Trolling for Trout
Here’s How To Catch Trout In Open Water During The Late Season
By Al Raychard
(reprinted from NBS Outdoor)
Okay, here’s a question for you. True or false, trolling lakes and ponds for trout is strictly a springtime tactic? True, you say? Well you’re wrong. Just like I was until I learned otherwise about 10 years ago.
A decade or so ago, I got a phone call from a charter boat captain and friend of mine who operates on trout- and salmon-rich Lake Ontario in upstate New York, a few hours drive from my home. “Are you free a couple days this week?” he asked.
“I can be,” I answered, “but what for? It’s deer season. I thought you’d be out chasing whitetails.”
The captain told he normally would be, but he tagged out during archery season. Although his chartering duties were officially over until spring, late season was his personal favorite time to troll for trout.
I accepted his fishing invitation. When I arrived boat-side a couple of days later, the morning sky was overcast and the temperatures had yet to push the mercury above the 40-degree mark. A steady breeze wind was blowing creating a chop on the lake outside the bay that made it feel even colder. It looked like it could snow at any minute. It was my first time trolling for trout this late in the year, and as I stepped aboard I asked, “Are you sure about this?”
“Of course I’m sure. It’s a perfect day. Simply a perfect day.”
By the time we arrived back at the dock later that morning, I was a convert. The captain knew what he was taking about —the oft-overlooked late season is a prime time to troll for trout. During our excursion we boated several lake trout measured in pounds rather than inches and several football-shaped brown trout. We repeated the success the next day as well. Since that trip I’ve been a diehard fall trout fisherman, giving up several days of my beloved deer hunting each year to get on the water and troll a line or two. I’ve used trolling tactics to catch not only late-season lake and brown trout, but rainbows, brook trout, and various hybrids as well.
Looking back now, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Fishing for trout by various means, including trolling big lakes, ponds, and reservoirs has been a passion most of my life and I like to think I know as much about the various species and how to get them on the line as the next guy. Perhaps I didn’t. Perhaps I just didn’t take time to think about it, but whatever the case, trolling for trout during the late season makes perfect sense.
And why not?
Late-season fishing conditions in many ways are the same as early spring fishing conditions, the period when trolling tactics are most popular and productive. As they do in the spring, most lakes and many large ponds containing trout populations stratify in late fall. Fishermen refer to this as “fall turnover.” Without getting into the technical jargon, this basically means that water temperatures and oxygen levels are pretty much the same throughout the lake until the surface freezes for the winter, and trout are free to go just about anywhere they want to find food. Very often this often means close to shore and in places they might not be available at other times of year.
The important thing to remember is that the turnover has a major effect on a given body of water, stirring up sediment on the bottom often giving the water a dirty or off-color look and increases turbidity. As a result oxygen levels actually decrease during the process and fish turn off from feeding. This period of poor fishing conditions, when the turnover is taking place, lasts from 1 to 2 weeks, depending upon such factors as wind and air temperature. Once the fall turnover is complete, though, water clarity improves and oxygen levels rise quickly; fish go on a late-season feeding frenzy in preparation for winter.
Clearly, timing is critical when fishing the late season. Trolling generally is a waste of time during the actual turnover period because fish are not aggressively feeding due to poor water conditions. Once the turnover is complete, however, up until the first freeze — that’s when you want to be out there wetting a line. That’s when the trout aggressively are back on the feedbag. Because the turnover occurs in different geographic regions at different times, unless a fisherman knows a particular lake extremely well, keeping in touch with local fishery biologists, bait and tackle shops, lodge owners, and fishing guides is the best way to learn when the turnover is expected to begin, is underway, or is complete.
The fall turnover isn’t the only reason why late season can be such a productive time to get out there and troll a line or two. Several trout species, including brook, brown, and lake trout spawn in the late fall and early winter. This means they’ll be found in relatively shallow water, from just below the surface down to 20 to 30 feet or so, in areas where they are not normally found during the summer.
Another reason is food. At the same time that the fall turnover is ending, and trout’s instinct and urge to feed is increasing, dramatically, baitfish including smelt, dace, and various shiners and other minnows have moved from deep water to feed on plankton, zooplankton, and small aquatic invertebrates found closer to shore or the surface. Most also travel or congregate in large schools for protection, all of which make them more readily available to hungry trout.
Where to find the late-season action.
Despite conditions that allow trout to go practically anywhere within a given body of water, certain areas offer the best opportunities for success during the late season. The mouth of tributary rivers, streams, and creeks are good bets. These runs not only draw trout species that spawn in the fall or early winter, but the consistent flushing of nutrients into the lake in these areas attract and hold schools of baitfish and provide a safe haven at the same time. Edges where fast currents meet the lake, foam lines, edges of sand or gravel bars, and drop-offs where the shallow tributary drops into the lake can be especially productive.
Some lakes, ponds, and reservoirs lack tributaries that are large or deep enough to serve as spawning areas for trout. In these cases, trout will use gravelly shorelines, even sandy beaches to complete their spawning ritual. A fly, lure, or bait trolled through these areas can be extremely productive.
All fish relate to structure. Boulder-strewn shorelines, rocky points, underwater ledges, ledges that drop into the water, drop-offs along the shoreline, submerged river or creek beds, the areas and channels between islands, even the edge of mid-lake shoals and sandbars all are potential hotspots for late-season trout action. This is especially true along windward shores and areas where wind is breaking the surface. Wind action not only forces baitfish and feed to these locations, but the rippled surface provides additional cover and a sense of protection to schools of baitfish and trout alike.
