The best time of year to fish for trout can depend on a number of factors, but generally, it’s the spring. A combination of rising temperatures and a sudden abundance of food make spring a great time for trout to actively feed. And when they’re actively feeding, they’re prime targets for lures, baits, and flies.
But spring isn’t the only good time to fish for trout. In fact, you can catch trout year round! You just need to know how to approach fishing in each season. Trout may be in different areas and be looking for different things, but some basic principles prevail throughout the year.
Here’s a rundown of how to fish for trout in every season.
In General, Spring Is The Best Time Of Year To Fish For Trout
Imagine being a trout. You’re cold blooded, so when winter comes, you don’t feel like doing much. It’s too cold for a lot of the insects you eat, the smaller fish you prey on are also less active, and your home water might even be covered in ice. The only thing you can do is sit and wait it out.
And then, sure enough, it starts to warm up a bit. The bugs start coming out, the ice clears, and the warmer water gives your metabolism a boost. You might even start feeling a little frisky if your species spawns in the spring.
It’s easy to see why spring is the best time of year to fish for trout. After waiting out the winter and not eating much, they’re suddenly more active. Their metabolism starts shifting into higher gears, and that means that they are ravenous. They’re looking to eat anything and everything remotely edible that crosses their path. And your bait/fly/flure is looking mighty tasty.
But it’s not just their appetite that makes spring the best time to fish for trout. In heavily fished areas, trout get increasingly wary of anything that might have a hook on it. The winter brings fewer fishermen, and the trout will start letting their guard down. By the time spring rolls around, they will be much less suspicious.
Keep an Eye on the Weather
Temperature swings in the spring can be wild, and can directly impact trout’s behavior. The best time to fish for trout is when the temperature is on the upswing. That warming up will make fish hungrier and more active. Even a shift of a few degrees can make a big difference. Bright sunlight can also play a role in warming up the water, even on cooler days. When the temperature starts to dip, though, the bites can dry up.
Since rivers and streams are full of colder snowmelt in the spring, rain can help raise temperatures a bit. This will not only make trout more active in those streams, it will draw lake and pond trout to the inlets in their home water.
Look for Trout in the Shallows
As the ice recedes in lakes and ponds, the shallows are there for the taking. Given their proximity to the shore, with plenty of insects and worms, the shallows are great feeding grounds for trout. The areas that will grow thick with weeds are still relatively clear after the cold, and that means that the eagle-eyed trout can spot prey more easily. In the spring, trout will be anywhere and everywhere in a pond or lake, but they’ll be easier to catch from shore than any other season.
Spring is also when rainbow and cutthroat trout spawn. While opinions vary as to whether it’s sporting to fish for spawning trout, it’s certainly effective. They’re more aggressive, and will strike readily at anything in their vicinity. Keep things bright and flashy to get their attention and trigger an instinctual response. Trout will also eat each others’ eggs and young. Using egg-shaped bait or lures colored like trout fry is a great way to catch trout during spawning season.
Fishing For Trout In Summer
Once summer rolls around, you have to keep an eye on the temperature. While rising temperatures in the spring are great for a trout’s metabolism, once the water hits the low 60s Fahrenheit they’ll start to get sluggish again. This chart shows the relationship between trout activity and water temperature:
|45º and below||Trout are slow and feed intermittently|
|50º||Trout begin actively feeding|
|55º||Optimal temperature for brown and brook trout|
|60º||Optimal temperature for rainbow trout|
|65º||Trout slow their feeding and look for cooler waters|
|75º and above||Lethal temperatures|
Find Cooler Water
As the weather heats up in the summer, trout will start looking for cooler water. In lakes and ponds, they’ll seek out the deepest holes and stay there during the hot hours of the day. To catch them, you’ll usually have to get away from shore and into the deeper middle. Fishing during the cooler mornings and evenings is especially important during the hottest months of the year. In lakes and ponds, this may be the only time trout come close to the shore.
In rivers and streams, trout will congregate in deeper pools and areas with shade, especially during the middle of the day. They will also seek sources of cooler water such as dam tailwaters and spring-fed streams. The old trout fisherman’s adage is that “10% of the water holds 90% of the trout,” and at no time is this more true than the summer.
Going up can also help. Higher elevations offer both trout and people a respite from the hottest days of summer. Up in the mountains, the water temperatures stay in the right zones for trout. As an added bonus, trout food is scarcer in high-altitude areas, meaning they’re less picky about what they’ll try to eat. They won’t grow the huge sizes that you’ll find in lakes and major rivers, but they’re still plenty of fun to catch. Pack an ultralight spinning combo, a lightweight fly rod, or try out the minimalist ethos of Japanese tenkara fishing.
Monitor Water Temperatures in Summer for Catch and Release
If you practice catch and release, be very careful about water temperatures during the summer. High temperatures significantly increase the mortality rate of even well-handled fish. Around 68º is usually agreed as a good cutoff, but for brook and lake trout that could still be dangerous. And keep in mind that this is water, not air, temperature. A few cool days won’t be enough to bring a lake or pond down if it has been consistently hot. Conversely, many spring-fed and tailwater streams run cold even when the air is hot. A simple water thermometer is a great tool to have to be safe.
Fishing For Trout In Fall
Charles Dickens could have been fishing for fall trout when he wrote “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” After the spring, the fall can be the second best time of year to fish for trout. Some of the same reasons apply as the spring, but in reverse. The worst of summer’s heat gives way to cooler air and water, meaning trout can come out of their hiding places more.
