In the overall spectrum of gamefish, trout enjoy a certain reputation—a level of sophistication and intelligence that, if there was such a thing, would put them a rung higher on the piscatorial social ladder.
For this reason, trout are generally considered to be the gentlemen’s sportfish, the dandy of the underwater world. This judgment is reinforced by the classic, calendar images we’ve all seen—an oversize rainbow gracefully sipping an insect from the film of a pristine wilderness stream; the gaudy colors of a spawning brown as it rests in a partially submerged human hand, just before release.
But make no mistake; ’bows, browns, brookies and cutts are wild and wary; voracious and without conscious. They are predators, equipped with a predator’s tools, and hatched with a predator’s instincts. They possess keen senses of sight and smell, and can detect slight vibrations in the water, whether they’re caused by a swimming minnow or a heavy footfall on the bank. And the beautiful, wonderfully dappled patterns they sport along their sleek, muscular sides—camouflage!
Such markings allow them to better blend in beneath the protective cover of an undercut bank, amongst the tangle of an exposed root system, or under a turbulent riffle, as they wait in ambush for forage to drift past in the current.
Trout are opportunistic feeders, too. Sure, they feed heavily on insects, especially in the early life stages, but they don’t waste a chance to eat other prey. Baitfish, crustaceans, snails—even field mice are fair game and often on the menu.
Undoubtedly, the most surprising thing I’ve found inside a trout was a ball of five small feathers. It came from the stomach of a 15- or 16-inch brown trout I caught on a stretch of stream that wound through a southern Michigan woods.
Whether the fish caught the bird alive or scavenged it dead from the bottom of the stream, I’ll never be certain. But I know for a fact the feathers were not the remnant of a fly fisherman’s creation as two of them were still connected by a thin thread of skin tissue.
That trout eat meat is not a question; that’s why thousands of anglers target them with natural bait—nightcrawlers, minnows, crayfish tails, as well as meaty insects, such as grasshoppers, and insect larvae like hellgrammites and waterworms—larval stages of the dobson fly and crane fly.
Though I’ve drifted countless pools and bends with naturals, I prefer fishing artificial lures for a number of reasons. First is that the chance of deep-hooking a fish is much higher when using natural bait. It’s not critical if you’re looking for a trout to fill the empty space on your breakfast plate next to the scrambled eggs, but it can make releasing small fish difficult.
Artificials, especially modern lures, look, act, and in some cases smell, so much like the real thing, they can fool all but the wariest of fish.
Most of all, however, I opt for artificial lures because I tend to catch more, and many times, bigger trout. My catch rate is generally higher, no doubt, because lures allow me to fish more efficiently. I can make more casts and hit more high-percentage spots per hour than I’m able to when fishing natural bait.
As for catching larger trout, the reason is the same. When you spend more time with your lure in the water, rather than replacing bait or removing hooks, the odds of catching a big fish increase.
You can break down artificials used for trout into four general classes: spoons and spinners, minnowbaits, crankbaits and softbaits.
In-line spinners have arguably accounted for more trout than any other artificial lure. Spoons probably come in second. It’s partly due to the fact that anglers seem to fish them more often, but also because they appeal to a trout’s senses of sight and sound so well.
Dr. Keith Jones, Berkley’s Director of Research, has spent a lifetime in the pursuit of understanding how fish sense things in their environment.
“There are huge differences between species as to the balance of the senses and their importance in feeding, “he says. “Some species, like catfish, are quite capable of hunting down prey through olfaction (odor detection) alone.
“In other species, like bass, olfaction is neurologically relegated to a smaller role in favor of vision and vibration (sound) detection. Trout appear to lie somewhere between these two extremes, but closer to bass.”
Logically, a spinner’s flashing, thumping blade, and the strong reflection and wobble produced by a spoon are nearly perfect strike triggers, but there are differences that can influence your catch rate. Two types of spinner blades, French and sonic, are most common on trout-size in-lines. French blades rotate around the shaft on a clevis; sonic blades rotate on the shaft itself.
While a sonic blade will spin more easily, even at very slow retrieve speeds, the vibrations it produces are not as intense as those from a French blade. Consequently, a French blade is a better choice in murky water caused by runoff from snowmelt or a spring rain.
Likewise, a long, skinny spoon has a wider wobble than a short, broad spoon and is often the key to catching trout in low-visibility situations.
