Trout are inarguably among the most popular game fish family worldwide, if not the most popular. Perhaps one reason for that fondness among anglers is the myriad lures, flies, baits, and techniques that can be employed in pursuit of these fish.
There are the standard standbys that will likely work for almost any species in any place, and there’s regional peculiarity tackle that might only function is highly specific environments. Trout and char are found in temperate to Arctic climates all over the planet, from the ocean to above 10,000 feet and in high deserts to lowland forests, so suffice it to say their habits and diets vary widely.
What Do Trout Eat?
Almost anything that lives in or near their environment that will fit in their mouth. A mature brown trout might be gorging on nearly microscopic midges one minute then attack a duckling the next. Typically, a trout diet consists of insects and invertebrates, as well as other fishes.
Aquatic insects constitute the lion’s share of a trout’s diet for much of its life. Fly fishing especially focuses on this food source, but bait and conventional anglers do so too. Mayflies, caddis, midges, and stoneflies—including their nymph, pupae, emerger, and adult forms—are the primary categories but there are many more. In lakes, reservoirs, and tailwaters (rivers running below reservoirs) you’ll be likely to run into chironomids, annelids, and leeches. Damselflies and dragonflies, in their nymphal and adult forms, are a big meal trout can’t ignore.
Terrestrial insects can be very important food sources, especially in the summer. Maybe the greatest and most recognizable of these is the mighty grasshopper, which few self-respecting trout can refuse. Ants, beetles, crickets, and their ilk are also important and effective insects to consider. Worms often wash into rivers at high water, providing a big-calorie food source. Even odd species like bees, butterflies, moths, grubs, caterpillars, and spiders have been known to wind up in the water, where they’re unlikely to be ignored. In short, trout eat pretty much any bug they’re used to seeing.
Crustaceans become high-calorie consumables wherever they cross paths with salmonids. Crayfish are king among these, from tiny larval kickers to small lobster-sized crawdaddies. Small shrimp like mysiss help trout grow large in certain lakes and tailwaters, as can scuds, sowbugs, and copepods. Snails aren’t crustaceans but they have shells and trout love to eat them too.
Fish often become the main course once a mature trout graduates up from bugs and becomes big enough to consume its cousins and kin. I’ve caught bull trout on cutthroat trout and brown trout on brown trout (all by accident). Cannibalism aside, the larger trout in any ecosystem will tend to hunt whatever smaller fish are available. In large lakes that might be tiny perch fry or large ciscoes. In many rivers and waters across the country, sculpins are vastly important to growing—and catching—giant trout. Larger, older trout will almost always tend toward piscivory, a valuable piece of knowledge if you want to catch those fish.
Other stuff trout eat is a broad category that can include almost anything available. Large fish have been known to eat frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, and lizards. In some areas, Alaska especially, rainbows will go nuts for mice and shrews. Nighttime mouse and topwater fishing is popular anywhere big trout live. I once helped my dad land a 20-pound brown trout on a giant muskie lure that must have evoked a duckling.
But the fact that they will eat almost anything certainly shouldn’t be read to mean they’ll eat everything anytime. Trout are notoriously selective in many instances. It’s important to understand the ecosystem in which you’re fishing and gain an awareness of the preferences of your local fish. This “match the hatch” mantra may only take you so far, but it’s a good start.
Species of Trout and Char
The word “trout” is applied broadly to three genera of fishes within the family Salmonidae: New World Trout (Oncorhynchus), Old World Trout (Salmo), and char (Salvelinus).
The New World Trout—native to western Mexico, America, and Canada as well as Russia and Japan—include the several subspecies of rainbow, the sea-run populations of which are known as steelhead. ‘Bows are among the most popular fish species of all time and have been stocked in every state and nearly every country on Earth. The genus also counts the 14 extant subspecies of cutthroat trout found throughout the American West. The five species of Pacific salmon (Chinook, coho, sockeye, chum, and pink) are members of Oncorhynchus, as are a few rare, high desert and mountain species including golden, Gila, and Apache trout.
