October 06, 2021
A little morning frost, a few leaves starting to turn and rivers running low, clear and cool. Fall is a great time to go trout fishing across the East as fish go on the feed prior to the arrival of winter. Fly fishing has the cachet, but throwing a miniature lure on a light spinning rig is often a better option for big trout, particularly in fall when adult browns are loading up on meat as they prepare to spawn.
And while big browns—and rainbows, too—are known for their maddening tunnel vision at times, taking only flies that float almost directly into their mouths on their preferred run, they tend to get stupid when they see a more substantial meal anywhere in their zip code. A mini lure is a big bite for a trout, one they sometimes run down from halfway across a river.
What qualifies as a "mini?" Basically, any lure under 1/4 ounce and less than 3 inches long. They come in plastic and balsa designs, imitating minnows, baby trout, crayfish, insects and frogs. Also qualifying are in-line spinners and micro worms—never forget, trout love worms. These versatile lures are applicable anywhere from big, fast-water tailraces to secluded freestone streams with lots of pocket water to well stocked lakes and ponds.
Much of the East’s best trout fishing is found in dam tailraces because there’s a steady flow of water with temperatures in the low 50s to sustain holdover fish and plenty of food to help them grow. Fishing these waters is usually best when the flow is low to moderate but moving steadily and clear. Trout often feed on minnows swept through the dam gates. Try slow-sinking lures like the 2 3/4-inch Rapala Countdown and the 2 1/2-inch Rebel Tracdown Minnow. Cast across the current, then slowly retrieve it as it’s swept downstream.
If the water is deep and fast, as it can quickly become on a tailrace when additional gates are opened, the slow sinkers may not get down to where the trout want their dinner. In those instances, opt for an inline spinner weighted for the water’s depth and flow.
Options like the Worden’s Rooster Tail usually do best with a retrieve that’s just fast enough to spin the blade, which will keep the lure off bottom assuming you’ve got the right weight and size for the depth and current. Rooster Tails are available in weights from 1/32 to 1 ounce. Stock up on spinners in different weights and you’ll be ready no matter the flow. (If you’re not getting deep enough, add a split shot or two 12 to 18 inches above the lure.)
Carry spinners with both silver and gold blades—trout can be annoyingly selective some days.
A tailrace like the Smith River below Philpott Dam in southwestern Virginia is a great spot to connect with jumbo fall trout on mini lures. Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources biologists shocked up numerous 5- to 6-pound rainbows and browns in the 7-mile stretch below the dam in late summer last year, along with many fish in the 10- to 14-inch class.
When it comes to freestone stretches like Connecticut’s productive Farmington River above Riverton, take a note from fly fishers and look for the bubble stream. While trout will move to take a mini lure, they’re more likely to cooperate if it comes right to them, and they often feed along those bubble streams. Make repeated casts to work these lanes, rather than just hitting a pool three or four times and moving on.
When freestone flows are low and clear, stealth comes into play because the fish can see you at a surprising distance. Keep low, approach slowly and cast when you’re at maximum range to avoid flushing them, always aiming well upstream of your intended target.
When your lure passes through a hole, drop the rod tip and the lure will sink. When you pass over a rock or a log, raise it high and you’ll hopefully pass above it. Casting straight downstream occasionally works, particularly with spinners—bring it back just fast enough to keep it off bottom. Hit seams between slow and fast water with a countdown lure, fishing the seams closest to you first to avoid spooking trout that might be right there in front of you.
Don’t overlook seams created by large rocks. Put your lure above the rock and let it work along the sides with the flow. Look for areas where the current is moving at about walking speed. Slower water doesn’t bring them enough food, and faster water requires too much energy to hold in place.
Outside bends where the deeper water flows are always a good bet with mini lures, too. Fish the water closest to you first while standing on shore, then move to the middle, then the far side. Don’t forget that fish sometimes stack in the slower water on the inside of a bend rather than the obvious deep stretch on the outside.
Where streams run through pastures and hay fields, a floating mini like the 1 1/2-inch Rebel Crickhopper can be fished like a dry fly. Cast it along the banks in deep runs well upstream, and let it drift at the speed of the current as you take up slack. Be ready for a quick hookset if you get a rise.
LAKES AND PONDS
Many natural lakes like Maine’s Hancock Pond have a drop-off anywhere from 10 to 100 feet offshore, and trout frequently cruise just off that edge looking for food. Concentrate casts in that zone, while keeping an eye out for any features that might attract fish like larger boulders, downed trees, vegetation or feeder creeks. Around rock rubble and boulders, crawfish imitations like the 2-inch Rebel Wee Crawfish can be especially effective when eased along the bottom. If necessary, add a bit of shot to get it down.
The inline spinners mentioned above are also good bets, as they offer greater casting range than the crawfish or minnow-type lures and will penetrate the depths faster in the heavier sizes.
The 3-inch Berkley PowerBait Trout Worm, a miniature version of the scent- and taste-loaded soft plastics sold by the millions to bass anglers, are also a good bet in lakes and ponds. They’re deadly when nose-hooked on a size-4, short-shank hook with a shot or two 18 inches up the line, or on a tiny 1/32- to 1/26-ounce jig. The pink shad color is a favorite of many aficionados. They’re simple to fish—just maintain bottom contact, retrieve very slowly and let the trout do the rest. (Note: Some states classify PowerBait and similar offering as natural bait and do not permit their use in artificial-only trout waters.)
For fishing tailraces and lakes, a rod with some reach is a plus. That means the little ultralight rods under 5 feet long, which are great for fishing an overgrown freestone stream, don’t quite do the job. Opt for something like the Shimano Zodias ZDS268L, a 6-foot-10-inch ultralight with the capability to throw lures down to 1/16 ounce on 4- to 8-pound-test lines. Another good choice is the 7-foot Daiwa Presso UL PSO702ULFS, which can fling lures down to 1/32 ounce long distances.
A light reel with a larger spool is also an advantage. The Shimano Vanford 2000, a 2000-size reel with the weight of a 1000-size model, enables long casts and has the smooth drag essential for landing lunkers on light line.
Most ultralight anglers load their reels with economical 4- to 6-pound-test monofilament. It’s thin and supple enough to easily cast lightweight lures good distances and has lots of stretch to "give" when a fish surges against it.
However, in recent years many anglers have switched to braid, and with good reason. The 8-pound-test SpiderWire Ultra Cast has a ridiculously small diameter of .0035 inch, yet has a break strength of more than twice its rating. It casts at least as far as 4-pound-test mono but provides far greater strength—and it lasts virtually forever.
Another big plus of the braid is that it allows you to feel your lightweight lure working. This is particularly important with spinners, where you’ll often want to retrieve just fast enough to make the blade spin. And, of course, hook sets with braid require just a flick of the rod tip, because it doesn’t stretch like light mono. An 18-inch length of transparent 6-pound-test fluorocarbon leader, tied in with a double uni knot, will increase the number of strikes. With mono or braid, don’t forget a snap swivel when using spinners to avoid line twist and allow for quick lure changes.