The versatility of metallic lures is only limited by the angler’s imagination and fear of snagging. For example, I’ve caught numbers of trout by holding a spinner in the current and easing it into tangles of roots or branches from an upstream position. The rotating blade provided natural lift, keeping the lure off bottom, while I guided it into the strike zone. Of course, you have to be willing to hang a lure or lose a fish once in awhile. But for any success at all, a strike must come first, so the trade-off’s a good one.
As a group, brown trout feed more heavily on baitfish than do the other three common stream species; rainbows probably eat the fewest, overall. But even a picky ’bow can’t resist a minnowbait swimming in front of its nose.
Lifelong stream trout angler, Jeff Samsel, ranks the minnowbait among his top two lures because of the quality of fish it produces.
“When trout reach a certain size, they start feeding more on baitfish,” he says, “so this type of lure naturally attracts a better grade of fish.”
Samsel, who has fished trout throughout much of the country, including his home state of Georgia, is the public relations coordinator for Pradco, which owns several lure companies, including Rebel, Yum, Cotton Cordell and others. His vast experience has taught him the huge potential of minnowbaits.
“Large trout don’t waste time or energy trying to find food, and they won’t waste an opportunity to eat,” he says.
Think deep and isolated when targeting the biggest trout in the stream. Old, canny fish won’t try to compete with small fish chasing fast-moving food. Instead, look for them in areas where there’s deep water, or at least easy access to deep water—spots like holes under root balls or along outside bends.
Cast a sinking minnowbait upstream of the hole far enough that it can fall close to the bottom before enters the strike zone. The retrieve is more like an effort to guide the lure through the hole, using the force of the water to carry it underneath the overhanging bank or branches as you reel fast enough to impart action and maintain contact with the lure.
There’s also a place for fat and shad-body crankbaits in stream trout fishing, even though their looks and wider wobble don’t resemble a minnow, chub or any typical stream baitfish.
Because the pronounced diving lip gets them down faster, they’re a good option when probing deep pools and runs. However, there is one type of forage, crayfish, these types of lures mimic well.
Trout streams from New York to California and Michigan to Georgia hold crayfish, and they can be a substantial part of a trout’s diet.
That’s the key, though. Some streams, especially those farther north, may not have a strong crayfish forage base, so baitfish imitators like minnowbaits or spoons, are a better choice.
But where crayfish live, any lure, big or small, that resembles these crustaceans can be incredibly effective.
“The Deep Teeny Wee Craw is probably my all-time favorite trout lure,” says Samsel. “It dives to four or five feet, so you can hit deeper holes, but I also like to bring it over rocks in one or two feet. The lip rolls the lure right over the rocks, and it looks just like the real thing.
“It’s also one of the best lures to use in faster current. The combination of lip and body style makes it handle high water better.”
A Softer Side
Softbaits offer fishermen so much in the way of body styles and colors. Plus, you can fish them in almost any situation. Yet, they are probably the most underused stream trout lures.
A black or watermelon 1 1/2-inch curlytail grub on a jig head drifted along the bottom is a good representation of an insect larva. A swimming pearl or chartreuse grub is a baitfish. Hop a red or green grub through the rocks and you’ll catch trout targeting crayfish.
“Wooly Curltails and Beavertails are my most productive stoftbaits,” says Samsel. “On a 1/32-ounce leadhead, I can pick pockets and eddies with 1 1/2-inch baits—and put the lure exactly where it should be.”
In deeper pools, or where the current is faster, he may jump to a 1/16-ounce head to stay in the strike zone.
I turn to realistic softbaits in situations where fishermen usually break out live bait—highly-fished streams where trout have seen every type of artificial imaginable. A lure like Storm’s WildEye Live Minnow or Berkley’s Realistix Power Minnow looks and feels more natural, an advantage when dealing with wary fish.
On a trip last fall to a public-access stream where brown trout had been subjected to months of angling pressure, the usual spinners and cranks produced just a few fish. When I switched to a soft minnow body on a 1/16-ounce leadhead and fished it through the same pools, things heated up to the tune of about three fish to one. That they were all pan-size browns didn’t matter. Up until then the day had been a bust.
The trout’s predatory nature and continual quest for calories make them a perfect target for anglers who want to maximize their fishing efficiency. Next time you’re on the stream, think twice before you tie on that long-shank hook and reach for a ’crawler.