Old World Trout are a smaller grouping with primarily brown trout and Atlantic salmon and a number of variants. Browns are native throughout Europe and Iceland, while Atlantics can also be found in eastern Canada and the U.S., though they’re mostly gone from most of their native range. Browns, on the other hand, have been planted and are sustaining wild populations throughout North America and around the world.
Char are not what some purists would call “true trout,” but many of them have the word “trout” in their common name so we’ll toss them in anyway. Brook trout are native to the Eastern U.S., south through Appalachia and west throughout the Great Lakes region, but many populations exist in the rest of the country too. Bull trout remain in relatively small and isolated populations throughout the Northern Rockies to the coast from Oregon to Alberta. Lake trout have been stocked, legally and illegally, throughout the country but are native to the northern tier and across Canada. Dolly Varden occupy coastal areas from Washington to Alaska, sharing many rivers and features with their close relative, Arctic char, a circumpolar species also native to Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and other northern countries.
While it’s clear we’re talking about a lot of different animals here, this information does apply broadly to most species of trout and char. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus on the four most common and popular game species in the U.S. and Canada, rainbow, cutthroat, brown, and brook trout. While their habits and habitats vary slightly, you can catch all four on the same basic tackle.
Lakes vs. Rivers It’s worth noting that fishing for trout in moving versus still water requires different tactics and presentations, but there is a great deal of crossover and many lures, flies, and baits lend themselves in one way or the other. In the dynamic environment of a river, fish have less time to inspect an offering and may attack based on simple profile or movement. In lakes, trout can take their time before deciding to eat something, but you may be able to call them in from further distances with scent or vibration.
Best Lures for Trout Fishing
Spoons and Spinners
Tried, true, and reliable, hardware lures might account for more trout caught in the last century than any other tackle type. Though spinners and spoons may not directly imitate any specific fish or forage, the vibration and motion they provide often triggers an attack response. That’s often as simple as casting out and reeling in, though there’s plenty of room for technical skill growth and nuance. However, I’ve found that the “spinning chunk of metal” bite is either on or it’s off, and you can find that out pretty quickly.
Some of the best and most popular spinners for trout are the Panther Martin, Mepps Aglia, Worden’s Roostertail, and Blue Fox Vibrax. For spoons, it’s tough to beat the Lil Cleo, Kastmaster, and Krocodile models. Remember that each size and shape will produce a slightly different vibration wavelength, so it’s worth experimenting. Metallic colors often perform very well, but some occasions call for subtler, natural colors like olive or brown.
Trolling (pulling lures behind a boat or canoe) is a very efficient and effective method for covering lots of water to find trout in lakes. Many of the same lures can be employed for casting or trolling, but there is a lot of troll-specific tackle available as well. Flatfish, Kwikfish, and Hot Shots resemble crankbaits in that their lip causes them to dive under tension, but their lightweight design is more geared toward trolling. In large waterbodies, boat anglers will often use Gang Trolls or pop gear, several flashy spinner blades staged in line on wire ahead of a spoon or other terminal lure, often unweighted like a Wedding Ring Spinner or Coyote Spoon. Flashers and dodgers, 6-inch-plus-long flashy plastic or metal blades are used to similar effect, especially on downriggers for deep water.
Crankbaits and Hard Plastics
Whether trolling or casting and retrieving, the wobble created by the lip of a crankbait can be damn seductive to trout, just like so many other species. It can help to mimic the baitfish or forage within a specific waterbody, like smaller trout, crayfish, or shiners, for example. The standard Original Floating Rapala is pretty hard to beat, but a deeper-diving model like a Shad Rap may be useful for reaching further down into the water column.
Soft Plastics, Swimbaits, and Jigs
A broad array of bass tackle has accidentally or deliberately caught a lot of trout. I’ve seen them fooled by tube baits, plastic worms, curly-tail jigs, swimbaits, and more. In areas with steep, rocky banks, a plastic on a jig head can be deadly as anything for probing along and imitating leeches or crayfish.
