Lowland Trout Fishing Tips
November 04, 2010
November is the perfect time to return to low-elevation lakes.
When I was growing up, November meant late deer season, prowling the local rivers and reservoirs for ducks and geese, high-school football playoffs and Thanksgiving turkey. Trout fishing was a long-distant memory or a much-anticipated opening-day ritual for the following spring.
But somewhere along the way, I discovered (most likely by sheer accident) that trout -- especially, trout that live in lowland lakes -- go on feeding binges when water temperatures drop with the coming cold season. Being an angler first and hunter second, my discovery meant my shotgun and deer rifle went back in the rack and the fishing rod took center stage!
Over the years, I've come to learn that the two best times of the year to fish lakes for trout are just after ice-out and just before ice-in. In parts of the West where lakes never see ice, the time frame applies as well. I'm talking about periods of relatively rapid changes in water temperature, usually triggered in November by shorter daylight hours, longer nights and cooler temperatures.
Anyone who ventures outdoors in November knows weather conditions can be varied. One day may be unseasonably warm, the next downright nasty. But those few hours of blowing snow and biting wind can be the trigger for a great day of trout fishing.
So, come on! Keep one eye on the weather and the other on your fishing gear. Add a layer or two of protective and warming clothing; grab a pair of lightweight, wind-blocking gloves and a balaclava; and let's make it a day on the lake! And when you find the rutted roads leading into the lakes are frozen solid and the sun does little more than muddy the top layers, you know the fishing pressure will be light and you'll be there to enjoy the action!
WHAT'S IN A LABEL
Lowland lakes are a moving target, depending on the region of the country. In Southern California, the term "lowland" may mean areas just a couple hundred feet above sea level. In northwest Colorado, lowland can mean valley lakes situated at 8,100 feet. As Einstein said, "It's all relative."
Yet, the common thread among the lowland lakes I'm talking about is water that was too warm for good summertime trout fishing has cooled to prime fishing temperatures before winter begins in earnest.
Trout fishing in late fall on lowland lakes is different than summer fishing. The spring-planted hatchery trout that managed to avoid ending up in the frying pan have gained some survival skills and some weight. In one desert lake of eastern Washington, the spring fry planted at 3 to 4 inches long are now 16 or more inches. And holdover fish have another girth-growing season behind them and they've gained one more year toward learning how to avoid hooks.
Water clarity is different in late fall. Many lowland lakes undergo lake "turnover" and algae blooms that cloud the water, absorb light and radiate heat. Cooler daytime temperatures, shorter hours of sunlight and much cooler nighttime temperatures soon "cure" the bloom, and the water column once again settles. Water clarity improves and fish can see food at greater distances.
Conversely, fish and the predators that prey on them have increased ability to see and be seen. Sunlight glinting off a rod can be interpreted by a fish as a threat to its security. What was not an issue in summer, when the trout were holding in 50 feet of water, can be an issue when the fish are cruising just 5 feet short of the surface.
Water temperature is different, too, in fall. Summertime water temperatures in lowland lakes can easily exceed 70 degrees. That's great for warmwater fish, but it's well outside the prime feeding temperature for trout. Falling water temperature spurs trout into hitting the chow line again. The cooler surface water also brings the fish up from the depths where they spent the summer. Trout, including some of the biggest fish in the lake, can now be found in shallow water, making them accessible to shore-bound anglers.
Warmer water also carries less dissolved oxygen. Low dissolved oxygen makes for lethargic trout, which turns many trout anglers into summertime bass anglers. However, fall can change all that, as trout regain their vitality and willingness to feed.
The shorter daylight hours and cooler air temperature also means aquatic grasses start to die. As the grasses thin, the forage fish that feed in them, and rely on the weeds for hiding places as protection from predators, become more exposed in the shallows where they live. The predator fish hang out near drop-offs, ledges and shelves. When the evening comes on, they move up into the shallows. It's almost as if Mother Nature rang the dinner bell, because all the big trout come a runnin' to the shallows to feed on most anything smaller than they!
WHAT TO USE
A simple answer covers the question, "What do I use to catch trout in the fall?" Use all the same lures, flies and bait that work during other times of the year!
Still, a better answer is to consider the various foods trout eat, their life cycles, and the stage of their life cycle that is exposed in the fall. Then, choose the same lures, flies and baits that work during other times of the year, but size those offerings according to the season.
For example, a general rule applied to aquatic insects that hatch in fall is the bugs get smaller as the daylight grows shorter. The available adult mayflies in June may be best imitated by fly patterns in sizes 12-14. Come November, the available mayfly adults will be sized 20-22. Tricos may be in even smaller sizes.
Chironomids, or what most folks call "midges," are prolific aquatic insect resources of year-round still-water fish food. Those that hatch in November and later throughout winter typically get progressively smaller. Insect hatches can be prolific in fall, and they will certainly all feature midges. Fly-fisherman can find midges in wind-protected bays or on windward shores where the wind has driven the tiny bugs into small raft-like clumps. When that happens it's time to break out the Griffith's Gnat pattern.
Forage fish such as sculpins, minnows and, yes, trout fry undergo the same growth cycle as the adult trout. When the young-of-the-year forage fish hatch in spring, they're best imitated by small streamers and lures. As those newly hatched fish grow over the course of the summer and early fall, they can be successfully imitated by larger and larger imitations. By November, many of the forage fish will have reached their maximum size.
