The dying art of fishing natural bait for stream trout (and a primer on the same)
By JIM MATTHEWS
When I was a kid, back before every urban lake in Southern California was planted with rainbow trout all winter long, the only places to catch trout in Southern California were in a handful of lakes in the mountains that ring the urban basin of Southern California – or one of dozens and dozens of small streams that drained those same mountains.
Those high-elevation waters were the only places planted by the Department of Fish and Game back then because the trout could survive year around in the cool water. Many of us caught our first trout in local streams that had wild fish. I won’t say “native” because they were mostly brown trout that had been planted only once or twice in the streams and flourished. Like a lot of non-natives, they did well in the cold, clear waters running off the high peaks. A few streams also ended up with populations of wild rainbow trout that may or may not have been descended from native steelhead that used to run up into all these headwater streams from rivers that are now flood control channels in their lower elevations. Most likely came from DFG rainbow trout plants.
As a teen and into my 20s, I believe I caught trout in every stream that drains out of the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto mountains. The number of little streams is pretty sizeable, requiring two people with their shoes off to count on fingers and toes. This is proof that in the early days of the DFG, they were pretty good Johnny Appleseeds of trout, putting them just about everywhere a water thermometer said the temperature was cold enough to support them. So learning how to fish for wild stream trout was pretty much required procedure for a whole generation of us who grew up here trout fishing. But it was a skill that was learned, once upon a time, by all trout anglers because most of the fish they caught were from moving water – not lakes – all across the country. I think it is safe to say that most trout anglers today catch their fish from lakes.
It seems like stream and river trout fishing has become the domain of fly anglers, while lure and bait trout fisherman mostly stick to the lakes.
My roots on small streams in Southern California made me prefer moving water for trout, and I became a fly-fisherman because of those small streams. This makes sense if you understand that to consistently catch trout in moving water, I learned that the best baits were aquatic insects we collected from the bottoms of rocks and slipped onto a hook. Baits you bought in a store – even red worms or nightcrawlers – were distant second bests. Crickets or hat-swatted grasshoppers were good sometimes, but it was the stonefly nymphs and big worms from cased caddis larva that would assure trout were caught in literally every pool or deep current tongue. That was bait you had to catch yourself, by hand. Since it was difficult to consistently find bait big enough to fit on even a No. 14 hook, I took up fly-fishing so I could make fur and feather creations that looked like those natural baits. I guess that is really Lesson No. 1: Natural baits are best.
However, even with the flies the fish would take because they looked buggy, they would spit them out or refuse them as soon as they tasted or smelled those frauds. If you didn’t learn how to set the hook quickly, you never hooked many fish. Quite frankly, that was true even with the natural baits. If the fish felt any kind of resistance, or the bait didn’t float through the water naturally, they would spit them out or refuse.
Stream fishermen learn to set the hook quickly. Call that Lesson No. 2. We also learned how to balance the drag from the line in the current with added weight so the bait or fly drifted through the water in tune with the current flow. Call that Lesson No. 3. When you master those two things – and you have the right bait – stream and river trout fishing becomes pretty easy.
This is especially true in small streams where the trout are very opportunistic feeders and never get very big because their food supply is so limited. I will honestly tell you that the average wild trout from our Southern California streams is less than eight inches long. You brag about a 10-incher to the handful of fishing buddies who still battle through the brush and rock dance along the banks. The fish are small, so it requires dedication here to fish our small streams because access can be difficult, choked with trees and brush, and boulder strewn. (They are also some of the most beautiful places in our mountains, but that is another story.) But learning the ropes here makes bigger streams and rivers other places seem almost too easy. They don’t require the agility or the stealth needed here.
Let’s call that Lesson No. 4. Stealth is mandatory. It took me a long time to learn that lesson as a pre-teen, thrashing along the bank, slipping on rocks and grinding them together, and getting too close to pools, looming over them like some trout monster. This is a fact: If you flip a one-inch stonefly nymph to the head of a plunge pool that is two feet deep, you will catch the biggest fish on your first toss. That is providing you haven’t spooked the fish by your approach. If you don’t catch a fish on that first toss, you have spooked the fish in the pool, and you need to sit down and wait at least 10 minutes, or try to get to the next spot lower and quieter.
Stream fishing with natural bait has become a dying art, and it pains me. It is far easier to learn bait fishing than fly-fishing, and the number of anglers is declining (especially in California) even as the human population skyrockets. Anglers are fishery resources’ only real champions, and we need as many anglers as possible to protect these resources.
Yes, many bait fishermen of the old days killed all of their fish, and bait fishing does hook more trout deeply (in the throat and gills where they bleed and die even if released). But a good small-stream bait fisherman probably doesn’t hook all that many more trout lethally than a good fly-fisherman, especially with the new, non-stretchy, more sensitive spinning lines and barbless bait hooks. The last dozen times I have fished bait in streams, all of my trout were hooked in the lip and released quickly and safely. At the first tap on the line, I snap my wrist and the trout is hooked in the mouth. Some might argue this is the training from my years of fly-fishing, but the reality is my stream bait fishing taught this skill. Frankly, it is a pretty natural reflex.
Call that Lesson No. 5 (or is this really just restating and emphasizing lessons No. 2 and No. 3?): Keep in contact with your bait so you can feel the strike instantly and set the hook. Don’t let a lot of slack form in the line, and you will detect those strikes quickly. You are essentially walking your bait through the pools and runs on a leash, not letting it run around on its own and checking on it occasionally. Not only does that mean almost all hookups will be in the mouth, but also fewer missed and lost fish.
You will learn quickly that wild stream trout don’t eat floating dough baits or salmon eggs very often. Frankly, what do you think a wild trout’s natural reaction would be to seeing a fluorescent pink glob drifting through their pool the first time? These are fish that mostly eat insects that are smaller the size of a grain of rice. A Thanksgiving feast for them is a big caddisfly or stonefly larva that is a 1/2- to one-inch long. I have seen every trout in a small pool race to a big stonefly bait I’ve let wash into the pool from above.
Let’s call that Lesson No. 5 (or it this adding some definition to lesson No. 1?). The largest, familiar natural bait presented to the trout is the best bait you can use. If you are fishing a high meadow stream, that might be a grasshopper swatted with your hat and put on a hook. Most times it will be stonefly nymphs found on the bottom of rocks lifted from streams with briskly flowing water. But past about early June, the big stonefly nymphs have mostly hatched and you have to seek other baits. Once I started fly-fishing, I also started using tiny, thin-wire, short-shanked, fly-tying hooks in sizes 16, 18, and 20 to lightly hook those small, green, free-living caddisfly larva on hooks when bait fishing. While not as good as a big, juicy stonefly, they were the biggest bait I could find I knew were familiar to the trout.
Live bait is always better than dead bait, so learning to hook the insects just under the exoskeleton at the wing cases with a small, light-wire hook is the way to keep them alive and wiggly in the water. We used old throat lozenge tins to keep them alive in our pockets after collection. We’d put a little moss or leaves in the tin with a few drops of water, and the stoneflies and caddisflies would last for hours. Don’t store them in water. They die quickly that way, and I don’t know why.
Well, there you have it – a lifetime of stream trout fishing distilled down into a few paragraphs. Consider this an invitation to learn or rediscover stream trout fishing.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.