How to Fish for Trout: A Beginner’s Guide to Trout Fishing

If you have a trout stream or lake nearby and want to start trout fishing, don't complicate matters — pick up a spinning rod and some lures or bait and start casting.

But what about fly fishing? Isn't that how you're supposed to catch trout?

Not so fast.

Sure, fly fishing is a popular way to fish for trout, but in all honesty, we think spin fishing has a few distinct advantages:

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    Spinning rods are much easier to learn how to cast than fly rods — practically anyone can learn in a few minutes.
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    Spinning rods and reels are considerably less expensive — for a complete setup, you're looking at around $100 for EVERYTHING, whereas with fly fishing $100 will hardly get you a decent rod.
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    Spin fishing lures are extremely versatile and will catch trout (among other species) almost anywhere, whether you're fishing tiny freestone streams, productive tailwaters, or alpine lakes. Plus, if lures aren't getting bites, you can always switch to bait — you can't do that with fly tackle!

To give you a head start in your spin fishing pursuits, this article guides you through everything you need to know to get started. By the end, you'll know exactly what gear and tackle to buy, where to find trout, and how to catch them using several tried-and-true spin fishing techniques.

Let's get started!

Gearing Up — Selecting Your Rod, Reel & Line

While trout do get big — a healthy brown trout can easily push 30 inches — count on the majority of your quarry being in the 12 to 18-inch range and weighing between 1 and 2 pounds.

Since the fish you're after are on the smaller side compared to other game fish, you can get away with using much lighter rods and reels to get the most fight out of these feisty critters.

What Makes a Good Spinning ROD for Trout?

If you examine a rack of rods at your local sporting goods store, you'll see words like "power" and "action" printed just above the grip. These terms describe pretty much everything you need to know about a rod.

To illustrate, here's a prescription for a great all-purpose trout rod: 

  • Power: In simple terms, a rod's "power" describes how much force it takes to bend the rod, or in other words, how stiff or limber the rod is. For trout, you want a rod with the lightest power possible — ultralight. An ultralight spinning rod will cast the tiniest lures with ease and feel extremely lively in the hand when fighting a fish. With modern graphite technology, high-quality ultralight rods are plenty strong to handle even the largest trout you hook into.
  • Action: A rod's "action" describes the point at which the rod bends. Slow action rods bend deep into the butt whereas extra-fast action rods only bend in the first foot or so of the tip. For trout, look for fast-action spinning rods — they have very sensitive tips for excellent bite detection but still have plenty of power in the mid and butt sections for solid hook-sets and fish-fighting muscle.
  • Length: Rod length is a very personal preference, but for most trout fishing applications, rods in the 5 1/2 to 7-foot range are ideal. Longer rods generally give you more casting distance but aren't as easy to use in tight spaces. Shorter rods, on the other hand, are great for casting in brush-choked streams but won't give you much casting distance when fishing bigger water. It's a trade-off — go with your gut.

You don't have to spend a ton of money to get a high-quality spinning rod for trout — just about any rod in the $30 to $70 range will fish well and last a long time. A great middle-of-the-road option is the Berkley Lightning spinning rod, and if you want to spend a little more on a nicer rod, check out the Fenwick Eagle GT.

Choosing a Reel to Match Your Trout Rod

Most spinning reel models are produced in a wide range of sizes to handle various fishing applications and every reel manufacturer uses a slightly different sizing system. To match your ultralight spinning rod, you'll want the smallest-sized spinning reels available — typically the 1000 or 2000 sizes. Reels of this size should hold at least 100 yards of 4 to 6-pound test monofilament line.

Other than choosing the appropriate reel size, try to get the smoothest, most durable spinning reel you can afford. Not only should the handle spin effortlessly, the drag should allow the line to pull off the spool without any stutters or hesitations. Ideally, you want a reel that's entirely made of metal or carbon fiber, but if you're on a tight budget, a little plastic here and there won't hurt.

Shimano, Abu Garcia, Daiwa, and Okuma all make excellent spinning reels for trout fishing. For a great budget-friendly reel, it's hard to beat the Abu Garcia Black Max spinning reel in size 5, and if you want to invest in a higher-quality reel, we highly recommend the Shimano Sedona in the 1000 size.

