Slashbaits for Steelhead and Browns
December 15, 2011
Air whistles through pinion feathers. Returning ducks, heralds of spring, zip through mist rising from a river warmer than the air and quickly disappear. Trees atop high banks bend in the wind. Down in the river valley, a slight breeze ruffles the needles of white pines and the budding branches of tag alder lining the banks.
A cast whistles out. A slashbait sails true. The line is checked. The bait lands with a soft, nearly inaudible slap and bobs along briefly. Running water fills the air with whispers. The line is drawn tight, transmitting the vibration of the lure's tight side-to-side wiggle as it dives under and goes to work. Its long, slender shape reflects the diffused, sourceless light of a cloudy, breezy morning. The shadow of a boulder moves, drifts out of the realm of physics, slips downstream, nose pointing upstream and intercepts the wobbling balsa pretender in a confusion of hooksets, erupting water, and flying spray.
Slashbaits appeal to big trout in rivers. It's a trophy tactic. Those who want numbers are better off with bait or plastics most of the time. But in rivers around the country right now, slashbaits can score big. From tailrace fisheries at all points of the Union and Canada, to the rivers entering the Great Lakes, few baits can target and trigger giants like these baits.
What is a slashbait? Basically, it's the minnowbait family, which includes floating minnows, both jointed and straight, like the classic Rapalas and Rebels. It also includes suspending jerkbaits like the Smithwick Rogue, and sinking minnows like the CountDown Rapala. When prodigious trout want meat in rivers, slashbaits produce mammoth, rod buckling strikes like nothing else in your vest, with the possible exception of a streamer presented with a fly-rod.
Resident river trout are wary. Steelhead and big brown trout that run rivers that pour into big lakes spend most of their lives suspended over deep water or cruising shallow structure to forage among prolific bands of alewives, smelt, ciscoes, emerald shiners, and other open-water baitfish, constantly cruising, constantly eating. These predators roll inland to spawn, sometimes just to forage, once or twice a year. Resident trout become meals, unless they've acquired a size that spares them such a fate. At any rate, it's all happening right now.
During a spawning run, steelhead are notoriously temperate, even ascetic, about their diet. As spawning time grows near (late winter or spring), steelhead feed less often. But when lake-run rainbows first enter the river, they remain in cruise-and-eat mode, especially if the spawn is a long way off. Old habits are hard to break, but recent habits are even harder. The beginning of a spawning run is the best time to fish for steelhead with hardware (spinners and spoons), or with slashbaits.
Brown trout spawn in fall, but the Seeforellens—a recent introduction from Bavaria—spawn even later than the domestic browns that have populated the Great Lakes for over 120 years. Some browns spawn along the shorelines of the Great Lakes, but Seeforellens and others run up rivers and streams to spawn. Domestics tend to spawn in October and into November, farther south in January and February. Seeforellens tend to spawn from November through December.
Giant lake browns, fish weighing 20 to 35 pounds, tend to be even more susceptible to slashbait presentations than steelhead. They didn't get that big by eating mayflies, and they make foraging runs up rivers in spring, looking for meat. River browns are a bit more wary, but the same rules apply. Big browns are carnivores by necessity, whether they live in the White River of Arkansas or the Niagara River on the Canadian border.
The classic Rapala and other floating minnowbaits have, by now, caught untold millions of steelhead and brown trout in lakes and rivers across North America. During the back-and-forth chase for world-record browns between Flaming Gorge and Lake Michigan in the 1970s, every serious contestant pulled minnowbaits, and almost every contending scale buster was taken on one. The fact that the current world-record brown wasn't taken on a minnowbait is more of an anomaly than a trend. The record fish ate a tiny marabou jig. A 40-pounder is much more likely to inhale something the size of your hand, though, than a dainty little tidbit throughout most of the year.
Steelhead and brown trout have excellent visual acuity. They spook easily. The appeal of minnowbaits has everything to do with what's natural and what isn't. Minnowbaits have the right profile, a shape so reminiscent of natural forage that almost everything that swims in all the various environments trout inhabit has something in common with minnowbaits. Compared to a real shiner or smelt, the profile is right on the money.
