The challenge of trout fishing makes it rewarding. But, many new, and experienced fishermen still wonder why they can’t catch trout.
In this guide, I will cover many of the main reasons why trout can be so difficult to catch and steps that can be taken to help catch them.
So in this guide, I will provide some answers which might just help to catch such a fish.
If you are not catching trout change something
If I only have time to give one piece of advice this will be it. If you are not catching trout change something. Just do not keep doing what you are doing if it is not working.
Here are some things that can be changed.
- Change location, move to a different pool, ripple, or even river
- Change the lure/fly
- Change the size
- Change the color
- Change the speed of your retrieve
- Change (reduce) the thickness of your line
- Change the depth you are fishing
- Change the time of day you are fishing
Make sure the trout are feeding
If a trout is feeding it can be caught. If a trout is hugging the bottom pretending to be a rock it is going to be an uphill battle to catch.
So if you can see the trout, watch to see what they are doing. Are they actively feeding, or are they drifting side to side or rising to the surface to grab an insect? If so they are probably feeding.
Are they holding in moving water or patrolling a beat? Again, they are likely in the mood to feed.
If a trout is feeding they can be caught. It just requires the correct presentation of the right type of food.
I know feeding trout can be tricky at times, I suspect all experienced anglers have been tormented by such fish. If a feeding trout continues to ignore all your well presented lures I suggest reducing the size of your lure/fly and the diameter of the leader.
Try and match your lure or fly with what the fish are eating.
When choosing a fly or lure to fish, it is always a good idea to try and match the size and general sharp with what the trout are eating. While it is not always essential, it certainly does not hurt your chances.
If the trout are sipping mayflies off the surface, they probably will not respond well if you were to throw a 3″ Rapala at them. If the trout are harassing baitfish in the shallows, then they will likely smash that Rapala or a large wooly bugger while ignoring even a perfectly presented #16 Royal Wulff.
Sometimes, trout hypnotize themselves to just one prey.
Trout at times can become fixated on just one type of food. Trying to catch them on anything else despite perfect presentations can result in frustration.
With stock trout, that can be fish pellets. But with wild fish, it will be something plentiful in its environment. Usually a massive hatch of a specific type of aquatic or terrestrial insect. In my experience, it is usually some type of caterpillar or cutworm.
I first experience this when trout in New Zealand. The trout were feeding upon willow grabs. The trout were ignoring every dry, nymph, or even spinner I threw at them. But they keep rising to the surface and were taking something. I knew they were feeding because I could see them.
I was stumped. So I asked around, fishermen might keep their spots well hidden but many freely share advice.
So after picking a few brains and it turned out they were feeding on extremely tiny willow grubs (Tiny green caterpillars). With this knowledge, grubbing trout become some of the easiest to catch.
While willow grubbing trout are most well known in New Zealand it happens in all countries where the two species coexist. It also happens elsewhere in the world where other species are in abundance.
This just highlights the importance to know exactly what the trout are feeding on.
How to identify what trout are feeding on?
In rivers, what are trout likely to be feeding on beneath the surface?
Let’s try and figure out what river living trout are feeding on.
One trick, I was taught early on is to lift up a few stones and take a look at the aquatic life. A tiny mesh net is useful for grabbing a sample. Studying the sample gives a good idea on what the trout are eating. Then try to match your fly as close as possible to the natural food.
Failing that, it is possible to tell a lot about a trout’s prey based on where and how they are feeding.
In a stream, If a trout is holding deep and drifting side to side it is likely to be eating nymphs.
If it’s a cold freestone stream or river they might even be after stoneflies.
In the spring or fall, they might be intercepting dislodged fish eggs. Brown and Brooks spawn in the fall, and Rainbows spawn in the spring but trout will eat eggs of any type of fish no matter the species.
Predicting what trout are feeding on in Stillwater?
In still water, if the trout are patrolling a weed bank they are probably searching for floating snails, dragonfly nymphs, or snatching emerging mayflies before they reach the surface.
