Rainbow trout are one of the top five freshwater fish with anglers in the United States, right up there with bass, crappie, panfish, and catfish. Bass anglers outweigh all the rest, since they rack up millions of hours each year hooking the large and small mouth varieties. Trout are in the same family as salmon and share the salmon’s desire to migrate back to their spawning grounds each year. Rainbow trout are native to the Pacific northwest, but their popularity has caused folks to introduce this fish to waterways throughout the country since the 1800’s. Even some local city parks will stock their ponds with trout in the spring and summer seasons. They’re popular with other animals too, especially bears. So, you may have to contend with the wildlife for your share of the catch!
Be sure, before you go out, that you’re familiar with your state’s fishing rules and regulations. Most states require a license to fish if you’re over a certain age. Many have catch limits that vary with the season and the fish population. Make sure you’re up-to-date with all of this information or you may be faced with fines, or at the very least a chat with a park officer. You can look up your state’s requirements here. Make sure to respect private land and get permission before fishing other people’s property. Trespassing laws change frequently too and, in some places, even fishing next to private land is considered a violation. It always pays to double check or just stick to places where you know it’s okay to drop your line.
Best Places to Fish for Rainbow Trout
Rainbow trout and steelhead are the same fish, but live in different habitats. The steelhead is normally found in saltwater, but travels into rivers to spawn. Rainbows live their entire lives in freshwater rivers, lakes, and streams. Because they have different lifestyles, their appearances are a bit different too. The ocean-dwelling steelhead are more streamlined and the overall body color is a metallic steel or copper color. The river trout have the characteristic pink stripe along the sides, which gets more noticeable when breeding season begins. Their mouth opening extends past the eye and they have a light underside. Regardless of the season or the gender, they’ll have a patterned series of spots along their midline.
In freshwater, these fish prefer cooler water, about 55-60 degrees, with a gravel bottom and some cover. It’s harder to find them in the hot summers of the American south, but places like Alaska and California have prime rainbow trout habitats. They don’t like to be out in the current because they’d spend too much energy trying to fight it. So, look for rainbow trout in calmer pools and remember, if you can see them, they can see you. Pack your waders if you have them. Most anglers like to get into the water so they can get a good cast into those calm pools. Since fly fishing for rainbow trout is a popular way to go after them, you’re likely to see your fellow anglers in their hip waders out in the stream.
Keep an eye out for seams too, where faster currents meet calmer water downstream from a rock wall or a downed tree. This is where the fish like to hang out facing upriver. This way, they can keep to the calmer water until they see something tasty coming down the stream. Then, they can dip into the faster current to catch it and slip back to the calm side for a rest.
Steelhead are quite a bit bigger that their river counterparts and are known for putting up a good fight. Keep that in mind when choosing your equipment. Since they move around more than rainbow trout, the season matters quite a bit when trying to find their populations.In saltwater, look for steelhead in water less than 35 feet deep. In spring and early summer, check river outlets or new dams and culverts. Here, the fish can get trapped trying to get upstream. But, if the obstacle has been there for a while, the fish have likely learned they can’t take that route back to their breeding grounds. For a USGS map of the rainbow trout’s range, go here.
Best Bait for Rainbow Trout
Now that you know where to find rainbow trout, how do you get one on the hook? Luckily, this fish has a variable diet. This is good because you don’t have to search around for a very specific bait. It’s bad because you never know what the fish are going to go for on any given day. That’s why it pays to pack a variety with you. Live bait is preferred by some anglers over lures, but there are ways to fish both methods. Rainbow trout are usually surface feeders, going after insects, fish eggs, and smaller fish. In large bodies of water like lakes and oceans, they eat more toward the bottom, hunting crustaceans, worms, and mollusks. They’ve even been known to eat spiders and mice.
