How to Fool a Trout

Bob Hirsch, a fishing fool/outdoor writer friend from sunnier climes, once whispered two simple fishing rules he swears are essential for the successful fisherman: “Light is right, and no drag—no brag.”

Bob has a penchant for getting to the heart of a subject. He also wastes few words. However, realizing me and most of my readers aren’t as sophisticated at it as this master angler, I asked him to elucidate. In his own words:

“Even hatchery trout soon learn to avoid the fisherman’s offering. And wild, stream-hatched fish are so spooky and suspicious that catching one can be a real challenge, The most important single thing you can do to improve your trout take is to use light line. Load your reel with the best-quality line you can buy. It will cast further and come off the spool smoothly, and not in those stiff coils of ‘memory.’

“There’s not a trout in the state that can’t be hooked and landed on 4-pound test monofilament. The light line will let you cast smaller lures and bait further. It also will help you fool fish, which you must do if you want to catch them.

“So re-spool with 4-pound mono, the best you can buy. Now really get crafty and tie on about four or five feet of 2-pound leader to guarantee more trout. Don’t worry, it won’t break. use a small (about No. 12 or 14), unsnelled hook and cover it completely with bait, even the eye.

“Snelled hooks, with their stiff, 20-pound mono leader, negate your 2-pound leader. use loose (unsnelled) hooks.

“Lastly, use as little weight as possible. None is best; it will let your bait look as natural as possible. If you must have weight to cast, try one split shot and add more only if needed. A big chunk of lead will only spook the trout when it picks up your bait and moves off.

“To land a big fish on light line, your reel’s drag must be set properly. When you hear a fisherman say ‘that lunker took off and popped my line like it was thread,’ you can bet his drag wasn’t set properly. Somewhere on every reel is an adjustable wheel or knob that tightens or loosens, permitting the line to be stripped from the reel without turning the handle.

“Set this before you begin fishing each day. The best way is to have a friend hold the end of your line tightly while you raise the rod sharply, just as you would do when you strike a fish. The drag should slip slightly at the top of your rod’s upward sweep.

“If in doubt, set the drag on the light side. It’s easy to tighten it a bit while you’re fighting a fish, but if it’s too tight and the line breaks, loosening it won’t help get the fish back.

“When the reel ‘sings’ as the drag is engaged and the line is pulled out by the fish, stop reeling and let the trout run and tire itself. Always keep the rod tip up, so the fish is fighting the bend and not pulling directly on the line.”

“These techniques work,” Bob says, and I’ve tried ‘em enough to know he’s not just a-woofin.

Fishing the Lakes

Freeze-up comes to most of the lowland lakes in December and sometimes even January, to where they’re solid enough to fish through the ice.

Spring comes to the Flathead anywhere from late March on. usually, ice break-up occurs on lower valley lakes then, but the ice has been altogether too rotten to safely support anglers for quite a while prior to break-up. Ice retreats from some of the higher valley lakes in April and even into May. And it’s not uncommon to find some high mountain lakes covered with ice well into June or even early July.

My experiences tell me a darned good time to hit these lakes is just as the ice is beginning to break and “leads” open wide enough along the shore to allow you spin-fishing room. After a winter of enforced repose, trout are apt to cast off all restraints at the sheer ecstasy of open surface water, and it’s a lucky fisherman who chances by at just that moment, (Caution: stay off the ice!)

Small wobbling lures are best. Choose something in silver or white, and red—red is a must. Mepps are good too, with or without bucktail—No. 1 or 2. Super Duper, Panther Martin, ZRay—they’re all good. For plugs, Flatfish or sinking Rapala in silver or gold, white with red spots, orange with black spots, or green with orange spots.

After the first feeding frenzy at break-up, most lake fishing settles gradually back to normal, where experience plays a more important role in success. Fishing still tends to be best for the first few weeks after the ice is gone. Trout are hungrier then and are likelier to be feeding in the shallows. Big mackinaw (lake trout) can sometimes be taken at that time by wading fly fishermen, using big streamers fished wet. What a thrill!

Spin casting from shore is also good at that time. Later, trolling comes into its own as the waters warm and fish return to the depths. Still, cutthroat and rainbow return periodically to the shore on feeding forays. That’s when the bait fisherman is likely to limit.

Unless you find trout cruising over a submerged weed bed, it’s best to get down on or near the bottom with whatever you use.

Trolling is a tried and true method of taking trout and those long collections of spinners called “cowbells” or “Ford tenders” are often used for this purpose. They have no hook of their own but serve as an attractor. Attach three feet of 2- to 4-pound monofilament and trail a lure, fly or a hook full of worms. Very effective.

Trolling with a lure or fly, usually with a split shot or two crimped on the line to get it down, is also good.

