Rainbow trout (aka steelhead and redband trout) (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are one of the most sought after game fish in the United States and globally. Rainbow trout are the freshwater products of steelhead trout as steelhead are anadromous (travel from sea to freshwater rivers/streams to reproduce), though rainbow trout can also produce steelhead trout. Rainbow trout have a native range along the Pacific Coast and inland toward freshwater rivers, lakes, and streams but have been introduced expansively across the United States for recreational purposes. The species in the native environments are typically carnivorous and eat aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates as well as crustaceans, mollusks, and other small fish. Stocked fish are typically fed a pellet diet. Pellets are typically made from a mix of animal protein and plant based material such as corn, grain, and/or soy.
My personal experience catching trout started only a few years ago when I decided to get serious about diversifying the species of fish I could catch. I recall hearing about my states rainbow trout stocking program and becoming interested with catching the beautiful fish. I have only caught stocked trout in the Midwest, though I have caught some “native” rainbow trout in Colorado (they are descendants of stocked fish due to the fact that rainbow trout are not native to Colorado). Throughout my time fishing for trout I have learned that the term stocked fish does not equate to an easy fish to catch and also noted some various patterns/trends with the species. I wanted to write this article as many are compelled to believe the marketing and lies told to us by corporations and the content creators they endorse/sponsor. Catching stocked trout does not require the top of the line lures, waders, rod and reel, etc. I am frequently frustrated when I meet a fisherman and they assure me that their way is the best way regardless of how many fish they have caught that day. I hope that this post will reach someone who may be interested in fishing these amazing fish and help increase your chances of being successful.
1. Understand The Area That You Will be Fishing And Check Stock Dates
Understanding and evaluating the area(s) you will be fishing is crucial to your success, especially if fishing a stocked pond during a warm fall/spring day. Rainbow trout need to be in cool water; they will die or become very lethargic if they get too warm. This is why places in the Midwest do not stock trout in the summer. To avoid the heat trout will reside in deep cool pockets along algae beds. This means if you are fishing a shallow stream/river you should look for areas with deep pockets and bedding areas such as algae or rock/bank overhangs. If fishing from a bank in a small pond or lake you should try to research the depth of the lake prior or just experiment and fish where you see good cover/habitat that isn’t too close to the shore. It is also useful to look for changes in elevation. If you see a very steep area across the lake or pond it is likely that that area is deeper than the area you are at if the ground is relatively flat or level. This may not be the case though if your lake/pond was man made, but it is a generality that I have found common most places.
When fishing stocked areas it is important to check when the last stock date was. This is important because there are many other anglers out there who wish to also reach their daily trout limit and will show no mercy when it comes to removing fish from the water. I recently took a venture down to a stocked stream and was shocked to see how little fish I could see. After leaving the spot empty handed as many did that day, it was no coincidence that so many people were struggling to get a bite. Upon returning to my vehicle to go home I was curious to check the last stock date of that area as it is posted on my state’s natural resource website. Unsurprisingly, it had been nearly two months since the last stocking of that area and it showed. It was a good lesson for me to check the website before planning a trip out of town as it can make a difference in the quality of trip you will get when specifically targeting for rainbow trout, though let it be known you do always learn something about the area you fish at even if you don’t catch anything. There is always some beauty to the overall enjoyment of being outside. Also, don’t let the stock date discourage you from going out, as there are typically still fish to catch you will just have to think smarter and work harder.
The trout I caught in the story mentioned in later in the blog
2. Research the Physiology/Behavior of Rainbow Trout
I am by no means a fish whisperer or an old timey bushman who set out into the wilderness to make a life for himself, nor am I a spiritual guru who claims to know all beings both spiritual and physical who share the land with him (despite what my friends may say), but I am one thing for certain, and that is a scientist. The Native Americans were excellent scientists as science has its foundation tied to observation. The more you observe an animal/organism and learn about their daily patterns/behavior the more you learn how to harvest/interact with said animal. This is especially true with rainbow trout. Rainbow trout, like many fish/animals are crepuscular (most actively feeding in the early mornings an hour before and after sunrise and the evenings an hour or so before and after sunset), though they are still active during the day and can be caught.