If the trout is swimming across a muddy or sandy flat, then again they might be searching for emerging mayflies, but at other times they are snatching up worms.
Finally, if the trout is very active. Darting around, splashing the surface, creating a real disturbance. They will likely be hunting baitfish. This is the ideal time to tie on a streamer or even spinning lure. Trout are most likely to be hunting baitfish at twilight or at night.
For more information on the subsurface feeding habits of trout, I have an article here.
What are surface feeding trout likely to be feeding on?
When a trout rises to the surface, it is likely feeding on hatching insects such as mayflies. They frequently take insects just below the surface as well as floating on top of the water. I have even seen energetic trout jumping to grab hovering damsel flies mid-flight.
Try and have a look at the foam trails. See what insects are floating by. Alternatively, check out the streamside vegetation to see what insects are present.
If the trout are feeding on the surface, then try a selection of dry flies, Emergers, or small terrestrial insects. Again, it is important to match the hatch. With experience, and a close eye. It is possible to get a good idea on what the trout are feeding upon by how they rise.
- If the trout’s nose rises through the surface making a plopping sound. This indicates that the trout likely took a dun from the surface. At times, young trout leap out of the water after them.
- If a rising trout just ‘sips’ the surface, this usually indicates that the trout are feeding on subsurface emergers or nymphs. Sometimes this is accompanied by a bulge just under the surface. If you listen carefully, trout make a subtle ‘kissing’ sound as the trout sucks in its meal. Trout can also ‘sip’ not during a hatch, this might indicate they are after shrimp or dislodged snails.
- When a trout raises its head and exposes its tail this is often a sign of a relaxed trout, usually feeding on spent spinners. An emerger pattern resting low in the surface film is often the most successful.
How to catch a following trout
I can still remember one of my first trips trout fishing, I was fishing a deep cool pool with overhanging willows. My lure of choice was a little minnow. It got the attention of a ‘large’ brown trout. Well, I thought it was large at the time.
Looking back I doubt it was over 3lb. Still a respectable fish. That trout followed my lure in several times. Each time stopping short, before turning tail and gliding back to its lay beneath the willows.
I changed to an inline spinner, I was hoping the thumping sound of the blade will trigger a response, I kept trying but had no luck. I eventually drove home to get more lures. I never caught that trout, or even saw it again, despite thrashing its pool with my entire collection of lures.
I even drove home to get more lures. I never caught that trout (It probably was well and truly spooked) despite thrashing its pool multiple times with my entire collection of lures. Even today, with years of experience, some trout continue to frustrate and prove to be all but impossible to catch.
Little is more frustrating than a trout following the lure in, only to reject it at the last moment. The good news, is the trout was interested. So it can, or could of been caught. Below are a few tricks you can try.
- During the retrieve, stop and pause the action. This can sometimes trigger a follow trout to strike.
- Slow down your retrieve. Trout like to inspect their prey before grabbing it, so give them plenty of time. A slow retrieve is often the most effective, especially against uneducated fish. If fly fishing, figure 8 retrieve is a good technique to learn.
- Vary the speed of the retrieve, I usually start very slow, but occasionally I will speed up. . It gives a sense of urgency giving the trout less chance to inspect the lure before striking.
- When the water temperature is very cold, slow everything down.
If a trout continue to follow, without striking consider changing the lure.
- First I suggest dropping down one size. Trout feel more confident grabbing smaller prey.
- Secondary, try a different but contrasting color or style.
- If you believe the trout see a lot of attention, consider fishing an ‘unknown’ or oddball model which they have unlikely seen before. I am a big fan of fishing strange lures and always advise having a few strange models in your tackle box. For some inspiration, I suggest reading my top 21 trout lure guide.
Once or twice I had a trout follow right to my feet. Only to look confused when the lure vanishes right in front of their eyes. The trout was darting side to side, obviously looking for the lure. In this situation, I suggest quickly flicking the lure back down nearby, and there is a reasonable chance the trout will smash into it. I also had them slam large dry terrestrial flies in the same manner.