The action, however, is slightly labored, compared to a healthy specimen. That represents, perhaps, the most critical aspect of the appeal that minnowbaits exert on big trout. A natural but labored swimming action suggests distress. Wounded, sick, or dying baitfish create added vibration when swimming. Big browns and steelhead automatically hone in on these vibrations. Hunting instincts take over. Those vibrations send signals that trout translate as: easier target—less energy expended for the same amount of energy gained.
In rivers and streams, this becomes increasingly important. Big trout already expend more energy than they normally would, simply by negotiating current. Rivers tend to be murkier than most trout lakes and reservoirs, and finding food is especially difficult during high-water periods. Vibration and flash call them in, and the roll of a good slashbait sends flash in most directions around it. The cloudier the water, the brighter the lure should be. Metallic finishes shine more ways than one in these conditions.
Big browns, steelhead, and rainbows in foraging mode tend to set up in shallow zones. Shallow-running baits are the right call about 90 percent of the time. The key baits are floating minnows in both jointed and straight versions and shallow-running suspending baits. Size is dependent upon several factors.
The smallest minnowbaits, like the Excalibur Ultralight Ghost Minnow and the Rapala HJ06 Husky Jerk, can be effective at times. These baits are 2 1/4 inches long, and are available in floating, sinking, and suspending versions. In low, clear water with fluorocarbon leaders, these baits produce best when fish are spooky and less active. However, livebait or spawn tends to work better when steelhead or browns are less active, and you need a long rod (at least 10 feet) to work these small baits—not for presentation as much as for shock absorption.
Optimum action with ultralights requires light line, about 4-pound test. Tough to land a 30-pounder with 4-pound test, but most of the fish average 8 pounds around the Great Lakes and generally smaller elsewhere. It's definitely possible (and big-time fun) to use these baits on light line, but potentially costly. It's no good to lose a fish with a stickbait stuck in its mouth.
The next size up, about 3 to 3 1/2 inches, makes a perfect shallow-water bait. Use floaters like the smaller Storm Thundersticks and Smithwick Rogues. When big trout hold in the 2- to 3-foot zone, a 3 1/2-inch floater hovers right in their face on a slow, quartering retrieve without constantly digging bottom. Even better at times is the Rapala Long-Cast Minnow. The 3 1/2-inch version (the LC08) is 3 1/8 inches long and only dives to about 2 feet. This bait casts like a bullet and gets the lure well away from the zone affected by your presence.
Suspending baits add an almost irresistible trigger to the equation: near motionless, neutrally buoyant drift. Two suspending baits in particular are adept in these shallow-feeding stations. The Yo-Zuri Twitchin' Minnow only runs about 2 feet deep, and the Cultiva Rip'N Minnow maxes out at about 3 feet. These baits are sensitive and erratic—qualities that appeal to trout in rivers under a variety of conditions. Larger floaters like the F20 Rebel Holographic Minnow (4 1/2 inches), a #12 Rapala Husky Jerk (4 3/4 inches), and a Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue (4 inches) can be worked slowly through these shallow zones, too.
Where trout over 10 pounds are likely, as in Great Lakes tributaries, use baits in the 4- to 5-inch range most of the time. In deeper water, Husky Jerks like the HJ10 (4 inches) and the HJ12 operate most efficiently and trigger some real giants. Trout commonly rise 4 or 5 feet for these baits in deep pools, so don't worry about staying near bottom.
Trout tend to be far fussier about color and specific action than other species. Where almost any minnowbait in the box can catch walleyes and bass when they're highly active, only one specific bait in one particular color may catch an appreciable number of trout. The way the back of a minnowbait rolls, the way the body works side-to-side on a fast retrieve, as opposed to a slow retrieve, and a dozen other nit-picky details can have everything to do with how much success you achieve with trout. It pays to carry a variety of baits in terms of size, color, and action until you pinpoint what the fish in your local rivers prefer that day, that week, that month, or that season.