And, of course, boaters can anchor and fish with bait. If you do anchor, look long and hard at the weed beds—they’re food factories for trout. Fish near ‘em if you can.

Trout relish baits such as worms, crayfish, grasshoppers and crickets. Salmon eggs, whole kernel corn, Velveeta cheese, and bite-sized marshmallows are widely used. Don’t forget to use light leaders and small hooks.

Flies? I’m partial to gray flies—I just think Flathead country trout are partial to ‘em, too. Gray hackle, Joe’s Hopper, caddis—they’re all good. So are others—coachman (bucktail and royal), wooly worm (size 8-10-12) in black, brown, or green. Royal Wulff is good, too. So are stoneflies. And one heckuva lot of others, too.

In fact, one mighty fine fisherman who’d been on a week’s float trip with us down the remote Wild and Scenic South Fork of the Flathead explained it best when I asked him what type of fly was best: “Anything,” he said. “Anything at all.”

Fishing the Streams

Snowmelt in the high mountains of our country usually begins in earnest sometime in May, The average date for high water to peak in the main Flathead River is May 27, but I’ve seen the peak vary from May 10 to June 19, depending on snow depths and spring temperatures.

The real point of the run-off is that the rivers can be very high and roily then, and fishing consequently can be good but catching darned disappointing. However, one must remember that some fine catches can be made before run-off peaks, depending on stream opening dates. And during low snowpack and early run-off years, fishing can be good much earlier than normal. Nobody can second-guess the run-off, though. One must simply keep an open mind about the thing and fish when the water is right.

Flathead area streams vary tremendously in size. The really big ones are too broad to cast across and must be drift-floated to reach all the best places. Spinners, cast to overhanging banks, around submerged logs and upthrust boulders, retrieved in short jerks, are good. Or any of the above flies fished the same manner can be rewarding.

Many Flathead streams are small and the banks are lined with willows and brush, so they are difficult to fish. Because trout nearly always lie facing upstream, prudence dictates wading upstream and casting ahead.

But some streams are so small and brush-choked that it’s impossible to cast far enough to be effective. In that case, let your bait or fly drift downstream while you feed outline. Or you can use cover to sneak up to the stream and stick your rod through the brush to drop your fly directly into the pool or riffle.

On stretches where the stream opens up and has grass banks, it’s perfectly okay to get down on your hands and knees and sneak up on a pool. Don’t try to see if the pool has fish. When you see them—and they see you—fishing is over for a while at that spot.

Many of the intermediate-sized streams—small rivers, big creeks—can be fished effectively with some of the above-mentioned lures. The secret is to make short upstream casts and to reel just enough to keep the spinner’s blades flashing in the stream and casting ahead.

But some streams are so small and brush-choked that it’s impossible to cast far enough to be effective. In that case, let your bait or fly drift downstream while you feed out line. Or you can use cover to sneak up to the stream and stick your rod through the brush to drop your fly directly into the pool or riffle.

On stretches where the stream opens up and has grass banks, it’s perfectly okay to get down on your hands and knees and sneak up on a pool. Don’t try to see if the pool has fish. When you see them—and they see you—fishing is over for a while at that spot.

Many of the intermediate sized streams—small rivers, big creeks—can be fished effectively with some of the above-mentioned lures. The secret is to make short upstream casts and to reel just enough to keep the spinner’s blades flashing in those deep holes across the stream. Be ready for a strike when the current starts sweeping your lure into mid-channel.

Incidentally, grasshoppers, caught streamside, have fooled a lot of big fish for centuries.

When to Fish

The best time to go fishing is when you have a chance, but generally, the early and late seasons of the year are best in Flathead area lakes and streams. As mentioned earlier in this section, lakes are good from ice break-up to water warm-up. Then they usually turn good again, come September and October. The best method for the “dog days” of summer is to troll slow and deep or to fish dry flies near shore in the early morning or late evening.

Streams are usually better for big migrating cutthroat around mid-May to mid-June, as they school for spawning runs. But beware the spring runoff bogey. Small streams are better during the aforementioned “dog days,” wading or sneaking surreptitiously, drifting flies or bait.

Perhaps the best thing of all for you to remember is this quote from Herbert Hoover:

“The good Lord does not subtract from a man’s span of life the hours he spends fishing.”

Roland Cheek has lived the better part of fifty years living in Columbia Falls in the heart of the Flathead area. A good many of those years he spent as an outfitter. Most of the rest of that he’s spent observing the area and its wildlife and writing about bears, elk, and the great outdoors surrounding him. His “Trails to Outdoor Adventure” has been syndicated in print and radio. He is the author of six books and countless outdoor articles. Find out more about him at www.rolandcheek.com.

by: Roland Cheek