Fish with a wide selection and style of lures.
When trout fishing, do not just fish the most popular sizes, colors, and styles. Trout which see heavy fishing pressure have seen common styles before and are less likely to strike. Even something as simple as changing the color of a bead can be enough to change the mind of a trout.
Trout can see and sense fishing line, use thin line
One of the most common mistakes made by new anglers is using fishing line that is too thick.
Trout can see/sense the line, so thinner is nearly always better. Thin line is not only harder for the trout to sense it also makes it easier to cast tiny lightweight lures further.
For beginners, I recommend using 4 or 6lb monofilament (nylon). If unsure on what brand, I have written a blog post recommending what I feel is the best monofilament lines for trout fishing.
This offers a suitable compromise of knot strength, ease of casting, and enough strength to fight almost any trout.
With more experience, it can be worth using superline with a leader, or even 2lb monofilament but I have never found 2lb line nesscary to catch trout.
Tippet diameter is also important when fly fishing
Line diameter is nearly as important as the fly or lure you decide to fish.
If the trout know your line is there, they will likely ignore your fly no matter how perfect the presentation. I have to break this section into two, one covering fly fishing and the other spinning.
When selecting the thickness of your tippet the two most important considerations are visibility to the fish, and the ability of the tipper to transfer the momentum of the cast to correctly present the fly.
The larger the fly you fish, the thicker the tippet needs to be to correctly turn it over during the cast. A very thin tippet can not turn a heavy fly, while a thick tippet can overwhelm and dominate over a tiny fly.
This chart shows the thickness of tippet required to correctly turn over specific sizes of flies.
When the water is gin clear, and the trout spooky. It is time to go for very long, and very thin leaders. Having the skills to cast and present a 21ft leader, finished with a 5 or 6x tippet will result in more fish being landed.
Best Line Diameter When Spinning
When spinning for trout, it is important to remember that trout can learn to be afraid of line.
The thinner the line, the harder it is for a trout to see it. In the chart below, I have compiled a list showing the thickness of line to use in various water conditions when targeting trout that are line shy.
If the trout are not line shy, then you can get away with a thicker line.
Matching line dimension with water clarity when trout fishing
|Estimated True Breaking Strain||Water Clarity|
Spooked trout are always hard to catch
Keep in mind, if a trout has been fished over earlier in the day. They can become increasingly difficult to catch. Even your second cast is less likely to hook up than your first.
Once fished over, trout, in particular wild brown’s are on high alert for anything out of the norm. To catch these trout you can not afford to make a single mistake.
I remember one day. I spent the early morning fishing a mountain lake, I started near the access track before working my way to the far side. The fishing was good, and I landed several trout. From the far side of the lake, I saw two older gentlemen arrive and start fishing.
On my way home, I spoke with them. They had blanked and were blaming the spooky trout on the calm conditions. I did not have the heart to tell them I landed 4 trout from that section in even calmer conditions just prior to their arrival. The trout were still spooked from my fishing earlier in the day.
If you come across other fishermen
Other fishermen are a common sight on popular trout rivers.
Never leapfrog in front of another angler without asking first. Hopefully, they are only fishing a short way, then it is usually possible to come to some sort of arrangement on sharing the river.
Also, take a sneaky peek to see what lures they are fishing. If they seem to be catching fish, take notice and try to copy how they are fishing. But do not steal their spot or cast over their line.
Give other anglers space on the water.
Keep Sunscreen, Insect Repellent away from your gear!
Trout have a great sense of smell.
When tying on lures or flies, try and avoid contamination them with insect repellent or sunscreen. The faint aroma is enough to discourage wary trout from feeding. After applying lotions, I always try to rub my hands sand, before thoroughly rinsing them clean.
The scent of an angler wading upstream can also warn trout. When fishing streams and smaller rivers, I nearly always fish upstream. I also tend to wear long pants, that way I do not need to apply sunscreen or repellent to my legs.