Slashbait tackle is different for trout than for bass, walleyes, or pike. The right rod is longer. An 8 1/2- to 10-foot rod with a medium action is much better in rivers than a 6- or 7-foot rod. The longer the rod, the less pressure a giant trout with warp-drive capability can put on your knots and terminal tackle. The added 2 or 3 feet provides an exponential increase in shock absorption. It means you can land the fish quicker and release them in better shape.
The longer rod provides more control over a lure. If the bait drifts unexpectedly through shallower water than you intended to fish, lifting the rod tip provides an extra foot or so of cushion against snags. The added length provides more control for sweeping the bait out of harm's way, around log jams, or for holding the bait out in the current away from the bank to let it work in place. It provides far more control over the line on a long drift by removing slack. And it extends a natural drift by 2 to 4 feet, which can be critical with slashbaits.
Many of these baits are light and difficult to cast. A long rod punches them out much farther. A longer rod also sets hooks better. Anglers in certain regions absolutely refuse to hear the logic of this and stick with short rods. It's a mistake that costs them trout.
A number of state records have been broken in the tailraces below dams by anglers throwing minnowbaits. An even larger number of browns weighing over 20 pounds have been taken in the tributaries of the Great Lakes with slashbaits. This is a big-fish method, yet the baits cast, operate, and trigger better on lighter line—in the 4- to 8-pound range in some cases.
For steelhead and big Great Lakes browns, I prefer 10-pound Berkley FireLine connected to a 10-foot 8-pound monofilament leader with back-to-back uni knots. FireLine produces longer casts and is easier to control in current than mono. Longer rods better protect these lines and connections. The best rods tend to be steelhead rods. St Croix, Shimano, Fenwick, Pflueger, and Shakespeare all offer good rods, 8 1/2 to 10 feet long, in medium to medium--‘light--‘actions and power.
In clear water, use tough lines that hide, like Silver Thread Fluorocarbon. In slightly off-clear to cloudy water, use green, abrasion-resistant lines like Ande Premium, Maxima Ultragreen, and Berkley Trilene XT. Big trout can drag a bait into places that few lines can withstand—big log jams, boulder fields, and downed trees. Chances of landing hooked fish double with tough lines that resist nicks.
In spring, I tie directly to the lure. A snap is one more thing that can fail. The added action provided by a snap can be a negative in cold water. These baits have plenty of action for triggering fish that won't move far to take the bait. In summer, using snaps and tuning baits for additional action often produces more fish.
If the stream has lots of wood in the form of downed trees and log jams, remove the trebles and replace them with single Gamakatsu Siwash hooks. If the lure takes three hooks, remove but don't replace the front treble, leaving you with two single hooks, one near the middle and one in the tail. If this upsets the balance of the bait, place a Storm SuspenDot on the belly of the bait near the front hook anchor. Use single hooks one or two sizes larger than the trebles. For example, if the bait carries #6 trebles, replace them with #4 or #2 singles.
Storm SuspenDots are good tools to have with you. Sometimes floating baits bob back to the surface too fast, and sometimes suspending baits don't suspend perfectly. Most days, adding a Dot or two can help trigger wary trout.
Trout can smell like bloodhounds—into the parts-per-billion range. I always use scent with slashbaits. My favorite is Blue Fox Dr. Juice Trout/Salmon formula, but I also use a version of Pro Cure Bait Butter designed for trout.
Locating big trout in rivers during spring is not difficult. Use an aggressive run-and-gun approach to cover everything in sight. It's possible, using this method, to cover every boulder, pool, stump, and twig over a 4-mile stretch of river on foot in one day. From any standing position, on most rivers, make no more than 5 casts before moving on. On most streams, three casts are sufficient. Make a short cast first, then a medium cast, then launch one to the other bank before moving downstream several yards. This prevents you from "lining" fish—dragging lines over their heads.
