April 15, 2021
For trout anglers in most of the West, April cannot get here fast enough. For most of your life, you were programmed by the departments of fish and wildlife to look forward to the opening day of trout season like it was Christmas. But over the last few years, a bit of deregulation has occurred in many places, leading to fishing opportunities in March.
To give anglers more opportunity throughout the year, many lakes and reservoirs and even some rivers open early or are open year-round. March conditions are still cold throughout much of the West. Lakes are often clear, but rains and snowmelt can swell late-winter flows. Smaller trout are likely to be most affected by the water temps, while bigger fish are less sensitive to the temperature.
Early spring is a great time of year to target those bigger fish with a spinning rod, which allows for subtlety, finesse and the ability to get the right offerings in the right places.
STALK THE SHALLOWS
In lakes and ponds in the early part of the year, trout feed in the shallows where spring sunlight first penetrates, weeds begin to grow and bugs begin to move. The trout’s metabolism tells it it’s time to eat; however, as a cold-blooded creature, it won’t move very far or quickly to do so. Therefore, we need to position our bait or lure where a trout can reach it with a minimum amount of effort. For instance, if the water is 3 to 6 feet deep, the trout are probably holding 12 to 20 inches off the bottom. That’s where your offering should be.
In some waters, scented offerings or those infused with "digestible" scent components are considered bait, and in artificial-only areas they may be illegal, so check the regulations. But, assuming bait is legal in the water you’re fishing, use this simple rig to get it in front of the fish. Start with a sliding bullet or egg sinker knotted above a swivel. For the leader, tie on 12 to 24 inches of 4-pound-test monofilament, then terminate at a No. 14 to 18 treble hook or a No. 8 to 10 egg hook.
Some of the most effective scented plastics to put on that hook include Berkley Gulp! Pinched Crawlers, Berkley PowerBait Floating Trout Worms (red, pink or natural) and Floating Mice Tails. For a complex, hotter scent when the fish have been pressured, add a shot of Pro-Cure’s Rooster Tail Garlic Plus or Trophy Trout blend.
Make the cast, let the weight settle to the floor of the lake, put the rod into a rod holder and gently reel up the slack to force the weight up against the swivel. Then, open the bail or pull out about three feet of line as a buffer. Watch the rod tip and the line, and wait for it to move before picking up the rod. There’s no need for a hard hook set—just start reeling.
FOLLOW THE ICE
In my part of the West, that magical moment when the ice recedes from the surface of a trout lake to create that first patch of open water can happen anywhere between March and early May. For a day or two, or five, the ice marches back and trout take shelter beneath it, emerging occasionally to hunt and feed, sometimes with reckless abandon. The open water provides a surge of food after a long winter, while the ice protects the trout against predation by ospreys and other raptors.
This is the moment when I turn to small wet flies or very small jigs with my spinning outfit, using what we might otherwise consider crappie tactics to target rainbows and browns. Think 1/16-ounce-and-smaller lures like the Natural Science Road Runner, Trout Runner and Original Marabou Road Runner, all from TTI-Blakemore. My absolute favorite is the Road Runner Gold Series in blue fusion color.
But I don’t just think of these as jigs; I sometimes fish them like swim baits. This is a flexible form of fishing, allowing you to change presentations until the trout tell you what they like. For example, these lures can be cast and retrieved or fixed beneath a clear plastic float to keep the bait at the right depth in the water column. The latter way is my preferred method. Cast, tighten up the line, but let the lure rest for a couple of heartbeats. Then, start reeling with an erratic start-stop action. Keep the rod tip low and be ready for a long hookset sweep.
To increase the attractiveness of these lures where bait is legal, tip the hook with a PowerBait Crappie Nibble or spray it with Pro-Cure’s Trophy Trout spray. The added scent will at least double the amount of strikes you get, and fish tend to hold on longer when they’re following a scent trail. The most aggressive fish will bite and bite again.
SIDE DRIFT A RIVER
Side drifting was developed by boating anglers fishing rivers and is deadly for rainbows, cutthroats and browns. The idea is to keep the bait in the best holding water for the longest possible time. The boat operator keeps the boat moving at or just under the speed of the current so every angler on the boat can keep their bait in the best water for the duration of the run. Lures that perform well with this tactic include Glo-Bugs (tie them or buy them at a fly shop) and scented plastic worms like Xfactor’s Miracle Worms.
Rigs are simple. Tie a Glo-Bug yarn fly trimmed into a ball on a No. 6 egg hook or wacky-rig a plastic trout worm and knot the hook to 30 inches of leader. An inch or inch-and-a-half of pencil lead keeps the rig touching bottom every five to ten seconds.
Look for classic drifts with the water moving at the speed of a fast walk and with a little bit of cover along one side. As the sun goes higher, the fish tend to move closer to cover; cast right up against the bank or the side of the slot where fish may be holding.
The rearmost angler (often the boat operator) should make the first cast, placing the line upstream at a 45-degree angle. As soon as that line touches the water, the next angler casts. Both anglers reel up any slack. If their tackle is matched, there should be no tangles.
Using the kicker or the oars, the boat operator makes slight adjustments to keep lines taut and the baits fishing in line. Make sure that the anglers keep their rod tips up at a 45-degree angle. When the fish grabs, the weight pulls the hook into the corner of its mouth.
This technique is also dynamite for fishing small plastic tubes (try fluorescent green, pink or red) and plastic minnows.
TROLL A RESERVOIR
In the spring, in reservoirs I know have brown trout in them, I opt for bigger lures, using the rule of thirds as it applies to predatory trout and char. If I’m after a 30-inch fish, a 10-inch lure is a good choice. If the local browns are more in the 16- to 18-inch range, as they are at one of my favorite lakes, a 6-inch bait is a better choice.
For most of the year, the best fishing for big brown trout happens very early in the morning and very late in the day. But in early spring the best time to fish might be during the middle of the day. It can be freezing cold at dawn, but an increasing temperature through the morning—even if that increase is just a couple of degrees—can heat up the bite.
In choosing a lure, start with a color and a pattern that matches the local baitfish, then focus on strike-trigger details. Small forage fish have big eyes that suggest vulnerability. You can modify a lure by using glue-on stickers or 3-D prisms to increase eye size. Another strike trigger, particularly in murky water, is a rattle that allows the trout to zero in on your lure even when visibility is poor. Feeding fish flare their gills, which signals to other fish there is something to eat in the water. A dependable trigger color is that dark, bloody gill-flash red.
Whatever the triggers, the lure should be a floating or suspending one that runs 6 to 10 inches below the surface. Plan the trolling route in advance to keep the baits in and out of the shallows and over the transition zones where trout hide to ambush baitfish.
With rods in rod holders, the boat operator should try to maintain a slow trolling speed, between .9 and 1.4 miles per hour, with an aggressive zigzag pattern. At every turn the inside bait slows down while the outside bait speeds up.