How to Fool Early-Season Trout

High water, cold temperatures and lethargic fish make trout fishing a real springtime challenge. Our expert explains how to make the most of these conditions for a successful outing.

Early spring trout fishing in the northeast is no walk in the park. High, discolored water, swift, often torrential flows, cold water temperatures, floating debris and/or occasional chunks of ice in some streams, freezing drizzle and teeth-chattering air temperatures are typical of the conditions early-season trout fishermen must endure when they visit their favorite trout stream. It's not easy to entice a trout into striking, but some skillful anglers manage to put a good catch of fish in the creel by adapting their fishing techniques to the conditions.

With water temperatures hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, most anglers use bait, but I never cease to be amazed at the inappropriate tackle some anglers employ on early-season outings. Rods are more suitable for winching bass out of the weeds. A 10-pound-test line, oversized hooks and a jumbo bell sinker frequently seem to be the rule rather than the exception on opening day.

Spring trout may not be as wary as they will be a few weeks down the road, but they are not about to commit suicide, either. The heavy monofilament quickly stiffens in cold water, often rising to the surface where you don't want it. Neophyte anglers tie on an oversized sinker, which anchors the bait near the bottom where the trout are located. It also causes the bait to stop and flop about in the current in one place, something no natural bait can do in the spate flow of spring.

A more appropriate rig is an ultralight rod, a 4-pound-test monofilament line, a No. 6 or 8 bait hook, and one or two split shots fastened 10 or 12 inches above the hook. Adjusting the weight is necessary to keep the bait moving in the current by adding or subtracting split shots as needed. In the spring, trout lie about a foot or so above the bottom, so baits should drift along just above the stream floor or slightly below the rate of the stream flow. If the split shot is ticking the rocks along the bottom, and occasionally hangs up, your bait is just about where you want it. However, if you snag on the bottom rather frequently, you are probably using too much weight, and it's time to lighten up. If the bait stops, set the hook immediately. At least half the time you will be snagged on a rock, but the other half you will likely be hooked into a hungry trout.

Light lines are hard for trout to see. This becomes important in the bright and clear water of summer, but light lines also pay off in the high roily waters of spring because it causes less drag than does heavy monofilament. Four-pound-test monofilament is practically drag-free, and makes it much easier to detect the soft strikes typical of trout in frigid water.

Photo by Michael Skinner

Under some conditions, bait is the best way to put a good catch of spring trout in the creel, but lures have their advantages, too. An angler, skilled in fishing artificials is able to put his lures in front of more trout than the bait fisherman can, and thus will often catch more trout than the bait angler.

In order to become accomplished in catching spring trout with spinning tackle and artificial lures, it is important to know which lures are best under spring water conditions and where and how to fish them for best results. (Before fishing for a trout stream or pond this spring, check the open water fishing regulations very carefully. Some waters may allow artificial lures only, while others may have a single pointed hook, artificial lure regulation.)

If I had to pick one lure for spring trout, it would be an in-line spinner. A flashing spinner imitates a small minnow, the major forage of big spring trout. A properly designed spinner triggers strikes by its flash and sound. The wide, slow-revolving, Colorado-type blade is preferred to the thin, fast-turning willowleaf-type blade because the wider blade emits more flash and sound for the trout to home in on, an important consideration in discolored or roily water. Carry spinners in 1/32- to 1/8-ounce sizes and in several blade colors for spring trout.

Under most conditions, a silver spinner will match the silvery hued minnows trout prey on, i.e., dace, silver shiners, alewives and smelt. In discolored and/or turbulent water, gold, chartreuse and copper spinners are also effective. Spinners dressed with a hackle or hair trailer seem to produce more strikes than a bare hook spinner.

Favorable waters to work a spinner in spring are behind midstream obstructions and around current breaks. The most productive hotspots for early spring trout are under deep undercut banks, and especially under exposed roots and/or overhanging vegetation. You may lose a lure or two in such cover but it's one of the best lairs in a stream to hang a bragging-sized trout.

Fish spinners quarters up or across the stream depending on the current. Let the spinner sink and keep the blade spinning while the current carries the spinner downstream. Often a strike occurs just as the spinner straightens out and starts rising toward the surface. In shallow water, keep your rod tip high to keep from snagging on the bottom.

Spoons, which wobble and flutter, are another hot choice for early-season trout. They often work better than spinners in swift water where they can be worked faster and more erratically than spinners. They're also a good pick for fishing the tail of a pool above a fast water run, tailwaters below a dam, and are ideal for trout in lakes or ponds.

Excellent options for opening day trout are 1/16- and 1/8-ounce crankbaits. These are fished like spinners. Work crankbaits erratically for trout, changing the speed of the retrieve until you find a presentation that works.

It's not easy to entice a trout to strike a fly early in the season, but to a few dedicated fly-fishing enthusiasts, wetting a line on a favorite stream on opening day is an annual ritual.

The occasional trout can be caught on a fly under most stream conditions, but trout seldom strike flies consistently until the stream thermometer registers in the mid 40s. If you arrive at your favorite river and find the water temperature around 40 degrees or lower, head upstream to the river's headwaters. You may discover that the water temperature in the small headwater streams registers 45 to 50 degrees, and you may be able to creel an enjoyable catch of trout.

Don't be too anxious to arrive on the stream at daybreak in the early season, when the water temperat

ure may be too cold for most trout activity. By late afternoon on a warm, sunny spring day, the temperature may rise five degrees. As a rule, the highest water temperature and best spring trout fishing will occur between 3 and 5 p.m.

There may be a few mayflies coming off the water around opening day, but there won't be any major hatches. However, the swollen streams of spring will carry copious populations of nymphs, insect larvae and minnows. Once the water temperature rises to 45 degrees and above, trout will be on the lookout for this wealth of nutritious forage. The flyfisher should offer fur and feather imitations of these on a fine leader tippet. You won't need a vest full of flies to catch trout at this time of the year. Five or six favorite nymphs, wet flies and streamer patterns should do it.

Fish the dead flies by casting across and slightly upstream. Let the fly settle briefly to get it deep, then strip in all slack line, and continue to keep up with the fly as it drifts downstream. It is essential to keep a tight line between the fingers of your rod hand all the way to the fly throughout the drift in order to detect strikes. Otherwise, a trout may inhale your fly, detect it as a fake, and reject it without you ever being aware of the take. When using a nymph or wet fly, a take may occur anywhere in the drift. The majority of the strikes on a streamer occur at the end of the drift when the fly rises and swings across the current.

Short casts in the 15- to 25-foot range, are a better choice than longer casts early in the season. It is easier to control the drift, detect strikes, and to set the hook with short casts. If you wade upstream an extra step or two as you go, you will be in perfect position to cover all of the likely trout lairs with short casts.

The above only scratches the surface of the intricacies of spring trout fishing. A book or two has been written on the subject, but this is a start.

Be sure to use light tackle, fish slowly and deeply, and seek out current breaks and pockets behind midstream obstructions. This will turn your spring trout fishing success rate around.

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