May 19, 2021
Temperature. Light penetration. Water clarity. Wind. In spring, the most successful anglers fishing trout lakes pay attention to these factors. Over the course of a week or even a day, the variables change, affecting where and how trout and their prey interact. Trout go where the water temperature suits their metabolism, and they search out those areas of the lake where light penetration has kick-started bug life in the shallows.
Just as critical, these anglers pay attention to where they find feeding fish—and where they don't. Throughout the day, as light and temperature conditions change, fish may migrate to one part of the lake or another, moving up and down in the water column.
The trick is to find the feeders, stay with them and make the transitions when the trout move. To do this, anglers have to be flexible enough to know when to change from one bait to another. Go deep, go deeper, target the aggressive fish—and be willing and able to change tactics when the bite slows.
Early-season anglers all too often ignore small, specialized crankbaits. These lipped hard baits mimic the trout’s food sources that, in April, are beginning to become more active as water temperature and day lengths increase. Typically, trout favor forage species such as crawdads, chubs, frogs and baby perch, but essentially the entire forage base in trout lakes becomes more active as spring comes on. Wild trout and holdover hatchery fish that grew tougher as they eked out a living through the winter are prone to chase past the recently stocked fish to smash a trout crank.
Shallow-running baits about 1 1/4 to 2 1/2 inches long are a good place to start. My favorites are frog- and crawdad-pattern crankbaits like the Yakima Bait Flatfish, Dynamic Lures HD Trout Crankbait, Rebel Wee Crawfish and Bass Pro Shops XTS Micro Light. If there are perch or chubs in the lake, I switch to yellow perch or gold/black patterns.
Rigging is easy. Tie on a black barrel swivel and about 15 inches of fluorocarbon. I like to put a small red bead on the leader as an added attractor, and I knot the leader directly to the bait without a snap swivel unless recommended/provided by the manufacturer.
When selecting a trout crank, evaluate the weight of the bait and its overall length and then its dive rating. There are floating, sinking and neutral-buoyant hard baits, and each has a specific application. When the feeders are in the top 3 to 5 feet of the water column, go for a floating diver that will run at the right depth.
When fishing bigger water, a neutral-buoyant lure is the right choice. Neutral-buoyant trout lures include Leland's Lures Trout Magnet and the 2 1/2-inch Rapala Husky Jerk.
One of the real game changers is a 2-rod license, where legal. With these, two fishermen in a boat get to 4 four rods. When running multiple lure, vary their depths and patterns and employ scent attractants like Worden's Rooster Tail scent spray or Pro-Cure's Trophy Trout.
SLOW-TROLLING SPOONS AND SPINNER BAITS
When the sun hits the water, trout are more vulnerable to birds of prey such as ospreys, which are a significant source of trout mortality in lakes. The trout typically respond by feeding deeper in the water. On sunny days, tie on a trolling spoon or go with a trolling spinner presentation. The goal is to reach trout midway in the water column, typically in depths of 4 to 8 feet.
For lakes with trout that average around 12 inches in length, choose a 1 1/2-inch spoon and size up incrementally to about one-fifth the size of the rainbow-striped quarry. If there are a lot of 18-inch browns in the lake, a 4-inch spoon will provoke them. Good choices include the Eppinger Dardevle, Thomas Buoyant, Dick Nite, Triple Teazer and Cripplure from Mack’s Bait.
Again, go with a fluorocarbon leader; 12 to 18 inches of 6-pound test works. Add weight with a 1/2-ounce trolling swivel sinker. Test drive the rig alongside the boat at trolling speed. Keep the speed of the boat slow enough that the spoon wobbles but doesn’t spin. Again, two rods are better than one. Match sizes and weights to minimize tangles but vary the finish and the scent.
For trolling, treble hooks might provide more hookups, but if there are weeds or debris in the lake, those hooks begin to collect detritus fast. In weedy conditions, go with a single hook and keep it razor sharp. Clean up the point after each fish.
Tip the hook with bait to increase the odds of a hookup. Go small and subtle with the bait—a quarter inch of pinched nightcrawler is good enough, or try a scented rubber egg, a hard-shelled salmon egg, a piece of salad shrimp, a PowerBait Crappie Nibble or even a kernel of white shoepeg corn.
When considering spinnerbaits for trolling, I like to differentiate between casting spinners and purpose-built trolling spinners that spin at even the slowest speed. If the goal is to put a limit of fish in the boat fast, I’ll opt for a spinner bait like the Mack's Lure Promise Keeper or Spindrift Trout tipped with bait.
SINKING LINES AND TROLLING FLIES
Trout remain on the feed when the sun is high in the sky, but it’s time to tone down the presentation, and flies are perfect for that. Put the spinning or casting rod away and pick up a fly rod loaded with a slow-sink intermediate or fast-sink line.
Instead of weighting the fly, let the line do the work to get the offering down. Weighted flies are more likely to find those downed logs and dredge the weeds.
A sinking line, on the other hand, has a consistent sink rate that is easier to predict. Want to go deeper? Lengthen the line. Shallowing up? Run it shorter.
