Trout are opportunistic predators that feed on a wide variety of forage and hit a broad spectrum of lures and baits. However, since trout can also be incredibly selective, if not downright picky eaters, the best lures and baits often mimic a specific type of aquatic meal or feeding opportunity.
The best of the best baits have a general appeal that can put fish on the bank and in the boat under a range of different conditions, including tough bites.
In the hand, an in-line spinner doesn't resemble much of anything a sharp-eyed trout would willingly swallow. But throbbing through the water, the churning blade yields a deadly combination of flash and vibration that attracts attention and triggers strikes once trout move in for a closer look.
Some designs also feature bonus sonic stylings. The Blue Fox Classic Vibrax, for example, emits extra vibrations when its free-turning internal gear contacts the iconic bell-shaped body.
Armed with a weighted shank for extra ballast, in-lines can easily be fished anywhere from just under the surface down several feet or more, depending on current, retrieve speed, blade style/size and other factors.
You can troll a spinner, but fancasting prime lies is hard to beat. When fishing a stream or river from the bank, cast upstream and retrieve the spinner just fast enough to spin the blade as the current sweeps the lure downstream over feeding areas. Have patience; reeling a spinner too quickly against the current causes it to zip past trout too fast, triggering attacks from only the most aggressive fish.
Spinner options include standard undressed trebles and single hooks, as well as various types of hair and reflective hackle. Blue Fox's Classic Vibrax Foxtail sports a calf-tail trailer laced with flashy fibers. Adding a soft-plastic dressing is also an option.
Call them minnow-imitators, slashbaits, or stickbaits, these slender-bodied serial killers work wonders on trout of all stripes. Afoot or afloat, casting allows you to tailor the presentation to the mood of the fish, as well as either cover water quickly or slow down and thoroughly work every nook and cranny of a potential hotspot.
Lure choices abound, including immortal one-piece options like the Smithwick Rogue and Original Floating Rapala, along with a bevy of broke-back baits such as the Rebel Jointed Minnow.
Compulsive trout stalker and longtime guide Bernie Keefe of Granby, Colorado, advocates casting 3- to 5-inch, shallow-running stickbaits on a 7-foot, medium- to medium-heavy spinning outfit spooled with 10-4 Berkley FireLine. He notes that a 5-foot leader of 10-pound test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon helps trick skittish trout in gin-clear water.
Keefe deploys stickbaits whenever lakers, browns or 'bows patrol shallow water near shore. Classic conditions include early mornings during the transitional period as ice recedes from the lake, and whenever an incoming wind whips shoreline trout into a feeding frenzy.
One of his pet stickbait retrieve cadences is a twitchy yet reserved routine. "Make a slow retrieve interspersed with rodtip twitches that give the bait an erratic action, so it acts like a disoriented baitfish," he offers.
Fancasting with a plan in mind is fine, but tossing baits around willy-nilly is out. "Don't be a loose cannon," Keefe cautions. "Keep casts tight to your target area, methodically working the strike zone where active trout are feeding."
Outside of stickbaits, a variety of hard-bodied crankbaits catch trout virtually all season long, both on the cast and troll. Rebel's storied Crickhopper is one of the most versatile and productive of the lot.
In-Fisherman friend and avowed stream trout fan Jeff Samsel rates the 1½-inch bait (along with the 1¾-inch Bighopper) high on his list of top mini-cranks for trout in the flow, crediting the bait's wide wobble and cricket/grasshopper profile for much of the appeal.
Samsel says a steady, medium retrieve is often best in both streams and tailwaters, but adds that when food is abundant at the surface, fishing Crickhoppers as wakebaits is a great alternative to subsurface strategies.
"Fish them extra-slow, and don't be afraid to twitch or even dead-drift them," he says.
Dollops And Doughs
If you think dough baits are limited to catfish and carp, think again. In-Fisherman ally and renowned trout guru Buzz Ramsey relies on floating softbaits such as Berkley Gulp! Trout Dough and PowerBait Trout Bait in a variety of scenarios.
"A pinch of dough suspended in the strike zone can transform a slow trip into a banner day at the lake," he promises. Indeed, Ramsey recalls salvaging more than one excruciating trolling excursion by beaching his boat and lobbing dough baits from the bank.
Ramsey favors a light spinning combo strung with 4- to 6-pound Berkley Trilene XL monofilament mainline. "Slide a 3/8- to ½-ounce, oval sliding slip-sinker onto the line, then tie on a small swivel and add a short fluorocarbon leader of similar pound test," he explains.
He stresses that leader length is critical, and varies according to the height at which hungry trout cruise above bottom. "Twenty to 30 inches is a standard leader length, but be ready to experiment," he says.
Ramsey threads a size 14 to 16 treble on the end of the leader and presses a dainty dollop of dough around the hook. "Use enough bait to lift the treble off bottom so trout can see it," he says. "When smaller baits are needed, add a small, buoyant egg imitator above the treble for added flotation."
