Rainbow trout fishing is a very popular activity throughout the country. Rainbow trout are commonly found in both aquaculture for food and in trout hatcheries for trout stocking programs. At the very least, you’ve probably seen rainbow trout on the menu or at the grocery store. These trout look nothing like a rainbow though. I was pretty disappointed as a child because of this. Freshwater rainbows are really distinguished by a pink or reddish stripe that extends from head to tail along the middle of its sides (see cover photo). This article focuses on freshwater rainbows and not the sea-run rainbows we call steelhead.
Where to Fish for Rainbow Trout
Rainbow trout are located in rivers and streams, as well as stocked lakes and ponds. The first step to fish for rainbow trout, or any species, is to find the specific bodies of water they live in. Go to your state’s fishery website and search. Here you can find the number of rainbow trout fishing opportunities near you, as well as a trout stocking schedules. Our Places to Fish & Boat Map is another great resource for this. Rainbow trout is a highly regulated species and you won’t have an issue finding details on regulations. Check to see which license and permits you need, which tackle is permitted, and if any special regulations apply to the area you plan to fish. Certain areas have regulations unique that those areas.
Rainbow Trout Rod, Reel & Line
Rainbow trout are very aware of their environment. If you plan on rainbow trout fishing in smaller streams and rivers, we recommend using 6lb test monofilament. Bigger rainbows tend to thrive in nutrient fresh lakes. In bigger bodies of water like ponds and lakes, step up to 8lb test. Dedicated trout fishermen usually have specialized rods and reels; however, a simple multispecies rod and reel is a perfect rod for trout fishing in all bodies of water. It’ll let you target small and large rainbow trout as well as the other trout species. In general, you want a 35 (3500) size spinning reel with a medium to medium light fishing rod.
How to Catch Rainbow Trout
Rainbow trout are aggressive and eat a large variety of foods. This includes any small fish (dead or alive), aquatic insects, and terrestrial insects such as ants, beetles, grasshoppers, worms, grubs, and crickets. Crustaceans such as freshwater shrimp and crayfish are also a part of their diet when available. In most situations, live bait is the best option for catching rainbow trout. Worms are typically the go-to as they are readily available and typically legal for trout across the US. If you are in the Midwest, you are often allowed to fish with minnows and leeches. All three options will work well for rainbow trout. If you aren’t close to a tackle shop, digging for earthworms is an easy option. If you don’t feel like digging, then check out our friends at Speedy Worm to order your bait overnight.
Rainbow Trout Lures
While live bait consistently gives you the best odds of catching trout, trout lures are still an excellent option. Some of the best trout lures can be found in every trout fisherman’s tackle box. Simply, if you can make them life-like and appealing, you will grab a trout’s attention.
Spoons are great at mimicking baitfish. Silver spoons are best for clear water as they reflect light. They work well in streams for casting and cutting across the moving water. Use them for long casts and trolling throughout the water column in lakes and ponds. Keep it simple and stick with a silver casting spoon around 3/16 oz. This is a classic style spoon and a staple for rainbow trout fishing.
Jigs and grubs are arguably the best fishing lure of all time. Retrieve them quickly, slowly, bounce them on the bottom, or let them drift naturally. Jigs are very versatile and effective any day on the water. A classic setup is a 1/16oz jig head with a 2in white curl tail grub. Keep it moving and give it small twitches here and there to resemble a worm or insect. If you’re fishing in slow or still water, use a white or chartreuse marabou jig. Only the slightest movement makes marabou flutter. It’s hard for a trout to resist this fluttering action. These work especially great under a float when rainbow trout are feeding near the surface.
Spinners are excellent lures for searching for trout. To use them effectively, cast and reel them in quickly enough for the blades to spin. These are your go-to when you want to cover large amounts of water. Spinners come in many colors, styles, and sizes. Stick with inline spinners between 1/8 oz and 1/4 oz. Colors in silver, gold, blue, pink, orange, and red work great. Rainbow trout and perch patterns also work very well. For open water, select metal spinners with beads or a vibrator to give added attention for aggressive rainbow trout. These spinners are great for long casts and trolling. In deep areas, let them sink before the retrieve to cover deep parts of the water column. For shallow water, use feather spinners. These work great in streams and in the upper water column of lakes.
Use crankbaits to mimic baitfish, crustaceans, and large insects. Use crustacean and baitfish imitations around rocky areas. Let them hit the rocks on the retrieve with brief pauses to suspend the lure. Expect rainbows to hit on the pause. For large terrestrial insects like grasshoppers and beetles, fish near the shore or bank and start out with a slow retrieve. Retrieve faster each consecutive cast.
Rainbow Trout Bait Rigs
Floating rigs are best for deep water. Assemble it as per the graphic below using a 3-5 ft leader, #7 swivel, 1/4 oz egg sinker, and floating trout bait. Good colors for floating trout bait are orange, green, chartreuse, or white. Use this rig to target drop-offs in lakes and deep holes in streams. Cast and give it a chance to settle and wait at least 10 minutes before reeling in to check your bait.
Split Shot Rig
This is a classic rainbow trout rig. Select this rig when the bows are docile. Use a #8 baitholder hook with a split shot 1-3 ft above it and that’s it. Cast out and let it sink to the bottom. Wait a minute, and reel in slowly, then let it sit another minute. Patiently repeat this process to cover a lot of water. If you need to add a lot of split shot to reach the bottom, switch to a float rig with an egg sinker. Crimping on lots of split shots can significantly weaken your line.
