Trout are a very popular gamefish in North America. There are several species of true trout, such as the rainbow trout, steelhead (a migratory, sea-going form of rainbow), brown trout, cutthroat trout and golden trout. There are also several species that are called trout, but are actually char, including the lake trout (also called makinaw), the brook trout and the bull trout or "dolly varden." Consequently, the whirling disease that has reaked havoc on many populations of true trout does not appear to affect the species in the char family.
While trout are often stocked in lakes and reservoirs, many anglers prefer to catch them in rivers, streams or creeks. Trout are strong swimmers and very efficient predators, but they are not the top predator in many waters, as almost all larger fish will eat trout, including larger trout. Their tasty flesh is at its most delicious when it is very, very fresh. This delicate, distinctive meat appears to be preferred by man, predatory birds, many mammalian predators and many predatory fish.
Many anglers insist on practicing catch-and-release of all trout caught. Others enjoy the meat so much that they keep all legal fish for food. A growing number of anglers, including this author, practice catch-and-release of all wild fish that can be safely released, but catch-and-eat of all legally-caught stocked trout. Stocked trout can usually be differentiated from wild trout by the wear on their fins and tail caused by rubbing against concrete swimways and fighting over food. Check your local regulations, as many waters are catch-and-release by law, with very specific gear restrictions.
Anglers who release any trout at all must be extremely careful, as trout are very fragile and subject to rapid death from hook injuries, squeezing, trauma, being kept out of the water for more than a few seconds, and even the loss of the protective slime layer. Those trying to practice catch-and-release for any reason, including the release of undersize fish, should try to use artificial baits with single hooks or use small single bait hooks (single egg hooks, for example) and do their best to hook the fish in the mouth. A trout hooked any deeper than the jaw, especially with a treble hook, will almost certainly die. The use of a net and wet hands to handle fish will help prevent over-squeezing and the loss of protective slime while removing hooks. Whenever possible, trout should be unhooked and released while their heads are still in the water. Many anglers purchase special hook removers that can release their flies, hooks or lures without the fish being handled. Virtually every fly-fishing store has special catch-and-release hook removers.
Trout diets consist of insects (both aquatic, such as mayflies, and terrestrial, such as grasshoppers or ants), other invertebrates (including scuds, shrimp, crawdads, and the ever-famous worm), and other fish and their eggs. All trout will eat other species of trout and even their own species. The lake trout eats fish almost exclusively, including its own species.
Trout are caught using several techniques. Artificial flies include dry flies, nymphs, terrestrials, glow bugs (a roe imitation) and streamers, often specifically designed or selected to "match the hatch" of local food sources. Spinners include french spinners, colorado spinners and sonic spinners, with a wide variety of colors and body styles from metallic to painted to soft plastic fish to artificial fly bodies. Trout spoons come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from the folded metal "super-dupers" to more traditional spoon shapes. Trout jigs and other lures include marabou jigs, micro-jigs, small soft-plastic jigs, and even specially-designed artificial worms. Baitfishermen use live insects and other invertebrates, live baitfish, cheese, marshmallows, factory-prepared doughbaits (such as power bait), salmon eggs and roe sacks.
For fly-fishing, matching the hatch is often a must. Trout can get completely focused on a particularly prevalent food source, such as hatching aquatic flies, and "zone-out" everything else. A good fly fisher becomes a careful observer of fish behavior to determine what the fish are eating, whether they are feeding at the surface or staying deep, and whether the angler has any flies that duplicate the size and color of the target food source. However, trout feed on nymphs (larval aquatic insects) and smaller fish most of the year, attacking "dry fly" hatches when they occur. For this reason, hare's ear nymphs, muddler minnows and woolly buggers are some of the most versatile and productive flies available. Try using a "right-angle leader," which uses a strike indicator at the end of a tapered leader, with the tippet tied onto the line behind the indicator at a right angle and a small split shot a foot or more ahead of the nymph, streamer or wet fly. The best knot for this is an uni-knot, but other strong knots will do. Good strike indicators include a variety of new foam models, traditional floating indicator yarn and high-floating dry flies. A foam ladybug makes a particularly good indicator, since it is highly visible, and has the added benefit of being able to catch surface-feeding fish.
