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How to Catch Rainbow Trout - The Critter Depot

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How to Catch Rainbow Trout

how to catch rainbow trout

Table of Contents

Rainbow trout may be the most beautiful game fish in North America. They get their name from their coloration.  You can see nearly every color of the rainbow on their scales, which lead to the appropriate nomenclature. Their native habitats are the mountain streams and lakes west of the Rocky Mountains. These native haunts are cold water streams, rivers and lakes usually feed by mountain snow run off.

Look for Cold Water

The single biggest factor in a rainbow trout’s habitat is cold water. Unlike some other game fish that become lethargic in cold water, trout of all species thrive in cold water. Water that is warmer than 68 degrees Fahrenheit will begin to stress trout.  This is because the dissolved oxygen content of water decreases as the temperature rises. Trout can survive water warmer than 68 degrees but only for short periods.

Due to the popularity of the rainbow trout as a game fish, their natural range has expanded to nearly every corner of North America. You can even find rainbow trout in the American south, places where they would not usually survive. With the advent of hydroelectric power plants and dams across the country, trout have experienced a boon in available habitat and favorable water conditions.

With the creation of large man-made impoundments and the tailwaters below these dams, trout have water well within the temperature range to thrive. The water at the bottom of these deep impoundments remains cold throughout the year.  When the dams slowly release water, it creates miles of trout habitat in the tailwaters, even in hot environments.

Habitat Characteristics

Rainbow trout love the flowing streams with rocky or gravel bottoms. Healthy streams have moss and some aquatic vegetation. A rainbow trout is a predator, like most other game fish, they ambush prey. A trout living in a flowing stream uses his environment to conserve energy and ambush unsuspecting prey. Trout will use anything in their environment to break current and feed on whatever comes by. A depression in the stream bed, a rock, piles of rock, a bend in the stream and even dense mats of vegetation provide cover and a break from the current.

Fishing Strategies for Rainbow Trout

For this article we are going to focus on trout fishing strategies in the tailwaters of large impoundments. These rainbow trout are raised in a hatchery and released. These fisheries are more available to the average angler, the trout are more plentiful and tend to grow much larger than their wild counterparts. Generally, the seasons have less of an impact on rainbow trout in these environments than other game fish, like a bass.

Temperature swings tend not to affect the fish as much because their habitat is more stable. Since dams are releasing a steady stream of water, temperature fluctuations are less severe. Seasons can, however, have a huge impact on the volume and level of water in the river or stream. Under normal conditions the water is nearly constant and although the water can be swift at certain locations, it is relatively benign.

With large amounts of rain during the winter and spring, these normally peaceful rivers can become torrents. Rain run-off directly into the stream will raise water levels and volume of flow. However, when there is significant rainfall, the large impoundments at the head of rivers become full and dams must relieve the water volume by releasing water through the dam. During periods of high rain, the volume of water the dams must release can be significant. When this happens, those peaceful rivers become torrents. During high flow volumes, it is best to avoid these waters, they can be quite dangerous.

Great Fishing Opportunities in the Winter

During the winter months, cold water conditions in the reservoirs and impoundments can lead to large scale die offs of baitfish. The most common baitfish is the shad and they can die off by the thousands. When the dam releases large amounts of water for winter pool drawdowns or because of large rains, these dead shad are released into the trout stream. You will here locals refer to this as a “shad kill.”

This is an excellent time to catch rainbow and brown trout below the dams. The trout will gorge themselves on the easy meal. This is one of the best times to catch large numbers of fish and the largest fish in the river.

High and Rising Water 

Another excellent time to trout fish is during high water or rising water. Rising water in a trout stream is like a dinner bell and rainbow and brown trout alike will put on the feed bag during rising water. When the water is rising or high, trout will move towards the edges or banks of the river. Most of the time the banks are scattered with uprooted trees, root wads, rocks, and boulders of all sizes. Trout will move to these newly available structures to ambush prey carried down by the high water.

There are countless ways and strategies to catch rainbow trout. Its worth noting that, although we are talking specifically about rainbow trout in this article, most of these strategies can be applied to catching brown trout.

Identifying a Location

Brown Trout

brown trout

In my opinion, it is easier to identify a trout's location in a stream or river, compared to a large lake or impoundment.  And when trying to locate trout in a stream or river, your eyes are your best weapon.  Look for large rocks or boulders that stick out of the water. These rocks will break the current and present a perfect ambush point. Large trees or limbs sticking out of the water present the same opportunity.

Some of the best opportunities are harder to see, however. You must learn to read the water, using the subtle visual clues on the surface to understand what’s going on under the surface. You can find shallow water by looking for riffles and turbid water. Rough water surrounding by calmer water usually indicates a submerged rock or tree that is always holding trout.

It is important to remember that in general, trout streams are ultra-clear, so trout use cover like rocks or wood to hide and feel secure. An often-overlooked strategy on the trout river is to pay special attention to those areas that are transitions from shade to sunlight on the surface. A rainbow trout will use shadows on the surface just like a real piece of structure. So, on a bright sunny day, fishing shadows will always outproduce ignoring these kinds of “soft” structure.

Trout Fishing Products

A rainbow trout will feed on just about anything that is available in the river.

  • Small bugs
  • crickets
  • crustaceans
  • pupae
  • larvae
  • worms
  • baitfish
  • even other trout.

