September 22, 2023
Trout are perfectly happy to feed on myriad tiny insects until they reach about 16 inches in length. Then they become carnivores. Perhaps they realize that they’re not going to get much bigger sipping tiny bugs and decode to seek out more meaty morsels like minnows, creek chubs, gobies, crawfish, rodents, frogs and even their own kind. My dad once caught a 17-inch brown that had a 7-inch trout in its stomach.
Trophy trout will still sip on insects when a prolific hatch is taking place, but they won’t pass up a bigger meal. They often wait patiently beneath stockers that rise spastically to fill up on bugs … only to gulp down one of the hatchery fish. When it comes to trophy trout, there’s a big-lure/big-fish relationship to exploit.
A REVELATORY EVENING
Colorado’s South Delaney Butte Lake is one of the state’s best trout lakes, and my expectations were high on a calm, surreal summer evening. Just about the time the sun started to set, Callibaetis mayflies began to hatch. I noticed the emerging mayflies fluttering on the surface and soon the trout took note, too. In a few minutes I was surrounded by splashy rises along with the occasional slurp that belied a bigger trout. Problem was, I didn’t have my fly rod.
I resigned myself to casting stick baits, and it proved to be just the ticket. I’d cast beyond a rise and then work the bait back in a series of twitches and jerks. Often the retrieve would be interrupted by a solid thump, followed by a chunky trout peeling drag off the reel. I’d handled more than a dozen trout before I realized the rises had stopped. I looked skyward and took in a breath-taking array of stars and the Milky Way shimmering in the night sky, afforded by the fact there wasn’t an incandescent light for miles. In that moment, time stood still. Most of the trout were within the 18- to 22-inch slot size limit, but several were much bigger. One 26-inch cutthroat swallowed the stick bait and was beyond revival. When I cleaned it the next morning, the trout had 10 crawfish in it. So much for tiny bugs.
PICK THE RIGHT STICK
A 4- or 5-inch stick bait, or “body bait,” might seem out of place on a relatively small stream or river, but it’s sure to get the interest of the biggest trout. In moving water, the idea is to cast across current and work the bait with a series of short, darting jerks or twitches as it swings. Many takes typically occur as the bait reaches the end of the retrieve and turns to head upstream. Other times, the first twitch that imitates a struggling minnow elicits a smashing strike.
Match the bill on the lure with the depth of water you’re targeting. On shallow rivers and streams, a short bill that only allows the lure to dive a couple of feet is perfect. Baits like the classic Original Floating Rapala fit this category. For some reason, the straight versions seem to outfish the jointed style. Trout seem to like the tighter shimmy versus the wider wobble. No. 9 or 11 Rapalas are not too big, and a number 13 will get the attention of the stream’s biggest trout.
With body baits that have three treble hooks, it’s best to remove the front hook. It doesn’t alter the action of the lure, but removing the front hook prevents foul-hooking trout. Trout typically strike from behind or from the side and get hooked by the back or middle treble. The front hook often gets struck in a gill plate or eye. Pulling from the side instead of straight ahead makes it difficult to control the trout and will tire a lunker out, especially in the current. If you’re planning on releasing the fish, an injury to the trout’s eye may limit its chances for survival.
Some stick baits come with relatively small treble hooks, so an upgrade might be in order. Replace the trebles with hooks a size or two larger and upgrade to something like VMC’s 2X Barbarian Outbarb or Mustad’s Triple Grip.
Use a round-bend snap or a loop knot to allow maximum movement of the lure. Good choices are the crankbait snaps from Lindy and VMC. A snap allows the stick bait to move freely. There’s no need for a snap swivel because stick baits don’t spin. If the lure is spinning, you’d better take it off or tune it. Give the lure a few strong rips to make sure it is tracking perfectly.
Lure choice depends largely on the depth of water you’re fishing and the orientation of the trout. Many western reservoirs where trout thrive are relatively shallow bodies of water. Trout retreat to the security of deep water during daylight hours and then move into the shallows to chase minnows or root out crayfish under the cover of darkness. Trout can be heard cavorting in as little as a couple of feet of water, so baits with a shallow lip perform best then.
