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Catching trout on opening day

4/29/2005
Anglers spend all winter dreaming of rainbow trout like Adam Budniak holds. 

Whether you're plunking Balls O' Fire salmon eggs in the heart of the Rockies, drifting night crawlers in the high Sierra lakes of California, floating a Woolly Bugger in a tumbling brook in the Cascades, fishing a pond in the Midwest or fresh trout plants in the Great Lakes region, the focus early on the spring will be geared towards trout.

For many anglers there's no better time to fish than the springtime trout opener.

While the exact date for this event may vary state by state, the steps you should take towards catching more fish are universal.

First and foremost, regardless of where in the US you plan on tackling trout, it's imperative that you adjust your techniques toward early season trout.

While some days may be sunny and warm, keep in mind this is early season fishing. You'll see trout swimming in the shallows, but chances are they're still going to be sluggish.

Early season trout are plagued by cold water, but trout openers and ice-out pose one of the best opportunities of the year for anglers to catch trout.

Many of these waters have been closed to anglers for several months or completely iced over.

Opening day action can be fantastic. Other than in the fall when trout look to feed heavily in anticipation of winter, early spring can yield the highest catch rates of the year.

"When the ice first comes off the water the fish, go on a feeding binge," said Mike Nielsen, a Rebel and Bomber Pro Staffer who specializes in catching trout.

"They've been through a long winter of near starvation in many waters. They've battled low light conditions and have been forced to contend with a shortage of food in many waters. The fish begin to cruise shorelines to replenish lost energy from the winter when they didn't feed as much."

An impressive aspect of spring trout fishing is that no one is left out of the game. Because trout are shallow, anglers can catch them from a boat or shore.

When fishing from a boat, downriggers and leadcore line aren't necessary to catch fish.

"Trolling and casting from the bank is productive because a lot of fish will be close to the shore," Nielsen said.

"Whether you're a bait soaker or a lure fisherman, the first two to three weeks after the ice comes off or after the lake opens can be the best fishing of the year. The fish are very hungry."

Opening day can be a sure bet for anglers, but a selected group of fishermen will do better than others. The key is adjusting your early season trout tactics to what trout are looking for.

By paying attention to the optimal time of day, downsizing your equipment, using scent, monitoring boat speed if you're trolling, focusing on the time of day you fish and how you fish dough baits, you'll increase your chances for multiple hookups.

Fishing dough baits

Luhr Jensen lure inventor Buzz Ramsey is known as a hardware guru in the United States, but when it comes to early spring trout fishing he turns to dough baits for some of his success.

Dough baits have become a staple for trout fishing from coast to coast, but small tidbits of info that Ramsey offers can help increase angler success when employing various dough related bait and cheeses.

"Most people use dough baits with a small size 14 or 16 treble hook, but it's important to get enough bait on there to float the hook up off the bottom so that cruising trout will find your bait," said Ramsey.

How will you know if it floats? It's not an exact science as you might think. "Throw it in the water and see if it floats," he said.

"A lot of people finger it out of the jar, but I've had more success using a baiter."

Even if the bait doesn't float, you'll still likely eventually catch fish, but floating the bait off the bottom is a sure way to cut down time between bites.

Unlike natural salmon eggs, dough baits are designed to float off the bottom where they're more visible to trout.

Dough baits aren't usually fished on the bottom. Ensuring the bait is fished properly is the most important step to success.

"The trout will eventually find it if it's not floating, but it can be mean the difference between waiting five minutes to an hour or waiting two hours before you get bit," Ramsey said.

Light line

Ramsey stresses the use of light line as well. Especially in the spring when many trout are finicky, sluggish and still have a slow metabolism, the sight of heavy line will surely spook a trout.

Downsizing line is imperative during spring. It's important to consider that even with 4-pound test you can land a 10-pound trout.

Learning how to properly utilize your drag system will enable you to use lighter line, catch more fish and enjoy the fight more than if you fished with heavier line.

Anglers have the option of using fluorocarbon or monofilament line. When fishing bait, most anglers will use a leader. On the other hand, trollers or those fishing spinners are more likely to fish without a leader.

When fishing bait in clear water, ramp down to 6-pound test with a 3-pound fluorocarbon leader.

"There's a huge difference between two and three," said Ramsey of fluorocarbon leaders.

"With fluorocarbon I feel more comfortable using 3-pound test. It's easier to tie and it offers more strength."

When using monofilament line, either 4-pound test or 6-pound test with a 4-pound leader is advised.

There's no reason to use anything heavier than 6-pound test unless you're fishing for large lake trout with big lures.