Fly Fishing for Trout

When people think of trout they inevitably think about fly-fisherman, and how they methodically false cast and lay a dry fly on the water to float towards a hungry trout. These fishermen are imitating hatches of aquatic bugs. Fly-fisherman also imitate the larvae stages of these bugs, while using strike indicators to stimulate a trout. Fly-fishing is built around using tiny hair and feather lures to fool the trout.

The favorite motto of the fly-fisherman is “match the hatch”, which means presenting a fly to the fish that exactly mimics whatever bug or larvae they are currently feeding on. You must use your eyes to see what is hatching on the water surface or observing what larvae are under the water.

Some fly fisherman carry nets specifically to catch the small flying bugs or scoop up larvae under the water to exactly match what the trout are feeding on that day.  Other fisherman carry a small bulb syringe to suck up what’s in the trout’s stomach in order to inspect what that specimen has been eating.

The fly-fishing technique is extremely refined and steeped in tradition. It is one of the more difficult techniques to master. I am a fly-fisherman and love nothing more than hooking a trout on a hand tied fly and 3 weight fly rod. However, fly-fishing is a more advanced way to fish.  And there are easier ways for the beginner to target rainbow trout.

Bait fishing for Trout

On the other end of the trout fishing spectrum are the bait fisherman. A bait fisherman uses conventional tackle, mostly ultra-light rod and reels to throw tiny hooks and light weights baited with real or artificial baits. A rainbow trout will readily eat the tiny eggs from its own kin, nightcrawlers and even whole kernel corn.  There is a slew of artificial baits that mimic these offerings including fake trout and salmon eggs.

Powerbait has a full line of troutbait impregnated with scents and lures that entice rainbows to bite. There are tiny artificial worms, or you can use real worms. There is no shortage of available options for the bait fisherman.

Unconventional Ways to Catch Trout

Up to this point, it is easy for the beginner to come under the false impression that you can only catch a trout using finesse tactics that include:

  • Ultra-realistic hand tied baits
  • small, natural live bait or imitations on small hooks
  • ultra-light weight rods and reels.

And yes, these tactics and tools are helpful for the avid trout fisherman.  But it's not the only option.  I am here to tell you that there is another way. I will stop short of claiming that it is a better way, but there is no doubt that it is a faster paced and more aggressive method for catching rainbow trout. I have been using this unconventional method to catch large numbers of big rainbow and brown trout.

I am talking about “bass fishing” for rainbow trout.  There are a few fisherman that have been doing this for decades and it is without a doubt, 100% fun. A rainbow trout is a predatory fish and shares some of the characteristics of other north American game fish like bass, crappie, walleye, etc. In fact, if you fish for some of these other species, especially bass, it is likely you already have all the gear necessary to chase the rainbow trout. For this technique you cast and retrieve minnow baits, stick baits and crankbaits. Using a spinning rod and reel, you are casting to rocks, wood and shadows and retrieving your lure. Rainbow and brown trout will crush these minnow and crawfish imitations even rivaling a largemouth bass strike.

For this application you will be using light to medium power spinning rods in the 6’6” to 7’ range. Pair your rod with an appropriately sized spinning reel and you are in business. Fishing line is an important factor in trout fishing, especially for the finesse techniques we discussed above. Fluorocarbon fishing line is strong and nearly invisible under the water and is an excellent choice for trout fishing. For finesse applications like bait fishing 2, 4- or 6-pound test flouro is the ticket.

When you bass fishing for trout, you are creating a reaction strike, so you can get away with 10- or 12-pound test line; for this technique you need it, you will have a legitimate chance at catching some of the biggest trout in the river. For bait fishing, a shorter 5’6” ultralight rod and reel will allow you to cast the smaller offerings. These ultralight rigs also make even a small trout feel like you are reeling in a 4 pounder.

Earlier we discussed some of the bait fishing options out there. Berkeley powerbait has a ton of options and I have used most of their offerings with good success. For the bass fishing technique, you want mostly minnow shaped baits. Long, brightly colored baits with multiple treble hooks. Rapala has an expansive assortment of these baits. When shopping for lures, anything from 3 inch up to 7 or 8 inches is what you are looking for. You want a bigger profile bait, do not be afraid to have some large lure options while on the water. Rapala has floating, sinking, stick and jointed minnow baits, I recommend a variety.

Another excellent lure choice is a rattling rogue, I have caught many of my biggest trout on 5 to 7-inch rattling rouges. I have used every color under the sun, and they all work at different times, have a selection and let the trout tell you what they want that day. Firetiger is an excellent color option; do not discount trout color patterns, the baits mentioned above all come in colors called rainbow trout, brown trout, and cutthroat trout. Larger rainbow and brown trout are cannibalistic, they will absolutely eat a smaller specimen of their own species, which is why having your bait replicate the colors of trout is beneficial. 

Wade Fishing

If you are wade fishing, a good pair of hip boots or waders will keep you warm and dry. But the best way to catch trout in most of the tailwater fisheries is from a boat. You can access so much more of the river by boat. Also, because water levels fluctuate frequently and without notice, rivers can be unsafe for wading. A small canoe for floating down stream will work just fine. The best option is a trout boat.  Trout boards are long, narrow, fiberglass boats that have a shallow draft and a controlled drift.

Fishing for rainbow trout is an absolute blast and an excellent fishing adventure for kids. Find a tailwater near you and give them a try, you’ll be hooked.


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