Perspectives On Stream Trout
March 21, 2012
Twenty years ago Doug Kowles and Lee Nelson, Winona, Minnesota, helped popularize pitchin' bass-sized minnowbaits into overlooked stream areas for bruiser brown trout. It was a unique approach, an aggressive approach, based on insights into trout behavior. Here the boys offer a brief historical perspective on spinning presentations to match the changing times, revisiting ideas that still work and highlighting some that don't.
Many years ago we shook up the hip-boot community by introducing a unique presentation system, featuring spinning tackle and large minnow-type baits. It was a system that helped us consistently catch larger brown trout, along with plenty of brook and rainbow trout. The key was, and remains today, understanding that many big trout, especially in spring, spread throughout the marginal stretches of trout streams, foraging as much on baitfish as on insects.
In comparison with classic sections of trout waters, the adjacent (usually downstream) marginal areas offer less cold, clean, fast water. The water here also flows over sand, silt, clay, and mud, rather than rock. These less-fertile stretches also host reduced insect hatches and have fewer trout per mile. The rogue residents in these sections often are large fish, though. They naturally target baitfish forage. And they generally don't get the fishing pressure that trout in classic stream sections get.
Our approach to catching these trout stood in contrast to the standard sit-your-butt-down-at-a-hole-and-wait approach of the day. We fished fast, walked far, covering lots of marginal water, using large minnowbaits to imitate the large minnow forage that resides in these sections. We also used straight-shaft spinners, which are particularly effective retrieved through shallow water and fast current, quartered through deeper holding areas, and flutter-jigged along and beneath undercut banks and into the depths of snag-infested holes.
Do these techniques still work today? Yes. One way to get a quick view of these tactics is to order the In-Fisherman video, "Stream Trout Tactics," which we did in conjunction with Editor In Chief Doug Stange almost 15 years ago. It's one of the largest selling trout videos of all time.
The days of secret lures, secret spots, and secret techniques have passed. Where we once had no competition, we now frequently find ourselves walking in someone's boot prints. And when we catch up to them, we often find them throwing the very baits we taught people to throw. People listen to and learn from the perspectives of anglers who offer advice in In-Fisherman.
The point here is that increases in fishing pressure have required adapting. Today, we generally fish a little slower, trying to make presentations a little more subtle and natural, for many of the trout we seek are better "schooled."
No matter where, when, or how you engage stream trout, the first step is stealth. No amount of experience, technique, or tackle can get a spooked trout to bite until it's had time to chill out. Novice anglers, therefore, usually don't catch trout because they:Take an extra step or two closer to the hole for a better look.
- Cast their shadow upon the hole before their lure.
- Do too much brush-bustin', ground-stompin', or stick-crackin' in order to get into casting position.
- Don't wear camouflaged outerwear, so they stand out against the streamside background.
- Overreach on their first cast to a spot, get snagged, and yank frantically to free their precious lure.
- Continue beating a hole to death when their time and energy could better be spent moving on to new fish around the next corner.
Since fish in moving water almost always face into the flow, it's generally wise to work upstream. If you can see trout, they've usually already detected you. They are supremely cautious of upright, vertical figures, their main predators being herons and humans. Keep a low profile, even from the low bank, whether you're working upstream or downstream. There's nothing taboo about a downstream trek, if water clarity, depth of the holding areas, and activity level of the fish allow. Usually, water clarity and fish position within the holes are the governing factors.
When trout are feeding, many of them hold at prime foraging stations near the faster, incoming (shallow) riffle at the head of the hole. While chasing baitfish or just waiting for the current to deliver the next meal, they know they're vulnerable in that position and remain on high alert. Make longer casts past them from downstream.
On the other hand, when the water's deeper or stained, their view of the surrounding area is limited. Too, when trout aren't feeding aggressively, they often tuck back under cover or hold in deeper water. These less-aggressive moods may be caused by heavy fishing pressure or post-frontal conditions; or may just be general low-activity times like winter, low-light periods in summer, midday periods, and so on. The point is that their vision is impaired, offering the opportunity for you to present a bait from upstream to downstream, no matter the time of day.
