Many fly-fishermen are purists. I'm not. I'll admit there aren't many things more enjoyable, relaxing or rewarding than gracefully working a tuft of feathers on the business end of fly line and dropping it exactly where you want to put it. Excitement and anticipation build as a big trout rises up from the depths to cautiously eyeball your offering before engulfing it in a splashy rise.
But if I have my mind set on securing the main ingredients of a trout dinner and live bait is the best way to do it, then you'll probably find a worm on the end of my hook. I will admit it. I'm addicted to having a big bend in my fishing rod, regardless of what I'm using on the other end.
Using natural bait for trout has a number of advantages over hardware or flies. It looks, smells and acts like the real thing because it is, and no spinner or fly can duplicate that. You simply can't get anything more natural.
More trout have met their demise via a nightcrawler on a hook than any other offering. It makes sense. Nightcrawlers are readily available at just about every convenience store and tackle shop, and trout love them. A nightcrawler to a trout is like putting a thick, juicy steak in front of a human. It's more than we can resist.
Sometimes, though, a whole nightcrawler is a little much for trout. Most times I find myself pinching off about a third of a crawler and using that instead of a whole crawler. A piece seems more manageable for the 8- to 15-inch trout that I normally catch and eat. Worms work too, although many anglers don't use them. They're a little more difficult to keep on a hook and it doesn't look like you're getting as much for your money when you buy them, but the traditional garden hackle wiggling on a thin, wire hook is deadly for trout.
Fishing with nightcrawlers or worms can be a little messy. The dirt or bedding that they come in gets all over everything and it will take a week to get the dirt out from under your fingers after a day or two of fishing. Before I start, I dump out the crawlers and dirt/bedding and place the worms in a small bucket. Swish the worms or crawlers around in some cold water so the dirt separates from the worms. Put the bait in another container with a few ice cubes if it's going to be warm. Preparing them that way keeps your hands cleaner, pumps up the crawlers or worms so they're lively and juicy, and makes them easier to handle.
Single salmon eggs are used for trout in various parts of the country, but rarely do anglers tie eggs or spawn into sacs or bags for resident trout. They should. Micro, two- to- four-egg spawn bags are deadly on trout and are much easier to keep on the hook than single eggs.
Eggs or spawn is readily available to resident trout at various times of the year. Rainbow trout spawn in the spring and trout get keyed in to searching for drifting eggs when the 'bows are spawning. Brook and brown trout are fall spawners so trout will find delectable eggs drifting in the autumn. Micro spawn bags can catch some surprisingly big trout at those times.
It's a fact that once trout reach trophy proportions they become meat eaters. They're looking for something substantial to fill their gullet, not a tiny insect in most cases. Minnows rate very high on the menu of larger trout, but how many anglers do you know who use them for bait? Not many, but the ones that do are serious about catching big trout. Minnows can be used live to entice trout or preserved to be used at a later date. The sight of a hapless minnow tumbling in the current triggers the predatory instinct in a trout. Savvy anglers use a log needle to thread the line through and out the vent of the minnow before tying on a small treble hook. It's a deadly rig.
Another big-trout bait that few anglers use is a crawfish. Trout love crawfish, especially big trout. Last season I caught a fat rainbow whose stomach had an obvious bulge. Upon cleaning the trout I found 10 medium-sized crawfish in its stomach. Trout will key in on crawfish above everything else when the mudbugs are available during the molting stage. The crawfish come out from their hides to shed their skin at certain times of the year. When they do, they're easy prey and they're soft, and so hungry fish can easily gulp them down.
Two baits that trout relish and are readily available, but few anglers use, are grasshoppers and crickets. Hoppers and crickets can be especially good during the summer and early fall when they are abundant. Using them for trout then is like matching the hatch. Whereas a big nightcrawler would look totally out of place during the clear, low flows of summer, a struggling, hapless grasshopper or cricket looks perfectly natural.
