Everything about the spot screams trout — the hard shadow, the deep run, the current break, the cover… The idea that a trout would not dart from the brush to attack your lure seems almost beyond comprehension. Nevertheless, nothing.
Neither deterred nor convinced that no one is home, you make a quick change, slipping a small box from our vest pocket and trading the Rebel Minnow you had been fishing for a Rooster Tail. You then make the same cast, pulling the flashy little spinner past the same brush. This time a 12-inch rainbow flashes its colors and smashes your lure.
The spinner was the key for this particular trout and has produced a couple of others, so you keep it fastened to your snap. The plug remains handy, though, and you’ll give it a try the next time your spinner comes through a “can’t miss” spot but misses. Lets take a look at these two great trout lures.
SNAP ON, SNAP OFF
A tiny snap, such as a 1/2-inch XCalibur Hold-Tite snap, is a tremendous trout fishing tool and one that too seldom gets used by trout fishermen. A snap allows for very quick switches from one lure to another, making it practical to fish virtually any spot with a couple of different lure styles, colors or sizes. Not only do you spare having to tie a knot every time you switch lures, you don’t end up with knots on the split rings of all the lures you have snipped off. A peripheral benefit of a snap is that it gives a lure a freer range of motion than a cinched down knot — much like a loop knot, only easier.
The most common argument against using a snap is that it could spook trout, and in rare instances when the water is ultra clear and the trout are super spooky, this could be a factor. In most cases, though, the snap does not seem to deter trout at all and the advantages outweigh the risk. A snap is small and subtle when compared with most plugs and spinners, which typically come equipped with some hardware of their own that the trout don’t seem to mind.
Given the quick-change capacity of a snap, you actually could shuffle through a host of potential trout catchers during a day. A more efficient strategy is to select a couple of primary baits and to use those as sort of a one-two punch, and it’s tough to top the combination of a small minnow-imitating plug and an inline spinner.
That doesn’t mean you trade lures every cast. Instead it means keeping one on your snap and the other very handy, ideally in its own little box where it won’t hang other lures’ hooks. It also means remaining ready to switch when a spot seems more conducive to the other lure or when a spot looks extra promising and the first one fails to draw a trout’s attention.
Along with your primary plug and spinner — each selected at the beginning of the day based river and weather conditions and other factors — it’s good to carry a handful of alternative plugs and spinners in a pocket-fitting box. Don’t go overboard or you can easily find yourself doing more experimenting with lures types than looking for fish, but do carry a few alternative lures that cover basic sizes and color types and allow you to probe different depths and contend with more or less current.
MINNOW BAITS & SPINNERS
Minnow-shaped diving plugs, such as Floater and Countdown Rapalas and XCalibur Twitch Baits, are tremendous trout attractors that often get overlooked by stream fishermen. These baits are especially effective for getting the attention of larger trout, but they are not big-fish exclusive and often will produce big numbers of fish. Actions range from tight wiggles to wide wobbles with steady retrieves. Most dart somewhat erratically when jerked.
The best plugs for most stream fishing situations are between 2 and 4 inches long, with smaller sizes generally being best for smaller waters and for low-water conditions, which make the fish fussier and less aggressive. Larger-sized plugs will draw big fish out of the cover, especially if a river is running high or is somewhat stained.
Floaters, suspenders and sinkers all have value. Floaters work best in shallow streams that that have an abundance of woody cover; suspenders allow for stop and go presentations, with the bait staying in the zone; sinkers let you work deeper and effectively probe a broader swath of the water column.
Minnow bait presentations range from slow and steady cranking to jerking and pausing to quick twitching, with river conditions and the mood of the fish largely dictating the best retrieve. If cast upstream, a bait needs to be worked faster than the current in order to swim properly. Cross-current or even down-current casts allow for slower presentations.
Minnow baits come in every imaginable combination of colors, but some of the simplest and most traditional color patterns, such as gold- or silver-sided lures with dark backs, remain among the best because they resemble common stream forage fish. Rainbow and brown trout patterns are also extremely effective trout producers. As a rule, darker-sided lures work best on dark days and in darker water, while silver-sized lures and rainbow trout patterns shine when the visibility is good.
Spinners add an element of fish-attracting flash and vibration and have a totally different appearance than that of minnow lures. They also work better for efficiently working the bottoms of runs. Most spinners don’t really look like anything a trout eats, so they most likely attract reaction strikes from fish that are feeding opportunistically. Most are a little smaller and look like easier meals than minnow plugs that would be fished on comparable tackle, so a fish that sees a minnow as a little too big a bite when it comes through might very well nab a spinner.