Live Bait Float
Floating rigs allow you to target specific depths. It consists of a slip float, slip tie, split shot, and bait. For deep water, incrementally adjust the float via the slip tie to fish lower in the column if you don’t get bites. In fast moving water, the float will move faster than the bait. Increase the length between the float and split shot to allow the bait to sink effectively to a desired depth.
Fishing Lakes & Ponds
Finding Rainbows in Open Water
Rainbow trout prioritize water conditions over structure. Trout thrive in water temps between 40-60 degrees and they’ll adjust accordingly throughout the day and season. You can find them near the surface, near the bottom, or anywhere in between, depending on water conditions. Your goal is to fish at different depths within the water column to find how deep they are. Trout are most active in the morning and evening hours, so plan accordingly. Look for them surfacing at these hours, and expect them to move deeper during midday.
Oxidation and protection are other top priorities. Any area where there’s an inflow of water is a great area to target. After a good rainfall, put these inflow areas first on your list. Target any type of structure nearby that offers a place for protection such as a large rock, island, drop-off, fallen timber, etc.
Pitching Lures in Ponds and Lakes
Rainbows are most aggressive in the morning and evening. Cast and retrieve metal spinners or casting spoons 1-3 ft down to cover lots of water to target aggressive trout at dawn and dusk. You want to get your lure in front of as many trout as possible before they slow down for midday. Trout chase baitfish in deeper water at midday, especially when the bugs aren’t hatching. Switch to crankbaits or jigs at this time to mimic baitfish and crustaceans. Cast out and retrieve with a series of twitches and pauses to really entice them. If your crankbait or jig can’t cast far enough to reach your target, stick with a casting spoon.
Live Bait Rigs for Bows in Lakes
Bait rigs are generally the most effective at catching trout in lakes, ponds, and reservoirs. If you’re just starting out, use bait rigs. The most common method is using a floating dough bait on the bottom. Cast out 20-30yds and let your sinker hit the bottom. Then reel in the slack to feel for bites. Secure your rod in a holder or on a forked-stick and wait for a bite. To fish higher in the water column, switch to a slip float and worm. Let the wind carry the float around, experimenting with different depths. Set the hook when the float is fully submerged.
Fishing Streams & Rivers
Finding Rainbows in Streams and Rivers
Focus on deep water in streams and rivers. Usually this is in the middle, but in some sections it’s at the bank. Focus on different parts of the water column starting from high to low, ending on the bottom. Water conditions are still the number one priority, but structure and cover are more important in moving water than in lakes. Search for cover that breaks the current such as rocks, boulders, timber, islands, hanging vegetation, tree roots, bridge piling, etc. Fish around these obstructions to find rainbow trout that utilize them as a shield against the current. This is the same strategy for fishing for other species such as brown trout and brook (speckled) trout.
After a heavy rainfall when the water is dirty, search for clean water. This will usually occur at the inflow of other drainages or water sources. In addition, seek out any new ground that has been submerged. Submerged islands are great places to try. Trout will come out of hiding to feed on all the worms and bugs that were living on this ground.
Casting the Right Lures in Moving Water
In the morning and evening hours, start out with a feather spinner to fish near the surface. Cast diagonally upstream and begin reeling immediately to get the blades to spin. You’ll cover a lot of water with this method while the trout are most active. Otherwise, use a crankbait resembling a baitfish. Cast upstream diagonally and retrieve it with short, aggressive twitches and pauses. This method works great for exciting lazy rainbow trout. Another method is to cast out perpendicular and let it drift naturally without a retrieve. Let the crankbait catch the current and swing through your target area. The crankbait should appear to be “leisurely” swimming.
Using Live Bait for River Bows
Just as in lakes, bait is generally the most effective at catching trout. The big difference in a river is the current. Start by using a live bait float rig. Adjust the float so your slip tie so your bait drifts in the middle of the water column. Cast upstream and let it drift through your target area, then repeat the process. When you fish the bottom of the water column, adjust the slip float so your bait just barely skirts against the bottom. This allows for a better drift that doesn’t constantly snag the bottom. In water more than 5ft, use the split shot rig for fishing the bottom. Use a split shot that allows the bait to sink and roll with the current. Keep your rod tip up and raise it when you feel the bottom. This helps prevent snags and keeps the bait moving naturally.
Rainbow Trout Fishing Tips
Trout are extremely aware of their environment. They can see you 15yds away and can sense any vibration or noise that you make. Silence and slow movement is the key. Assume that there is a trout wherever you are, and act accordingly.
In current, cast upstream. It is unnatural for small fish and bugs to move upstream, simply because they can’t in many areas. There’s the uncommon occurrence of an aggressive trout not caring about this, but again, it’s uncommon at best. Rainbow trout wait in anticipation of food moving downstream as it naturally does.
Trout are cold water fish that struggle in warm water. A thermometer is a great tool to have in some cases. Water temps between 40-60F are optimal for trout to thrive. Temps outside of this range can stress the trout and they start to struggle. If the water temp is not optimal, we recommend that you do not fish to avoid stressing the trout.
High to Low
Trout feed looking upward. Focus on the upper water column first before fishing deeper.
Handling Rainbow Trout
Handle trout with care. These fish are more prone to injury than most others. If you plan to release the trout, we recommend you use a rubberized net for a quick and easy release. Try to handle trout with wet bare hands and not gloves. Do not grab them by the lip for risk of breaking their jaw. For large trout, use one hand to grab around the tail while the other supports the rest of its body, horizontally. In current, face the trout into the current for revival and release. If you plan on keeping what you catch, first check the rainbow trout regulations for size and creel limits. Then learn how to clean your fish from start to finish.