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Effective River-Rainbow Fishing

Effective River-Rainbow Fishing

By boat or bank, most Western anglers catch trout using one of these methods -- side-drifting, back-trolling bait, back-trolling flies, drift-fishing or float-fishing. Which one is right for your stretch of river?

Quietly wading in and back-trolling flies is an effective way to target trout in tough-to-access water, like tail-outs.
Photo by Scott Haugen.

Now is the time for anglers to hit the water in search of rainbows.

Here's a look at some of the most effective tactics when it comes to targeting river-run trout.

If you're drifting through long sections of water in a boat, side-drifting is very effective. It can also be applied in smaller streams, or where short drifts can be made through small sections of holding water.

In side-drifting, the oarsman holds the boat slightly slower than the flow of the natural current, and the angler casts upstream at roughly a 45-degree angle. Use the same tackle as you would drift-fishing. Let your terminal gear travel downstream with the natural flow of the river. It'll move downstream about the same speed as the boat, maybe a bit faster. Use just enough weight to occasionally tick the bottom, but you don't want it dragging and hanging up. A split shot sinker allows you to easily add and remove weight.

Side-drifting is a great way to cover water and search for fish. Due to water temperature and food funnels this time of year, once you find one rainbow, you can bet others will be near.

Along with side-drifting, back-trolling bait is one of the most effective ways to catch rainbows from a boat.

Back-trolling is a very controlled presentation that's often overlooked when it comes to trout. There are many settings where back-trolling pays off. Here are a few:

  • Fast flowing riffles
  • Current seams
  • Deep, fast water that separates a riffle from a hole.

Once the target water is identified, be sure the boat is under control. Do not allow it to move downstream too quickly, or this approach won't work. The boat should move downstream at approximately half the flow rate of the river. In some fast water situations, the boat may be anchored in one spot to let the presentation work from that point.


Back-trolling bait is simple. Luhr Jensen makes a series of small divers that work great for this. You can also use plugs as divers. Remove the hooks. Tie the mainline to a Duo-Lock swivel and snap it to the eye on the top of the Hot Shot's bill. Tie a 30-inch leader to the eye the hooks were on. Add a Size 6 worm hook or egg hook, bait, and run the line out 30-40 feet.

I like Hot Shots as divers. They work great for taking the bait down and their flashy color attracts fish. Silver is a favorite color. Worms, single eggs, even salad shrimp, can be threaded on to the hook as bait.

Another technique that works well this time of year is back-trolling flies. Tail-outs, especially shallow, clear, fast-moving ones, can be tough to fish, yet trout routinely hold in them. You could swing baits and hardware by these fish with some success, but avoiding hang-ups and controlling the speed can be a challenge. This is where a fly may be the best option.

For bank-anglers, wade into the target water. Take care not to spook the fish. You can often work your way across a large portion of a riffle, picking up fish as you go. If you're not a seasoned fly angler, don't worry; simply hop in a boat and back-troll the flies downstream.

Because there will be shallow water covering this approach, a floating line is all that's needed. Four to 6 feet of leader is ideal, tipped with one or two flies. A Muddler Minnow is tough to beat when it comes to trout. Tied to a 12-inch dropper midway up the leader, a bead-head pattern serves as an additional attractor and helps keep the trailing fly down towards the bottom. Use a two-fly setup. It's not uncommon to get strikes on both patterns.

When back-trolling flies from a boat, it's just like back-trolling plugs and bait. Position the fly where you want it. In the case of wide riffles, don't be afraid to cover it all by working back and forth, dropping slightly downstream with each pass.

Drift-fishing is perhaps the most common way to catch river trout. The approach is basic. Tie a Size 6 worm hook onto 4- to 6-pound test mainline. Pinch on the desired amount of split shot sinkers 20 inches or so above the hook. Add bait and you're set.

Be sure to use enough weight so the terminal gear ticks the bottom with regularity. It doesn't have to ride on the bottom the whole drift, just be at the general depth where trout are holding.

This approach works in semi-fast currents, riffles, eddies, pools behind rocks, along ledges, in deep holes and along the faces of slicks where the fast, smooth water dives into a riffle. You can drift-fish from the bank or a boat. It lets you cover a lot of water.

If fishing from a boat, drop anchor and work target water.

Worms and single eggs are tough to beat when drift-fishing. Lures take their share. In fact, if you want to keep it simple, all you need for casting spinners is a small snap swivel.

Tie the swivel to the mainline and snap the lure in place. You're ready to go fishing. It doesn't get much easier than that!

Be sure to bring along a variety of baits, lures and spinners, both in color and size. Trout can be finicky biters from day to day.

Float-fishing for trout is one of the easiest ways to catch them, and you'll lose very few rigs. The key is getting set up right to start with.

An 1/8- or 1/4-ounce West Coast Float is what I prefer. The foam capsule offers sensitivity and buoyancy. That makes it easy to read.

Before slipping this float onto the mainline, first slide on a nylon bobber stop, then a 3mm bead to the mainline. The bobber stop is your depth regulator. The bead keeps the stop from slipping through the float.

Below the float, tie on a small barrel swivel. Then tie a 3-foot leader to the swivel.

In slower water, as well as in deep holes, a float setup is very effective. Think about a float setup in water that's too slow to drift-fish or back-troll. The strong point of this setup is that by adjusting the bobber stop, you can fish a wide-range of depths.

Night crawlers, shrimp and single eggs are tough to beat when fished beneath a float. When fishing eggs under a bobber, go with a small hook because the bite can be subtle, especially in clear water. You might also need to attach split shots to the leader if your bait is not staying down or if you're fishing boiling water. A 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jig can also be effective beneath a float.

This spring, head to the river, prepared. Have all your gear in-place and ready to go. Be sure to read the water and see which method best fits the conditions being fished. If no fish are biting, it may be a sign to try another approach. Diversifying for spring trout can be the ticket to consistent success.

Signed copies of Scott Haugen's latest book, Bank Fishing for Salmon & Steelhead, can be ordered by sending a check for $17 to Haugen Enterprises, 39603 McKenzie Hwy., Walterville, OR 97489 or visit

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