Especially if you’re unfamiliar with a particular body of water, consulting lake-contour and -depth maps can make or break your outing. Besides illustrating the lake’s general shape, including points, coves, and public boat launches, these maps also show tributary inlets, islands, shoals, and depth contours. Lake maps are available for download from most fish and wildlife department websites. They’re also available at local tackle shops. (Note: not all of these maps are intended for navigational purposes.)
One advantage of trolling is that it allows fishermen to cover a large area without wasting time fishing empty or unproductive water. Unless you’re catching fish or getting a lot of strikes, it makes little sense to spend much time in one area. In most cases during the late season, trolling off a particular river or creek mouth or along a rocky shoreline once or twice should produce some action if fish are present. If nothing happens, move on.
To increase your odds of success, troll when the conditions are ideal. Because trout stay relatively shallow this time of year, overcast days, moderately windswept days, and early and late in the day when the sun is at a low angle are the best times to be on the water. Action is still possible on clear days, when the surface is calm, and even when the sun is high, but you’ll probably want to troll deeper water in these conditions.
Trolling speed is another consideration. Water is much colder in the late season, in the 40s or just above freezing in many locations. Consequently, trout are more lethargic and less willing to chase food over long distances. “Slower” is the operative word. Without the benefit of a boat-mounted speed indicator or electronics that indicate how fast a boat is moving, judging trolling speed is tricky. Many trolling enthusiasts use rod-tip action as an indicator. Generally speaking, the faster the trolling speed, the faster the tip will vibrate, bounce, or “work” in a back and forth motion. Others watch the shoreline for clues about how fast they’re moving. As a rule of thumb, late-season trolling speed should be comparable to a brisk walk — just fast enough to move the offering through the water. When in doubt, select a speed that feels or looks right depending upon rod action or the shoreline, and maintain it. Most anglers tend to troll too fast. If no strikes occur, slow down a tad. Experiment until you get it right.
Also important to keep in mind is that baitfish typically stay close to shore, usually within 50 to 60 feet or so, often much closer. This is where you should troll, because this is where the trout will be. One of the largest brown trout I ever caught, a football-shaped beauty tipping the scales at more than 6 pounds, was taken so close to shore I could have tossed a stone into the trees, and my throwing arm has never been great. On another occasion, I trolled along ledges that dropped into a favorite lake and hooked several rainbow trout measuring in pounds rather than inches. I was using a 9-foot fly rod and trolling flies, but the main point is that we were so close my rod tip was just a few feet from the ledge. There are exceptions, but typically during this time of year, the closer to shore and structure you work a fly, lure, or bait the greater your chances of success.
Besides staying close to shore, baitfish seldom travel or school in deep water during the late season. Typically they school in less than 20 feet of water. Whenever possible, troll parallel to the shoreline and navigate around points, and into coves and other likely locations. Navigate in a slow “S” pattern to swing and vary the speed of the offering and give it a more lifelike action and appearance.
Unless planner boards are used, stagger your lines when trolling. In some jurisdictions, fishing with more than one line is illegal. If that’s the case in your location, troll directly off the stern with 30 to 40 feet of line. But if you are allowed to fish more than one line or when you’ve got several anglers trolling together, work one line on the shore side of the boat 50 feet back, a second line on the outside at 60 or 70 feet, and a third off the stern at 25 to 35 feet in the boat’s wake. This setup greatly reduces the chances of tangling, especially when navigating around points and in other tight situations. Staggering lines in this way also leaves plenty of room to play fish once they’re hooked.
Finally, unless you are a purist fishing strictly flies, lures, or bait, start the day off fishing different types of offerings at the same time — for example, try a fly on one line, a flashy wobbling spoon on another, and perhaps bait or a deep riding lure on a third. This will put offerings at different levels increasing your chances of locating fish and identifying the right level to troll. One type of offering may also produce more action than the others and clearly indicate which type you should use.
One reason trolling is so enjoyable this time of year is that much of the action is close to the surface, or at least in relatively shallow water as compared to the summer and early-fall angling periods. This means downriggers, lead-core lines, and other gear used to get to deepwater bastions aren’t required to achieve late-season success.
For spinning equipment, any medium-action rod will do nicely when trolling lures or bait. Reels should be loaded with 6- to 10-pound test line with a snap swivel on the end to allow natural movement through the water. For trolling flies, fly rods from 8 1/2 to 9 feet designed for 6, 7, or 8-weight lines are good choices. Fly reels should be loaded with plenty of backing, with sink-tip or full-sinking lines and extra-long (20- to 25-feet) leaders made of 6- to 8-pound test monofilament. Leaders of this length provide a greater break between the fly line and fly and help the fly ride better through the water. In all cases, reels should have a smooth, reliable drag and set; they ensure that line won’t release when trolling, but are light enough to allow a fish to run during a strike.
For flies, any pattern that resembles the predominant baitfish in a given lake should produce action on late-season trout; if you’re not sure, check with local bait and tackle shops. Often, these establishments will have local patterns tied to specifically imitate local baitfish. If not, you can depend on the standards (such as the Grey Ghost, Black Ghost, Nine-Three, Supervisor and Mickey Finn) tied on extra-long hooks or in tandem to produce results.
The list of productive late-season trout lures is long, but perennial favorites include the Acme Flash King, Kastmaster, Phoebe and Little Cleo in 1/6- and ¼-ounce sizes; Williams and Mooselook Wobblers; the classic Vibrax and Pixee spoon from Blue Fox; any shallow-running offering from Rapala and Yo-Zuri; and spinners from Mepps and Panther Martin.
Much of the appeal of late-season trolling is the ability to experiment with different lures in multiple size and color combinations. Don’t hesitate to give your favorites a ride through the chilly water! Get out there and troll a line or two before winter finally takes hold and you lose that opportunity for awhile.
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