As with all fishing, patterns develop while covering water. In water colder than 42°F (a stream thermometer is a handy tool that offers many clues to location), the most active browns and rainbows position near the tailouts of deeper pools. As the water warms to 50°F and above, the most active fish tend to hold near the face or tail of riffles and rapids.
In high water, big fish tend to station near the inside of bends, and so on. In low water, rainbows tend to use midriver areas with broken water overhead while browns tend to gravitate toward wood cover. As the day wears on, whether you're fishing from bank or boat, patterns develop revealing where most of the fish are and what retrieves best trigger them.
Master three basic retrieves. The most effective and most basic is the swing. Cast directly across the stream, keep the line tight, keep the rod tip down near the water and follow the drift of the bait, or keep the rod tip slightly ahead of the drift. Unless the current is very slow, there should be no need to reel until the lure sweeps directly below you. The current keeps trying to pull the lure away, and the tight line creates all the lure action needed to trigger fish. This covers the stream segment in a series of arcs, and works best with floaters like the classic Rapala F11. It works even better with the jointed versions.
When the lure reaches a point directly downstream of your position, reach out over the river with your long rod and hold it in place for 10 to 30 seconds. Sweep it back and forth a little, and then reel it in slow. Sometimes this triggers following fish.
The second basic retrieve is a slow, quartering retrieve. Cast across or slightly downstream and work the bait with long, slow pulls—using the long rod to slowly accelerate the bait, then letting it drift back slightly as you retrieve line and push the rod tip back into position to repeat the process. This brings the lure back across the river in a sort of zigzagging arc. The constant start-stop creates a series of triggering actions. This retrieve works best in slower water with floaters and suspending baits.
Finally, a basic walk-the-dog kind of retrieve works with all fish. Keep the rod tip down, pointed it at the lure, raise the tip to create 6 inches or so of slack line, snap the rod tip down through the slack, and continually repeat these maneuvers. Each downward snap of the rod snaps the head of the bait to one side, and the next snap moves it in the opposite direction. This is the classic suspending jerkbait retrieve.
Experiment. Sometimes trout prefer long pauses between snaps, and sometimes a suspending bait triggers best when it hovers there, 2 to 4 feet under the surface and just drifts with the current after a few twitches and snaps of the rod tip. Feed line to it or create some cushion by drawing the rod tip to the side while working the bait, then point the rod at it, letting the slack you created drift down after the bait.
Usually, some version of these three basic retrieves proves best on a given day. Play with speed to the point where you're simply zinging the lure out and ripping it back in as fast as the reel allows, adding a few erratic snaps of the rod tip along the way.
Sometimes cover determines retrieve type and speed. By drawing a suspending bait down several feet then feeding line to it, it's possible to drift right through overhanging brush and underneath fallen trees. Letting a bait drift past a boulder on the far side then drawing it through the feeding stations ahead of and (on the next cast) behind the rock by sweeping the rod perfectly works wonders with these kinds of baits. The only thing that might work better is a streamer presented with a fly rod—which is, by the way, a similar tactic that appeals to the same aspects of a trophy trout's carnivorous nature.
In spring, when a hatch of stoneflies or early mayflies occurs, smaller trout can be seen sipping away on top. Cast a trout-imitating slashbait upstream of and beyond the risers and work it right through them. In many cases, big trout—the ones slashbaits appeal to—are feeding on those smaller trout. Sometimes that's the pattern. Look for rising trout and target the monsters that target them.
Problem is, if your line is too thick or too gaudy—if your casts are too crude and noisy—if you throw a wake over those feeding trout with sloppy wading—they'll spook. Which in turn alerts the larger predators. Move cautiously. Cast well above all targets. Wear clothing that blends in with the backgrounds around you. Most of the time, it makes a big difference.
Many other clues exist to locating and triggering big trout with slashbaits. Just don't have room for them all. You'll find them, if you try. Follow the whistle of returning ducks to the misty, watery walks of giant trout on one of a thousand rivers across North America. Walk softly, carry a long rod, present a slashbait, and you'll never look back.