By Jeff Samsel
The sound of the river said everything. Without even walking to the water, which was well down a steep, winding path through the woods from where I had parked, I knew what kind of lure to tie on. Spring rains had the river rolling, so I would need something fairly large that would create plenty of flash. I opted for a 3-inch gold spoon.
Veteran trout fishermen know that early spring can be an outstanding time to visit some of their favorite waters. Trout will often feed aggressively at this time of the year, opportunistically nabbing anything that looks like a meal. To eat something, though, they first have to see it, and waters are often high and stained from the combined effects of spring rainstorms and melting snow.
One significant advantage that anglers gain during early spring is that the strong currents that come with high water levels often position fish in obvious locations and make feeding lanes very easy to recognize. Trout will stay in the only places where they can hold – behind obstructions that block or at least slow the current. The flip side is that the best feeding lanes are often difficult for anglers to access and to make presentations through.
While exceptions do exist, trout fishing stereotypes of light lines, stealthy wading and slow presentations of micro-sized offerings pretty much go out the window at this time of year. Experienced anglers turn to large and flashy lures when rivers run high. Beyond being better suited for getting a trout’s attention, these types of offerings generally can be cast farther and worked faster than smaller-sized offerings, allowing anglers to cover more water.
Let’s look at a handful of bait styles that tend to perform especially well at this time of year. A few are well known as trout producers. Others have bigger reputations for yielding strikes from other kinds of game fish. All perform well given the kinds of conditions that tend to prevail during early spring.
Although a lot of spoons look quite similar out of the water, different baits vary enormously in the way they look and sound when they come through the water. Obvious distinctions are size, profile, color and surface texture. Other important distinctions include density and thickness, both of which affect how quickly a spoon will fall through the water column. In addition, some spoons have a very tight wobble, while others have a wide wobble or possibly a spinning motion.
The best spoon for the job varies according to the character of the waters being fished, especially in terms of the spoon’s weight relative to its length. Broad streams, deep runs and strong currents all call for heavier spoons, which can be cast the greatest distances and worked more quickly through the water column than their lighter counterparts.
Techniques also help dictate what type of spoon to use. In rivers that have a lot of pool habitat, for example, anglers sometimes prefer to work spoons with more of a jigging motion than a straight retrieve, and that calls for a fairly dense spoon that will sink easily. For a slow but shallow retrieve, on the other hand, a very thin or light spoon is generally needed.
The color of the water helps determine what type of swimming action will be best, along with affecting decisions regarding the colors and finishes. Tight wobbling baits work best in waters that stay relatively clear, even when they run high, while wider wobbles work best for dirty streams. Wide-wobbling spoons send out bigger pulses and make a broader visible impression in the water; both qualities can help fish find them.
Color and finish are more subjective than other variables, and sometimes it would be difficult to even guess why a particular color draws the most strikes in a day. Overall, though, metal finishes work best for clear to lightly stained waters. Heavily stained water calls for painted finishes or for highly flashy holographic strips and easy-to-see colors. Ultra-bright colors like chartreuse, orange and hot pink are easy to see in the water. At the other end of the spectrum, black offers high contrast, which makes it stand out even in dirty water.
Numerous factors affect spoon size determinations. Beyond the size of the trout and the size of the forage they are accustomed to seeing, the color of the water, the strength of the current, the size of the stream and the water temperature can all fit into the equation.
Spoons can be fished a lot of different ways and will catch trout near the surface or on the bottom. Generally speaking, anglers will want to cast either upstream or crosscurrent. Downstream casts mean upstream retrieves, and most spoons get overworked when retrieved against a current.
Probably the best overall way to work a spoon in trout waters is to make quarter casts upstream and crosscurrent, while using a combination of rod sweeps and pauses to put the bait into action as the current carries it downstream. That brings the lure over the heads of trout in the direction they are used to seeing food coming from.
Jerkbaits come in styles that float when they are not in motion and others that either suspend or sink. Sinking models generally work best for trout, especially when the water is swift. Sinking jerkbaits get down in the spots where trout like to hide when the river is swift, and they generally handle current better than do floating models.
These narrow baitfish-imitating plugs also come in sizes that range from barely over 1 inch to more than 6 inches long. For most trout fishing applications, anglers tend to use plugs in the 2- to 2 1/2-inch range, but for high-water fishing, 3- to 5-inch baits often will produce more trout. Because it is so narrow, a 5-inch jerkbait is not too large for trout, especially large trout, which big plugs tend to produce.
Jerkbaits make t
errific target-fishing baits. When high water causes trout to pile up behind boulders or brush, in cuts in the banks and anywhere else there is any kind of a current break, minnow plugs cast right to the cover often will draw immediate action. Most trout will pounce on the plug as soon as it hits the water.
At times, jerkbaits need to be jerked, just as the name suggests, creating a very erratic action. Other days, the steady wiggle created by a quick, even retrieve will attract far more strikes. Anglers need to experiment with twitches, pauses, jerks and reeling cadences and to pay close attention to details anytime fish hit. It is also important to watch the bait at the end of each retrieve, as much as is possible. When trout follow jerkbaits but turn off at the last second, a slight change in your retrieve will trigger a strike.
