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Back to the Basics for Early Season Trout

There's no better time to employ some tried-and-true baits and methods.

Back to the Basics for Early Season Trout

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Very few good things can be said about the COVID-19 pandemic, but one of them is that in the past year we’ve seen a surge in angling interest, an outdoor activity deemed relatively safe by health officials. While the situation likely reignited interest in anglers whose interest had lapsed, it undoubtedly ushered in folks completely new to the sport. Lacking experience and direction, chances are such rookies did much more fishing than catching last season.

For someone new to the sport, trout angling included, things can be quite intimidating. From tackle selection and how to use it to determining what types of water to fish, the task can be overwhelming. With this in mind, a step back to basics is in order. So, whether you’re a newcomer to trout fishing or just shaking off the rust prior to another spring on the streams, chances are you’ll benefit from what follows.


Early season stream trout can be taken via bait, hardware (spinners, spoons, small minnow baits) and flies. But before we delve into the use of each, let’s lay down some basic principles.

Like all fish that inhabit flowing water, trout are strongly influenced by the current found there. An understanding of such is vital to angling success. Most streams feature a series of riffles (fast, bumpy water), runs (somewhat deeper, less current) and pools (deeper and slower yet). Runs often connect riffles and pools, and all three types of areas have the potential to hold trout.

For instance, trout will position in riffle areas provided they can hide behind current-deflecting rocks and dart out to intercept food. Runs can be especially productive, as they receive food washed down from riffles. Trout holding in runs often position on current edges, which can be revealed by a line of bubbles (or floating debris) on the surface. Pools can be important during the early season, when flows are often higher. Trout might find the current situation there more to their liking when strong current blasts through riffles and runs.

How you position yourself with regard to where you expect trout to be holding is an important skill in stream trout fishing, one that you’ll build upon as your experience grows. This often involves wading, a skill in itself. Soles of wading boots equipped with metal (hardened steel or aluminum) studs or felt often provide more solid footing than simple rubber lugs, though felt might not be permitted on your stream due to its ability to transport invasive species. A wading staff will provide significant stability and is a worthy investment.


Though there exists a plethora of artificial lure options comprising fur, feather, metal, plastic and combinations thereof, live bait continues to excel at taking stream trout. This is doubly true during the early season when streams often run high and off color and finicky trout are more likely to respond to the real thing. Red worms, mealworms, waxworms, nightcrawlers and minnows all are common options.

Typically, live bait is fished with a spinning rod, most often equipped with an open-faced spinning reel, though a close-faced spincasting reel will work. All of the worm options can be fished on a simple rig consisting of a bait hook and however much split shot is needed to keep it near the bottom. Match the hook to the size of the bait. Red worms, mealworms and waxworms are all small, making a size 10 Octopus-style bait hook appropriate. With a red worm, I like to hook it once through the collar, then one more time toward the tail. This way it can wiggle naturally in the water. Since waxworms and mealworms are smaller it’s okay to stack two or three on the hook. Nightcrawlers can be a bit big for the average stocked trout, but if you pinch off its head the size is right. Rig it like the redworm but on a larger, size 8 hook.

All of these live-bait choices should be fished in a cross-stream manner that allows the rig to drift naturally with the current. BB-sized split shot positioned a foot to 18 inches above the hook provides the weight needed to cast the offering and to keep it down near bottom where trout spend most of their time. There should be enough weight so that it ticks bottom occasionally on the drift; if it’s consistently becoming snagged, use less weight.

Trout bites on worms typically consist of a series of light taps that feel livelier than the shot ticking bottom. Give the trout just a moment to ensure the fish has the bait in its mouth, and then set the hook.

Minnows such as small- to medium-sized fathead or shiner minnows are usually fished in a manner called “threaded.” The typical thread rig starts with a small swivel on the terminal end of the main line. Then, a 2-foot piece of monofilament is folded in half and its two ends are tied to the other end of the swivel to create a 1-foot loop. The loop is hooked to a special threading needle that’s run down the mouth of the minnow and out its vent. The loop is then run through the eye of a size 8 or 10 double or treble hook and attached to the hook via a girth hitch. Once secure, the loop line is pulled back up through the minnow so the hook rests against its underside.