Anglers using spinners in moving water need to select a spinner that will run as close as possible to the bottom in the current being fished. Cast at an angle upstream, as close to the bank as possible and give the rod a twitch to start the spinner rotating. Reel in the slack as the spinner washes downstream, allowing it to swing down and across as it passes your position. This is better than casting downstream and retrieving the spinner against the current, because it imitates a weak baitfish that can't keep up with the current.
Baitfishermen should consider using a single hook, so you can release undersized fish more safely. A single salmon egg on a single egg hook will sometimes outfish a treble hook loaded with eggs because the fish don't expect a human to be attached to such a small offering. Powerbait or other paste baits can be used on single hooks with springs around them to help hold the bait, such as are used for carp, though a smaller size is necessary. In moving water, consider placing a Berkeley Power Wiggler maggot imitation on a small single hook about 12 to 18 inches behind a split shot and drifting it with the current, stopping to let it wiggle from time to time.
Anglers pursuing trout in moving water should focus on seams, eddies, riffles, pools, undercut banks, rocks, logs, weeds or other structure. When pursuing trout in still water, start by focusing on structure, since often relate to structure like most freshwater fish. However, keep in mind that trout also cruise lakes, particularly in the shallows or wherever fly hatches are occurring. Smaller trout cruise in small schools and larger trout often cruise alone.
In stillwater lakes and reservoirs, many anglers like to troll for trout and lake trout using leadcore line and spoons, spinners, wet flies or species-specific plugs like the hot shot. Multi-species plugs like the snap bean are also effective.
Where legal, try this chumming technique. Scoop up some road kill, take it to your favorite water and tie it to a tree branch overhanging the water. After a few days, fly maggots will be all over it and many will fall into the water. Toss in any white nymph on fly gear or a Berkeley Power Wiggler or mealworm on spinning tackle and hang on for the ride.
If you like ultralight fishing for trout, but don't like short rods, consider a crappie rod. They come in lengths up to 12 feet. There are rods designed for spinning reels or casting reels. There are flexible, whip-like rods and rods with more backbone to horse fish out of cover. A careful shopper will find an action he or she likes that is very effective for trout. The long rods are great for reaching into tight spots without spooking fish. In fact, many crappie jigs, particularly marabou jigs, mylar jigs and tube jigs, will catch trout.
Rainbow trout (oncorhynchus mykiss) encompass several subspecies, such as the Kamloops, Shasta and Kern River varieties. However, rainbows generally have a greenish to bluish upper body, a white or silvery underside, a pink stripe along the lateral line, and small black speckles or spots on the sides, upper back and tail. This is the most common trout in North American waters, largely due to stocking efforts. Like most members of the Salmonidae family, rainbow trout can be anadramous, meaning that they live in saltwater, then migrate into freshwater to spawn. The sea-going version of the rainbow is known as the Steelhead.
Brown trout (salmo trutta) can be anadromous or landlocked, like the rainbow. As the name suggests, most brown trout are brownish and decorated with black and red spots. However, brown trout coloration can vary greatly. For example, sea-run browns are usually very silvery and are generally known as sea trout.
Cutthroat trout (oncorhynchus clarki) have a variety of colorations, often very similar to rainbows, but usually without the pink stripe. Regardless of the overall coloration, these trout always have a red mark at the bottom of the lower jaw, which gives them the name "cutthroat."
Golden trout (oncorhynchus aguabonita) are generally felt to be native to the Kern River area in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. They are beautiful, brightly colored fish, with greenish-blue backs, golden sides, bluish-grey "parr" marks down the side, a reddish stripe along the lateral line, black spots along the back and tail, and white tips with black inner borders on the dorsal, pelvic and anal fins.
