How To Fish For Trout: A Stream Trout Primer

How To Fish For Trout: A Stream Trout Primer

Stream trout were the glamour fish of the early-to-mid twentieth century. Wild settings, clear water, solitude, and a "River-Runs-Through-It" kind of self assurance captivated the angling audience. The writings of Hemmingway, Wulff, Schweibert, Haig-Brown, and many others played no small part in the romance, which begs the question: How to Fish for trout?


The sleek, stylish profile is built for speed and splitting current. The jewel-like red, blue, or black spots, and the pristine habitats they thrive in continue to inspire literature by great authors and daydreams by the millions.

Stream trout are spooky. A shadow overhead, a vibration sent through the ground, a glimpse of sudden movement, the wake from a wading angler, or the sight of disturbed sediment from the bottom can send them racing for cover. The smaller the environment they inhabit, the spookier they get. And they can inhabit some pretty tiny brooks.


Growing up in Michigan, I was never far from some tiny, ignored rivulet running through a forest that literally brimmed with native brookies. The fish seldom reached a foot in length. A 14 incher was the trophy of a lifetime. I could easily step across many of these brooks, but in forests the banks are often undercut where roots hold the soil high, creating a huge, shadowy recluse underneath. Streams that appeared to be 2 or 3 feet wide were, in effect, 5 or 6 feet wide in places. Brookies in those spots are approached with extreme caution or never caught. Walking on their roof is out of the question. If you can see the water, the trout can see you. If they can see you (which is far more often than you think), best to cover every inch of skin with clothes that blend into the background, tread lightly, and keep vegetation or rocks between you and the trout. Since seeing them first is extremely advantageous, a good pair of polarized glasses is a must — even in the deep shadows of a dark Michigan forest.


Those experiences led me to stalk sea-run brookies in the streams of Nova Scotia, Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba. In the years surrounding those trips, I've taken cutthroats on the streams of Yellowstone with a small spoon, browns on the Little Red with a fly, more browns from the tributaries of Lake Michigan with suspending baits, rainbows in Alaska with a plastic bead, and that's just the beginning. Dozens of methods exist for taking stream trout, but two basic categories describe all the equipment required for each method.

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Fly Fishing

A trophy stream trout is about 10 pounds in most cases. Although a 40-pound, former world-record brown trout was taken on the Little Red River in Arkansas just over a decade ago, that's a wild exception to the rule. Many gifted anglers fish stream trout for a lifetime without ever topping 8 pounds.

Fly fishing is the foundation of all modern "angling" (as opposed to netting, trapping, or any kind of commercial fishing). It arose centuries ago, long before spinning or casting gear was invented, and before any kind of monofilament existed. The concept of fly fishing is predicated upon the concept of throwing the weight of a line — not the weight of a lure or livebait. That's why fly rods for different species are differentiated by the weight of the line the rod is designed to throw. A 3-weight rod is designed to throw a 3-weight line, is considered light, and is perfect for many stream-trout situations. A 10-weight rod is designed to throw a much heavier 10-weight line, perfect for throwing big flies to giant, carnivorous, sea-run browns in Tierra del Fuego, on the southern tip of South America.

Most of my fly fishing for stream trout is done with a 4W or 5W outfit and a floating line — as opposed to a sink tip or full sinking line. Those heavy, hard-to-throw lines are used to get down quicker in large, fast, deep streams. On most waters, most of the time, a small split shot or lightly-weighted fly will suffice for sub-surface duty, and a lot of the action takes place with surface flies that imitate emerging caddis, stoneflies, and mayflies during a hatch (those three groups of aquatic invertebrates are extremely important to stream trout, affecting where they go and how they behave for much of the year).

One of the fundamental tenets of fly fishing is the understanding that trout are highly selective. Meaning they get tunnel vision. If insects are hatching, flying into the water from overhanging grasses, dropping from trees, or migrating in any kind of abundance, trout will key in on the precise size, color, and shape of those most-abundant examples. When fishing with flies that imitate insects, it's best to keep that in mind. Most experts carry little seines and nets for capturing nymphs along the bottom of a stream and flying insects coming off the water so they can match size, color, and profile with something from their fly box.