If added attraction is in order, he ups the ante by rolling his dough in PowerBait Power Dust. It gives me extra scent and flavor enhancers, plus special glitter for increased visibility," he says.
To properly soak your dough, Ramsey recommends making a long cast, then letting the sinker fall to bottom. "Lean your rod against a forked stick or the side of the boat, leave the reel's bail open, and wait," he offers, explaining that an open bail allows trout to swim off with the bait and swallow it without feeling resistance.
Ramsey typically lets the bait rest five minutes per spot before moving it. "You can fish multiple spots on a long cast," he says. "Simply lift the rig off bottom, reel it in 10 cranks or so, let it settle, and give it another five minutes." If an area fails to yield any results after several casts, he recommends pulling up stakes and moving on in search of more productive territory.
Jig And Softbait
A leadhead paired with an artificial softbait is one of trout fishing's deadliest and most overlooked weapons, capable of being fished in a wide range of depths, conditions, and manners.
For example, when casting a shoreline for trout that have moved into deeper water just off the bank, Keefe rigs a 3- to 5-inch slender softie such as a Berkley Gulp! Jerk Shad or PowerBait Minnow on a 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jig and chucks a long cast from shore.
"Let the jig touch down on bottom," he says. "Lift your rodtip and then, while lowering it back down, quickly reel in slack to make the leadhead swim slightly above the bottom. Continue this cadence up the break and back to the bank."
Rather than stand in one spot and cast till his arms fall off, Keefe quietly works his way along the lakeshore, casting every few feet.
When trout move offshore in the heat of summer, Keefe fishes lead and plastic in a vertical manner. Here, he ties on a ¾- to 1½-ounce, hand-poured jig armed with a 5/0 Eagle Claw 810 TroKar hook. He tips the jig with a traditional soft-plastic tube ranging from 4-inch Berkley Havoc Smash Tube up to 10-inch saltwater options, depending on the size and mood of his quarry. "Scent and flavor are important," he adds. "I always thread a strip of sucker meat or chunk of Berkley Gulp! on the hook, inside the tube."
Chunky, paddle-tailed swimbaits like the YUM Money Minnow and Northland Fishing Tackle's IMPULSE Paddle Shad also take trout.
Other fine jigging options include traditional bucktails such as Northland's Bionic Bucktail — a staple of the lake trout trade for years — and hand-tied, hinged hair jigs, which are articulated for extremely lifelike swimming motions on the retrieve.
Worms, Live Or Otherwise
Fly fishing purists might look down their noses in disdain at worms of any shape or form, but both old-fashioned angleworms and newfangled plastic permutations of the real thing reliably catch trout when other lures can't.
When trout feed in fertile flows — particularly streams pushed a bit higher and darker than normal by rains or snowmelt — Keefe says a simple angleworm rig is hard to beat. "Sure, you could fish various flies or jig-and-softbait combos," he says. "Or you could do it the really easy way and bounce a worm along bottom with a split-shot rig."
His go-to rigging includes threading a garden-variety worm on a size 6 bait-holder hook, then adding just enough shot so the rig hops downstream with the flow — without anchoring itself in a fixed position. "Bouncing gets you trout, anchoring catches suckers," he explains.
For his part, Ramsey relies on a 3-inch PowerBait Power Trout Worm when tough-bite trout cruise near the surface in cool water during periods of warm weather. "Fished with a crawl-retrieve casting approach, it's especially deadly on spring trout," he adds.
Ramsey impales a Trout Worm on a single size 6 or 8 hook. "Thread it on as far as possible, so the worm hangs straight, with the point exposed," he says, noting that a size 5 shot pinched 20 inches up his 2- to 4-pound Berkley Trilene XL mainline completes the riggings.
"Make a long cast, let the bait sink to the depth you want to fish, and begin a very s-l-o-w retrieve," he continues. For best results, Ramsey recommends this cadence: Raise your rodtip from a 9 o'clock position to high noon. Lower the bait on a semi-taut line, reel 10 cranks and repeat. "Adding a short hop by twitching the tip can turn lookers into biters," he offers.
No discussion of top trout lures would be complete without mentioning spoons. These metal marvels yield a wobble and flash that tempts trout when cast, trolled, and vertically jigged.
Spoons come in all shapes and sizes. Choosing the right spoon for the moment often starts with depth control and fall rate considerations. Light and wispy designs that are thin and light for their length excel for casting and trolling in shallow water, or when you're vertical jigging and trout prefer a slow, fluttery fall. Examples include the Luhr Jensen Krocodile and Bay de Noc Lures' Swedish Pimple.
Heavier-for-length options such as the Blue Fox Pixie Spoon get the nod for casting and trolling deeper water, or when a fast drop rate triggers strikes during serious jigging sessions for suspended summer fish or through the ice.
Collectively, these top trout lures and baits offer reliable options for connecting with feisty rainbows, browns, lakers, and brookies year-round. Choose the right one to match your quarry's preferred forage and the conditions at hand, and you're sure to catch more trout on every trip.