Silver with a black back and gold with a black back are probably the most popular jerkbait color combinations, with most anglers favoring silver-sided plugs for sunny days and gold for cloudy days. Other highly productive color patterns are those that imitate rainbow or brown trout or yellow perch. For highly stained waters, chartreuse baits work well.
Bodies made from feathers or fur commonly suggest aquatic insects in nymph stages, while larger hard bodies behind spinners generally look more like some kind of baitfish. Some in-line spinners, in fact, have hard minnow-shaped bodies and are painted to look like fingerling trout or some type of stream baitfish.
A lot of spinners used commonly for trout fishing are quite small and light – well suited for finesse approaches. Early spring calls for heavier baits, bigger profiles and big round blades that create a lot of vibration. Most high-water spinners weigh 1/8 ounce or more, and 1/4-ounce baits are the mainstays for many anglers. Big Indiana or Oklahoma blades, which create a lot of thump in the water, are the norm. Early spring also calls for painted blades, bold body colors and large body designs.
Techniques for spinner-fishing are quite similar to those that work best with spoons. Most of the best retrieves begin with upstream casts and involve some combination of current, rod sweeps and reeling to bring the bait to life.
For high-water fishing, one major advantage of grubs, craw-tubes, stick baits and various other soft-plastic offerings is that they can be rigged a lot of different ways to fish various types of waters and different ways. The same bait can be swum on a 1/8-ounce leadhead, dropped deeper on a larger leadhead, fished through brush with a Texas rig or fished slowly on the bottom with a drop-shot rig.
A basic 3-inch curlytail grub in white or a bright color like pink or yellow can be dynamite at times, and it can be retrieved steadily, retrieved with twitches and pauses, or hopped right along the bottom. Depending on the color and the retrieve, a grub can imitate a lot of different kinds of trout forage, and the swimming tail makes it easy to see.
Along with traditional grubs, various skirted grubs and creature baits offer even more appeal for some high-water situations because skirts and appendages create a lot of extra movement in the water and make these types of offerings easy to see. Some creature designs also imitate crawfish quite effectively. Because of the crawfish suggestion, bright orange and red color patterns are good choices.
Most anglers fish creature baits on leadheads, swimming or bouncing them on the bottom. However, anglers who want to get creature baits down in deep water and give trout time to look at them can fish drop-shot rigs and let a combination of current and a jiggling motion bring the baits to life.
Another type of soft-plastic bait that works very well is a tube. Tubes have a very erratic action when fished with insider jigheads, but they also can be fished on traditional jigheads or on Texas rigs. Not to be overlooked within the tube set are craw tubes, many of which are only 2 or 3 inches long and look a lot like real crawfish.
Soft-plastic stick baits, which have become very popular for bass fishing over the past couple of years, also work extremely well for trout. Luckily, these baits can be fished a lot of different ways. Beyond leadhead applications, stick baits work well when hooked through the nose with a small open hook and when “wacky rigged” right though the middle. In either case, a split shot or two might be added a couple of feet up the line to get the bait down in swift water.
Wide wobblers, which are recognizable in the package by diving lips that are angled sharply down, also allow anglers to work a bait fairly slowly while still creating a tremendous amount of motion. Even fish that are slowed by very cold early-season temperatures can find their way to these baits.
Because wide-wobbling crankbaits are designed to create a big impression, most anglers opt for bright colors, flashy metallic patterns or combinations of the two. Bright orange crawfish patterns, color schemes with a lot of chartreuse in them, and bright pinks and purples all have their advocates, as do silver and gold plugs.
Wide-wobbling crankbaits come in all shapes and sizes and dive to a big range of depths. Best bets vary a lot according to the size and character of the waters being fished, the size of trout, and the kind of forage the fish are accustomed to seeing. Two- or 3-inch-long baits that run to medium depths probably meet the broadest range of trout fishing applications. Larger baits are sometimes needed for big rivers.
Because these baits create so much motion with a simple retrieve, anglers typically don’t need to add any jerks or pauses. In heavy-current situations, anglers might have to cast crosscurrent, as upstream casts will result in the bait begin carried downstream too quickly to ever get it running right. Crankbaits also can be simply held downstream in the current to wobble in place, and trout sometimes will come and gobble them down.
to overlook these types of baits for fishing waters where only single-hook lures may be used. In some cases, anglers may alter baits by clipping two of three points from treble hooks.
In truth, virtually any lure can be made into a single-hook offering, and trimming trebles into singles typically is not the best route. Treble hooks don’t need to be as large as their single-pointed counterparts to do the same job, so anglers get left with too little hook when they simply clip trebles. A far better plan is to remove the original trebles and put a new hook on the back split ring, using a sharp hook that appears to be a good size to be that bait’s only hook.
Beyond fulfilling requirements on some specially managed waters, using single hooks makes trout much easier to release in good condition. Plus, a good quality, properly sized single hook will hook just as many trout as a couple of small trebles will in most cases. And trout are less likely to twist off during the fight. As a bonus, lures equipped with single hooks generally foul less on their own hooks than do treble-rigged baits.
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