A fly box for beginning fly fishermen should be more general than specific, however. To match all the species of mayflies that exist in North America, just having two flies for each species (one for the subsurface nymph or larval version and one for the metamorphosed surface version) your box would have to contain over 1400 flies. With my luck, I'd arrive to find trout feeding on caddis flies, or "spent-wing" mayflies — which is a completely different stage than the basic larval (sub-surface) or fully-developed (surface) versions. Or I'd hang my one perfect mayfly imitation in a tree branch before it ever touched the water. Best to study the hatches that take place where you want to start fishing and have a few imitations of each stage of those insects that "come off" in the biggest numbers there. (Consult Matching The Hatch by Ernest Schweibert to find the timing for hatches and the basic imitations best for each major river in every region of the country.)

But, by "general imitations," I refer to flies that can be used to "generally" imitate a variety of insects, like the Irresistible, the Adams, any terrestrials (ants, spiders, inch worms), the bi-visible, almost anything called a "wet fly," or a basic elk-hair caddis. I've used the same, basic elk-hair caddis selection (ranging from a size #16 up to a size #6) to fool trout all over the continent during caddis hatches. Adams flies and Irresistible in various sizes can be used to imitate almost anything hatching on top.

Other general imitations include streamers that can be used to imitate any kind of minnow. The best ones to have, in various sizes (generally ranging from #10 up to #2, but often larger), include the Clouser Minnow, the Woolly Bugger, the Gray Ghost, Lefty's Deceiver, a basic bunny strip, and the Muddler Minnow. Streamers are allowed to sink a foot or more as you "mend line" (looping it off the water and laying it upstream), then stripped in by pulling in the fly line 6 inches or so at a time.

Most of the time, no major hatch is occurring. During those extended periods, general patterns that imitate nothing in particular but everything in general will excel. And while the biggest trout in the stream may take advantage of insect forage during a major hatch, they often key on minnows and small trout the remainder of the time. In most environments, trout seldom exceed 15 inches in length until they make that transition to a meat diet.

Buy tapered leaders of 9 feet (streamers) to 12 feet (dry flies, wet flies, nymphs) long and tie them to the fly line using a nail knot. Don't use fluorocarbon with dry flies (it sinks). Buy a quality floatant for dries, to keep the leader and fly on top. Dry flies and nymphs most often require tippets (the end of the leader) testing at 2 to 4 pounds (4X to 7X).

Many excellent books exist describing how to fly cast, including Mel Kreiger's The Essence of Fly Casting and Fly Casting Fundamentals by Lefty Kreh. Either book will have you casting 45 feet or so within the first 30 minutes out on the back lawn — and most stream-trout situations require shorter casts than that. (As a beginning outfit, I recommend a 5W St Croix Imperial rod with a 5/6 Pflueger Purist Fly Reel loaded with a 5W Cortland 444, weight-forward floating line.)

The Spinning Approach

Spinning tackle covers everything else a stream-trout angler wants to try. Casting gear might be right for throwing lures to really big trout in big, powerful rivers, but is otherwise too laboriously heavy. Stream trout have exceptional visual acuity. Always use the lightest, thinnest leader possible.

For most trout fishing in streams, 8- to 9 ½-foot, fast action, light to medium-light power rods are optimum. That short, basic range of lengths and actions covers hardware (spinners, spoons, blade baits, etc), bait fishing, and lure fishing. For float fishing I use 10- to 12-foot, fast, medium-light rods. The longer rod is necessary to control the line and the float as it drifts downstream.

Hardware Fishing

Straight-shafted spinners are the most classic of all stream-trout lures. Spinners include Mepps, Panther Martin, Blue Fox, and homemade versions (kits are available). On the slower, smaller streams of the Midwest, a size #0 to size #1 spinner is optimum, and best matched with 4-pound monofilament. On larger rivers, size #2 up to size #4 spinners might be necessary — but most stream trout in the 1- to 3-pound range respond best to smaller spinners.

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Spoons for stream trout are compact, like the Acme Little Cleo, the Eppinger Dardevle, the Luhr Jensen Krocodile, the PK Lures PK Spoon, and the Northland Moxie Minnow. On small streams, spoons from 2/32- to 1/6-ounce tend to work best. On larger or faster waters, spoons up to ½-ounce might be necessary but, again — most trout respond best to smaller spoons. Always use a snap swivel with hardware of any kind to avoid serious problems with line twist.