One misconception is that early and late in the day or during low-light conditions are the best times to fish. From late winter through late spring, many of our trophies are caught on sunny afternoons, because we're able to quietly move right in on top of the holding area without being noticed. This is short-shadow time, and trout usually are tucked back under cover. At this time, we make precise offerings to, at worst, neutral fish. Stream trout basically are competitive, territorial, and opportunistic, unless they've been spooked or are in a completely negative mood, which is rare. No matter what time of day a good presentation is made, it usually provokes a positive reaction, and fish come charging out.
Low-light periods are good times to fish on clearer "classic" waters. In those situations, though, you should be working upstream and making longer casts with minnowbaits or spinners, to keep from spooking fish. If conditions are present to allow you to work baits downstream without spooking trout, the method of presentation should be jigs and jigging, for it is precise and deadly.
A jig reeled downstream at a rate greater than or equal to the flow isn't effective. Such fast speed targets only the most active fish. The idea is to slow down the jig by balancing its weight with the force of current, using your rod tip in combination with the line to get the jig to swim along current breaklines, through eddies, and through other slack-water spots. This is accomplished in different ways given where you are able to stand to cast and retrieve through any given hole. Each hole is a little different, offering varying depth, current, overhead cover, snags, and potential access points.
If your jig sinks too fast or snags too often during the critical portion of the presentation, try a lighter jig. Sometimes making shorter casts solves part of the problem, too, because the jig doesn't have quite so long to sink. You might also change the angle of retrieve so you can attempt more of a quartering retrieve instead of a downstream retrieve. All these things help keep the bait up off the bottom.
Conversely, if the jig rides too high or is carried too swiftly through the hole, or if you lose feel with your rod tip, try a bigger jig or drop down one line diameter. Jigs are relatively inexpensive, and part of the fun of fishing them is the suspense involved in probing entanglements of the stream domain.
In many situations, such as logjams, the only access to trout is from upstream. One of the best tricks is to momentarily suspend a jig and soft plastic in front of a trout. The only way to do this is to have your rod tip at an upcurrent angle to the spot. A minimum angle of 90 degrees (perpendicular to the flow) is needed to buck the force of the current enough to slow the lure momentarily in the critical strike zone.
The term "jigging" is a misnomer. Think of the presentation as (1) A flip or pitch upstream into faster water to avoid spooking fish when the jig hits the water, followed by (2) a tight line drift and swim down to the target area, at which point, (3) the rod tip sweeps upward to swing the jig into the critical zone and keep it there for a moment. Finally, the retrieve is finished by (4) pumping the jig back to you. Watch for followers, being ready to slow and drop the jig. The idea here overall is to get the lure to make an arc, a hook, or even a horseshoe, depending on where you are able to stand to make the presentation.
Another superb jigging tactic is to drop (dip) the jig over the edge of the bank or cover and work it in place. It's startling the number of toe-to-toe battles that develop with speckled soldiers that charge out to hammer a jig right from under the bank you're standing on. Best loosen your drag a bit.
We categorize the soft plastics we use into four groups:
(1) Curlytails in black, white, natural minnow colors, and salt and pepper.
(2) Paddletail minnow bodies or shad bodies, in baitfish colors, particularly whites, pearl, and salt and pepper.
(3) Crawdads and tubebaits, in dark colors like blacks, browns, brown-orange, and greens.
(4) Miscellaneous plastics like crickets, hoppers, tiny frogs, and hellgrammites.
The size of the plastic we use depends on current and depth, and the size of the trout we suspect might live in the stream areas we fish. Baits in the 1 1/2- to 2-inch range work well in most situations. We slim down to 1-inch plastics in small creeks, and scale up to 2 1/2- or 3-inch selections in larger river sections.
Gear To Go
Comfortable hip boots are the preferred footwear for traveling along long stream stretches. On cooler days, chest waders work, but they're not needed to ford small streams, and they quickly become uncomfortable as a day warms. A hot day can turn a walk in waders into a brutal march, indeed. Keep a cooler with refreshments and ice back at the truck and also to get fish you keep home in good shape.
