The optimal speed to retrieve when fishing for trout
I want to discuss presentation speed when it comes to trout fishing.
As in how fast should a nymph, dry, streamer, or lure be moved through the water to maximize the chances of catching fish.
Now, there will always be outliers, trout that behave differently from the norm or what is expected given current water conditions, but the majority of trout do demonstrate quite predictable feeding patterns.
Presentation speed – How fast to retrieve lures and flies?
The optimal speed of retrieval is usually the same as the speed of the ‘food source’ you are attempting to replicate. For example, fishing a suspending nymph in still water will suit a stationary presentation while imitating a minnow will suit a faster more active presentation.
So at the most fundamental level, it is not difficult, just copy the speed of the food. With that said, there is some nuance to this which I will discuss below.
The speed of food
I like to break down the speed of food into three main groups, Stationary, slow and fast. Stationary food like the name suggests does not move, slow food moves ever so slightly but usually is at the mercy of the current. While fast food have the speed to actively move against the current.
Stationary food has no, or negligible motion of its own, it moves where the current takes it. Some examples of stationary food will include fish eggs, mussels, worms (dead), snail
Slow food has the ability to move ever so slightly against the current. Most of the time they will drift with the current, but they have a small amount of control. Some examples will be various species of insects such as caddis, mayflies, and stonefly nymphs.
Fast food is animals that can actively swim around and even move against the current. The most noticeable example will be baitfish, but could also include swamped terrestrial insects, mice, crayfish, and even powerful insects such as dragonfly nymphs.
Slow down, or speed up the presentation with regard to water temperature.
Water temperatures below 6c (42f), or above 20c (67f) require slower presentations than water temperatures between these two extremes. This is because the trout’s metabolism slows when the water is either too warm or too hot causing the trout to become sluggish. This in turn means trout are less willing to chase down fast moving prey.
Many prey species also slow down (or speed up) with the water temperature. So take water temperature into consideration when determining the optimal retrieval speed.
This is also the reason why both ‘faster’ and ‘very slow’ retrieves are sometimes suggested when fishing over the winter months. When water is between say 50-40f, the trout are active and hungry meaning faster presentations can bring results. Later in the winter, when temperatures drop below 40f everything underwater starts to slow down.
Presentation speed in moving water
The speed of retrieve is quite straightforward when dealing with moving water, and when fly fishing most of the time you will want the fly to travel at the same speed as the water. Having a dry fly skating across the surface is unlikely to be overly productive.
Stationary food such as fish eggs should drift as naturally as possible with the current.
At this point, I need to note that the flow on the surface is nearly always faster than the flow close to the bottom.
This means keeping unnatural drag to a minimum. For example, if the indicator is drifting in faster water than the egg pattern, this will cause the egg to drag through the water causing it to move unnaturally. This is enough to give a trout second thoughts about taking a pattern or not.
It is also important to allow the current to carry slow moving food, although a very slight amount of drag can often be gotten away with. There is very little benefit in trying to actively retrieve a nymph, just let the current do its thing while trying to keep drag to a minimum.
Fast moving food can be actively retrieved although it is not essential.
It is usually best to retrieve a lure or streamer ever so slightly faster than the current you are fishing. It is also important to slow down the retrieve when fishing the lure against the current.
Holding a lure stationary against the flow of the current can also work. Baitfish are expected to swim slowly in the upstream direction compared with downstream.
How about large summertime terrestrials?
There are always discussions about whether large summer terrestrials such as hoppers, cicadas, or bugs should be fished stationary, or with a little imparted movement. After all, naturals often buzz around in a futile attempt to escape the water surface.
I have played around with both natural still drifts, and very slow twitchy retrieves and in general it does not really matter, but I prefer the former. Any ‘unnatural’ vibrations from the line as it moves through the water does risk frightening the trout.
Finally, I have had trout rocket after hoppers as they ‘skate’ across the surface as I was lifting them out of the water while casting. Rarely, a high speed surface presentation have triggered trout for me. When I notice trout doing exactly that, the only option is to pause the cast and pray that the trout will smash the fly in the shallows.
Presentation speed in still water
Presentation is of utmost importance when still water fishing. This is because trout have more time to expect the fly or lure before deciding to strike or not.
When fishing stationary bait and flies
I advise introducing no additional movement into them. Just let them hang in the water column. Wind pushing an indicator along can also make stationary baits difficult to fish. For this reason, when it is windy, it is usually best to fish with a lure or fly that requires an active retrieve.
Slow moving baits can occasionally benefit from a little imparted movement, such as to get a caddis to raise slightly off the bottom in order to grab the attention of a passing trout. These movements should be slow and deliberate.
Streamers, lures, and spinners work best when fished with a slow to medium speed retrieve.
When lure fishing, it is all about maximizing the amount of time the lure stays within the strike zone, or in other words. The longer the lure spends within the part of the lake where the trout patrol greatly increases the number of strikes.
In most lakes, most of the time trout do not swim around randomly, but they follow predictable beats, they have a path that they cruise along. This is usually over dropoffs, or above weed banks. Lures within the ‘area’ of the beat are significantly more likely to be grabbed than one swimming across open water.
For this reason, when fishing from the shore, it is generally best to cast out at a slight diagonal from the shoreline. If you can avoid it, do not cast straight out. Diagonal to the shoreline works best because trout typically swim parallel to the beach and retrieving diagonally allows the lure to spend more time where the trout are likely to be feeding.
Optimal trolling speeds for catching trout
I have written about trolling speed before, but I will cover it again briefly here.
First, I always try to troll between 0.5 to 2.0 mph, which is below 3kph in metric. When the water is freezing, I will troll closer to 0.5mph, when conditions are milder I will speed up towards 2mph.
Slow trolling, nearly always outperforms fast trolling. I nearly always troll in a lazy S pattern, this pattern has several advantages including the lure cutting the corner to travel across undisturbed water.
The lure also often slows down at the ‘corners’ of the S pattern. This slight pause is one of the most likely times a trout will decide to strike.
The only time I troll slightly faster, is when I want to raise my lure higher in the water column without the need to remove weight. One such example, I might speed up when crossing a gravel bar to reduce the chance of it snagging the bottom.