View of a person opening a box of colourful flies on his lap on a boat.

The New Fly Fisher

Best flies for Ontario sportfish

View of a person opening a box of colourful flies on his lap on a boat.

The New Fly Fisher

The fish and what flies to use

Ontario has many species of fish one can target on fly, however, there are a few sportfish species that are more fly-friendly to anglers.

All species of fish are opportunistic feeders meaning they will generally eat when an opportunity presents itself.

Fly fishing is the art and science of tricking a fish to eat something that is hand-tied using synthetic material or fur and feathers from a variety of animals. The flies are created to mimic something a fish would eat in the natural world. From insects to small mammals, flies are tied with precision design for one purpose, to trick a fish to eat. Specific species of fish will prefer specific things in their diet.

For example, most of a brown trout’s diet consists of bugs whereas the majority of a musky’s diet consists of meat protein such as other fish.

Understanding what fish eat in nature is key to choosing the fly that will best give an angler the chance of tricking the fish to eat the unnatural offering.

Here is a general breakdown:

Smallmouth bass

  • Smallmouth bass are widely spread throughout the province of Ontario. From the Great Lakes north to well above Highway 17, these hard-fighting fish can be targeted in cold water lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.
  • Smallmouth bass can grow to more than seven or eight pounds, or three to four kilograms with the Ontario record fish weighing 9.8 pounds or 4.5 kilograms.
  • They are extremely willing to eat the offering of a fly and are great sport for fly fishers. Smallmouth bass diet in nature consists primarily of other fish, but they will also consume insects, small mammals, and amphibians.

Flies to consider for smallmouth bass could include:

  • Streamers such as a Scott’s McFly are designed to imitate many different kinds of minnow smallmouth eat. They imitate shiner minnows and rainbow smelt.
  • Poppers are made to be fished on the surface of the water. They are designed to make noise in turn attracting fish’s attention. They can imitate a small mammal such as a mouse or amphibians such as frogs.
  • Nymphs are a great choice for picky smallmouth bass. Suspended under a popper, often a fish will come to the noise of the surface fly and decide to take the larva imitation.

Largemouth bass

  • Considered a warm water fish, largemouth bass can be found in the weedy back bays of many lakes in Ontario. Generally larger than smallmouth, they are also well-targeted using fly fishing equipment.
  • Largemouth will often eat offerings of the topwater fly variety and can be quite explosive when they attack a fly. Coming from the sunfish family of fish, the Ontario record largemouth weighs in at just over 10 pounds or 4.7 kilograms.
  • Warm water habitat dictates much of what largemouth bass primarily eat. Leeches, other fish, amphibians, and insects make up the majority of a largemouth’s diet. Fly fishing for largemouth can also be challenging because of where they inhabit, thick weeds and cover.

Flies to consider for largemouth bass could include:

  • Topwater flies such as poppers are effective in targeting this species. Consider choosing a fly with a week guard or one with the hook facing up to prevent getting hooked on vegetation and other structure.
  • Woolly Buggers are designed weighted as well as unweighted. They can mimic many different foods largemouth eat including leeches, insect larvae, and even crayfish.
  • Streamers, where anglers are able to fish, are an effective fly for largemouth bass. Imitating a baitfish natural to their diet is key, so anglers should be observant about the baitfish in the body of water and try to match size and color if possible.

Northern pike

  • Often referred to as the apex predator in any body of water, northern pike are voracious feeders. They will lie in wait, camouflaged for unsuspecting prey to happen by before attacking. Generally solitary fish, northern pike inhabit warmer bodies of water with ample places to take cover and hide.
  • Often cannibalistic, northern pike will eat anything they can fit in their mouths including rodents, birds, small mammals, and other fish. One of the larger fish swimming in Ontario waters, the Ontario record pike weighs in at 42 pounds or 19 kilograms. 
  • Northern pike are ambush hunters. Rarely will they chase down their food expelling much needed energy. They will position themselves under cover and attack unsuspecting fish, amphibians, and even mammals.

Flies to consider for northern pike could include:

  • Big streamers are one of the best choices fly anglers can use to target pike. Realizing pike are meat eaters, larger flies can often trick this fish. Colors that match what pike eat will also help. Natural colors such as black, olive, brown and silver are a good place to start. If that doesn’t trick northern pike, anglers could consider chartreuse and yellow.
  • Large poppers can be very effective in targeting northern pike, especially in shallow water. Poppers that make a lot of noise and displace water disturbance will attract pike.

Musky

  • A low-density population of musky, along with their pickiness to eat help give this Ontario sportfish the moniker of “the fish of 10,000 casts.” Ontario’s largest toothed fish, the musky is a voracious predator and catchable on fly.
  • Growing larger than northern pike, the musky will hunt mammals, birds, rodents, amphibians and other fish. They are inherently curious fish, often being seen by anglers boat side and not shy to stay in the vicinity. The largest musky caught in Ontario is a 65 pound or 29.5 kilogram fish.
  • Targeting musky on fly can be a challenging feat simply because of the size of the flies musky like to eat. Anglers should try and avoid natural fur flies and cast synthetic materials when possible. Natural fur retains water and proves more difficult for anglers to cast. Musky are inherently curious creatures who will react positively to flashy colors and big bodied offerings.

Flies to consider for musky could include:

  • Big synthetic streamers are advantageous for musky anglers in natural colors. Consider choosing flies with lots of flash and attractive properties.
  • Topwater flies mimicking large terrestrial animals such as mice, chipmunks, red squirrels are a good choice for musky anglers. Musky will attack these flies voraciously.

