Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Fly Fishing Lake Champlain by Canoe or Kayak

Lake Champlain trib at sunset
I have been chasing after all sorts of species in Lake Champlain with a fly rod for many years now, most of the time using a canoe. For most of the species that I target a canoe has been perfect for what I do both in my personal fishing and when I guide. With this in mind the other day I was thinking about the question I get asked frequently: how do I fly fish this huge lake with a canoe or kayak?

Lake Champlain can be (and in many respects should be) an intimidating piece of water. It is huge: 120 miles long, five very different segments in two states and a Canadian province with approximately 7.5 trillion gallons of water when its at its median level of 98 feet. There are numerous tributaries, vast wetlands, widely varied water types that can change in a heartbeat. On top of that there are at least 86 different species of fish in the lake with approximately 30 that can be caught by anglers (a guestimate on my part honestly). Keeping that in mind how do you start? Not an easy question.

Sight fishing smallmouth on a rocky shore
There is an old adage that seems appropriate for this: how do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time. This is a good way of looking at Champlain from the perspective of a canoe or kayak fly angler (the same applies in a lot of ways to conventional tackle as well). With such a massive body of water there is no way to cover all of it in a small watercraft effectively. The first step is to break it down into more manageable pieces that you can cover easily. Thinking about that means considering a number of factors to help decide where to go. These include the time of year, the species that you are hoping to find, the lake level, the general area of the lake you want to fish and the weather.

The only months of the year that I have not been on the lake in my canoe are January and February. Having said that, if you are unsure about your canoe or kayak skills or do not have the appropriate gear to be safe in cold conditions please don't get on the lake when the water is below 60. Lake Champlain is seriously big water folks. Safety comes first. In the beginning of the year, typically April and October through December the primary target species will be salmonids, pike, bass and panfish. Most of the other species are found throughout the summer months (May through September).

Lakers at dawn
When considering the time of year with species what is more important than the specific time of year is the temperature profile of the lake matched up with the species that you are looking for. Using the USGS Gauge for the lake to check the temperature will give you a good idea of what is going on. Having said that, the primary temperature is taken on the Burlington Waterfront which is adjacent to the broad lake. This means that it will stay cooler in the spring and then warmer in the fall. Shallower areas will warm up and cool down faster than the widest section of the lake where the gauge is located. And the lake is huge, there can be massive temperature variations sometimes because of prevailing wind conditions, sunlight, tributaries, etc. On the ground checks will give you more info. 

It pays to know the habitat that the species that you are targeting use. It is not out of the question to find an oddball fish in places you aren't expecting it but for the most part the fish know where they want to be and stick there. Chances are pretty good that you are not going to be finding gar when you are looking for lake trout (although I do have a pretty cool story about hooking a bowfin with the next cast after hooking a landlocked salmon- only in Champlain...). Most shallow weedy bays will have a pretty typical contingent of warm water species but might have cool or cold water species in the spring and fall. It can be pretty funny how two bays that are close to one another can have radically different compositions in terms of habitat and fish found there. Again, it pays off to scout a bit.
Hunting gar in a shallow bay

The level of the lake is a critical piece in finding fish with a paddled vessel. Flood stage is 100 feet, and if the lake is over 99 ft then there will be a lot of flooded forest acreage. In some ways this is a boon for fly anglers in canoes and kayaks in the spring. It gives a lot of water that you can check out (and it is super cool to catch fish in a flooded forest ala the Amazon). The downside to having so much flooded territory is that it spreads the fish out more. After leaf out having the lake really high makes things challenging- a lot of fish stay in the backwater and the brush is very difficult to navigate. I have found that my personal lake sweet spot is between 96 and 98 feet. Lots of habit for the fish to be in, lots of weedbeds, not a lot of structure to be careful of. When it starts dropping below this the fish head to different places. You have to cover a lot more water, which, while not a huge problem, does make it less efficient in a non powered boat.

There are a lot of different parts of the lake. Some of it is super shallow and weedy, other sections are sheer rock faces that drop precipitously down deep fast. Knowing the general structure of the lake will help you find your target species. The Navionics App is a great help with armchair prospecting as well as on the water. It will give you a great idea of what the area you want to check out is like.

It can pay to be in the thick of things
Probably the greatest factor in fishing Champlain in a person powered boat is the weather. The lake is big and has big weather. Keep yourself updated on what the weather conditions are supposed to be like and keep an eye on the weather you are observing yourself. Things get crazy fast and you don't want to be stuck without a way back if you can avoid it. Lake Champlain has taken lives because people were in the wrong place and weren't respecting how quickly conditions can deteriorate. Caution is the better part of valor and I personally recommend staying fairly close to shore for safety's sake.

For example, in August 2018 I had a client on the lake. The weather was supposed to be fairly nice with a light breeze of 10 mph and a slight chance of a thunderstorm. We were on the water and it was fine quite a while. There was a light chop and it wasn't bad. I did notice a dark cloud over the Adirondacks and checked the radar. It didn't seem like an issue for a bit but then I realized it was time to go. As we paddled back to the launch a wind storm hit. The lake went from 4-6 inch chop to 3-4 foot rollers in a matter of 10 minutes. It was pretty scary. The lake she is a wicked mistress when you aren't paying attention, so pay attention!
Rich Hart with a nice Champlain bowfin

Wind is my greatest concern on the lake. I really watch the wind direction and speed. Fly casting from a canoe in the wind is not a pleasant experience but if you factor in the wind action from those waves it can get really challenging in the extreme. With such a variety of water it is usually easy to find a relatively sheltered area on the lake to paddle. If there is a north wind, find a south facing bay to give you some protection. This holds true with most wind directions. There are plenty of options, it is just a matter of using some common sense and map skills. With that being said, I will generally avoid being on the lake if the wind speed is over 15 mph, less if the water is 50 or under (10 is my cut off there). Safety first folks.

The best piece of advice I can give paddle anglers is to just get out an poke around. There are lots of access points along the Vermont and New York sides of the lake. The appeal of a smaller vessel is that it lets you drop into a lot of places that are not as easily accessed by a boat ramp. Hopping a guardrail or walking down a bank (that isn't posted) lets you get to a lot of places quickly without a long paddle. I could certainly list off a bunch of my favorite spots and the species found there but, damn, this is the interwebs and I don't want to blow up all the places I fish. I am no dummy!  Seriously though, if you are hitting Lake Champlain with a canoe or kayak you have a bloody big elephant to eat. Start taking some bites!