Time of day

When it comes to opening day at your local lake or reservoir, time of day is a non-factor. In fact, for the first few days after the opener, it won't matter what time you fish because trout will be actively pursuing baits they haven't seen for several months.

When fishing on or near the opener, you can throw all the rules out the door because trout will be fighting each other to grab your baits.

On opening day, you might have a better chance at a big fish early in the morning.

"In a lot of lakes they plant 9 to 11-inchers and trophy trout too. The trophy trout could be up to 20 inches," Ramsey said.

"On opening morning those trophy trout aren't going to let the little trout get to the bait. The guys that get there early are going to catch those trophy trout. Once you go past opening weekend the trout bite might be better as the water warms up later during the day."

Once opening weekend passes it's back to focusing on fishing during the day, rather than at first light when trout are traditionally most active.

Early on in the season trout are more apt to take baits later in the day. Think of how you feel. Would you rather be fishing once the sun rises and it's warmer or at first light when your fingers feel numb and your toes have no feeling at all?

A similar concept can be applied to trout. Sleep in, eat breakfast and then hit the water.

Even though it's spring, we're still faced with cold nights and many areas will continue to see below-freezing nighttime temperatures, which can give trout lockjaw in the morning.

This is the most likely reasoning for heading into the café for coffee and breakfast prior to hitting the water.

Historically, early on the spring, a few hours of sunlight on the water can loosen the trout up enough to begin to feed.

Oftentimes, trout won't become active until after 9 a.m. In the early spring the bite will differ at each water you fish, but it's common that trout will be most active between 9 a.m. up to the time when the sun lifts off the water.

Trolling

Trolling is a method all anglers can conquer early in the season. There's no need for downriggers, leadcore line or weighted line.

The majority of trout will be at or near the surface. That's not to say you won't have trout in deeper water, because you will, but for the most part the trout in the top 10 feet of water will be the easiest to catch. These are the fish you want to concentrate on catching.

There's no wrong lure to troll during the month of April. Basically a shad, minnow or baitfish imitation will be effective.

If I had to choose five lures to fish with early on in the season, it would be hard to overlook a red-and-gold Thomas Buoyant; a glow Cripplure; a shad pattern Luhr Jensen Mini Speed Trap; a silver-and-red Needlefish; and a rainbow trout pattern broken-back Rebel Minnow. These lures are ideal because of the ability to maintain their action even when fished slowly.

During the early spring, slow trolling yields higher catch rates than running 2 or 3 mph. High-speed trolling is effective for large browns and lake trout, but when targeting holdover trout and fresh planters you'll be more likely to catch fish when running 1.2 mph or less, the slower, the better.

Early in the spring, trout are much less aggressive than they'll be when the water warms up in May and June. When trout are more sluggish it's important to downsize your hardware.

Instead of using a ½-ounce lure, try ¼-ounce; if you normally use ¼-ounce, try a size smaller.

By downsizing, chances are you will get more bites and they'll come more frequently. Surprisingly even the larger trout are apt to grab tiny lures during early spring.

The use of flashers can help boost catch rates, but don't rely on them completely. It's more effective, at times, to use them sparsely, rather than one on every setup.

If you're fishing four lines, try placing flashers on two of the lines. Keep in mind, flashers aren't the reason you catch fish. They're an attractor.

They'll help draw fish in towards the lures you're offering. Flashers should be used as a tool to increase strikes, especially this time of year.

"Sometimes I take the flashers off and we'll stop catching fish. It's bringing the fish into the gear," Ramsey said.

"There's no need to use flashers on every line, but I'd use them on two of them. Experiment and see what works best."

Scent

Sluggish trout are sure to be more wary early on in the trout season than they will once snowmelt subsides, water warms and food becomes more available. When the water is still cold, anything you can do to get trout more interested in your bait or lure is beneficial.

It may be necessary to inject scent into a nightcrawler you plan to float off the bottom, or to soak salmon eggs in scent.

Scent is a powerful additive to bait, lures and flies. Oftentimes, the difference between a trout biting a lure or bait or sniffing it and moving on is applying scent.

Injecting scent into your baits, smearing it on lures or dabbing it on flies can aid in removing human scent and add an attractant that can entice the trout to feed.

"Scent is important at any time during the year, but it's especially important in the spring when trout aren't always as aggressive," said Casey Kelley, president of Pautzke Bait Company, maker of Liquid and Gel Krill, one popular natural scent.

"Don't be afraid to put too much on there. Scent does more than just attract trout. It masks our human scent from the bait or lure you are using, which is important. If the trout smells gas that got on your hands or cologne or other smells, it won't take your bait."


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