The Winter Lake Trip

Philip plans a winter lake outing shore-based in western Victoria.

Aha! Looks like a free fishing day coming up, maybe even two days in a row. No work commitments, and no weddings, significant birthdays, or other ‘can’t miss’ social gatherings. The perfect opportunity to give the winter trout lakes a proper go.

Step one – The candidates

No, not which fishing mate – although a suitably enthusiastic friend is a significant asset on a winter lake trip. At the very least, they can double the water explored, thereby doubling the odds of finding the better spots more quickly. Plus, tactically, with two anglers, you can experiment with flies and techniques (e.g. pulling wets vs indicator) to find what’s working.

Equally important, the right fishing mate should be an asset to morale and confidence. This is perhaps not a trip well-suited to your sworn stream fisher friend.

But back to the lake candidates, and by this, I mean a shortlist of potential destinations. You’re looking for waters that:

  • Are close enough for a worthwhile trip (for a day trip, which might be within a couple of hours’ drive each way).
  • Have a ‘healthy’ recent water history; at least 18 months without critically low water levels (you can check this for most man-made lakes via the links at the end of this article), and/ or water quality issues (e.g. lethal algal blooms or blackwater).
  • Have a solid trout stocking history Search by Water only – VFA for at least 18 months.

Cosgrave is one of many lakes this winter with a good recent water history (despite an autumn blue-green algae bloom) and a good stocking history.

It is handy if your shortlist lakes have also been the subject of a reasonably fresh, positive fishing report from a reliable source. This one shouldn’t be a deal breaker though. For example, recently, one contact was complaining about a completely dead day at Lake Purrumbete. Then a week later, another contact headed there and caught several nice fish.

It’s true that a succession of poor reports (or good reports) from a given water should be taken note of. But I can’t stress enough how risky it is to make destination decisions based solely on the experiences of others. At the very least, compare what you’re hearing with what the cold hard data says. It is rare for the fundamentals to be completely off.

Step two – The final lake(s) choice

Within two or three days of departure, the weather forecasts should be refined enough to narrow your choice down to a lake (or ideally two lakes close to each other, so you have a backup). Predicted wind strength and direction are generally my prime consideration. For example, at Lake Wartook in the Grampians, I dislike a strong easterly, because that will be blowing straight on to the most accessible southwest and western shores.

On the other hand, easterlies work well for Lake Purrumbete, where they’re well suited to wade or bank fishing the access-friendly eastern shore.

A nice brown on a cold August day at Lake Bullen Merri. I can cope with most winds here, but less so at its neighbour, Purrumbete.

Yes, there’s a solid argument to be made for winter fishing the windward shores on many lakes, Purrumbete and Wartook included. However, for my own sight-fishing/ prospecting hybrid style (not to mention my likely endurance!) lee shores are generally better.

Then there’s the odd lake like Wendouree where you can find a decent shore to fish in most winds.

The next consideration is sun or cloud. In winter, I’m happy enough on most lakes with either. However, if polaroiding is a real chance – for instance off the northern and western shores at Lake Fyans – then sun is obviously an advantage.

Last on the list of priorities is temperature. Oddly enough, this seems to have little effect on winter lake fishing. Extreme heat is unknown over winter, and cold has to be bitter indeed to negatively affect the fishing; in fact, I can’t easily recall a winter lake day when I blamed cold for tough fishing.

Step three – On the water

Having chosen your destination sensibly, you should be able to start fishing with confidence… and confidence is the single most important ingredient for winter lake fishing. I’ve written many times before that the positive reinforcement of regular trout sightings (or even takes) which you might get, for example, on a summer stream, is harder to come by on a winter lake. And yet you must fish with the care and expectation of someone who knows the trout are there. Eyes peeled for the faintest surface disturbance or movement below the surface, ears pricked for the quiet clip of a midge feeder, or the splash of a smelter 200 metres away. Line hand ready for the slightest pluck, while looking hard with your peripheral vision for a twitch of your indicator or a bit of line movement or tension you can only see, not feel.

Before any of that, I will walk down to the lake with a fly tied on and ready to go. Too many times in my life, I’ve arrived on the shore and immediately seen a trout… then that’s it for an hour or two. Don’t ask me to explain this phenomena, but I don’t want to be fiddling around with tippets and flies while one of the best chances of the day disappears out of sight.

This is also where I really value fishing with a mate. In the case of, say, a polaroided cruiser or a midging fish, whoever is set up with an indicator and/ or small wet is best placed to take the shot. If, on the other hand, it’s a smelter, pulling a suitable baitfish pattern is likely to be the better option.

Can you spot this Bellfield rainbow? Fortunately, I was ready with an olive BMS.

Whatever the case, make sure your tippet is fresh and re tied, a fly is on the end, and knots are tested (this is when you want that dodgy knot to break!) before you even go near the water.