Brown trout

  • Brown trout, caught and released in many Ontario rivers, streams and lakes are plentiful.
  • They are found primarily in central and southern Ontario with a few rivers in the north supporting this game fish. In the Great Lakes, they can get quite large with the Ontario record weighing in at 34.4 pounds or 15.6 kilograms.
  • Brown trout, of all the trout species have unique feeding patterns anglers should pay attention to. Often, brown trout anglers see most success early morning and late afternoon right into the night, fishing at dark. They too are opportunistic feeders and won’t turn down high protein offerings.

Flies to consider for brown trout could include:

  • Nighttime is the right time for targeting brown trout on fly. Using big mouse flies that sit high on the surface will trigger a brown trout to eat.
  • Chernobyl ants and larger insect imitations fished in river seams are effective flies to target brown trout. Imitation a beetle, ant, or grasshopper will trigger a reaction bite from Ontario brown trout.
  • Quill bullet nymph are small heavily weighted nymphs, suspended under a terrestrial topwater fly or an indicator that will draw the attention of brown trout. These small nymphs resemble an emerging mayfly and are a major part of the brown trout diet.

Rainbow trout

  • Acrobatic and energetic, rainbow trout are found throughout most of Ontario stretching well into the north. They are revered by fly anglers as relatively fly-friendly fish and readily eat a wide variety of offerings.
  • Found in cold water systems including lakes, rivers and streams, rainbow trout are migratory and will move from lakes into rivers in the spring and fall. Lake run rainbow trout found in the tributaries of lakes are sometimes referred to steelhead. The Ontario record rainbow trout weighs in at 40.1 pounds or 18.5 kilograms.
  • Rainbow trout or lake run steelhead are catchable on fly most of the year fishing regulations permitting.
  • In the spring, they enter rivers to spawn and are big eaters once the spawning event is over. In lakes in Ontario, rainbows are caught all summer long. They are cold water fish so temperatures will factor into angling activity.
  • In the fall, many trout or steelhead will enter the rivers once again to feed on the eggs of other spawning species such as brown trout and various salmon species. Fall and spring are excellent times to target these fish in Ontario.

Flies to consider for brown trout could include:

  • Egg patterns are one of the more effective flies to target rainbow trout and can be fished both in the spring and fall months.
  • Small streamers fished in rivers in both spring and fall will find anglers seeing success. White and silver, olive and black colors are very effective.
  • Rainbow trout will always be feeding on aquatic insects be they in a lake environment or a river environment. Consider a variety of nymphs, both large and small presented under an indicator as an effective fly setup for rainbow trout and lake run steelhead.

Brook trout

  • Found in clean clear pristine waters in Ontario, brook trout are considered an indicator species. Their presence is proof of a healthy water body or watershed.
  • Fall spawners, brook trout are also considered to be an all-or-nothing fish meaning they are either very easy to catch or you can’t catch them at all.
  • They are found all over Ontario and do stretch into Ontario’s north with opportunities for anglers to catch and release sea-run brook trout in tributaries of James and Hudson Bay.
  • The Ontario record (also the world record) was caught in Ontario’s Nipigon River and weighs 14.5 pounds or 6.6 kilograms.
  • Like all trout, brook trout in Ontario have a staple diet of aquatic insects on their diets. They are, similar to brown trout able to be fly fished with protein offerings. Natural world foods include mice, amphibians, small fish, aquatic insects and even other brook trout. Brook trout will attempt to eat most things they can fit in their mouths and are stealthy hunters.

Flies to consider for brook trout could include:

  • Mice patterns are an effective method for targeting brook trout, especially in the river and lake systems in Ontario’s north. Proportionally larger than their southern Ontario cousins northern fish have the size to attempt to eat larger offerings such as mice, voles and larger amphibians.
  • Streamers and muddler minnows are a reliable bet for targeting brook trout as their natural diet does consist of predation on other fish. Anglers should experiment with different sizes of streamers as brook trout have been observed attacking prey almost their entire body length.
  • Dry flies make up a large proportion of a brook trout’s diet. Mayflies and caddis patterns will prove effective in feeding fish as will their larval emerging nymphs.

Lake trout

  • Generally thought of as a deep-water fish, lake trout do come shallow in the spring and fall.
  • In springtime, just after ice-out lake trout will chase baitfish in the shallow (warmer) water before they head down to their deep-dwelling haunts.
  • In the fall, they will come back shallow in preparation to spawn. This is when fly anglers can target these plentiful fish.
  • Growing quite large, lake trout are found all over the province in cold deep bodies of water. The Ontario record lake trout weighs in at 63.1 pounds or 28.6 kilograms.
  • Twice a season lake trout are accessible to fly anglers in Ontario, early spring just after ice out and fall just before they set to spawn. Fish come shallow enough for fly anglers to have access to present flies to them. Lake trout get quite large and have been observed chasing natural prey items such as minnows in a schooling fashion.

Flies to consider for lake trout could include:

  • Whistler’s are a kind of streamer with a unique head. The head of the fly is tied with a two-ball section of bead chain with the chain removed, leaving two holes on either side of the head. This creates a whistling sound in the air and leaves a trail of air bubbles in the water. Lake trout as well as many other species are attracted to the commotion.
  • The gamechanger is a unique fly in its shape and weight. Easy to cast, gamechangers articulate in the water imitating a swimming prey item. When lake trout are shallow, a streamer such as a gamechanger can be highly effective to incite a reaction bite and a chase by often multiple fish.

Last updated: September 18, 2023

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