Spring is here and that means trout fishing is in high gear. With weekly stockings through May, there should be plenty of fish available for anyone wanting to wet a line.
The most common question always seems to be “what are they biting on?” Well, at this time of year the most common answer is natural bait, whether salmon eggs, worms or minnows, most people agree that the most consistent producer of fish early in the season is live bait. Of course, there are many effective artificial types of bait but day in and day out live bait is hard to beat.
Minnows are probably the most popular early spring trout bait and for good reason. They account for more full stringers from January through March than any other bait. Trout eat other fish and big trout especially will often take a minnow when they refuse other smaller baits. The most common and effective method to rig a live minnow is by running the line through the minnow with the help of a needle and attaching a double or treble hook to a loop which is then tightened to ride flush with the body of the minnow. This allows for a natural presentation with the minnow in line with the retrieve and by changing weight, you can fish this rig as shallow or deep as you need. In clear water, I like to add a couple feet of small diameter fluorocarbon tippet to attach the minnow to reduce visibility of the rig so the trout see only the minnow.
Worms are another early season favorite, night crawlers and earthworms are terrific trout baits especially after a storm when rivers are beginning to color up and swell with runoff. I look for tributaries entering the main flow when a hard rain has the small creeks flowing high with sediment and mud carrying plenty of earthworms with it. My favorite way to rig a worm is to just loop it on a hook a couple times to secure it but with the head and tail free to move in the current to attract fish in the stained water. I believe their scent attracts trout in the muddy water. The trout know it is a big easy meal and will set up position near incoming creeks to intercept them.
Mealworms and the like are also good baits but are actually insect larvae and can be excellent at times. I like them in clear water when the trout will not take a minnow. It is rare for a trout to pass up a live minnow but when they do, you can bet there is some kind of heavy insect activity to draw their attention away from a minnow. Mealworms fill this gap quite nicely.I have noticed times when the fish will suddenly stop feeding on minnows and shortly you will see these fish feeding on the surface or chasing nymphs or larvae beneath the surface. This is where you want to use a mealworm if you have any because the larvae look similar to many caddis species.
Salmon eggs are right up there with minnows for best early season trout bait, they come in an infinite array of colors and flavors. They may not be considered live bait, but they are natural and trout love them. Recently some anglers have been getting away from the commercial eggs and using fresh salmon and steelhead eggs from fish caught in the fall and their eggs cured for use. These eggs work great. I know a few anglers who use these things exclusively and they flat out catch fish. The eggs are hard to come by unless you travel to salmon or steelhead fish or know someone who does since they are not available commercially and most that have them are reluctant to part with them. Anglers have even approached me while salmon fishing asking if they could purchase the eggs in salmon I have caught while still on the water.
I try to stay away from corn and power bait. Both are good baits but I do not think trout digest these items very well and since I release most fish, I rarely use these baits.
No matter what your preference in bait the one thing that will help you catch more fish is to slow down, let the bait reach the fish’s level which is usually in the bottom third of the water column at these water temperatures. I believe this is the main reason bait produces so well early in the season. With just enough weight added to get the bait where it will drift naturally with the current, it presents a realistic image to the fish, giving them an opportunity to intercept the bait as it drifts by without exerting much energy.