The term “in-line spinner” is broadly used in reference to all spinner-type lures that have a blade of some sort spinning around some sort of body. Many are not truly in-line in their blade configurations, but instead rotate on clevis; functionally, the two styles are similar, though, and most anglers don’t make a distinction.
Blades can be round or willow-leaf shaped, with round blades creating more “thump” but willow leafs allowing a bait to get down in the current more readily.
The best lure combo to use as your primary pairing depends on a number of factors, with the river size, flow level, water color and the size of the fish it the stream all being important. At times river conditions make the best picks obvious. Other times, you’ll have to experiment with a handful of lures early and narrow your picks based on what you observe.
Wear polarized sunglasses as you fish to help you see what’s going on beneath the surface, and pay attention to your lure and the water just behind it. Trout are notorious followers and often will flash at lures but not grab them or will follow but not quite commit. Even if you can’t quite see your lure for much of the retrieve, if you’re watching the area where it is swimming, you’re apt to see trout flash when they turn on your lure or dart out from cover. Flashes and follows tell you that you’re getting warm. Often a tweak in the presentation or a change of color will convert close calls into catches.
For very small streams or ultra low flows and clear water, grab an ultralight or even a micro rod and reel spooled with 4-pound test and think “ultra small and natural” when you’re picking your lures for the day. A 2 1/4-inch Rebel Tracdown Minnow in a rainbow or brown trout color pattern and a Size 0 Mepps Plain or Dressed Aglia in a subtle color form a great combo. Either can be worked through inches of water or allowed to sink deeper in pools, and both have small profiles and are subtle, relative to other spinners and plug.
A Tracdown Minnow can be swum steadily or twitched, and the trout typically will show a decided preference for one or the other presentation in a given day. Twitching makes this little plug pretty erratic, which can be good for triggering strikes but can dissuade fish when they are in an extra cautious mood. Swam steadily, barely faster than the current, the same Tracdown Minnow looks like an easy meal. Aglia spinners are best fished just off the bottom with steady presentations, using retrieve speed and rod angle to control depth.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, when streams are swelled, creating ripping currents and stained water, it’s time to pull out heavier spinning gear, rigged with 8- to 12-pound test or possibly braid, and fish with bigger lures. Match a Lucky Craft Pointer 100 or a Smithwick Suspending Rogue with Size 4 or 6 Panther Martin spinner, and you’re in business. Think extra dark or bright when selecting colors. You’re usually looking for reaction strikes under these conditions.
High water pushes the fish very tight to shoreline cover and into eddies behind boulders and beneath drops and anywhere else they can get out of the current. They won’t stray far, but they’ll dart out to ambush apparent foodstuff that swings close to their hiding places. In addition to providing extra thump and flash, larger minnow baits and spinners generally allow for more accurate casts. Suspending plugs work extra well under these conditions because you can cast tight to the shore, jerk the bait under and then let it drift, keeping it close to the shore and to the trout.
In most situations, the best lures to use fall between the extremes. Outstanding minnow baits for mid-sized streams and “normal” conditions include a 2 1/2-inch Rebel Tracdown Minnow and a size 7 (a 2 3/4-inch) Jointed Rapala. The Rebel has a quick rolling wobble and is a slow-sinking lure that can be fished at a wide range of depths. The Jointed Rapala has a slower, overstated movement that tends to draw fish from farther away.
Good spinners to match with either include a Size 0 or 1 Blue Fox Vibrax in either a simple Plated style or the Foxtail style or a 1/8- or 1/6-ounce Rooster Tail. The Blue Fox has a Bullet body and Indiana blade and offers a little larger profile and more thump than the Rooster Tail. The Rooster Tail, which comes in loads of color combination, has a narrow blade and small profile that allows it to get down in stronger currents.
ESTABLISHING A PLAN
To simplify things, don’t tote every minnow bait and spinner you own to the river. Beginning with what you know about a stream’s trout, their food sources and the character of the stream — and about conditions you would expect to prevail — pack a modest selection of lures in stowable boxes. If you can get a good look at stream conditions from the car and you’ve accounted for varying conditions, take out some unneeded lures before you ever step in the water. Pick a few plugs and a few spinners that will tell you what you need to know and make sure they are handy.
If you’ve made good selections to start with and the trout are even somewhat cooperative, it shouldn’t take long to pick up on their preferences. Ideally, within a couple of hours you’ll have homed in on your top lure in each category and you can spend the day knocking out trout catches with a potent one-two punch.