Your Winter Trout Game Plan

Your Winter Trout Game Plan
Fly-anglers excel tossing the usual assortment of stonefly and caddis fly nymphs. The best sizes typically range from No. 8 to 14. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

winter trout

These spin fishing tips and tactics will boost your winter trout angling success. 

Midwesterner by birth, I have always found that figuring out what to do in February proved a challenge to me. Despite a season that continued beyond Groundhog Day, ruffed grouse were few and far between in my native northeastern corner of the Buckeye State. This was a time before the spring snow goose conservation order.

Hunting seasons were over, and I just never did develop a passion for ice-fishing. Or hockey. Or anything involving spending hours seated on or adjacent to large sheets of ice.

February was, as my father so often put it, a long month. A very, very long month; one rivaled only by March.

Today, I call southwest Washington home. Life here is quite a bit different than it was in Trumbull County, Ohio.

The Cascades and the Columbia River are both radical departures from what I knew previously. Blacktail deer are different; so, too, are the black bears roaming literally across the street from our rural Wahkiakum County home.

And February isn't the same, either, for there are trout to be caught. Beautiful rainbows. Cutthroats. Gorgeous eastern brookies and speckled browns.

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Over the years, I've learned the angler's February is different throughout the West, thanks to countless small picturesque streams and tributary rivers, each harboring its own brand of late winter fishing excitement.

Available? Yes. Pushovers? Not so much.

Winter trout provide their own challenge. However, combine a handful of tried-and-true techniques with a bit of background information, and creeling a batch of cold-water 'bows becomes, well, a little less challenging. 

BACK TO BASICS

It's simple biology, actually. During the fall, and as the water cools, trout feed heavily in preparation for leaner times to come.

In winter, with water temperatures at their lowest, trout still feed, just not as much nor as actively. Cold-blooded creature that it is, a trout has a metabolism that slows as the water temperatures fall, thus making caloric intake only an occasional occurrence.

To further muddy the situation, a February rainbow holding in 40-degree water isn't likely to pursue a spinner across the current and 50 feet downstream as it did in late September.

 So, what does this all mean to the winter trout enthusiast? Three words: presentation, presentation, presentation.

In translation, a February offering is best fished unhurriedly. What that offering is isn't as significant, although it need evoke interest.

We'll discuss that variable momentarily. However, and regardless of what's attached to the business end of the line, speed is of utmost importance: Slow. And accurate.

As noted earlier, cold-water winter trout in most situations aren't inclined to travel far for food, favoring, instead, that calories be delivered to within a fin-flick or two of their lie.

Accuracy, then, with the presentation becomes paramount. But this presents the proverbial double-edged sword. Close is key. However, too near, and all but the softest, most delicate casts risk sending rainbows scurrying, especially under winter's low-flow, hyper-clear water conditions.

But what to present, or more precisely, what size should the presentation be?

Conventional wisdom guides winter anglers with a "make it small" mantra: light or ultra-light . . . even ultra-ultra-light lures.

However, a second school of thought implies that trout, especially larger fish, would rather expend less energy and eat one or two bigger prey items (e.g., a 3- or 4-inch sculpin or crayfish) than burn calories chasing down two dozen even close-at-hand mere appetizers.

And where does this leave us in the grand scheme of lure selection? Almost without exception, small is never wrong. However, sage winter anglers will include a selection, albeit at times meager, of larger (2- to 4-inch) full-meal hard lures for these just-in-case times.

Biology period dismissed. Now onto the "How To" portion of the class.

TOSS HARDWARE

When it comes to trout, spinners work. And they work well. Why? Because these tiny conglomerations of metal and wire appeal to all of the trout's predatory senses.

Spinners look like prey. They move like prey. They produce vibrations like injured and easy-to-catch prey. Why wouldn't even a mildly hungry rainbow, brown or brookie not like something the equivalent of an aquatic combo meal?

Dozens of makes and models of small inline spinners are available, any one of which can fool a trout into spending time in a creel.

Mepps' Aglia series in size 00 and 0 are time-honored selections: silver blades for sunny days, and gold for cloudy skies, as a basic rule of thumb. Some anglers prefer more natural blade hues — Mepps' brown trout, rainbow trout, flashy silver, black, or even a crawdad-imitating copper.

However, non-natural colors such as chartreuse, fire tiger, hot pink or orange can prove to be the hot ticket. Spinners allow anglers to cover the water completely, not only horizontally but vertically as well.

Casts are made upstream, and the hard bait is allowed to slowly drift down into even the tiniest of holding pockets. Downstream or cross-current coverage, as opposed to upstream pulls, are most natural in appearance and typically more effective, as is a retrieve speed just quick enough to work the blade properly.

Remember, slow and accurate.

Small spoons, too, should be included in the winter trout angler's flat box. Again from Mepps, the Little Wolf in 1/8 ounce is a fine choice; so, too, are traditional favorites such as Daredevles, Kastmasters, and Little Cleos, also in small to ultralight ratings.

Spoons are a versatile hard bait, able to be worked in any number of ways and conditions. They can be vertically jigged into deeper cut-bank holes, fluttered through holding water behind obstacles, or back-drifted under surface structure, such as logs.

GO NATURAL

Perhaps sacrilegious to some, but true nonetheless, is the fact that even better than spinners and spoons for winter trout is live or natural bait.

Some waters don't permit the use of such traditional offerings as minnows, 'crawlers or crawdads. However, on those that do, it's tough to find a more consistent producer than live bait.

Redworms, hellgrammites, crawdads, live minnows and leeches are excellent choices. Look for seams or current breaks where trout needn't expend much energy to hold position, and the current, ideally, brings food, be it meat or metal, directly to the dinner table.

Ultralight tackle, light lines and fluorocarbon leaders are on tap when fishing live baits for winter trout. Low flows, gin-clear water and trout that have seen plenty of imposters — both alive and not — for months make the case for such gear.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, a February stream will see me with a 4-foot, 6-inch or 5-foot Shakespeare Micro Series ultralight rod matched to a Contender reel spooled with Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon.

The short rod is nice in tight places, the ultralight spinning reel handles winter trout wonderfully, and the almost invisible fluorocarbon makes for a most natural presentation. And barbless hooks. Certainly, some fish may be lost, but barbless, even if not mandatory, helps make for a low- to no-impact release.

DRESS FOR SUCCESS

There is a large element of pre-trip preparation involved to increase the odds of success in winter trout fishing. Much of this deals with how one dresses.

Throughout much of the West, February and trout combine for chilly, if not downright cold, conditions. Dressing properly — i.e., layering, wearing quality insulated waders and remembering the cold-weather mantra "head, hands and feet" — keeps anglers warm and comfortable. And comfortable anglers fish longer and more attentively.

February: It's true that it may not be as pleasant, weather-wise, as fall in the West. However, there are still plenty of trout to be had for those willing to brave the elements and invest a bit of time and finesse to finding and enticing these not-so-easy pre-spring trophies.

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