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Take It to the Bank for Hefty Cold-Weather Rainbows

Rely on these tactics to increase encounters with big trout when stalking the river's edge.

Take It to the Bank for Hefty Cold-Weather Rainbows

Slowly stalking the bank of a river with spinning or fly gear is a good way for anglers to try different tactics during the cold season. (Shutterstock image)

Weather in the late winter and early spring can be a good thing. When it's too cold for many anglers to bother sliding their boats in the water, there's more river for the rest of us. This is when life is better walking the edge of a stream, reading the water for the best lies with a fly or spinning rod (or both) in hand. Rig a couple of rods in advance and employ these tactics from the bank of your favorite trout streams through March.

MICRO JIGS

Consider the ultra-small, head-heavy, deep-running micro jig for probing deep slots in fast-moving water. Tied to mimic traditional trout flies, a new line of jigs is meeting a need for anglers who are comfortable fishing a deep-running, fly-style presentation on a spinning rod. The ideal rod is about 7 feet long with 6-pound-test monofilament mainline or a comparable braid. Look for water that moves at walking speed and averages 5 to 8 feet deep.

Gary Lewis with rainbow trout
The author banked this chunky winter rainbow with a fly rod, but using spinning gear with fly-fishing techniques will also put fish in the net. (Photo by Gary Lewis)

The jigs are heavy, tied on No. 12 to 8 hooks with short tails, short legs and collars. Colors and patterns are infinite, but a well-stocked box has staples like an egg-sucking leech, orange head with black body, brown, olive/black, rusty orange (crawfish imitation) and white.

Cold-weather trout are more opportunistic, but they have not forgotten how to eat crawdads or sculpin. Use a fixed or sliding float and mend or otherwise slow down the presentation to the speed of the water sliding along the bottom.

If micro jigs are hard to come by, stop by a fly shop and look over the selection of Tungsten Balanced Leeches, sculpins and assorted Woolly Buggers. If the water is too fast to run a micro jig close to the bottom, add weight to the line. Sometimes one split shot can make all the difference between catching a limit and going home empty-handed.

CRAWFISH PATTERNS

After a heavy rain, a tributary stream will blow out and trout might back down out of the dirty water. Down in the main river, holding off the creek inflow, they are likely to stage along the edge of the muddy current and pick off food that washes down. This is an excellent time to put a crawfish pattern to work.

It's harder than it looks to get a weighted crawdad imitation down on the bottom. Any good fly shop is going to offer at least a dozen crawfish patterns, but the trick is getting them deep. Tied on a jig hook so the point rides up, and with tungsten "eyes" a crawfish pattern can go deep fast.

One good option is the Mack’s Roadkill Craw from Rainy's Flies. Cast upstream, let it sink, then retrieve it in small increments through the boulders. To fish it right, it must bump the bottom and move in small spurts. When it snags, you know you're fishing it correctly.

Illustration of drop-shot fishing for trout
Illustration by Peter Sucheski

The copper scale and burnt orange Mack’s Smile Blade Fly is a winner when fished down in the boulders, but it takes weight to drag the neutrally buoyant attractor down. A drop-shot rig works well for lightweight craw patterns (see diagram below). Dress it with Pro-Cure crawfish scent for added attraction and let that crawdad hunt.




Mack's Roadkill Craw fly
Mack's Roadkill Craw fly

MINI SPINNER BAITS

At certain times of the year, a spinner is the best choice when searching for trout; a run-and-gun approach can pay off with more strikes. But on a slow-moving river or when casting from the shoreline over deeper water, it makes sense to experiment with various depths and retrieve rates. Cast, count to five and retrieve. On the next cast, count to 10, and so on. Stand in one place and fan-cast the area using the countdown system. When a trout strikes, try to get the lure to that same depth again.

One of my favorite trout lures over the last year has been a little bass-style spinner bait sized down for rainbows from Trout Wizard Lure Company, based in Bend, Ore. I found them on Instagram and started fishing their lures early in the season last year, with good action from late February into early April.