Catching a supply of hoppers or crickets for bait is easy. Grasshoppers are lethargic on cool mornings and you can catch a supply for a day's fishing in short order. Or you can spread out a blanket in a grassy field and then herd hoppers toward the blanket. The hoppers' legs will get stuck in the blanket's fabric and you can easily grab them. For crickets, simply spread out a couple of pieces of cardboard in a field and add a couple of rocks to hold them down. Come back a few days later and you should find a supply of crickets under the cardboard.
Other offbeat baits for trout include aquatic nymphs, like stoneflies, mayfly wigglers or hellgrammites, meal worms, wax worms, oak worms, canned shrimp or even corn or cheese. The potential offerings go way beyond the typical nightcrawler.
Generally, if you're fishing bait the best presentation is to naturally drift your offering with the current. There are exceptions. A couple of my buds are not the most ambitious fishermen and many times they're content to set up shop at a big pool or hole, chuck a big nightcrawler with a heavy weight on it out into the hole, prop their rod up on a stick, and wait. They enjoy a couple of cold ones as they while away the afternoon and whatever bites, bites.
Most times, they catch bottom-dwelling suckers, but quite often they're rewarded with a chunky brown trout. Worms and other creatures caught adrift in the current eventually drift into eddies and slower pools where they gradually settle to the bottom.
The scent the bait emits sends out a message that there's an easy meal to be had and aggressive trout will take note and find it. This is especially true when the water is high and roiled. Swift currents and dirty water make it difficult for trout to see food that is washing by so quickly. Additionally, trout don't like fighting strong currents so they'll move into slower pools and eddies or behind a boulder or log that breaks the current. Plunk a juicy crawler in a similar spot and eventually trout will find it.
Presenting live bait in a natural fashion is going to produce the best results. Depending on what you're using, that might mean rolling it along the bottom, drifting it at mid-depths or floating it on the surface. Water depth and current speed will determine whether you need weight and how much to present the bait properly. Bobbers are perfect for drifting baits at a predetermined depth in still water or streams. There are times when no weight at all or one micro shot will provide the best presentation, like when you're on your hands and knees probing a jump-across creek.
Many anglers who use live bait simply crimp a couple of split shot on their line a call it good. In some situations that will work fine, but it has some inherent drawbacks. For one, if you get snagged, and you should if your bait is where it should be, you're going to lose your hook and split shot. Also, when a trout picks up your bait it's also going to pick up the weight. The fish might eat your bait anyway, or it might drop it if the trout feels unnatural weight.
A great alternative to adding weight directly to your line is to use a pencil weight that can be hung from a snap swivel and allowed to slide up and down your line. That way when a trout bites, the line will feed through the swivel and the fish will not feel the weight. Rigging in that fashion also allows you to change the amount of weight you're using very quickly and prevent losing your entire rig should you become snagged. You need to use a main line that tests at least 4 pounds heavier than your leader. That way, when you get snagged, you'll most likely only lose your hook and/or leader, which are easy to replace.
Buy some smaller, No. 7 or No. 10, cheap snap swivels (black if you can find them). Next, buy some 1/4- or 3/8-inch diameter lead wire. A handy, must-have tool to make the sinkers is called LeadMaster pliers. You can get them at www.barlowstackle.com; (972) 231-5982 and at other fishing tackle retailers.
The pliers have a flat surface that can be used to flatten the end of the lead and a hole punch, which can then be used to make a hole in the flattened lead. Hang the lead sinker from a snap swivel and run your line through the open eyelet of a No. 10 snap swivel, allowing the rig to slide freely up and down the line. Tie your main line to one end of a barrel swivel, which will act as a stop for the snap swivel. To the other end tie a leader of the appropriate length to the barrel swivel and a hook. Again, make sure the leader is lighter pound test than your main line, such as 10- pound-test main line vs. a 6-pound test leader. You can make the sinkers in various lengths and weights to match stream conditions or you can simply use the pliers to nip a little of the lead off to get the proper drift.
Find a small plastic box with dividers that you can use to store extra weights, snap swivels and barrel swivels. That way, you'll have ready-made sinkers and swivels at hand and you can quickly retie.
Fly-fishermen have more than one fly pattern in their arsenal. Bait fishermen would be wise to think outside the box, too.