An interesting side note gleaned from numerous fish department stomach samples and research materials is that large trout prefer small forage fish in the 1- to 2-i
nch range over larger forage fish. Translating that data into fishing tactics calls for using smaller streamers and lures throughout the year. Bigger is not always better!
Trout also eat crayfish. In fact, large trout often get that way by eating crayfish! In springtime, the only crayfish crawling around the lake bottoms are last year's adults, at least until they mate and the new crop hatches. Once again the point is, know the life cycle of trout food, match the size of fly or lure to the size of the trout food that is most abundant and available at the time you are fishing, and expect to catch a bunch of trout!
John Duty of Bucking Rainbow Outfitters (www.buckingrainbow.com) in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, knows about crayfish and trout. Steamboat Lake is known for big rainbows and cutthroats that eat crayfish. Duty says the big fish get on a feeding push in November and they focus on crayfish. He advises fly anglers to toss crayfish patterns on full-sinking lines. A pontoon boat or float tube is helpful as it allows the angler to cast toward shore then probe the water from shallow to deep. Bank-fishers catch plenty of fish, as well, by positioning themselves to cast parallel to ledges and drop-offs.
Key to fishing crayfish patterns is to match the speed of retrieve to water temperature. In November, that means a slower retrieve works better than the fast speed of retrieve used in summertime. Another tip, taken from the pages of smallmouth bass anglers, is to use the "crayfish hop" retrieve. An occasional quick strip imparts sudden movement in the fly and draws attention from nearby fish.
Trout -- particularly, rainbows -- eat fish eggs heavily. You can use this fact to your advantage if the target water has any fall-spawning fish. For example, Washington's Lake Chelan holds landlocked Chinook salmon, kokanee salmon (landlocked sockeye salmon) and lake trout. All of these are fall-spawning fish. The lake also holds rainbow and cutthroat trout. When the fall spawners head for the spawning beds, the rainbows and cutthroat are sure to follow. Natural salmon eggs, dough baits and egg-fly patterns slow-rolled along the edges of the spawning beds can be deadly.
Trolling is an effective method for catching trout. Summertime tactics may mean using downriggers or lengths of lead-core line to get down 50 or more feet to where the trout are suspended in cooler water. But not so in November, when trolling turns into a long light-line affair. Trout will have moved up from the depths. It makes no sense to continue to fish heavy gear or run the risk of missing fish because the downrigger doesn't properly release.
Art Viola, who works as a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Game, loves fall fishing for trout. Viola says brown trout are harder to catch than rainbows.
"You have to fish for brown trout to catch browns, and fall is a good time to get the browns," Viola points out. In fact, since night fishing is legal in Washington, he favors trolling a Rapala "way behind the boat." Since monofilament line can stretch considerably at long lengths, Viola minimizes the risk of missing a strike or not getting a good hook set on a brown by using no-stretch braided or fused lines, such as Berkley's FireLine. He then adds a monofilament leader 10 feet long. This is "not a fill a bucket with lots of fish" method. Viola says he may only get a fish or two when fishing this way, but each one will be in the 5- to 8-pound class. Sure beats watching golf on television!
Viola's trolling method also pulls the plugs so they run almost on top of the water, not more than 3 feet deep. The browns cruise the shallows looking for forage fish, and the shallow-running plugs are excellent imitations of the food sought by the browns. Make sure to match the plug to no bigger than the predominant size of the available forage fish. Keep in mind the fact that in "taste tests" trout preferred smaller bait fish by as much as 5-to-1 over larger prey.
Also keep in mind the basic shape and color of the available forage fish. If the lake is filled with yellow perch, then use perch-colored plugs. On waters such as California's Lake Berryessa, threadfin shad are the primary bait fish. Use a plug with a shad-like color and profile on any lake where threadfins are the primary bait fish.
If the lake you target holds rainbows, the venerable Mack's Wedding Ring spinner, tipped with a bit of worm (where bait is legal), catches more than its share of fish. Other well-deserved favorite lures are Dick Nite spoons, RoosterTail spinners and any of the Luhr Jensen lake troll rigs.
The Cowbell lake troll tipped with a night crawler is "pretty reliable," according to fisheries biologist Eric Roberts of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Roberts also favors red-and-white or copper-colored spoons for November fishing. Points of land that jut into the water are prime feeding spots. Hit the points hard, he says, especially if the water quickly deepens on one side or the other. During the day the fish may suspend in the deeper water, awaiting low-light conditions to forage for food in the shallows. Other prime hunting spots are inlet creeks. The inflow of water may bring tidbits of land-based food into the lake. The water may also be a different temperature than the lake water and can attract small organisms that attract forage fish that, in turn, attract big fish.
A FINAL THOUGHT '¦
Always check the fishing regulations that pertain to the specific spot you intend to fish. In most states, many waters that do not ice over in fall and winter are now open year 'round, especially the lowland lakes. However, there are exceptions and getting busted for fishing in closed waters takes all the joy out of an otherwise fine day on the lake.
November is a great time to be on whatever body of water that qualifies as a lowland lake in your area. The fishing pressure is minimal, the fish are willing, and they've had all summer to pack on the pounds.