For searching really big water, I like the small, stealthy Realis Spin from Duo International. It's a wide-area search bait that casts a mile and is super-easy to fish with a simple retrieve. It sinks fast and its tail blade makes it look like a furiously moving baitfish from the back, while the body gives off an erratic side roll at the slightest slowdown.

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PLASTIC WORMS AND MINNOWS

Plastic worms tend to produce as many fish as natural baits now. Rig up to drift the edge of a seam with just enough weight to tickle the tops of the rocks. Jeff Warner, founder of XFactor Tackle, relies on three main colors in cold winter water—hot red, fluorescent pink and natural worm.

Adapted from steelhead drift fishing, the best rig starts with a 6-pound main line tied to a barrel swivel. A sliding sinker on the main line is a good way to get the bait down, but another option is to leave a tag on the main line knot and crimp on removable split shot. The leader should be 20 inches long and terminate at a No. 10 or 8 single egg hook.

Warner’s go-to for brown trout on his home water is a 1/16-ounce jig head on a No. 4 hook and an XFactor Teaser minnow. He fishes without a float.

"In my experience, it is better to allow the bait to do its work as an injured baitfish," he says. "I don't want a natural drift, I want violent rips and jerks. It's why I like the lightweight jig. I don't need it to be down on the bottom. It lets the bait look more erratic than it does with a heavy jig head."

Warner's favorite color on a bright, sunny day is motor oil with red flake. Warner recommends casting a plastic minnow in tailouts and along seams and ripping it back. "I like to cast it upriver and then 'work the clock,' so to speak," he says. "Even cast it straight downriver and twitch it. If I don't catch a fish after that, there ain’t one in there."

The bite can be hard to detect. Keep your index finger on the line to stay in touch with the rocks; set the hook at the slightest tug that signals a grab.

closeup of rainbow trout
This rainbow fell to a Mack's Smile Blade Fly in crawfish colors fished along the river's bottom. (Photo by Gary Lewis)

FLY-ROD BEADS

With whitefish spawning in Western rivers in February, we have a bait to match. Trout keying on whitefish spawn get used to gobbling the yellow eggs, and it's why some fly-anglers have success on yellow wet flies. Summer steelhead might also be spawning, in which case the trout will be eating orange eggs. In any case, small beads and tiny yellow worms can turn a rainbow’s head this month.

Go for a stealthy presentation in clear water with a bead about 2 inches above the hook. This can be accomplished several ways. One easy method is to attach a piece of clear mono to the leader with a nail knot 2 inches above the hook, where it acts as a stop. Set the indicator (a good one is the easy-to-cast plastic Thingamabobber), put split shot above the tippet knot (or swivel) and set the float about the depth of the water.

When the trout bites the bead, the angler reacts with a short upward lift, which tends to pull the bead through and pin the hook in the outside corner of the fish’s mouth.

SOFT-PLASTIC EGGS

A squishable, scented roe imitation tumbled along the gravel with a drift-fishing rig or a bottom-walking drop-shot setup can turn a lot of heads. One of the greatest moments in drift-fishing is to watch a trout peel away from its holding lie, follow a soft orange egg downstream, then crush it.

A Daiichi Salmon Egg Bleeding Bait hook in sizes 12 to 8 is a good choice for most trout water. Again, the soft egg is best positioned 2 inches above the hook, which can be accomplished by using a nail knot, a blood knot, a sequin or a similar bead stopper.

One of the mistakes we make is using an indicator in shallow, clear water. If the fish and the bottom are visible, dispense with the indicator and just watch for the take.

Another mistake is allowing the weight to control the movement of the egg. This is why a sliding sinker is sometimes the best choice. A drop-shot weight with a tag end of a surgeon’s knot used to splice on a bit of 4-pound fluorocarbon is another option.

In late winter, an angler can find clear water before the snows start to melt and lift the rivers. This time of the year, you’re never up a creek without a paddle. It’s a time to walk the edge of the river with your favorite pair of polarized glasses and a couple of rods rigged to anticipate a trout’s appetite. Big rainbows are on the move this month, and they are hungry. You can bank on that.

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