Wild trout, are much more likely to be wary of scent than stock trout. Stock trout were raised around people so are less cautious around them.
Stock trout sometimes will even feed directly downstream from wading fishermen.
When fishing with flies, Even a small amount of drag can spook trout
Trout have amazing eyesight and senses.
When presenting flies to trout, even a tiny amount of drag is enough to warn a trout not to take. When fly fishing, or drifting a fly (or even worm) behind a float drag is a major reason why trout ignore such presentations.
Drag occurs when the pressure from the current or wind pushes against the line or float and causes the fly to move unnaturally against the flow of the current.
When fly fishing, try to keep slack in the line, the main way this is done is by mending the line. Such slack helps absorbs any influence the fly line might be having on the leader and tippet.
If you are fishing a fly beneath a float, try and use the smallest float possible to minimize the chance it will be moved by the current or wind.
If fly fishing, reduce the number of false casts.
Trout can see fly lines, both in the water and above. Minimize the number of false casts, because every cast you make increases the chance line flash will spook the trout even before the fly reaches the water.
Water temperature can make trout hard to catch
Trout are very sensitive to extremes in water temperature. If it is too cold, or too hot they become difficult to catch.
When water gets too warm, say after several hot days with low rainfall. The amount of dissolved oxygen in the water decreases. When it gets too low, the trout really start to struggle and become very reluctant to feed. I have an article here discussing how trout respond, and techniques to catch them during hot weather.
In the winter, when the water gets too cold. The trout’s metabolism slows and they need less food to survive. Everything, including feeding, just becomes slow. I cover some cold water trout fishing tips in this article.
In the chart below, I will list the optimal feeding temperature for various species of trout
|Optimal Feeding temperature||Temperature trout become stressed||Lethal temperature|
|Brook Trout||44-64f (6-18c)||65f (18c)||70f (21c)|
|Cutthroat trout||39-59f (4-15c)||60f (15.5c)||68f (20c)|
|Rainbow trout||44-67f (6-19c)||68f (20c)||75f (24c)|
|Brown trout||44-67f (6-19c)||68f (20c)||75f (24c)|
|Lake trout||40-59f (4-15c)||65f (18c)|
Temperature and water oxygen levels
Trout need to breath, and when the water gets too warm. Oxygen levels drop and they struggle to survive.
When the water is warm, trout move into faster water which is more oxygenated. It is worth taking a thermometer to the river with you. If the water temperature is over 18c / 64f brown, rainbows and brook trout might start to show signs of stress. Pay less attention to pools and start concentrating on moving water.
Cutthroat and lake trout prefer water cooler than 15c / 59f and temperatures become lethal for them at around 20c / 68f,
I personally stop fishing for brown or rainbow trout when water temperatures get above 21c / 70f. Either go searching for cooler water, maybe in a side stream or head back early in the morning when the water is at its coolest.
Early in the spring, the water can be too cold. Normally not worth fishing until the water gets above 6c / 44f
How to check the temperature
Take the water temperature about a foot down, and avoid taking the temperature in the extreme shallows or on the surface because it tends to be warmer than the water column. Take several temperatures to get a representative idea of the water temperature.
If the water is above the stress point, then the trout will be reluctant to feed. During these warm conditions, trout are more likely to hold near springs or at the mouth of cooler streams. Trout also tend to leave pools and start holding in rapids. When the water reaches the lethal range, stop all fishing. Give the trout a break.
Throughout the day the temperature of the water can climb or fall by several degrees. So during the hottest part a summer day. The trout might be reluctant to feed. So avoid fishing during that time. Try instead early morning or late in the evening when temperatures are a bit lower.
The reverse is true early in the spring. When the water is cold early morning. Trout are reluctant to feed. It is only after the water has warmed by late morning that they become active.
Sick, injured, and stressed trout are difficult to catch
I have experienced this quite a few times on popular rivers. Trout that seem a bit doggo, just laying on the bottom or in the shallows without moving. Certainly not in the mood to feed, are barely move.
