A fish and a fishing rod.

How to catch fish on a fly rod

A fish and a fishing rod.

The good news is once an angler decides to pick up a fly rod, the learning curve is steep, and it won’t be long before they are catching fish in Ontario.

Ontario is an angler’s playground offering hundreds of thousands of places to fish in lakes, rivers, streams, and ponds. With over 250,000 bodies of water, and the fact that they’re spread all over the province, affords anglers the space, species and accessibility to fish what they want when and where they want, often without seeing anyone else on their adventure.

Some species of fish are easier to catch than others. For example, smallmouth bass will generally eat a lure or a fly much more willingly than a musky. So, for those starting in fly fishing, it’s best to target fish that have higher populations and are considered easier to catch.

Here are a few species of fish in Ontario that are the most willing to eat a fly from a boat or from the shoreline. And get some handy tips for each of the species.

Smallmouth bass

Smallmouth bass are a cool water fish. From the southern great lakes to the vast waterscapes of Ontario’s north, smallmouth are plentiful, aggressive and very willing to attack a fly.

The Main source of their diet consists of baitfish, crayfish and insect larvae.

Fishing tips and tricks

Smallmouth bass are generally pack hunters; they are schooling fish.

If you get a strike from a smallmouth, and doesn’t hook the fish, they should keep fishing the fly. Often when one fish attacks a prey item, it will get the rest of the school energized to eat and a different fish will try to eat what the first fish missed.

Experiment with retrieval speed.

Depending on conditions, fish will be in a mood, either positive, which means they are keen to feed, or negative where they aren’t. Negative fish may be less interested in expelling energy toward a fast-moving fly, whereas faster retrieves can illicit an eat from a positive fish. By varying the angler’s retrieval speed, fly fishers can pattern the speed which the fish are more likely to attack the fly.

Consider a technique called dead sticking.

Dead sticking is where an angler doesn’t move the fly at all. For example, cast out a topwater popper and simply let the fly sit motionless on the surface until all the water rings dissipate. It may take as much as a minute, then with the slightest twitch, the popper moves. This technique imitates a fleeing prey item and is often what smallmouth need to strike.

Double up.

Anglers that double up their flies generally have great success targeting smallmouth bass. Where regulations allow, consider tying two flies in tandem on the leader. This, depending on the flies chosen may look like a leech, a woolly bugger being chased by a minnow, a streamer. To smallmouth bass, it triggers the attack instinct to possibly eat them both. Sometimes, two schooling smallmouth will even each eat a fly creating an interesting situation of battling two fish on one leader. There are a multitude of tandem fly combinations anglers can utilize to trick smallmouth bass to feed.

Largemouth bass

Largemouth bass, the warm water cousins of smallmouth don’t have as wide a habitat as the smallmouth, however, are quite willing to eat a well-presented fly. They inhabit warmer still waters of Ontario containing weedy bays and dense cover.

The main source of their diet consists of crayfish, insect larvae and amphibians.

Fishing tips and tricks

A vertical presentation of your fly targeting deeper largemouth bass is a technique used in heavy cover such as thick weed.

Often in this type of cover, the typical horizontal presentation of casting and retrieving won’t be effective. Vertically presenting a weighted fly allows you to pick lanes or holes where largemouth may be lurking putting the fly right in the strike zone for hungry largemouth bass.

Anglers who pause with purpose while fishing for largemouth bass will see increased success when fishing structure such as thick week and lily pads with surface flies.

Allowing a floating fly to sit in a spot void of structure, such as the open water spaces between pads and surface weeds is often the pause fish need to decide to strike. If a fish doesn’t eat that pause strip the fly to the next and let it sit. Often, just like dead sticking, largemouth bass will attack at the first sign of movement of that fleeing prey item.

Due to the habitat of largemouth bass, when fishing topwater flies such as poppers, it’s good practice to utilize flies with an upturned hook.