The best way to match hardware to the water you're fishing is by gauging how it drifts with current on a tight line. Spinners and spoons are most effective when pitched straight across the current or at varying angles down current and not retrieved but allowed to drift on a tight line. If the lure drags bottom, hold the rod lower to get more line on the water (current "carries" the additional line, which, in turn, carries the lure). If it continues dragging bottom, go to a lighter lure.

The lure should touch bottom occasionally, letting you know it's traveling close to the floor of the stream. If the lure never touches bottom, hold the rod tip higher to get more line off the water. If that doesn't work, use a heavier lure. When the lure sweeps to a point almost directly downstream of you, it automatically rises. That's when most following trout strike. Again — tough, 4- to 6-pound test, green monofilaments are optimum. (Braids are 1/ too "abrupt," allowing hardware to drop too fast to be worked effectively, and 2/ opaque, making them less stealthy even though mono is thicker.)

The same tackle and techniques can be applied to lures. The most significant hard-bodied lures for stream-trout fishermen are minnowbaits (like the Original Floating Rapala and the Smithwick Rogue) and suspending versions of those baits (like the Lucky Craft Pointer and the Rapala XRap). Floater-divers can adapt to any stream situation by drifting over shallow spots, floating up after contacting snags, then diving to depths of 4 feet or more. Suspending baits are best in larger rivers and river-mouth areas where they can be paused and left at depth without snagging up as much. In most cases, a fairly constant but erratic retrieve — created by snapping the rod tip downward or parallel to the water with the occasional pause — works best.

Bait Fishing

When drifting a night crawler, redworm, or plastic worm on a single hook (a size #12 to size #8 Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp baitholder-style hook is a good example), cast across or slightly upstream and across most of the time, hold the rod tip high, use the least amount of weight possible to get the rig tapping bottom every few feet, and follow the drift with the rod tip. The rod tip should start out pointing in the general position of the rigging in the river and it should end up that way. If you hold the rod tip in one spot throughout the drift, you're catching far fewer trout than you could be.

Sometimes a worm and a hook is effective with no additional weight, especially in the low, clear flows of summer. In higher flows, weight can be added by placing split shot on the main line or by attaching it to a dropper from a swivel. Tie an ant swivel (barrel swivel) to a 6-pound main line and leave a 6-inch tag end off that know. That's the dropper. Attach split shot to that and, on rocky streams, the split shot pulls off when snagged. In streams with more wood cover, attach the weight directly to the main line. The only thing snagging up in wood is the hook, so your line should break on the hook knot. Leaders should be 2 feet long around wood, and up to 4-feet long on sand, gravel, and rock.

Float Fishing

Float fishing is accomplished with specialized "bobbers." The English call it "trotting." Examples of good stream floats include Red Wing Blackbirds, Thill River Masters, Thill Turbo Masters, and Raven Floats from Anglers International.

Flies or livebaits like waxworms, maggots, crawlers, or minnows can be presented way downstream, beyond the "spook zone" created by the angler. Bare hooks or small 1/80 to 1/64-ounce jigs can be used to present bait or plastics. Many scented soft baits, like Berkley Gulp! and Northland Impulse, come in the shape of worms, nymphs, crickets, minnows, and other things trout eat, allowing you to effectively match the hatch more often with plastics. Small marabou jigs are another prime option.

The float is attached to the line with silicone sleeves, so it can slide up or down to accommodate the depths being fished. Several Thill, Raven, or Anchor "soft shot" is applied to the main line, just above a swivel, and a 2- to 4-foot fluorocarbon leader is tied to the bottom of the swivel. The longer 10- to 12-foot rod keeps line off the water so it doesn't bow in the current and overspeed the float.

To create a perfect drift, slow the float down a little without pulling it off its drift and scribing an arc across the surface. Objects like leaves or blades of grass should drift slowly past the float. Those objects are traveling at surface speed. The currents near bottom are slower. Just as trout can be selective about size and color, they can be picky about the speed of things that are supposed to be drifting "naturally."

Stopping the float for several seconds forces the bait to rise in an arc behind the float. When using flies or plastics that imitate nymphs during a hatch, or at any other time, this creates a realistic imitation of a rising invertebrate struggling to the surface to metamorphose into a flying insect.

For browns, rainbows, cutts, brookies, bull trout, and more — these are the most basic, time-honored methods used worldwide. Trout are quick, hard-fighting fish. They live in places that challenge us physically and mentally. For anglers that need solitude, time, and evidence to piece together how the real world works — stream trout remain America's most glamorous fish.

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