February 27, 2023
My son Nathaniel listened politely as the fly shop guy showed him a pinhead-sized midge that, supposedly, was the only thing trout were hitting in the special regulations stream he’d be fishing the following day. Nathaniel didn’t intend to fly-fish, so the perfect pattern mattered none, but he kept that to himself.
My son stuck with a plan that often works for trout during the cool months. He threw a 4-inch jerkbait designed for bass fishing that was rigged with a single barbless 1/0 hook to meet the stream’s regs. You probably know where this is headed, but the big trout repeatedly hammered his lure, resulting in a fabulous morning of catching that in no way suggested the fussy trout mood that had been described in the fly shop.
Minnow-shaped hard baits commonly prompt questioning looks from other anglers as they cast inline spinners, flies or other more traditional trout lures. More importantly, the same baits draw looks from trout—including big trout—that often result in bites and landed fish.
The cold water that comes with late winter impacts trout and the streams where they reside in a couple of important ways. First, trout in Southern creeks and rivers tend to feed actively. Trout are cold-water fish, so they are in their happy zone during the cold months throughout the South. Except during the hardest fronts of winter, they tend to feed well throughout winter.
Big trout need calories, which leads to the other significant impact of cold water: Forage is less plentiful, inactive and near the bottom. That positions trout predictably tight to the bottom and causes them to feed more opportunistically than when bug hatches are plentiful. Late-winter weather systems deliver heavy precipitation, which keeps streams high and sometimes adds a bit of color to the water. This, too, prompts opportunistic ambushes on baits that pass too close to the fish.
Two strategies quite different in nature produce extremely well on Southern trout streams this time of year. The first is subtle and slow to appeal to fussy fish. It tends to excel when streams are unusually low or clear and on extremely cold, bluebird days on the back ends of fronts. The other, which is more aggressive, is the more effective approach on far more late-winter days and appeals to larger trout.
The subtle strategy utilizes small hair jigs and plastic baits on 1/24-ounce or smaller jigheads. The best body styles look buggy and don’t create a lot of thumping tail action. The presentation mostly matches that of a fly fisherman dead-drifting a nymph and is executed by reeling and lifting the rod just enough to keep the lure hovering just above the bottom. Current does the bulk of the delivery work, and the jig moves just off the bottom, providing a good match for aquatic insect nymphs or larvae.
Except under the tough conditions that demand such subtlety, a minnow-style lure is tough to top this time of year. It suggests a sculpin, darter or minnow, which are important forage when hatching insects are less plentiful, and it looks like a meal that warrants grabbing. It flashes and creates vibration (and in some cases, calls fish with rattles), helping trout find it and prompting reaction strikes.
The best minnow-style lures for most trout streams and situations mostly fall in the 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-inch range, although for larger flows, including many tailwaters, baits up to 5 inches in length might be best for the job.
Minnow baits also need to sink—or at least suspend—for the best winter presentations. Floater/divers can work, with split shot added to the line, but a lure that sinks on its own provides the most natural action and allows for the best depth control. In addition to getting down in the water column to where winter trout spend the most time, sinking minnow baits are heavier than floating baits with matching profiles, which allows for longer and more accurate casts.
My normal minnows of choice are the Rebel Tracdown Ghost Minnow, which is 2 1/2 inches long, and the Tracdown Minnow in the 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-inch sizes. The Tracdown Ghost Minnow gets the nod most frequently for mountain streams. It has a slender, highly minnow-like profile and offers a great range of actions, dependent on retrieves. For large tailwater fisheries, like Arkansas’ White and Norfork rivers, I will typically turn to a Smithwick Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue.
Whenever feasible, cast a minnow bait upstream, whether that’s straight upstream or angled and across. This serves two important functions. First, it allows the bait to sink more readily so you can easily control the depth with your retrieve speed and rod position and work the lure just off the bottom. Also, it brings the lure over more fish, which must orient upstream to maintain position in current and be able to look for food being carried downstream in the current.
The primary exception to the "cast upstream" rule occurs with cuts in the bank and downed trees or boulders that create hard eddies along the edge. Casting straight across is sometimes the only way to get all the way to the edge in these important spots.
They don’t tend to be as deep, though, and the trout aren’t necessarily facing upstream because they aren’t holding against current. Hit these spots however you can make the best cast. Let the bait sink for a moment or two and be ready as soon as you start moving the lure.
It is important to distinguish that trout holding near the bottom this time of year does not necessarily equate to trout being deep. They could be in pocket water that is only a couple of feet deep, plunge pools that would float your hat or anything in between. In deep, slick pools, you don’t need to work quite as tight to the bottom because fish enjoy better visibility and can easily dart up to ambush prey.
Any minnow bait will dive at least a few feet naturally with steady cranking. Suspending versions maintain that depth, even when paused, while sinkers continue to drop when you slow the retrieve or stop them.
Holding the rod higher and keeping the lure moving allows you to hold a sinking lure higher to work across the tops of shoals or over potentially snaggy cover. Minnow bait presentations range from slow and steady, which creates a tight swimming action, to snapping the rod tip sharply to make the same lure flare erratically. Higher flows and stain generally favor sharper snaps to help fish find the offering and trigger strikes.
My default winter minnow presentation begins with a pause to allow the lure to sink toward the bottom. I alternate reeling with gentle twitches to make the bait flare just a bit and occasionally pause the retrieve, allowing the lure to sink a bit more while the current carries it.
That is a starting point, though. I vary presentations, changing the frequency and sharpness of rod movements, retrieve speed and length of pauses. And I constantly monitor what triggers the most bites and follows.
I fish most minnow baits on a light 6 1/2- to 7-foot, fast-action spinning outfit, spooling the reel with 6-pound monofilament line. Braided main line with a 6-pound mono or fluorocarbon leader also works well. Fishing bigger minnows like Rogues in tailwaters works best with a 7-foot, medium-action rod and 8-pound mono line.
Many of my favorite winter trout streams, including delayed harvest waters in several Southern states and sections of wild trout waters, may only be fished with single-hook artificial lures. I remove the trebles from my minnow lures and put a short-shanked single hook on the back split ring that is a couple of sizes larger than the trebles I’m replacing. This leads to outstanding hook-up and landing rates.
Many special-regs waters mostly get fished by fly-fishermen, meaning the trout see a lot of the same fly patterns and presentations. It’s amazing how eagerly big trout will attack a hardy offering that gets too close to the kitchen table.
FLICK 'EM A FLY
Big trout will also hit streamers this time of year. Here’s how to get the job done with fly gear.
The same conditions that cause minnow lures to excel bring streamers to the forefront for the long-rod approach, especially if catching larger trout is your goal. Streamers lend themselves to working near the bottom, where winter fish spend the most time, and they effectively suggest larger meals that warrant the effort.
Muddler Minnows, Olive Matukas, Deceivers and conehead Woolly Buggers are all good options. For unweighted streamers, a bit of split shot generally is needed to keep the fly at the right depth.
Cast upstream so your fly can sink easily and work it with short strips that add life but don’t cause the fly to move too quickly or aggressively. Keep your streamer near the bottom and on a straight line. Set the hook at any pause or jump, as winter strikes are often light, even from large trout. A 9-foot 5-weight fly rod and 7 1/2-foot 4X leader works well for this approach.