These good-looking trout, often hold right on the edge with barely any movement. They are sometimes in very shallow water, with their fins out of the water. Their back is normally dark from too much sun exposure. At times, I have walked right up to them, nudging them with my boot to check for life.
If you place a fly right in its mouth, you can hook up. The fight is sluggish. On a closer look they often have marks resembling handprints on their back. Some people put it down to fungal infections caused by dry hands and prolonged photo sessions.
I have also seen similar trout, post-spawn. Or far up spawning streams early in the season. They had the strength to survive the spawn, but not the strength to recover over winter. They often resemble a scale-covered skeleton.
Today, if I see trout which I suspect I sick, I leave them alone. That includes trout lying doggo on the bottom. Now, if the trout looks healthy but laying in the shallow. I intend to catch it. Many healthy fish decide to feed there.
Helpful Hints To Catch Your First Trout
Struggling to catch your first trout? This section will provide basic guidance on catching your first trout. Plus how to learn the secrets of a trout river.
If you do not have suitable fishing equipment, I suggest following the above links to my gear and tackle buying guides. If on a tight budget check my cheap fishing gear guide.
Targeting trout in rivers
One of the biggest mistakes I see new trout fishermen make is that they do not cover enough water.
They drive to a nice enough looking pool, then stand in one spot and start casting to the exact same spot. In the couple of hours they spend fishing they are unlikely to have moved more than one pool upstream.
When targeting trout, the first cast into a new area is the most likely one to catch a fish. The chance goes down with every subsequent cast. Casting the same lure into the same water more often than not is going to get the same result.
Even in the best looking hole, I am unlikely to cast more than a dozen times before I change something.
River trout are territorial. They feed and patrol in the same small section. Outside of the spawning runs in the fall, it is very unlikely for a new fish to appear and start feeding. This is why it is important to move to where the trout are. Do not wait for them to come to you.
Changing lures can give a second chance
If you know there are still feeding trout in the pool. The best choice is to change your lure. If you were fishing with an inline spinner, maybe consider changing to a spoon or jerkbait. If you only have a single style of lure, changing color or size can at times bring results.
Target different water depths
Trout feed throughout the water column.
Trout mostly feed close to the bottom. Only occasionally rising into the mid water or to the surface. In the wild trout mostly eat any small nymph or aquatic insects as they drift downstream.
Trout are very lazy fish. They use as little energy as possible. So they rest on the bottom out of the current and just eat anything which floats within a few inches of their mouth.
To fish, the mid water cast out and let your lure sink for a few seconds before starting to retrieve. If you see the lure jumping along the surface, slow down. If you can feel It bouncing off the rocks, lift the rod tip slightly.
If you want to target bottom feeding trout, then bouncing spoons and other lures over the bottom can be a very effective technique. If you are not getting the occasional snag, you are not close enough to the bottom.
Bring plenty of spares, because lures are regularly lost. Remove any slime from the hooks between cast, slime dulls the action.
Jerkbaits, and floating lures require a different technique. Floating jerkbaits basically swim deeper the faster you wind them in. While sinking jerkbaits sink until you start the retrieve. I go into more detail on getting the best out of fishing jerkbaits in my guide here.
Trout are territorial, they can strike when not hungry.
Luckily, trout are very territorial. Even if they are not hungry. They react out of aggression towards smaller fish invading their space. This works to our advantage.
Retrieving our obnoxious looking metal spinning is often enough to trigger a strikeout of angry. This is the same way Salmon are caught on their spawning runs.
How to prospect or scout a new trout river
To prospect a river, I go for a lure which I can easily cast. I cast far, and fishing fast. The idea is to cover as much water as possible. I basically cast diagonally upstream, let the lure sink for a moment before retrieving. Then take one or two steps upstream and cast again. I systematically cover every yard of water. Every 10 or so casts, I cast once straight upstream next to the shore. This is to target trout holding right on the edge. Many fishermen spook trout because they forget to fish the shallows.ly and wind faster.