However, fall can also be an incredibly frustrating time to fish. The cooling temperatures also start to bring the reality of winter closer to home for trout. They will start to slow down in anticipation of the cold days ahead, and will stay in sheltered spots for longer rather than coming out and actively feeding. Still, they need to put away some stores for winter, and they’ll still be plenty hungry.
In rivers and streams, sections that were full and rushing in the spring are low, warm, and clear. Trout are more wary, but the low water usually means you have to get closer to them than when the streams were bursting their banks. Everything is smaller, from the pools to the drift lanes.
You’ll need to counteract this by being as stealthy as possible. This extends to presentation of a fly or lure. Don’t make a big splash or give the trout any reason to be suspicious. They’ll still bite, but they’re much more aware of what’s going on around them. Try casting from farther away, and be sure to make as little noise and disruption as possible when wading or paddling.
Take Fall Literally
While flies and other insects have mostly hatched for the year, the falling leaves and windy days bring a bounty of ants and beetles into the water, tasty treats for trout. But those same factors mean that waterways can become filled with debris. Stiff winds knock leaves, twigs, acorns, and other non-food items into the water. It can be hard for the fish to distinguish what’s what.
Movement is your friend in the fall. A trout will respond much better to something moving and presumably alive than something simply floating along. Lures and flies that look like ants, beetles, and grasshoppers can be particularly productive. Keep them twitching to simulate a helpless insect who has fallen into the water.
Trout Come Back to the Shallows
As the water starts cooling down, trout in lakes and ponds come out of the deepest areas and into the shallows again. For some species, this is because they will be spawning in the gravel flats of the shallow shoreline. As I mentioned before, there’s also the possibility of insects being blown into the water by the stiff winds of autumn.
This opens up many opportunities for anglers, and getting to the deep middle of ponds and lakes may not be needed. In the dawn and twilight hours, fishing right near the shoreline is a great idea. Trout are dashing around then trying to grab those fallen morsels, and will be less discriminating about what they put in their mouth.
Spawning Season, Part 2
Fall is also when brook, brown, and lake trout spawn, along with many other species of salmonids. As I mentioned above, some anglers look down on trying to catch spawning trout, but it can be productive. The key is to realize that trout are not necessarily looking for food, but are aggressive. Bright, flashy lures will get them to strike. The usual egg-shaped baits and flies will play into their tendencies to eat each others’ young. If you do catch and keep a female spawning trout, preserve and store her roe to use as bait. The other trout will quite literally eat it up.
Fishing for Trout In Winter
Trout are generally not very active in winter. Fish are cold-blooded animals, and with colder water comes a very slow metabolism. They will find somewhere protected to hunker down, and will not feed regularly. Winter is usually an off-season for trout, both officially in many areas and unofficially in the minds of anglers. But there are still ways to catch them, and some people swear by winter fishing as a way to avoid the spring and summer crowds and test their skills.
Winter Fishing In Warm Climates
In warmer climates, winter is the best (if not only) time of year to fish for trout. Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina are examples of states in the Southern US who stock during the winter. While mountainous areas in the South can have year-round trout populations, most areas are too warm throughout the year for trout to survive.
In those areas, fishing in winter is much more like the fall fishing described above. Most of the trout will be stocked trout, with little to no wild population. It’s worth reading my article on fishing for rainbow trout in a stocked pond, since rainbows are the most commonly stocked trout species.
Winter Fishing in Cold Climates
In colder climates, the key is understanding that winter trout are at their most lazy. You have to make your bait, lure, or fly extremely easy and enticing for them to grab. When spin fishing, keep your retrieve slow and your lure or bait small. They will not want to chase and don’t want to exert themselves too much for prey that will get away. You may have to just about hit them on the head to get a reaction.
For fly fishermen, stick to smaller wet flies and nymphs. There aren’t nearly as many insects around in the winter, so mimicking underwater prey is your best bet. Again, keep everything slow and steady, and concentrate on getting as close as possible to your target.
Even though winter is the opposite extreme to summer, many of the same tips apply. The water that is cooler in summer is warmer in winter. In lakes and ponds, trout will be deep, although they will still move into shallows to feed occasionally. In river and streams, they’ll gather in pools rather than hanging out in the current. Springs and tailwaters will also be popular with trout due to their consistent year-round temperature.
For many, fishing in winter means ice fishing. While trout aren’t on the top of everyone’s ice fishing list, it can be a very productive way to catch trout. However, you will have to fish them differently from most species.
Even though, like most fish, trout will often hold deeper in the warmer parts of an iced-in lake, they feed fairly shallowly. You can often drop your lines just a foot or two below the bottom of the ice and find actively feeding trout. Once you get deeper, the trout nearby may not be actively feeding, although you may get bites from other species.
Remember, too, that trout have very good eyesight. If you are fishing very close to the ice, too much movement could draw the trout’s attention to the fact that there’s a big gaping hole! They’ll sense the danger and stay away. Live minnows are not the best bait for ice fishing trout for the same reason. They may move too much and give the game away. Worms, artificial baits, and jigs are best, and keeping the movements slow and subtle will help catch the trout’s eye without scaring it away.
Spring may be the best time of year to fish for trout, but you can catch plenty at any time. Whether in the depths of winter or the dog days of summer, there’s always a way to get a tug on your line. So don’t let the season, the weather, or anything else get in your way. Get out there and catch a trophy!