What Size Line for Trout?

In general, you want to stay within the line size parameters of your specific spinning rod. For ultralight trout rods, that typically means line in the 2 to 6-pound test range. When in doubt, go with 4-pound test and call it a day.

Beyond the basic pound-test rating, here are a few factors to consider when spooling up your reel: 

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    Stick with monofilament — There is no need for braided line or fluorocarbon when fishing for trout. One of the main benefits of monofilament line from an ultralight standpoint is that it stretches giving you more shock absorption when setting the hook and playing a fish. Also, monofilament line is considerably more cost-effective than fancier line types, which is always a bonus.
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    Limp line has less "memory" — One of the struggles with monofilament line is that it holds the shape of the spool, causing the line to coil as it peels off the reel. This is known as line memory and it's more pronounced in lower-quality lines. For better casting performance and fewer tangles, invest in a high-quality monofilament line such as Spiderwire EZ Mono, which is known for its limpness and low memory.
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    Use lighter line for deep fishing — There are times when you need to get your lure or bait down deep as fast as possible. To accomplish this without adding a bunch of split-shot to your line, a lighter line, say 2-pound test, has less resistance and will move down through the water column much faster. Sometimes it's these little details that make all the difference.

Essential Lures for Catching Trout 

You'd be surprised at how little tackle you actually need to carry during a day of ultralight trout fishing. And when you're first starting out, it's a good idea to keep your tackle selection and rigs as simple as possible, growing your collection slowly with lures proven to work. That way, instead of wasting your entire fishing budget on gimmicky lures, you'll have money leftover to fill your gas tank to drive to the river!

Start filling your tackle box with a few of each of these three styles of trout lures and you'll be off to a great start.

Spinners

The quintessential trout lure. Unlike other lures, spinners don't necessarily mimic a trout's natural food source like a fly or crankbait might, and instead rely on flash and vibration to draw in fish. Spinners are some of the easiest, most versatile lures to use for trout and do they ever work!

Here are the time-tested classic spinners every trout angler should carry: 

  • Rooster Tails 
  • Mepps Aglia
  • Panther Martin

Take note that the trout spinners mentioned above all use treble hooks which aren't legal in some streams, especially when catch-and-release only rules are enforced. So if you plan on fishing with these effective spinners, be sure to check the regulations of the river or lake you plan to fish.

If treble hooks aren't allowed, you can replace them with single-point hooks by simply opening the split ring, removing the old hook, and adding the new one.

Easy. 

Trout-Sized Crankbaits 

Crankbaits are primarily thought of as bass lures, but they're also made in small sizes that trout will readily take. Also known as hardbaits, crankbaits come in many different styles, most of which are made of plastic or balsa wood and have lips on the front that cause the lures to dive under the water when retrieved.

We'll touch on how to present crankbaits to trout later on, but if you're interested in adding some to your tackle box, here are the ones you'll want:

  • Rebel Wee-Craw — A small diving crankbait designed to imitate crawfish which are a favorite food of trout. 
  • Strike King Bitsy Minnow — A small minnow imitation crankbait with great wiggle-action in the water. 
  • Rapala Count Down — A sinking crankbait that allows you to "count down" as the bait sinks one foot per second. Perfect for targeting deep-holding in fish in lakes.

As with spinners, most — if not all — crankbaits come with treble hooks, so you may need to swap them out. 

Jigs for Trout 

The foundation of any jig lure is a hook with a weighted head. You'll find jigs of all sizes to catch practically any fish — from bluegills to blue marlin — and yes, that includes trout.

The best jigs for trout are those weighing anywhere from 1/64th to 1/8th ounce. However, don't go to the tackle shop looking for "trout jigs." For some reason, jigs are widely underutilized for catching trout and are therefore marketed to the crappie fishing crowd. If they catch trout who cares what the package says?

Most jigs that appeal to trout are made of marabou feathers with chenille bodies, bucktail and other hairs and furs, or soft plastic. Stock up with an assortment of both drab colors — black, brown, olive, tan — along with brighter colors — chartreuse, bright pink, purple. 