Every twenty minutes or so, I might change the model or pattern of spinner. Just to see if the trout are favoring one style or the other.
Prospecting is a great way to quickly discover where the trout are holding, and what sort of water they prefer. In future trips to the river, you can fish slower and concentrate on the areas which you now know hold fish.
Keep in mind, trout do move around. In the spring, trout might prefer to feed in the pools. There the current is more gentle and the deep water offers more protection. But come summer, trout are more likely to be found in faster flowing water which is richer in oxygen.
My favorite lures for fishing new waters are
– Long cast Floating rapala. This jerkbait casts well and can even get reactions from wary wild fish. Normal floating rapalas work fine on smaller waters.
– Panther Martin: The classic teardrop design casts well, and the blade spins even at a low retrieve. The larger than average blade, gives off plenty of fish attracting flash and vibrations.
– Thomas Speedy Shiner. These long slim spoons cast like bullets while fluttering through the water. A great option for large rivers or for punching into the wind.
-Acme Kastmaster , when distance is paramount. The kastmaster is king. If you can not find a kastmaster any hex spinner in smaller size will do.
The weight and sizes of lures I use when prospecting.
I select a lure which is easy to cast and easy to retrieve. I use 1/4oz lures on big water, the weight allows for greater casting distance and faster sink rate to fish deeper pools and faster ripples.
Streams require more finesse rather than long casts. In streams I prospect with 1/16oz lures. Can also drop down to 1/32oz or up to 1/8oz if conditions change.
Tips to catch surface feeding trout
Unless I see trout rising, I rarely fish the surface when spinning or streamer fishing for trout. Most trout hold and feed deeper in the water column. When I see a trout rise, I still will cast my lure so it lands a couple of yards upstream from it is feeding.
Rising trout are usually concentrating on eating mayflies, or on warm summer days, windblown terrestrial insects such as grasshoppers, cicadas, gnats, bugs, flies, moths. Trout are honestly not that fussy. Several times, I have even seen trout leaping out of the water to grab hovering damselflies.
Targeting surface feeding trout while fishing lures is difficult. It is much easier to change to a float and dry fly, or for best results take up the challenge of fly fishing.
A few locations which deserve extra attention
While I advise covering as much water as possible when exploring a new river. Some parts of the river certainly hold more trout. Trout are simple creatures, and they respond to the environment around them.
- -Protection from predators.
- -Availability of food.
- -Temperature and water oxygen levels.
These three factors determine where trout are most likely to be found and we can use them to predict where the trout are more likely to be found. Before I go into more detail, I will highlight again that trout are lazy. At all times, they try to spend as little energy as possible. For that reason only desperate trout feed in powerful currents.
Trout seek protection from predators when feeding
Trout are both predators and prey. They are hunted from both above and below the water. The main threats from above are birds and man.
To hide from predators, trout often like to feed close to cover. This is often overhanging vegetation or in the submerged branches of a tree. Other times they hide under weed or at the deepest parts of a pool. Such areas are always worth a few extra casts. Just be wary of snags and losing your lure.
Trout position themselves close to available food
Trout spend a lot of time eating. So trout like to position themselves where food comes to them. The current, carries a steady stream of dislodged nymphs, snails and terrestrials.
Trout are lazy fish, they position themselves in areas where the current brings the food to them. It does not make much sense for them to constantly fight the current when feeding on micro size insects.
So look for large rocks or boulders out in the current. Trout very often hold right in front, or just behind. The rocks split the current, creating eddys and slack water. This is also a prime place to find bigger fish.
Other times, trout hold right on the edge of the river in the shallows. There the current is weak, but they can still drift side wise to eat any tasty morsels. I find two types of trout like to hold there, ones that are super alert and require precision presentation to catch, or sick trout on their last legs.
The final place, trout hold is where the rapids slows as it discharges into a pool. They can lay on the bottom and watch for food drifting by above. Some also hold right at the top of rapids.
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