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Big Trout, Shallow Water

As water warms in lakes across the West, the biggest fish head toward shore to feed.

Big Trout, Shallow Water

Photo by Gary Lewis

With an hour of light left in the day and the sunset in our eyes, we assembled our rods, checked the line for nicks and tied on big stickbaits. I had left the boat at home. In May and early June, I like to fish one of my favorite lakes from the bank as brown trout feed in the shallows. On this lake, wind and wave action creates a trough not more than six feet off the pea-gravel beach, and the trout run up and down the shoreline, ambushing baitfish in the flats.

An angler can fish all day on this lake, but the last hour of light or the first few minutes of the day are the prime times. We use many types of baits, but the ones that get the most fish imitate small browns, rainbows and chubs. Most effective are neutrally buoyant stickbaits.

Our technique is simple yet proven. We cast, let the bait splash down, tighten up the line and crank the reel a couple of turns. Then we shake the rod tip hard to the left and right, making that bait move with the erratic motion of a small trout with a broken back. Crank a few more times and shake it again. The strikes are slashing and violent.

Along the shore in that last hour of light we caught many worthy trout, and hooked and lost quite a few more. I’m convinced if we had brought fly rods, we would have landed a dozen more. The rise rings were so close to the shore that we could’ve reached them with a simple pick-up-and-lay-down cast.

For anglers in the mountain West, now is a unique time to target trout in the shallows as ice comes off our favorite lakes. Rainbows and browns are the main quarry, but a few lakes give us a shot at big lake trout that can exceed 10 pounds.

The weeks after the snow melts and ice comes off the lakes offer a great opportunity for bigger fish in the shallows. Finesse techniques and an understanding of the lake help to bring more fish to hand.

Shallow Trout
At either end of spring days, trout cruise close to shore looking for a big bite to eat. Give it to them in the form of a minnow or crayfish imitation. (Photo by Gary Lewis)


In spring, the warmest water is found in the shallows, where the increased amount of sunlight has weeds growing again after being dormant all winter. Bugs are emerging, and the trout and baitfish are moving in to feed. While smaller fish target the bugs, bigger trout pounce on the minnows.

On a lake with sandy or pebble beaches, the wave action is likely to dislodge bits of protein. Also in such places, there is likely to be a trough in the sand—a little runway that parallels the beach maybe 10 to 30 feet out from the water’s edge. Bigger rainbows and browns cruise these cuts looking for smaller fish to eat.

Brown trout will eat baitfish that are up to one-third their size. A 4-inch suspending minnow imitation with integral rattles is a good lure choice.


Larger trout exit the shallows when ospreys start to hunt midday. To rest or to feed, bigger fish head for ledges where they can suspend vertically along the structure. Another go-to hiding-and-hunting spot is a submerged hump. Such places can be found when the water is clear, but are more easily located with good electronics. When prospecting these features, it’s time to launch a boat and switch to trolling gear.

A small diving crankbait like a Rapala CountDown or Yakima Mag Lip 2.0 is a good option. I like to switch the hooks to Daiichi red trebles. Vary the trolling speed and change direction, but err on the slow side, keeping it under 2 mph.

Wind is another factor to watch. If a breeze comes up and the water takes a riffle, trout feel safer from winged predators and start to hunt again. For the fly-rodder, this is a good time to use a beadhead minnow imitation to mimic the local food source.


Don’t be afraid to use fish attractant scents on stickbaits. A good scent trail that leads to a wiggling bait has proved to be the undoing of many a trophy fish. Try the Pro-Cure Baitwaxx or Super Gel in Trophy Trout scent, which is made from a blend using real, whole tui chubs. Take time between trips to wash your plugs with soap so that each time you hit the water the scent is fresh, not rancid.


A lot of people overlook crayfish when considering the food sources in a given lake. If a tributary stream is belching muddy water into a lake, it’s a good bet that trout are there and feeding. The mud gives them cover from above and the confidence to hunt safely. Wind and wave action, combined with the mud line, gives rainbow and brown trout the opportunity to ambush minnows and crawdads. Every big-trout hunter should have crayfish imitations like the Storm ThunderCraw or even an orange Rooster Tail in the arsenal.

Another must-have bait is scented plastic. For me, that means soft-plastic eggs scented with corn and augmented with Pro-Cure Trophy Trout gel, or Berkley PowerBait Floating Trout Worms in pink, red or natural colors.

Use a small sliding sinker with 30 inches of leader terminated at a red hook. Stab the bait a bit off-center so it fishes wacky style.


In the last two hours of light, the cycle repeats. Trout return to the edges and then begin to cruise the shallows hunting for a late-day meal. Light penetration comes from a hard angle. Ospreys return to their roosts, and trout feed with confidence.

Stick with a crayfish imitation along the edge of the deeper water, or switch back to a minnow-imitation stickbait. Crank and retrieve, or give it a walk-the-dog action, but punctuate the retrieve with long pauses. Big trout are watching.

The hour of the day, the angle of the sun, wind and wave action, and any input from a tributary stream—especially if there is mud to create a visible seam—are factors that can contribute to great fishing days. Tune your techniques to each time period and light level. In the morning, appeal to the predatory nature of big browns and rainbows with suspending minnow imitations. When the sun is high, troll around weed beds or humps where big rainbows lounge at midday. Turn to finesse plastics and use a stickbait at dark, right back where you started.

Shallow Trout
Shutterstock image


In many lakes, the most important food source is the chironomid, the midge larva. In fact, chironomids can make up 40 percent of a big trout’s diet.

They emerge soon after ice comes off the water—May and June are peak months. There are two stages of the chironomid’s life that are most important to fly anglers. The larval stage can be imitated by bloodworm patterns. Red, maroon, brown, black, purple and olive are good color choices.

The pupal phase is when the insect is most vulnerable. In this stage, the pupa sheds the larval shuck and wiggles from the bottom to the surface, rising slowly at a 90-degree angle. The Bronzie in No. 12 or 14 is a good pattern to imitate this stage. Keep versions of this fly in tan, olive, black, purple, green and cream.

Tie a leader at least 12 feet long to a floating line, and position the strike indicator to suspend the fly at least a foot above the vegetation. Cast and let the line drift with the wind. Keep the line straight, and pay close attention to the indicator.

Editor’s note: Gary Lewis is the author of John Nosler Going Ballistic and other titles. Contact him at

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