Even though most trout anglers never move beyond using spinners, jigs have been proven so effective that even fly anglers started tying flies on "micro-jig" hooks to cash in on the action.

Fishing for Trout with Bait

You'll find that when fished right, lures are hard to beat. However, there will always be those times when the trout refuse every lure you throw at them.

That's when it's time to pull out the bait.

Live Bait for Trout 

Trout are vicious little predators and they're always hungry. Why not feed them a tasty snack that's still wiggling?

Here are some live baits that catch trout like nothing else:

  • Earthworms — Nightcrawlers and red worms 
  • Grubs and larvae — Wax worms, meal worms and other crawly things
  • Crickets and grasshoppers 
  • Live minnows — Shiners or whatever your bait shop carries
  • Small live crawfish
  • Large aquatic nymphs — turn over rocks in the stream to collect 

For trout, these live baits are typically fished under bobbers on bronzed fine-wire hooks and perhaps some split shot pinched on several inches above the hook. Cast out and let the bait do the rest. 

Commercial Trout Baits 

If you don't want to mess with live bait but still want to draw the trout in with real food, here are some great options: 

  • Powerbait — A soft dough-like bait scented with various attractants available in a wide range of fluorescent colors. What's nice about Powerbait is that it's shelf-stable so you can keep it in your tackle bag as a backup.
  • Salmon eggs — Small jars of bright red preserved salmon eggs are available in most places fishing tackle is sold. Poke a couple of eggs on your hook, and if there are any trout around, the bites shouldn't take long — especially if you're fishing a stream with runs of salmon.
  • Cheese — Kraft, Velveeta, take your pick. Squish some cheese on your hook and there's a good chance a trout will bite.

Casting Flies with Spinning Gear 

While we do believe that spin fishing for trout is easier and more effective than fly fishing, that doesn't mean that artificial flies don't have their place. And although it might seem counter-intuitive, you can indeed cast flies with a spinning rod.

Here's how:

First, you need something known as a casting bubble. Casting bubbles are like bobbers that you fill partially with water. Since flies are nearly weightless, the weight of the water is needed to cast the rig. By only partially filling the casting bubble, a small amount of air keeps the bubble afloat — like a bobber and weight in one.

Below the casting bubble, tie on one or more flies with a light leader anywhere from 2 to 4 feet long. Then, cast the rig into the current to let the flies work downstream — just like you're fly fishing only easier! 

Types of Flies to Catch Trout 

Visit any fly shop and you'll be overwhelmed by the thousands of different flies available. But when you boil it down, there are only a few different types of flies you need to catch trout:

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    Dry flies — Flies that float on the surface imitating recently hatched adult insects — mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, etc. Some popular dry fly "patterns" are the Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, and the Royal Wulff. 
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    Nymphs — Flies that imitate aquatic insects in their immature form, which are essentially little bugs that crawl around on rocks on the bottom of streams and lakes. Nymph flies are fished below the surface and are ideal for fishing with spinning gear below a casting bubble. Stock up with classics like the Hare's Ear Nymph, the Pheasant Tail Nymph, and the Prince Nymph.
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    Emergers — Flies that imitate insects as they transform from immature nymphs to adult flies. Emerger flies are essentially a mix between nymph flies and dry flies and are fished in the surface film of the water. Trout especially key into emergers when a hatch is kicking off. 
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    Wet flies and streamers — This broad category of fly patterns includes all flies that are fished beneath the surface that aren't nymphs. Wet flies can either be attractor patterns similar to spinners, or imitations of small baitfish, worms, leeches, or crawfish. Classic wet flies include Woolly Buggers, Clouser Minnows, and Soft-Hackles. 

As you can see, adding flies into the spin fishing mix can get a little complicated, but if you start out fishing the basic fly patterns, you might be surprised by how effective a bit of feather and fur tied to a hook can be.

What Other Gear Do You Need for Trout Fishing? 

The other gear you need largely depends on the type of water you're fishing, whether you're casting from a boat or wading on foot, and if you plan on releasing your trout or taking a few home for the frying pan.