If the trout have been feeding opportunistically, a variety of flies will turn their heads. In this situation, I size up the fly and opt for one with bulky collars, rubber legs and tinsel flash. Use colors to match the prey base. If it’s kokanee, go silver. For crawdads, go red or orange. If there are chubs in the lake, go with a black-, silver- or gold-bodied fly.
One of my favorite trolling flies is a Mack’s Lure Smile Blade Fly with a small mylar spinner in front of the head.
Another way to amp up enthusiasm is to slide a trolling disk down the line. If fish are used to chasing their meals, the disc kicks the fly in a way some trout cannot resist. The fish attracted to this technique will be the most aggressive trout, the kind that fight hardest and put the biggest bend in a rod.
NEXT-LEVEL JAR BAITS
When trout go deep and hug the bottom, the best way to reach them is with a still-fishing presentation. Anchor the boat at bow and stern to keep from twisting with wind and current, or put out an anchor on one end and drift anchors on the other.
The rig is simple, but a lot of anglers get it wrong. First, forget the pre-tied and snelled rigs. Tie your own leaders.
Slide a bullet weight up over the main line with the pointy end toward the rod tip. Tie on a barrel swivel and then tie the leader to that.
Keep a dozen leaders pre-tied. Tie up 12-inch, 18-inch and 30-inch leaders with 2- and 4-pound-test monofilament, not fluorocarbon. Fluoro sinks, and we don’t want any drag with a floating bait. The idea is that the weight is on the bottom, but the bait floats off the bottom. Some people use No. 14–16 trebles, but I like bleeding red or brass No. 8–10 single egg hooks.
Good floating baits include PowerBait Floating Trout Worms in natural and red, PowerBait Trout Nibbles, Gulp! Floating Pinched Crawlers and trout dough. It’s important to experiment with various scents and colors because from one day to the next any of these combinations could outperform all others. Let the trout tell you what they want, then give it to them.
Picture the trout in its environment, holding or cruising 6 to 18 inches off the bottom. The fish sees the bait at or slightly above eye level, thrusts its fins and flares its gills to suck in the bait.
When you cast these baits, leave the bail open until the weight settles to the bottom. Then close the bail and reel ever so slightly to gather the swivel back against the weight without sliding it on the bottom.
Usually, trout angling is an active form of fishing, but with this kind of bottom presentation, almost any action at all is considered over-fishing. Rods should be in rod holders or otherwise propped against the side of the boat, never in hand. The perfect presentation is hampered only by a tremor in the line imparted by an overeager angler.
Watch the tip, yes, but watch the line. It’s moving, moving, moving. Okay, now pick up and reel—no need for a hard hookset with these baits.v
A WELL-STOCKED TACKLE BOX
Consider adding these offerings to your arsenal.
You’ll catch more trout if you come prepared to entice fish under a wide variety of feeding conditions, from highly active trout on the surface to finicky fish that won’t strike unless the bait looks and smells just right. To cover your bases, bring these lures with you.
Hard baits are durable, proven fish-getters that cover the water at controlled depths whether through casting or trolling.
- Berkley Flicker Shad
- Rebel Wee Crawfish
- Leland’s Lures Trout Magnet
- Bass Pro Shops XTS Micro Light Mini Crankbait
Another set of lures that cover water well, trolled spinners are a great way to figure out the feeding pattern on a lake. These lures fish well at multiple depths; you adjust how deep by varying trolling speed and line length.
- Mack’s Lure Promise Keeper
- Mack’s Lure Spindrift Trout
A top choice for anglers faced with selective trout in lakes where insects and other small prey form the bulk of the forage base.
- Mack’s Lure Smile Blade Fly
- Pistol Pete Spinner Peacock
JAR BAITS/SOFT PLASTICS
These baits smell and taste like real food. For cautiously feeding trout that won’t chase fast lures, these baits can save the day.
- Gulp! Pinched Crawler
- Gulp! Earthworms Red Wiggler
- PowerBait Trout Worms
- PowerBait Trout Nuggets
- PowerBait Crappie Nibbles
Trout have an extremely well developed sense of smell. Attractants can be added to visually appealing lures to close the deal on fish that otherwise might inspect a lure and then turn away at the last second.
- Pro-Cure Trophy Trout Super Gel
- Pro-Cure Rainbow Trout Super Gel
- Worden's Rooster Tail Scent Spray
When trout are feeding deep, nothing gets to the strike zone faster or better than a spoon. Trout wanting a big meal love spoons, as they're great at imitating forage fish.
- Dick Nite Spoon
- Mack’s Lure Cripplure
- Yakima Triple Teazer
- Thomas Lures
Top crankbaits for different depths
- Dynamic Lures HD Trout Lure; 1/10 oz., 2 1/4"; slow-sinking
- Bass Pro Shops XTS Micro Light Mini Crankbait; 1/11 oz., 1 1/4"; floating
- Leland’s Lures Trout Magnet Trout Crank; 1/8 oz., 2 1/2"; suspending
- Rapala Original Floater F07; 1/8 oz., 2 3/4"; floating
- Rebel Wee Crawfish; 1/5 oz., 2"; floating
This article was featured in the West edition of April's Game & Fish Magazine