Although in the oft-repeated words of our columnist Peter Hayes “it depends”, typically, my ‘have something on’ fly will be a small to medium wet, in olive, with perhaps a touch of flash or colour. Maybe a small Magoo, or a medium Tom Jones or BMS. Subtle enough to cover a sighted fish without alarming it, but significant enough for a bit of initial blind searching if need be. This fly doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough to make a start until more information gathered suggests a change – or not.

Step four – Adapting to the conditions

Speaking of which, within half an hour or so on my chosen lake, I would hope to be developing a more sophisticated picture of my fishing environment – and my fishing mate should be too. This is where communication between you both is invaluable. I have a love/ hate relationship with mobile phones, but when fishing with someone else (together but apart!) being able to share up-to-date information is a real bonus – and most western Victorian lakes have some degree of mobile coverage; enough for an SMS at least. Failing that, set a catch-up time and place (say, back at the car in an hour) to compare notes.

A slick of food like this is worth serious investigation, and possibly even a call for backup from your mate.

Without wanting to make flyfishing seem too much like accountancy, there are a few outcomes which might play out something like this.

  • An hour with absolutely no sign of a fish or food? Move to another part of the lake.
  • No fish but food; e.g. baitfish crowded on the shore (they’re probably not there for the fun of it!), or slicks full of midge, or flooded shores with flushed worms, beetles etc? Another hour of dedicated searching and fishing – it’s likely the trout are there and catchable, you just haven’t found them or attracted their interest yet.
  • Fish sighted? Focus effort on that area (or areas with similar features) for at least another hour.
  • With the last example, try to take a stab at how the trout are feeding, and fish accordingly. For just two of a myriad possible examples, fast, aggressive shoreline cruising may indicate a trout hunting baitfish (try a baitfish-similar retrieved wet fly). Slow and deliberate shoreline cruising might mean a trout hunting flushed food, bloodworms or yabbies. (For the first two, fish an imitation under an indicator, or for the third, a Woolly Bugger on the bottom, twitched and stopped when the trout is close.)

If the action seems universally non-existent after an hour (effectively 2 hours effort with two of you), it’s probably time to move to another part of the lake. Try for somewhere with different physical characteristics, e.g. shallow vs deep; lots of structure (boulders, snags, weed-beds) vs open water; different lake currents/ ripple, etc.

Bringing a brown to the net at Hepburn Lagoon. Despite sighting no actual smelters, on this afternoon in early June this year, smelt were dimpling along the weed-bed edges in numerous places on the southern shore. A small olive Zonker pattern proved the successful fly, also fooling a bigger rainbow.

Step Five – The backup

By now, hopefully you’ll be enjoying a bit of action. However, trout being trout, sometimes, in spite of a lot of seemingly smart decisions, it just doesn’t come together. At some point on a tough day – and I would define that point as being when there’s enough daylight to make a move worthwhile – it might be prudent to fall back to your second lake.

Once there, repeat the steps above.

Investment pays off

The fine print for all winter lake fishing is that familiarity breeds success, yet you can’t gain familiarity without putting the hours in on the water. By all means, accumulate as much information and good, effective equipment as you can. But also know there isn’t some magic shortcut which can take you straight from winter lake novice, to catching lots of big trout the first time you try.


  • Invest in a pair of good quality low light polarised glasses, and wear them all the time between sunrise and sunset, regardless of cloud cover. Your time on the water is, in part, an intelligence-gathering exercise. Besides the obvious advantage of polaroiding a trout to cast to (which may or may not happen) you need to know about the trout which followed your fly but didn’t take – or even better, which can then be ‘teased’ into eating. You also need to be able to see and understand otherwise invisible subsurface features like weed-beds, channels, drop-offs, boulders, logs and so on.
  • Dress to stay warm and dry. That means layers, long waders (at least waist if not chest), and having a decent breathable waterproof jacket on (or within easy reach) if there’s any chance of rain, sleet or snow. Have gloves that you can actually fish in while also keeping your hands warm, plus a beanie or similar. The key is to be able to keep fishing in comfort regardless of the conditions. Trout are a cold water fish – if you stop every time the weather gets bad, you’ve chosen the wrong species to target! And overdress rather than underdress. You can always take off a layer if it turns out less bitter than expected.     
  • Bring plenty of good food to eat and a thermos. Some days, it’s all about keeping morale up, and there’s nothing like a short break, a decent snack and a hot drink for a recharge.
  • Use a system which keeps flies, tippet, clippers, indicators, etc, easily accessible while you fish. It’s no fun rooting around in invisible pockets three layers deep as you try to replace some essential piece of terminal tackle – especially if it is wet and windy.
  • And you know I’m going to say it – carry a big net!

    Yep, glad I had a big net for this winter brown.

    Water history:

  • Grampians lakes
  • Goulburn-Murray Water lakes
  • Central Highlands Water lakes
  • Barwon Water lakes
  • Coliban Water lakes


Further reading: ‘Flyfishing Western Victoria’