The key to taking California trout is offering them something that comes close to imitating the food they normally eat. This may seem simple but it can have a direct bearing on consistent success. California waters are harder fished than most waters of the West and anglers who want to be consistently successful are well-advised to spend some time and effort studying the diet of trout in any given stream system or lake.
There have been drastic changes in the biotope of our mountain waters due to so much damming. There has been a great deal of manipulation of bait species in the past 100 years. Some of the introductions of new types of baitfish and competing species have been very haphazard.
Some fisheries, such as the Lahontan Basin trout fishery, which once produced remarkable cutthroat trout fishing, had introductions of other species that literally eliminated the original trout.
Bait Fish for Trout Guide and Tips to Follow
The modern trout fisherman should try to imitate the species of fish and insect life that remain in any given drainage.
This is not an impossible task. Although there are thousands of different species of aquatic insects and hundreds of types of baitfish, there are only a few species worth notice from the angler’s point of view. A general outline of these will eliminate the bulk of these species.
Baitfish Can be a Perfect Lure
The most logical way for the serious lure fisherman to go about his trout fishing is to take it for granted that about the only thing he can reasonably imitate is a small baitfish. I have made extensive experiments with plastic lures formed to imitate aquatic insects with little success.
They will take trout but the fish seem to want only a suggestion of insect life, much better done with flies than almost identical molded duplications. With a perfect fishing line for trout, using these baitfishes can make a great outcome for trout fishing.
The easiest way to select a baitfish to imitate is to assume that the young of the species you are fishing for is on hand in large numbers. In every stream or lake you can assume that if rainbow, brown or brook trout are there to be taken, there will be a large supply of the fry and young of these species.
In many cases, you can confirm this by merely looking in the shallow sections of lakes and in protected backwaters of most streams.
Almost any wobbler or spoon of the right size will do the job of imitating these colorful young trout. Many smaller plugs also imitate these small trout very closely. The only problem then becomes delivering the lure in a lifelike way.
Ways of Angling with Baitfish
Most anglers fish lures far too fast. A young trout or baitfish do not swim fast and it does not move through the water at a steady pace. Instead, the secret of survival for a young fish is a matter of darting and dodging from faster predatory fish. They can never hope to outswim a larger fish; they survive by being able to maneuver better.
A retrieve that is irregular is better than one that is steady.
Fish the Edges
Trout and other baitfish do not generally swim freely in the open waters of a lake or stream. They rarely venture far from some sort of cover. This is a matter of finding a secure habitat without violently flowing water where they can hide from predators.
The edge of a piece of fast-flowing water is generally a more productive place to fish than the center of a large, deep hole.
You will find much more baitfish action around the edges of a lake. Baitfish generally tend to hold right on the bottom where they find the feed necessary to sustain life and a place to hide in the rubble of the bottom.
It is usually better, therefore, to allow a lure to settle to the bottom, or very near the bottom of a lake or stream, before retrieving it.
The combination of a slow, erratic and deep retrieve is normally best for all situations. On rare occasions, you will find trout that prefer a fastmoving lure. This should be attempted if the slow retrieve doesn’t produce.
Some California Baitfish for Trout Fishing
The California Fish and Game Department has published a brief rundown on baitfish species in “Freshwater Nongame Fishes of California.” It provides an outline of the types of smaller fish trout are likely to find in California waters.
Some of these, such as the threadfin shad has had a remarkable effect on trout fishing in lakes where it has been introduced. There is some indication the species can even be implanted into new waters by eggs attached to the feathers of birds.
These “accidental” introductions may mean we will have this baitfish species in all our waters eventually, even in lakes they were never intended for.
The threadfin is a silvery fish with a yellowish-green to bluish green back divided about halfway up the length of the body. The fins are yellowish to yellow-green. Lures and flies should have these combinations of colors. The fish can range from string-like larvae about a half
inch long to adult fish several inches in length. They spawn when the water reaches about 70 degrees. Since the eggs need a water temperature of about 80 degrees to hatch, few will be found at higher elevations.
Pond smelt is very silvery. They are found in the Yuba South Fork drainage. Also, they can be imitated by nearly any silver wobbling lure or a silver and white streamer or bucktail fly.
1. Suckers for Smaller Trout
Although suckers may compete with the smaller trout for food, they provide an excellent source of food for larger trout. In general, the suckers are a dark but not mottled fish. There are several species in California and most trout waters have some form of the species.
An imitation that will work anywhere is a streamer that is solid and dull with mixed gray and brown hair or feathers over an all-silver tinsel body. Lures like wobblers that are dull-colored work well.
2. Hardhead is Good as Trout Fish
The hardhead minnow is found in all the Central Valley drainages. The adult looks a lot like a squawfish but the young are good trout food. They are bronze on the back and the belly shades to silver or cream.
When young these minnows feed on insects; when adult on other fish and aquatic plants. This makes them direct competitors with trout for food
3. Squawfish as Trout Bait
The squawfish also competes directly with trout. They grow to be two or three feet long. The young are usually dark on the back, shading to silver on the belly.
They are imitated by nearly any lure or fly with flash. There is some orange in the fins. They are found in streams tributary to the Central Valley.
4. The Lahontan Redside
The Lahontan redside is an important baitfish for larger trout in the eastern drainages of the Sierra and in streams and lakes north of the American River.
Its name comes from the distinctive red or pink stripe running the length of the minnow on the side.
This shades to pink during most of the year, turning red when spawning season arrives. Different types of Lures and flies have different roles in catching different fishes. These should have a reddish or dark stripe for catching trout. It is to imitate this baitfish successfully.
5. Different Tui Chub Varieties as Bait
There are four different chub varieties in California waters. They are an important baitfish species in mountain waters. Though the larger tui chub is a thick fish the minnows are very streamlined. They run in color from olive green on the back to white and yellow combinations on the belly.
They have been found with brassy-green and even silver-green on the back shading to silver on the belly. The best imitations are half dark above and white or lemon on the belly. They are not a fast-water fish and are found in lakes, particularly around grassy or rocky cover, and in deep pools in rivers.
6. Sculpin and Sticklebacks
There are several species of spiny baitfish in California waters.
The sculpin and stickleback are not nearly as noticeable as other baitfish species because they inhabit riffles where they are difficult to detect. The best imitations of either species are mottled flies or lures. Only a few echo lakes and other similar lakes have these species.
Limitation of the Baitfishes for Catching Trout
Baitfish Imitations, In my opinion, the vast majority of standard wet flies used today are taken by the trout as small baitfish. An angler should make some concession to color. Most of the minnows found in California waters are
lighter on the bottom than on the upper half of the body. A fly with a body of tinsel will make a minnow like an imitation. A bright-colored body material also gives a fly flash. Generally, materials that soak up water, such as silk, are not too good because they change colors drastically when wet.
Size is probably more important than color in offering minnow imitations. If a trout follow a lure and then refuses it at the last minute, it is usually necessary to go to a smaller lure to get the fish to hit.
Very rarely will a trout want a larger lure? Yet it happens often enough that an angler should have larger lures and flies available to offer
them. I have found streamers and bucktails with an overlay of peacock hurl spears very effective. I think this is because the hurl gives just the right bronze and greenish flash to the fly. I’ve also found lures with some green in them effective.
Red is accepted by most anglers as a primary color but I’ve found green to be more productive, except during spawning periods.