Brook trout (salvelinus fontinalis), lake trout (salvelinus namaycush), and bull trout (salvelinus confluentus) are actually char and not true trout. Brookies usually have drab olive upper bodies, pale splotches on the sides turning into wormlike squiggles on their backs, and bluish spots with pink centers on their sides that look like eyes. Lake trout (also known as mackinaw) have deeply forked tails, and have drab olive upper bodies with lots of pale splotches. Bull trout look like silvery arctic char, with pale spots on the upper body. The sea-going version, known as a Dolly Varden, is usually silvery-blue with creamy spots on the upper body and pale pink spots on the lower body. All three of these types of trout-like char appear to be immune to the whirling disease that is decimating true trout populations throughout North America.
All of these trout and char spawn in moving water, usually making small depressions, or redds, in the streambeds. They do not attend their young and will gobble up any eggs or small fish they can find. The different species spawn at different times of the year, often influenced by water temperature and other environmental factors, but most spawn in the spring or the fall. Late and early spawns do occur, resulting in a wide variety of spawning periods.
Water filters colors out of light and certain colors disappear first. Think of a rainbow that has red hues on one side and gradually fades to blue colors on the other side. The colors on the red side are filtered out first and the colors on the blue side are filtered out last. Consequently, as water begins to get deep it looks green, but really deep water looks blue. Because of this natural law, red lures are visible only in shallow water, orange a little deeper, yellow even deeper, green deeper still and blue lures are visible in the deepest water. Black is also a good deep-water lure color. White is visible at many depths, because it reflects any available light. But the other vision factors should be considered before a lure is selected.
The effects of water clarity and light levels are not always obvious. The simplest way to remember this concept is that richer versions of any color are most visible in clear water and bright light, while lighter, pastel versions of each color are most visible in stained or murky water and/or low light levels. In other words, red, orange, white, rich green and deeper blue are most visible in clear water with bright light. As light levels fade and/or the water becomes murkier, the best colors become pink, yellow, chartreuse, lighter blue, and black. When the fish seem to lose interest in a lure than was working well earlier in the day, it may be due to changes in light or water clarity. If changes in wind or current have let the water calm down and become more clear, or if clouds have cleared away to allow brighter light, change to richer lure colors or white. If the wind has churned up the water and decreased visibility or if clouds have moved in or the sun is going down, switch to pastel colors or black.
In some recent studies, water temperature was determined to have a dramatic effect on fish vision. Since crappie rely heavily on vision for hunting, this information is important for crappie anglers to understand. The concept is very simple: the colder the water, the better a fish can see. This is because the lower temperatures help the cells in a fish's eye to function better. This means that crappie, like other fish, may be able to see smaller lures at deeper levels in cold water than they can in warm water. It also means that they will be better able to see fishing line, so an angler may need to use lighter monafilament or fluorocarbon line in cold water.
Finally, a crappie's activity level will determine how it reacts to lures of different colors and presentations. The most substantial difference in lure color is the contrast between lure and background color. Active fish are more likely to attack lures that contrast with the color of the water and structure in the area. Think of red, orange, yellow, white, and sometimes black if the background is light. Inactive fish are more likely to attack lures that blend with the surrounding background colors, like a baitfish would. Try green, chartreuse, blue, neutral colors, and occasionally black if the background is dark. For lure presentation, active fish are more likely to attack a lure with more movement, while inactive fish are more likely to attack lures with less movement. There needs to be some lure movement, though, even if it is followed by a pause, because movement is what tells the fish that the lure may be food, rather than part of the background. Always consider water depth, water clarity, light levels, and water temperatures to help decide which colors to try first. And always be ready to try something different if the first choice doesn't work. When fishing regulations allow multiple poles and/or multiple lures, it's easier to determine what will work best.