As I mentioned earlier, rainbow trout require colder water and will move up and down streams and rivers as well as the water column in lakes and ponds in search of more cool water temperature. Water temperature is important as it can correlate with their feeding aggression as well as the amount of oxygen in the water. Colder water holds more dissolved oxygen than warm/hot water; this is why when the temperatures get a bit too hot, trout will die off. This is well observed in JE Williams et al.’s paper with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife paper, Cold Water Fishes and Climate Change in North America when they write, “Additionally, rainbow trout (O. mykiss) and brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) and other salmonids that are native to North America have been widely introduced into lakes, reservoirs, and river systems outside of their native ranges to increase angling opportunities. Climate change is likely to continue affecting salmonids throughout their ranges. Increasing air temperatures have been warming stream and lake temperatures with impacts ranging from increasing stress and metabolic rates to loss of lower-elevation habitats as waters warm” (Williams et al., p. 1). This reinforces my statement of why it important to look for cool/deeper water depending on weather or environment and indicates it’s correlation to climate change.
The phylogenetic family Salmonidae which trout are part of possess great eyesight. This is important as when we are pursuing them, many will make it too obvious and the fish will not take your bait as they understand that a predator is about. Once I went out trout fishing on a cold day. I had spotted a cluster of rainbow fish along a deep pocket of a stream. I could tell this pocket of fish had been fished for all day as bits of bait and tackle from the last groups of anglers who tried… and failed were scattered across the bank edge and in the water. This stream was very shallow at this point in the year and required you to fish close to the edge of the bank as to ensure you didn’t get snagged on any brush. Eventually, after a few hours of changing bait and watching the fish avoid my bait it dawned on me! The fish could see me and my shadow and that may be the reason why they refuse to take my bait. They were associating my bait with me (a predator), or they were too scared to leave their school/bed as it was their safety. I then would cast and walk backwards while letting line unwind from my reel until me and my shadow were away from the water. Almost immediately after this revision I began to feel my bait being chewed on by the fish, which enabled me to catch a fish! It felt good to observe and experiment until I found success, especially when many others had failed.
3. Don’t Believe Everything You Hear From Guys at The Bait Shop
Following my previous story, had I listened to the anglers who talked to me about their fishing that day and their words of “wisdom” I would have missed out on a nice fish. One thing I personally find distasteful is when someone who hasn’t had any luck or has caught one fish for the day tries to give you unsolicited advice. I can’t count how many times I have had this exact dialogue spoken to me;
“You guys have any luck today”
“No, it’s been a bit slow so far”
“What bait are you using?”
“We’ve been using X bait but switched to Y”
“That’s your problem! That bait don’t work! You need to be using Z bait!”
These types of conversations drive me nuts. It is a form of arrogance disguised to be mentorship. It always leaves a bitter taste in my mouth because it completely disregards my past experience and success fishing with what I am using. They also may not account for that I have tried their bait before and it didn’t work for me and the method of fishing I do. They don’t account for the randomness of preference that fish seem to exhibit based on various external and internal factors. It is just uneducated. Typically the men who talk like this in my experience are older men and may genuinely be trying to be nice, but I wish they would rephrase their statement and make a recommendation, rather than a command or order.
Understand that some people (though few), are greedy and may want to sabotage your efforts in harvesting the fish that they want. This may be in the form of giving you their “honey holes” that don’t actually exist or are far from their actual spots, misguided bait recommendations, or just wrong information on fishing strategy as a whole. Lastly, understand that the people with the biggest voice and the most over the top fishing stories are typically lying and actually lack true experience and wisdom in the field.
4. Understand That Trout Are Picky And Unpredictable
Trout caught a few seasons ago on a nice, warm winter day
This may seem redundant, but I can’t stress this enough. Stocked rainbow trout in my experience are picky and unpredictable. One day they may be very food aggressive and take whatever you are throwing at them, the next day it may feel like there were never any trout in the water. Point being that you must be flexible and willing to adapt to these issues, whether it be moving location(s), bait presentation, changing tackle/rig orientation, bait selection, etc. There are endless ways to try and figure out what will work. It is sometimes useful to take a notepad and jot down any observations about the weather and time of year that you are fishing as it could be impacting the fish. I would highly recommend this, especially if the fish are taking the bait that you are using and other people aren’t catching any fish.
Be sure to take note of the common things such as air temperature, water temperature, bait(s) used, animals/plants observed, behavior/interactions, water level, atmospheric pressure, time of day, wind speed, time of year, cloudiness, water turbidity (how clear is the water), did it rain recently, stream velocity, fishing pressure, stock dates, etc. Keeping an extensive log of all your outdoor activities is important as you will hardly recall these variables in one year. Keeping track of this information could help transform you from an average fisherman to a great fisherman because it will allow you to time travel a year or more back in time and know what did work and what didn’t work based on the variables above. This can save you a lot of time in the future as you don’t need to try to reinvent the wheel due to your lessons from the past. I recommend using a water-proof notepad/journal to record your observations such a the Rite in The Rain note pads. I used one of these note pads in the field to record observations during my filed ecology classes and wished I had them when working with animals or while out in rainy/muddy environments.