Regardless of your personal trout fishing style and preferences, here's a list of some of the items you should consider investing in before trout season: 

  • Something to organize and carry your tackle and lures — Vests, sling bags, lumbar packs, chest packs, backpacks, or good ol' hard-sided tackle boxes all work well. If you plan on wade fishing, consider a lightweight option such as a vest or sling bag so you aren't burdened with the extra weight and inconvenience of a tackle box. 
  • Waders and wading boots — If you do plan on wading, particularly in the colder months, a decent pair of waders and wading boots is essential. Breathable stocking foot waders are ideal, but if you fish in really cold weather, consider going with neoprene.
  • Pliers and line clippers — When rigging your line you need pliers to pinch on weights and clippers — fingernail clippers work well — to snip excess line. Then, your pliers pull double duty when it's time to unhook your fish.
  • Net — If you're going to lose a fish, chances are it'll happen at the last second when you reach for the leader. To land fish with less stress and more grace, carry a net. Plus, if you plan on releasing the fish, a net makes handling the fish without removing it from the water much easier.
  • Kreel, Stringer, or Cooler — If plan on keeping your hard-earned trout, you'll need somewhere to store it while you continue fishing. The classic option is a wicker creel, but stringers work well too. If you're fishing from a boat, a cooler full of ice is the best way to keep your catch fresh.
  • Polarized Glasses — When it comes to reading water and spotting fish, nothing is more helpful than a quality pair of polarized glasses. Plus, glare bouncing off the water can cause serious damage to your eyes, so stay protected.

Finding Trout: Water Conditions and Habitat Requirements 

Now that we've covered the gear you need, let's get into where to start looking to find trout. 

Trout-Friendly Water 

Trout are a cold water fish, surviving in water temperatures from roughly 40 to 65 degrees. So that's your first clue: if a body of water — mountain stream, river, tailwater, or lake — stays within those temperatures year-round, there's a good chance trout call it home.

Furthermore, trout need water with relatively high levels of dissolved oxygen to survive. That's why fast-moving streams are some of the most prolific trout habitats — the turbulence of the rushing water introduces oxygen which trout, and their food, require.

That's your second clue: look for riffles, small waterfalls, and other areas of turbulence.

It's All About the Structure 

While trout are predatory in their own right, they're also prey to many larger creatures. For that reason, they rely on structure — boulders, logs, stumps, etc. — to hide in and around.

So whether you're fishing a stream or lake, find those key in-water features, work your lure or bait in close, and get ready to set the hook!

Fighting and Landing a Trout 

If you’ve tied on the right lure, bait, or fly and presented your offering to a piece of water you expect a trout to be holding, you’ve set yourself up for what we all hope for — a tap, bump, thump, or solid “BANG!” at the end of your line.

To set the hook, raise your rod with an upward sweeping motion until all the slack is gone and you feel the fish. You want to be firm with your hookset, but don’t overdo it. Ideally, if your hook is sharp it’ll sink into the fish’s mouth with very little effort.

Once the fish is on, keep the line tight, let the fish run and take line as much as needed, and reel it in quickly but with a light touch. With ultralight tackle you can’t “horse” in the fish or else the line will break.

You don’t need to use a landing net, but it sure does help. Once the fish is within close range, take your net in one hand, and extend your rod away from you to the side with the other hand, then scoop up the fish with the net. You’ll likely fumble through the first few nettings, but don’t worry, grace comes over time.

Catch and Release vs. Take 

As you admire that beautiful trout in the net, you have one final decision to make:

Do you keep it for dinner or release it to fight another day? 

Unfortunately, the issue of catch and release versus the taking of trout isn’t black and white. In many trout streams and lakes — particularly with populations of wild trout — catch and release is the law. In other bodies of water where trout populations are healthy or maintained through stocking, keeping a few fish per day may not only be legal but encouraged for the overall health of the ecosystem.

If you do decide to keep your trout, enjoy! No meal is quite as satisfying as one you caught, cleaned, and cooked yourself.

Conclusion

If you’re just getting into trout fishing we hope this article helped clear up any questions you may have had and got you excited to hit the water. Now it’s time take up your rod and head to the stream!