Tips and Tactics for May Trout

Having trouble catching post-opening-day trout? Our expert explains how to change your tactics with the changing spring conditions.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By J. Michael Kelly

As long as Mother Nature cooperates, early-season trout fishing can be downright easy. Big natives and holdovers that have gone without regular meals all winter take eager advantage of the smorgasbord that's funneled their way by spring run-off currents. Even anglers who lack the know-how to capture wild trout in high April flows can expect to haul a few fat stockers out of the nearest bridge pool.

By early May, however, aquatic insects begin to hatch and waters settle to wadeable levels. Hatchery deliveries are coming to an end, and the fish that survived the early-season onslaught are jumpy as feral cats. Name the bait, lure or fly, the local trout population has seen it. Anglers can expect to earn every strike they get from now on, but there is hope.

The following tips will help you take more of those reluctant May trout.

Early in the season, holdover browns, brookies and rainbows like to overwinter in deep holes, and any such hideouts within sight of the highway are likely to be seeded with buckets full of hatchery trout prior to opening day.

Stocked fish are popular because they're vulnerable, and it doesn't take long for the roadside water to be picked clean of its more gullible residents. At that point, fishermen need to get well off the beaten path to find steady action. As a rule of thumb, the farther you're willing to hike from angler parking areas in May, the better your chances of catching some serious trout.

This is the perfect time to try an unstocked tributary of your favorite creek or to carefully work a worm or artificial nymph through a stretch of pocket water that was too high and cloudy to fish a week or two before.

Don't give up on those heavily fished April stretches - just fish them from a different angle. For example, how many people have fished that bend pool this season, but from the opposite bank? Would it be worth going downstream, crossing over and working your way back up? Although virgin water is hard to find these days, underfished water frequently is only a few footsteps away.

In April, wise fishermen get up before the crack of dawn to beat the hordes to their favorite pools or else sleep in until noon, when water temperatures are nearing their daily peak and cold-blooded trout are feeling frisky. That schedule simply won't do in May.

Thanks to lengthening days, air and water temperatures continue to climb through the dinner hour. Instead of occurring at midday, as they did in April, mayfly and caddis hatches tend to emerge later in the day. Early in May, Hendricksons and other ephemera hatch from mid- to late afternoon, but by the end of the month, their successors in the entomological parade will be fluttering on stream surfaces between 6 p.m. and sunset. Trout quickly acclimatize to the shifting trend and feed actively during the hatch periods, both on the emerging insects and on other foods adrift in the currents at those hours.

During this glorious time of the year, anglers who normally are limited to weekend trips can hope to squeeze in a productive hour or two of fishing after a full day at the office.

If you're a proficient long-rodder, make sure to bring a box full of hatch-matching nymph, dry and emerger patterns when you arrive on the water, and bring a few streamer flies, too, just in case the bugs decide to take a break when you fish.

Anglers who prefer spinning or bait dunking don't have to be intimidated by the prolific afternoon and evening aquatic insect activity that's typical of May. Although most trout feeding on the surface will be nearly impossible to seduce with anything but a dry fly or floating emerger pattern, those dining down below aren't as selective.

Trout aren't as cagey as many anglers (and fishing writers) believe, but fish that have been hooked once or twice become wary of conventional lures and presentations. This is especially true where streamer and wet-fly patterns are concerned, because trout tend to strike short at such flies, and often get a sharp taste of the hook without being caught. Consequently, many anglers are quick to give up on streamers and wets after the first few weeks of the season.

To extend the effectiveness of your sunken-fly patterns, try fishing them two or three at a time.

The classic multiple fly rig, developed in the pre-Civil War years by anglers in pursuit of native Eastern brook trout, consists of a trio of wet flies, one attached to the leader point and the other two dangling from droppers a couple of feet up the line. Cast at a slightly upstream angle and allow to swing down and across through the current, rod tip held high so that the dropper flies skim and bounce on the surface like egg-laying caddis flies.

An even better multiple-fly set for stocked trout consists of a size 6 or 8 Woolly Bugger or other meaty-looking streamer trailed by a small wet fly.

I attribute the success of this rig to the ineptitude of hatchery graduates that are still used to racing their brethren for fistfuls of food pellets. Such fish instinctively sense that minnows might be good to eat, but have a hard time catching up to fast-swimming prey. Consequently, they make wild, short-of-the-mark lunges at retrieved streamer flies.

To fool these clumsy fish, knot a 10-inch segment of leader tippet to the bend of your Woolly Bugger and tie a Coachman or Light Cahill to the other end of the mono. The trout that miss the streamer will often manage to nab the trailing wet fly.

Weighted in-line spinners are reliable producers for opening day, but even more effective in May. During April, frigid trout usually cling to river bottoms, but strong currents cause retrieved lures to plane toward the surface. Once the water recedes, lures dig deeper and trout can more easily intercept a flashing blade. However, May's changing conditions call for smaller spinners than those that fit the requirements for run-off fishing. Now your best bets will be ultralights, weighing from 1/32 to 1/8 ounce.

In midspring, weighted spinners should be cast up and across the stream and retrieved just fast enough to prevent hangups on the stream bottom. The reverse approach, i.e., casting down and retrieving in an upstre

am direction, results in plenty of follows but few hard strikes. Even stocked trout quickly learn the futility of chasing little fish into strong currents, and the minnow-gulping holdovers that all of us dream about on cold winter nights gain their extra weight by letting prey come to them.

To attain peak performance from ultralight lures (where legal), use neutral-colored monofilament test at no more than 4 pounds, and a smoothly functioning reel. Although many ultralight enthusiasts favor shorter rods, I like one of at least 5 1/2 feet and preferably 6 feet for maximum casting accuracy and fish-fighting control.

Most of the preceding advice will be of little value to fishermen who hustle along a trout stream as if they were trying to leave a burning house. Take your cue from the great blue heron, which makes its living as a fisherman. Do herons strut about, wings flapping? Do they splash noisily as they hunt for a meal? No, they slowly tiptoe stealthily to the stream's edge, blending into the background while they carefully scan the water at their feet. When they move to another spot, it's invariably upstream. Each step is cautious and deliberate, causing barely a ripple.

When the season began, trout and angler were screened from each other by churning, muddy currents, and a fisherman could feasibly get away with wearing a blaze orange jacket or hat.

In May, trout recognize a pair of wader-clad legs in its feeding lane - and flees for cover.

The angler who takes the heron as a role model will wear shades of tan, olive and gray to match the prevalent hues of forest and field. He'll tread softly along the creek bank, and wade only when absolutely necessary. If the sun is at his back, he'll slip into a patch of shade, just to avoid throwing a shadow.

And for going to all that trouble, he'll catch lots and lots of trout. Believe me, you'll see the difference!

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