Stream trout provide one of spring’s first opportunities for open-water excitement. Whether wild or stocked, they present an early-season challenge for anglers who venture out to small streams throughout the upper Midwest. Whether my spring starts on the shores of Lake Superior while visiting family, or deep in the southwest corner of Minnesota where I now reside, I am fortunate to have nearby opportunities for stream trout, and that has helped me take some of the mystery out of angling for these fish early in the year.
Structure remains key for stream trout, though it might not be the structure that an average angler may be used to keying on. Being fast water fish, trout may select certain boulders and runs in a flow which upon first view might not exactly pop out at a surveying angler. Many times, exploratory casts help reveal these smaller seams and current breaks created by larger rocks on a stream which give trout a reprieve where they can ambush food and conserve energy.
Locating these spots requires some work, but can be very rewarding. Start by forming a grid of one-by-one foot squares in your mind and lay it over the water in front of you. Place a cast to each square and watch your offering drift through each one, noting where strikes and takes occur, or where you see fish rising. Make a note of these happenings, as they may translate over to the next section of the river where you can apply the same tactics and identify what mood fish are in and what structure they relate to. A pattern develops and success increases; trip over trip and season over season.
Additionally, another classic ambush point that often harbors a trout is the undercut bank. Where water brushes up against a grassy overhang is a good place to explore trout-holding possibilities. In some cases, the flow has cut under the bank, providing a cool, shady area where trout can pop out and grab prey, or pick off insects that are climbing or clinging to the grasses just above the water. In some streams that have been rehabilitated, volunteer groups such as Trout Unlimited chapters, have created these holding areas by installing felled tree trunks along the edge of a stream and then banking them in with earth and a grass planting. Whether man-made or natural, undercut banks provide shelter for wary trout, and are a good place to check any time of the year.
Fish undercut banks cautiously. If they’re on the opposite side of the river, accurate casts dropping a fly or small jig right on the edge are necessary; if you are able to slide one off the grass and not get snagged up, even better. Allow the offering to roll naturally along the edge, where a fish can jump out and grab it.
If the bank is on the near side, directly in front of you, tip-toe quietly to it, and keep it about one rod-length away. Getting too close might generate vibrations from a wayward footstep which can give fish a case of lockjaw, so keep your distance. Drop your lure in front of the bank from this distance and bounce it along. You may have to crouch to stay concealed or prevent your shadow from spilling out over the water and spooking fish, but these stealth tactics catch fish.
With some experience, stream trout give up their secrets, and for those who don’t often target them specifically, they can become a highlight of the open-water season. Utilize these tips with the spring’s first fishing season approaching to find more success and a colorful start…in our outdoors.