Shallow divers like Rapala’s Husky Jerk, Scatter Rap Minnow and X-Rap; Storm’s Thunderstick; and Smithwick’s Rattlin’ Rogue have a short lip and excel in the shallows when twitched and darted under the cover of darkness. Many of these baits have rattles in them, which help trout home in on them. Some, like the Rattlin’ Rogue, have lots of small BBs in them that create an audible siren song. Others have one big knocker chamber, and while others still may have no rattle at all. Let the trout decide what you use.
SOLVE SUSPENDING FISH
Trout are often difficult to catch because they suspend in the water column and can be found from top to bottom depending on the time of day. A good way to target suspended fish is to add Storm SuspenDots or SuspenStrips to the underside of the lures to make them neutrally buoyant. Smithwick and others also make suspending versions of their lures. Once you determine the depth at which trout are cruising, you can count down the slowly sinking lure until it hovers in the strike zone before manipulating it in short jerks and pauses.
Trolling is an ideal way to present multiple stick baits at once. Trout often move up and down contours depending on the time of day, bait movement or wave action. A great way to target multiple depths is to run a shallow diver on the outside on top of the contour, a medium-diving stick bait along the drop and a deeper diving lure along the base. That way you’re covering everything from 5 to 20 feet or more.
This can be easily accomplished by using small in-line planers like those from Big Jon. The Otter In-Line Planer and the even smaller Mini-Otter In-Line Planer are other options.
If you go this route, you’ll need sturdy rod holders, trolling rods and line-counter reels. Line counters help you determine exactly how far the lure is behind the board. Run shorter leads for shallow divers and long leads for deep-diving baits. If one or the other produces, change up accordingly.
Lure color should match the most predominant forage in any given lake. That could be shiner minnows, crayfish or small trout. Natural colors are a good choice, but rainbows and cutthroats are known for their affinity for hot colors, like pink and orange, and will jump on a gaudy stick bait that doesn’t resemble anything they’ve ever seen.
TACKLE FOR TAMING TROUT
The ideal rod for casting and fishing stick baits is kind of a hybrid. It’s a little stiffer and longer than your average walleye rod used for bait fishing but not in the ultralight panfish category. One of my favorite rods for using stick baits is a Yampa River spinning rod by Favorite USA. The Yampa River rod (YMR-701-M) is a 7-foot, one-piece rod that has some backbone, yet is lightweight and has a sensitive tip to manipulate stick baits.
The Bass Pro Shop Panfish Elite rod (PFE72MLS) is marketed as a panfish rod but has just the right action for chucking body baits. The two-piece rod measures 7 feet 2 inches when assembled and has just the right combination of power and sensitivity to muscle brawny trout and make a stick bait dance.
I’ve had good luck with both monofilament and fluorocarbon when casting stick baits. With today’s premium small-diameter lines, you can use 6- or 8-pound test and have the confidence to land the biggest trout. In a nutshell, monofilament floats and fluorocarbon sinks. If you want to keep your lure near the surface in shallow water, mono is the right choice. If you’re looking to get a little more depth out of your stick bait, fluorocarbon would be a better choice. Using a clear line is wise for the environs where you typically encounter trout. Being that fluorocarbon is a little tougher than mono, it might be a better choice if you encounter a lot of snags where you fish. Either way, having fresh line is perhaps the most important consideration. Peel off 50 yards every other trip and replace it with fresh line.
Reels need to be smooth, with a dependable drag that will be put to the test when you hook a trophy trout. Get in the habit of closing the bail manually to extend the life of bail springs. The Pflueger Supreme XT spinning reel is a great choice, with its superior carbon drag, machined aluminum gears, 11 ball bearings, lightweight frame, 5.2:1 gear ratio and carbon rotor. The 30-size Pflueger Supreme XT spinning reel has plenty of line capacity and the ability to bulldog trout.
I love to see a trout rise up and suck in a properly presented dry fly as much as the next guy, but if I’m targeting trophy trout I know it’s time to break out the outsized stick baits.