5. Don’t Fall For The Marketing
Using previous observations and methods from years past are helpful and crucial in some circumstances, but sometimes we as fishermen/outdoorsman like to experiment with new techniques and tackle. Sometimes it is inspiring to watch a YouTuber fish for a species you like to fish for using a method that you have not seen before. Typically in the YouTube videos the fishermen always end up catching fish after fish with what seems like little to no time or effort invested. Though most of this is an illusion brought on by video editing, it does trick us into believing that their method may grant us the instant gratification that our brains crave. Sometimes these new baits or methods these fishermen are using in their videos are either A. their own brand of bait/lure, B. An affiliate linked bait/lure that they receive a cut of the profits from every time a viewer uses their link to purchase said product, or C. the bait/lure could be someone close to them who is using their fame/reach to promote their friends brand, either for another favor down the road, or unknown reason.
Don’t fall for the marketing and consumerism within the fishing industry. The bait/lure companies want you to believe that you can only catch bait/fish using their bait. I won’t name any specific companies, but I too have fallen for the marketing for pre-made trout bait. I bought four different colors/scents, an array of lures, and yet I still came up empty handed. Despite all the good reviews of the bait I truly question the overall efficiency of certain baits out on the market as I have followed the instructions and placed the bait in front of a school of rainbow trout and actually had the trout move away from the bait. I am not saying to never buy or try premade bait, but I would try to use more natural baits first if I could and then use the premade. Don’t fall into the newbie trap and solely rely on the diverse array of moldable play-dough like baits that you bought at your local Dicks Sporting Goods or Wal-Mart because you watched someone on YouTube do it and he/she “catch their limit in an hour”.
6. The Tackle I Use For Trout Fishing
I am relatively new to trout fishing and don’t get to fish for trout all year long as they are not native where I live. Therefor my tackle is not the greatest, nor is it most efficient. For my pole I use a regular medium duty pole that you may typically see from someone who keeps a pole or two in their garage, I got this pole for free as a kid from a relative, it has been glued together a long time ago, but still does everything I need to. You may be reading the last sentence and ask why I use a broken rod and the answer is because it is free and it works. For my reel I use a cheap Walmart reel that could hold a decent amount of line. At this price range brands do not matter. As long as the rod and reel you buy can handle a fish that could weigh up to 10-12 lbs you will be okay. For the line I use the Berkley Trilene four lb monofilament and it works well for me as the fish don’t seem to see it too well and it makes the fighting feel more intense (make sure you keep your drag loose).
You can use six or at most eight lb monofilament, but the best overall is probably four-six lb line. Some people swear by the use of fluorocarbon fishing line as a leader, but I haven’t felt the need to buy any, though I am sure it would help if you are fishing very clear water. For bait I tend to use night crawlers cut in half and put onto a size four-six Aberdeen hook like a sock. Presentation I have found with night crawlers is relatively important. I also will use sweet corn as bait as the fish seem to be attracted to either the color or the smell, some people like to chum the water with corn and then throw their hook in, though be advised that chumming is illegal in some states so please check your state’s rules and regulations. Making leaders do help keep hard fighting fish from breaking the hook off your line so consider making some and attaching with either a clip swivel or a small barrel swivel. Above the swivel a small bobber can help keep your bait suspended from the bottom which I find crucial. It helps to have a bobber that can be adjusted up or down the line so you can fish different depth. Weighted bobbers help but, a little split shot can go a long way and help with casting in the wind and keeping your line taught to help prevent gut hooking.
The takeaway from this post is that rainbow trout are a great fish to fish for. There are ample areas to fish for them across the United States (check your state’s fishing atlas online) and they taste good. Take a moment to learn about the fish and understand how it interacts in its environment. Don’t rely on word of mouth to guarantee you success, but don’t become married to any methods that you do. There are many inexpensive ways to get out and catch some fish so don’t feel as though you need to go spend a month’s worth of income to be able to compete with the people fishing next to you. I hope this article gives some new anglers more confidence to go out and try to catch this beautiful species of fish.
Williams, JE, et al. Cold-Water Fishes and Climate Change in North America, USDA, 2015, https://www.fs.usda.gov/rm/pubs_journals/2015/rmrs_2015_williams_j001.pdf.