Best Flies for Trout Fishing
Aquatic insects hatch out of their nymph stage and become flying adults with wings that often sit or land on the water’s surface, making for some of the most delightful and iconic trout fishing situations. Few thrills match that of tricking a picky trout into sipping your dry fly off the surface. Terrestrial insects often float too, providing many great dry fly fishing opportunities in the warmer months.
If you’re seeking a rabbit hole from which you may never emerge, try to fill your fly boxes with all stages, phases, and sizes of every insect in your local stream. You may never achieve that goal in a lifetime. But a basic understanding of insect ecology and the matching fly profile will get you a long way down the road and allow you to efficiently match most hatches with generalist fly patterns.
When there are mayflies about, it’s rarely a bad choice to tie on a Parachute Adams. It’s a proven pattern that can imitate almost any mayfly if you carry a selection of sizes and colors to match what you’re seeing. To cover a host of species, use one with a gray or purple body.
Likewise, the Elk Hair Caddis will cover you for a variety of caddis hatches, as will the Smokejumper Midge for its insect type. When it comes time for large stonefly or grasshopper fishing opportunities, the Chubby Chernobyl is difficult to beat in terms of versatility.
Just like with dry flies, there are more subsurface nymph patterns available to buy or tie than you could ever hope to count. Also like dry flies, there are a handful of proven, effective versions that imitate a variety of insects and just plain catch fish.
Anywhere there are mayflies (which is pretty much anywhere), you can catch fish with Pheasant Tails, Hare’s Ears, or Prince Nymphs. For caddis, the Shop Vac is my favorite but countless useful patterns are available. It’s also hard to beat the Zebra Midge almost any place and almost any time of the year. For stoneflies, look no further than the Pat’s Rubberlegs, also known as the Girdlebug or “turd fly.” It looks dumb, but it works as well or better than even photo-realistic stonefly patterns.
And no discussion of nymph patterns would be complete without worm patterns. The pervasive San Juan Worm may have helped beginners catch their first fish on the fly than any other fly. I personally prefer the more durable and faster sinking Wire Worm.
Streamers are large flies designed to imitate baitfish and other large food sources. While dry flies and nymphs are typically dead-drifted on the current or retrieved very slowly, streamers allow a fly angler to impart action and movement in their presentation, often with a quick, strip retrieve.
Among the most basic and famous streamer patterns is the Wooly Bugger, which can imitate anything from a leech to a stonefly nymph to a damselfly nymph. To evoke shiny little baitfish, look to the Zonker, Kreelex, or Sparkle Minnow. For sculpins, which are almost unavoidable for many mature trout, the Sex Dungeon is easily the most notorious and effective pattern. Sculpzillas work very well in deeper water too.
Best Bait for Trout Fishing
Serving up the real-deal food source on a hook is clearly an effective method but certainly comes with its downsides. Live bait is far less durable than artificial lures and flies and does not cast, retrieve, or troll as well. It often works best with stationary, passive tactics. Still, the ol’ worm under a bobber has yet to be dethroned as the easiest and most effective method for beginners. Ernest Hemingway wrote about fishing with live grasshoppers. Large stonefly nymphs can be rigged well too, and wax worms, meal worms, and maggots all have their place in certain fisheries. There are even places where anglers employ live minnows and other baitfish for large trout.
Dead and Artificial Bait
Trout are primarily visual feeders, but in certain situations they will rely on their sense of smell to find food. Murky, turbid, or deep water are primary among these, and in those times dead or artificial bait that puts off a lot of scent can be very useful. PowerBait has a dedicated following of bait fishermen who will use it for almost any situation. In muddy rivers during springtime runoff, chunks of other fish will sometimes attract large trout. Trolling anglers will often employ plug-cut baitfish, sections of worms, or natural scents to broadcast the smell of trout food as they go.
While it’s clear there are thousands, possibly millions, of ways and means for catching trout, the trick is to locate the few items that work for you in your local fisheries. This comes through trial and error. It is also highly useful to patronize and establish a relationship with a local fly or tackle shop. Ask good questions, spend money, and you’ll be amazed how much wisdom can flow forth.