Having a hook that faces the sky instead of one below the surface of the water will decrease the amount of debris and weeds you might encounter on the hook. Largemouth bass sometimes live in areas so choked full of cover, that without an upturned hook, you would never be able to present a fly naturally.

Consider using a much shorter and stouter leader than when fishing for smallmouth.

Due to the fish’s location in heavy cover, they will not be deterred from eating due to leader exposure. Chances are that the fish will never see your leader when fishing topwater flies. A short four-to-five-foot, 20 pound or nine-kilogram leader will work great for targeting largemouth.

Northern pike

Northern are found in most Ontario lakes and many of Ontario’s slower moving rivers. They are highly opportunistic feeders and will attack most prey items if they happen to get close enough. Northern pike can be found in and near cover such as weed, wood and rock.

The main source of their diet consists of fish and small mammals.

Fishing tips and tricks

Northern pike are notorious for having a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth able to cut through some heavy fishing leaders.

When targeting northern pike on fly, consider changing the leader material to combat the sharp teeth all pike possess. Bite wire, or braided, knot-able metal leader material decreases the ability of the pike to bite through your leaders. From the fly line, tie on 90 centimeters of leader material, then attach 60 centimeters of bite wire, then attach the fly. You’ll see a marked decrease in fish biting through the leader with this setup.

Northern pike are naturally curious creatures, often observed slowly swimming behind a prey item, seemingly inspecting it before the attack.

Make it a practice of every cast to retrieve the fly right back to the edge of the boat, not just to the length of their fly rod. Often, northern pike will be following just out of your sight range and will attack the fly as you’re pulling it out of the water to make your next cast.

Northern pike usually prey on other fish.

These prey fish have dorsal fins consisting of very sharp rays. When northern pike eat, they inevitably get those rays jabbed into their mouths. This is important to know because if a northern pike eats a fly and misses, they will often come back and attack it again, even if the fish felt the point of the hook. Pause the fly after a missed strike, let it sink for a three or four-count, then begin the retrieve once again. This fleeing action by the fly will often bring a stung northern pike back to eat once again.

Experimenting with different densities of fly line is good practice when fishing for northern pike.

Different sink rates of fly lines allow you to target different depths of the water body with your flies. If northern pike aren’t eating at the surface, put on an intermediate sinking line or a full sinking line to get your flies down deeper.


Panfish make up a variety of species and are a great fish to target for beginners and experts alike. Panfish species in Ontario include yellow perch, crappie, sunfish, bluegill and rock bass. They are willing takers of small flies and are very plentiful in most Ontario waters.

The main source of their diet consists of insects, insect larvae and small fish.

Fishing tips and tricks

Light leader and tippet can be the key to successfully targeting weary panfish to eat a fly.

All panfish are schooling fish, meaning they travel and live in numbers. If you’re using leader and tippet material that is too large, or thick, it will spook the school away resulting in a scattering of fish and a reluctance to eat for a while. Presentation of flies on as light a tippet as possible will ensure the school stays intact and you’ll have a greater chance of success.

Once the panfish spawn is over in the spring, the schools of fish will often move into deeper water for protection and to find optimal water temperatures.

At this time, consider fishing your flies on a long, light leader under an indicator. This technique has proven effective on windy days as the indicator moving along with wind wave activity will put movement on the fly at the end of the leader. This action on the fly might insight a bite.

While fishing panfish, never discount fishing a surface fly.

Small poppers, mayflies, and even spider patterns prove effective to bring panfish to the surface. Similar to targeting smallmouth bass, experiment with retrieval speed to trick these fish to eat. Often more than one fish will attempt to attack the fly.

Not unlike the tandem rig used for smallmouth bass, a two-fly system for panfish can prove highly effective.

Consider utilizing a woolly bugger with a bead head as the first fly followed by an unweighted woolly bugger. Fished under a slip-indicator on a long leader, you might get to experience a double take and land two panfish at once.

Last updated: April 18, 2024

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