article 10 Good Reasons to Take a Kid Fishing