Big Lures for Early-Season Trout
September 24, 2010
Less-than-ideal stream conditions call for using special lures and flies during the early season in order to catch trout now.
Photo by Michael Skinner
Spring days often bring less-than-ideal conditions to trout streams. Spring rains add to the effects of late-winter fronts and cause high water to be often somewhat turbid. Trout feed well through the spring. However, they can only eat what they can see. As importantly, some baits never get down to the areas where trout commonly seek refuge from the strong currents.
One advantage high water brings is that it makes locating trout somewhat predictable. Despite being swift-water fish, trout don't like fighting powerful currents all day. Therefore, they will hold in pocket-sized eddies behind rocks and cuts in banks and under shoals. More so, they will find refuge in larger pockets of protected water, behind boulders, sunken logs and ledges at the bottom of the stream.
When trout streams run high, experienced anglers adjust their strategies. Spin-fishermen and flyfishermen alike must make the same kinds of adjustments, if they want to catch fish at this time of year. Simplified, they add bulk and flash to their favorite offerings. Let's dig a little deeper and see what kind of lures and flies perform best right now.
GIVE 'EM FLASH Ask a bunch of anglers who fish for trout in lakes what types of lures perform best, and most will put spoons high on their list. For some reason, however, the understanding of a trout's fondness for spoons has always escaped stream fishermen. Most fishermen who do the bulk of their trout fishing in moving water never tie on a spoon.
Through the spring, overlooking spoons can be a major mistake. Flash and wobble combine to make spoons very visible. The flash of a spoon resembles a wounded baitfish, which trout have difficulty passing up. Additionally, many spoons have enough weight to get down and run true, even in fairly strong currents.
The size of a stream, the strength of its currents and the depth of its runs dictate what weight of spoon to fish with. Generally speaking, the lightest spoon that will get close to the bottom of a stream will produce the best results, but often that is still a fairly good-sized offering. Spring conditions commonly call for 1/2-ounce or heavier spoons.
Like spoons, in-line spinners offer favorable prospects throughout the year for trout. The key at this time of year is to use a fairly large and usually flashy spinner. Where 1/16- and even 1/32-ounce sizes work best when the water runs low, spring fishing often calls for 1/8- or 1/4-ounce spinners.
Where summer or fall fishing might call for muted copper blades, simple hair skirts, and drably painted or unpainted bodies, flashier baits work better now. Spring is often the time to pull out those pink, yellow and orange in-line spinners that have large gold or silver blades.
It is worth noting, however, that high water and low visibility do not always go hand in hand. Some trout streams, especially those that have very little human disturbance to their upper watersheds, stay clear no matter how much water is flowing through them. In such waters, anglers should abandon the extra glitz but still use larger, heavier spinners and spoons to get down in the swift water.
With spoons or spinners, using a gold blade instead of a silver blade (or vice versa) can make all the difference some days. Likewise, a spoon may work best one day, but the next day the trout may only want spinners. Experienced anglers switch their offerings fairly frequently through the first part of the day, even if the changes are minor, to let the trout dictate what is an effective lure that day.
PLUG AWAY AT 'EM Arguably the most overlooked lures for trout, for all types of waters and all seasons, are plugs. As trout reach larger sizes, they feed extensively on crawfish, minnows and other kinds of fish. Because of this, small minnow-and crawfish-imitating plugs can be very effective. Nevertheless, most fishermen do not associate hard baits with trout. Generally speaking, minnow-imitating plugs that are less than 3 inches long work better than larger offerings for trout. Sinking and large-lipped diving plugs are best suited for spring's high water fishing.
In terms of colors, silver with a blue or black back imitates many types of baitfish, but crawfish- and trout-imitating color patterns can also be very effective. If the water is stained, adding a little chartreuse to an otherwise natural color scheme can add significantly to your cast-to-strike ratio.
Beyond choosing plugs that are designed to dig deeper, hard bait- fishermen can get their offerings down more effectively at this time of year by downsizing their line. Plugs dive deeper with lighter lines, which are smaller in diameter than heavier tests. Light line, heavy current and big trout can combine to create quite a challenge at times. However, most anglers would rather cross that bridge when they come to it than not be able to get their bait down to feeding fish in the first place.
Small plugs are most effective when they are quarter cast upstream. Working a lure downstream looks natural to trout, which usually face upstream, and quartering a plug across the current allows an angler to put decent motion into the plug without having to crank it exceedingly fast. With a sinking plug, it is important to pause the retrieve and let the bait sink, as it was designed to do.
Minnow plugs are especially good for casting around fallen trees, into cuts in the bank that form small eddies and behind big boulders, all locations where minnows like to hide. Crawfish plugs work best around all kinds of rocky structure.
UP-SIZE YOUR FLIES Long rod fishermen can also benefit by turning to larger offerings during the spring. Too many flyfishermen simply stay out of streams when the water runs too high, figuring the trout will never spot their flies. That's true if they stick with No. 16 dry flies and nymphs. However, if they don't mind stripping large streamers close to the bottom, they might find surprisingly cooperative trout.
Many large flies offer extra appeal during early spring. Among the best are Mickey Finns and Zonkers. Mickey Finns are bright-colored, featuring yellow and orange. These flies are also streamlined and tightly wrapped, which allows them to reach the bottom easily. Zonkers, usually tied with a bit of flash on the body, are big and bulky and easy for trout to find. Although they typically are not associated with trout, Clousers or other streamer patterns that are built with lead eyes offer very good prospects for spring fishing.
Woolly Buggers are always good bets, and during high water conditions, conehead Woolly Buggers are especially effective. Prime colors, if the water is stained, are white, with a bit of Flashabou, and black, which creates a lot of contrast in the water. If the water is high but still running clear, olive or brown offer better prospects, as do flies that are weighted with wrapping, instead of getting their weight from a flashy conehead.
Whatever the pattern, streamers typically need to be stripped. They are not designed to drift freely in the current. They imitate fish and little swimming critters. Flyfishermen put action in to streamers by hand-stripping the line, and high water fishing generally calls for fairly aggressive stripping.
Beyond using larger flies, another trick that works very well for flyfishermen when streams run high and get pushy is to turn to a sinking fly line. Sinking lines can be counted on to carry flies to any level, and then the flies can be pulled through the strike zone uninhibited.
Of course the best solution, in some instances, is to use big flashy flies and to present them with a sinking line. When an angler puts a big fly at eye level to a trout that has not seen many artificial offerings in a while, that fly becomes pretty difficult to resist. Catching, after all, is the object of the game -- even during the spring season.
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