Tactics For Reluctant Spring Trout

Sometimes it takes a fresh, new look at your spring trouting techniques to find an approach that works. Here's how one expert does it under a variety of conditions.

Every trout fisherman is inclined to go with what works, but nothing works forever. Sooner or later, "old reliable" morphs into "the same old," and we either change the way we do things or resign ourselves to more frequent fishless days. Often, the realization that we are stuck in a rut comes in the early part of the trout season, when we must conquer harsh weather conditions and cope with wader-clad hordes before we can reasonably hope to feel a pleasant weight at the end of the line.

Competition with the elements, the fish and fellow sportsmen makes springtime the right time for anglers who are set in their ways to give themselves a tactical tune-up.

Here are some suggestions from an old-timer who has had a few fishing attitude adjustments himself. Let's start by stretching our legs.

THE PATH LESS TAKEN
When the catching is tough, the quickest way to turn your luck around is to go in a different direction from that taken by other anglers. That means hiking a good distance from popular angler parking areas and then plowing through brush as necessary to cast from the side of the stream that does not have a well-worn path along its bank.

Fishing from the opposite side will give you a fresh perspective and brand-new casting angles. You'll be able to make natural presentations to trout feeding lanes and hiding places the average angler is too lazy to check out.

I've used this simple but seldom-tried tactic on countless small streams and got my deepest satisfaction from it one day on one of the East's most famous rivers. A large brown trout was rising to March Brown duns on the far side of a strong current tongue that caused my dry fly to drag unnaturally, cast after cast. I decided to wade across a knee-deep riffle to the other bank. Creeping into position just 30 feet above the surface-feeder, I dropped a slack line and the smooth current treated my imitation to a drag-free ride down the chow line. The 21-incher took the Comparadun pattern immediately, and I thanked it by letting it go at the end of the ensuing fight.

One of the two fishermen who had watched my impulsive excursion had a profound observation afterward.

"You know, I've often thought of wading to the other side when the fish were rising in that spot," he said, "but you're the first guy I've seen who actually did it." (Continued)

FIND THE COMFORT ZONE
After enduring a long, troutless winter, many anglers eagerly rise before dawn on the season's opening day. On heavily crowded waters, such punctuality may be necessary in order to secure elbowroom on the stream bank, but springtime fishing is apt to be much better in the afternoon than it is at first light. Sleep late, if you like, and don't be afraid to stop for brunch on your way to the water, either.

Most anglers realize trout are cold-blooded creatures that are more or less vigorous and hungry as water temperatures rise and fall, but many in our fraternity don't understand how easy it is to predict when trout are most likely to be strapping on the feedbag.

The year-round rule of thumb is this -- go fishing for trout at the time of day that is most comfortable for you. In March, April and early May, that's usually from around 10 or 11 a.m. to about 3 or 4 in the afternoon, when both air and water temperatures peak. Stream flows may be well below the trout's optimum level -- which is between 55 and 65 degrees, depending on species -- but a temperature of 45 to 48 in early afternoon feels a heck of a lot better to you and the fish than the 38 degrees your thermometer registered at dawn!

By mid-May, the most comfortable conditions are in the evening. Come summer, early morning or the hours between midnight and sunrise are invigorating to both trout and angler.

Autumn sees a return to the mid-day comfort zone.

USE A LIGHT TOUCH
Because water temperatures are cooler than trout prefer, early-season feeding periods tend to be short and meals small. Trout of all sizes bite daintily, or "almost like a sucker," as my father used to say. They frequently take one or two tentative nibbles of a worm or salted minnow and then drop the bait. This fussy eating is routine even at a time when food is extraordinarily plentiful, thanks to spring showers and runoff that funnel all sorts of critters into streams.

If you hope to detect the delicate strikes that are common in early spring, you'd be wise to arm yourself with ultralight tackle, whether you prefer to spin-cast or lob nymphs or bait with a fly rod. Go with the most sensitive, subtle rig you can handle, and stick with it even if the water is running chocolate brown. The purpose of the light line is not to avoid being seen, but to avoid being felt -- and dropped.

My spring-season outfit consists of a 10 1/2-foot noodle rod with an extra-sensitive tip section. I attach either a spinning reel or a single-action fly reel, each spooled with 4-pound-test monofilament, and I add or subtract split shot as I go from pool to pool to keep my bait ticking along the bottom.

You'll lose a big trout now and then as your light mono becomes abraded on the rocks or is otherwise weakened, but your total catch will more than compensate for the occasional get-away.

Don't be tempted to go with 6-pound line because it's only "slightly" thicker or stiffer than 4-pound monofilament. The difference between the two, in terms of strike-detection, is truly amazing.

WORK THE MARGINS
Some of the best places to go trout fishing in early spring don't even hold significant numbers of trout at other times of the year. I'm referring to so-called "transition zones," where trout habitat gradually gives way to water temperatures and oxygen levels more suited to bass, suckers and other species. These areas are usually, although not always, at the downstream end of popular trout streams. They may be stocked for put-and-take fishing purposes by state hatcheries, and occasionally, some of those planted browns and rainbows will manage to survive summer warm-ups and even hold over for one or several seasons by occupying hideouts in cool tributaries or just downstream from spring seeps. The early weeks of the trout season provide the perfect opportunity to connect with one of these lunkers.

In my home county, I fish a gem of a trout stream that has an unusual upstream transition zone. Instead of arising from spring-fed brooks and gradually warming as it widens miles downstream the way most trout waters do, this creek starts out as a warmwater

stream and turns into a trout haven as it is invigorated by a series of large limestone springs. The water upstream from the springs gets as warm as the mid-70s in July and August, but is stocked generously with trout anyway to accommodate the intense local angling pressure.

I love fishing this marginal trout water in the spring because it harbors plenty of nice fish and lacks the crowds that pound the more classic section of the creek.

BE SPECIES-SPECIFIC
Inexperienced anglers who learn that an unfamiliar stream is populated by browns, rainbows or brookies figure they'll treat this creek like any other, on grounds that a trout by any other name is still a trout. In the early season, however, it is vital to understand the differences between various trout species and make subtle adjustments in your fishing game plan depending on whether you're targeting the native brookie, the wary brown or the frisky 'bow.

Brook trout are more tolerant of icy temperatures than browns and rainbows, and accordingly, may feed more aggressively and more often than the other two during the snowmelt period. Take a stream thermometer along on your early-season outings and determine which species is most likely to be active.

I've found that, while all three species will take worms quite readily (provided water temperatures are conducive to feeding), browns are more enthusiastic minnow-eaters than the others. Carry worms and minnows if you're a bait-dunker, but make sure you have an ample supply of the latter when spring-day temperatures peak and browns turn on.

Be aware, too, that spring is the spawning season for wild rainbows, although that's not necessarily the case for hatchery-bred fish. Streams that flow into rainbow-populated lakes often harbor runs of good-sized trout in spring, and anglers who visit such flows -- where legal, of course -- stand an excellent chance of catching trout in the 20-inch class. Spawn sacs, brightly colored streamer flies or even night crawlers work well, before or after the reproductive chores have been accomplished.

I'll take my big rainbow baked in a 350-degree oven with a sprinkle of herbs, a dollop of melted butter and a splash of chardonnay, thank you. The medium-sized browns and 8-inch brookies destined for the pan should be sautéed in canola oil and served with crisp asparagus.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.