Threaded minnows are more of a chore to rig than worms, but they can be deadly. Whereas the worm offerings are drifted naturally, the minnow rig is more active. It’s also cast cross-current, but then retrieved slowly to give the bait a swimming action that few trout can resist. Minnow rigs should also be weighted with split shot to keep the offering down in the water column.

A final word of caution relating to live bait: Make certain that it’s legal to use on the waters you intend to fish. Since live bait has greater potential for deeply hooking fish, it is prohibited in some waters, particularly on ones that require the release of fish.


Spinners, spoons and even small minnow-imitating crankbaits all can excel in the taking of stream trout. Years ago I felt the use of such lures was more appropriate later in the spring once the water had warmed and the trout became more active. But having taken many trout on spinners during the winter months, I no longer think that way.

Classic examples of spinners include the Mepps Aglia, Worden Rooster Tail and Panther Martin. Weights of 1/16 to 1/8 ounce (commonly classified in the size-0 to size-2 range by many manufacturers) are right for most situations, depending on depth and current. Spinners are notorious for twisting line, so consider using a small snap swivel between the main line and lure.


Small spoons like Acme’s 1/8-ounce Sidewinder are great trout lures and largely overlooked. The same can be said for small minnow baits like Rapala’s X-Rap in sizes 4 and 6.

Like the threaded minnow, spinning hardware is fished with cross-current casts so the lure swims back to the angler on the retrieve. The flash and vibration produced by lures of this type often inspire a reaction strike from trout, as opposed to the feeding strike you’ll get on live bait.


The inclusion of fly fishing in an article geared toward basic, early eason trout fishing might not seem appropriate, but not everything in fly fishing is hyper-technical. Easy-to-fish patterns like Woolly Buggers and soft-hackle wet flies can be fished essentially like redworms, that is cast cross-current and allowed to drift naturally downstream. A mend in the line—where you flip the floating fly line upstream so it doesn’t get ahead of the fly and drag it along—is often needed to keep the fly moving naturally. Many takes when "swinging" Woolly Buggers and soft hackles occur at the end of the drift when the fly stops drifting and slowly rises toward the surface, a movement that often triggers strikes.


Avoid the crowds with a visit to one of these sleeper Eastern waters.

  • White River, VT

Originating in the Green Mountains, the White River and its many tributaries offer a wide assortment of trout fishing opportunities. Anglers can expect to find both stocked and wild trout in the lengthy but often overlooked river. The upper section, above Granville, is smaller and more easily waded.

  • Nine Mile Creek, NY

Despite its name, Nine Mile Creek is actually 22 miles in length. Some of the best trout water is found in the middle section between Marcellus and Camillus, where a series of springs cool the water. Stocked and wild brown trout and the occasional native brook trout inhabit this stretch.

  • Tionesta Creek, PA

Found largely within the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania, Tionesta is a medium-to-large freestone stream that receives ample spring stockings. Feeder streams such as Salmon Creek and Blue Jay Creek, also stocked waters, provide an option should heavy rains blow out Tionesta.

  • Patapsco River, MD

The Patapsco River offers a put-and-take fishery not far from Baltimore. Nearly 10 miles of stocked trout waters flow through Patapsco State Park, including the upper section from Sykesville downstream to the confluence of the North Branch, and the lower section from Bloede Dam downstream to B&O Viaduct.

  • North Fork Cherry River, WV

n a state blessed with numerous trout waters, it’s easy to understand how one might overlook the North Fork of the Cherry River—but it would be a mistake to do so. Found in the mountains of Pocahontas County within Monongahela National Forest, the North Fork of the Cherry is well stocked with brown, rainbow and golden rainbow hybrids. Some native brookies can also be found in this small, fast-flowing stream.

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