Wild trout are terrific table fare. If you choose to keep a few eating-sized fish, the most convenient method is with a creel. We use a canvas model from Cabela's called the Arcticreel, which isn't as bulky as a standard creel. It has a zippered pocket for extra storage, and when the canvas shell is wet, the catch is cooled by evaporation.
Don't forget good polarized sunglasses. A light vest or jacket with plenty of pocket space serves as a mobile tackle box for lures, jigs, plastics, and other on-stream necessities, including a portable camera. A ruler at least 24 inches long is handy, too, if only to keep your partner honest.
Most fertile trout streams offer crane flies and their larvae, and water worms, which are 1- to 2-inch long, blackish caterpillar-like creatures that live in leafy streamside debris. Trout love them and their size, shape, color, and undulating nature are perfectly matched by one of our favorite choices, the black Mister Twister Tail. This presentation often outproduces all other baits during stormy weather, as trout apparently anticipate that water worms will be dislodged by rain.
Action-tail plastics, particularly curlytails and paddletails, can be held in position in current or worked against the flow, all the while their vibrating tails transmitting additional targeting data to trout. These action baits are our preferred choice in stained water. As with straight-shaft spinners, swim them downstream across shallower runs and flats, and bring them along current breaks and overhead cover. Or quarter them through deeper holes. It's easy to keep their tails operating by cranking them at a rate slightly faster than the current.
This type of retrieve doesn't work well with crawdads, tubes, and other jigs. Fish can't seem to distinguish these actionless jig combos from other inedible drifting material, unless lifelike qualities are imparted to them. So we hop them down into the strike zone, then pick them up briefly, suspending them in current in the assumed strike zone. Finally, we pump them back in slowly.
These lifelike retrieves with crawdads and tubes resemble myriad bottom-dwelling critters and often deceive the sharpest bug-orientated trout in clearer water. Often, we'll blaze a trail upstream, throwing spinners and curlytails as we go, then reverse travel as we head back to the truck. As we move back downstream, it isn't unusual to catch twice as many fish on these smaller, more-natural imitations. It pays to keep trying different styles of baits and tactics as the day progresses and conditions change.
Jig weight is a matter of depth and current, in conjunction with soft plastic size. In small to medium-sized streams 1/16-ounce jigs with 1 1/2- to 2-inch bodies generally work well. Small creeks demand finer tackle, generally 1/32-ounce jigs with 1-inch grubs. Big water, on the other hand, with all the deeper holes and faster current requires 1/8-ounce heads with 2-inch-plus offerings.
The idea, though, when targeting brown trout, is to be able to make contact with deeper bottoms at least some of the time. Brookies and rainbows, by comparison, tend to feed more in faster, shallow riffle areas, prompting lighter presentations. While we prefer jigs and plastics with natural colors, patterns, and shapes, we also occasionally fish with brighter colors, particularly in soiled water.
Jigs and plastics work, often better than anything else. Jigs also are relatively low priced, allowing us to fish aggressively and make casts to and retrieves through spots where no lure has gone before.
Longer rods are somewhat cumbersome, but this is offset by an increased ability to direct jigs around structure and snags. More length allows for a better angle on holding areas, helping to keep the lure in prime position longer, sometimes without even having to cast. These combos also help control big trout once they are hooked in confined, obstacle-strewn holes. These trout are powerful swimmers, acrobatic leapers, and throw baits with enthusiasm. A 6 1/2- to 7-foot rod with a medium action helps absorb the slack created by an airborne fish or a fish that makes a sudden directional change.
Ultralight rods are just too light. Granted, it's possible to land a bigger trout in open water on 2-pound line. Hook the same fish around cover, though, and you'll have trouble landing it on 8-pound line. We compromise and fish with 4- or 6-pound line, keeping an extra spool in our pack to switch in particular situations. In the end, the catching's important, but shouldn't overshadow the beauty of the beast or the challenge of the chase.