So, which one do you choose? As mentioned before, variety is really the key here. Start out with half of a nightcrawler or other bait worm, as they’re easy to get ahold of and if you have to go through a few of them you won’t be out a ton of cash. Another cheap option is a mixture of flour and crushed dog food with a little bit of corn starch. Add enough water to form the mixture into a dough. Mold some onto your hook and you’ve got a stinky bait that will attract the trout from far away. There’s a product on the market called Powerbait that has a similar dough-like consistency. It comes in different scents and colors and is essentially molding clay for fish. Salmon eggs and marshmallow baits can also be effective.
Since rainbow trout are top feeders, you want a light bait and a light line so your bait doesn’t sink to the bottom. That being said, they aren’t exclusively top feeders, so take along a few options (bobbers, weights, bait) so you can switch it up if they’re not striking at the top when you’re out. Steelhead actually prefer to feed at the bottom. In this case, weigh your line so the bait sinks and attach a bobber so you know when to set the hook. You can also try drift fishing, where you pull the bait along the bottom at pace with the current, so the bait looks like it’s drifting. Drift fishing takes some practice to get the hang of, but it’s one of the most popular methods of catching steelhead.
Best Lures for Rainbow Trout
If you don’t want to handle stinky fresh bait or dog food, a wide variety of lures exist that are designed to attract rainbow trout. The following list focuses on the freshwater rainbow trout, rather than its saltwater cohort, the steelhead.
Lures that mimic other small fish do a good job of attracting large trout. Some good options are:
- Rebel’s Tracdown Minnow, this one is weighted and has a one foot per second sink rate;
- the Rapala Original Floating Minnow, this one is inexpensive and comes in 19 different colors so you can match yours to the local baitfish;
- and the Strike King Bitsy Minnow, good for small waters and attracts trout with its reflective eyes.
There are a few cool lures that mimic other trout prey:
- The Bass Pro Shops XTS Mini Dad Crank looks like a shrimp and comes in a variety of colors;
- They also produce a Mini Hopper Crank that resembles a cricket and works great twitched along the surface of a small pond;
- Rebel has a Crawfish that sinks and attracts an array of different gamefish.
Spoon lures are yet another great choice for rainbow trout. Shaped like the bowl of a spoon, their erratic movement and light reflection attracts a lot of attention. A few good spoons to look for are:
- The Acme Kastmaster Spoon is a durable long-cast lure that won’t twist your line;
- The Eppinger Original Dardevle Spoon can be cast or trolled and has been catching trout for over 100 years;
- The Thomas Lures Buoyant Spoon, as the name implies, floats and is most effective with a slow retrieve.
If you want to draw the steelhead, there are some subtle differences in the types of lures you can implement. You can use a bobber and jig, which is a good beginning method. There’s also “plunking” which involves a weighted lure that hovers in place under a bobber. If you’re fishing from a boat, a good option is a puller plug that can be pulled along behind a slow-moving boat. The more time you take to get to know the area, the better luck you’ll have pulling steelhead with regularity.
This article hasn’t touched on fly fishing, which is one of the most popular ways to go after trout. There’s so much to cover on this topic that it deserves a whole series of articles unto itself. This one from The Outbound Collective is a good place to start.
Best Way to Cook Rainbow Trout
So you’ve tried the above techniques, learned what the fish in your area go after, and reeled in a few big rainbows to take home. What do you do with them now? Eat them, of course! Below are a few ways to cook up rainbow trout so they’ll be light, tender, and full of that delicious wild flavor.
A common way to prepare rainbow trout is to bake or broil the fish. Once you’ve cleaned it, you can either wrap the whole fish or filets in tinfoil with various herbs and spices. The foil will trap the moisture in, keeping the fish from becoming tough and dry. Lemon, rosemary, thyme, and olive oil are all great to wrap up with your fish. Get ahold of a meat thermometer so you can measure the internal temperature as it cooks. The temperature should be at least 145F or the fish won’t be cooked all the way. A whole fish will take longer in the oven than fillets will. There’s a delicious recipe for foil baked trout with tomatoes, garlic, and thyme from the New York Times, which you can find here.
Another popular and really tasty way to cook rainbow trout is to fry it. As with the baking option, you can fry either the whole fish or filets, but fried filets are more common. You can either pan fry the fish naked or coat it in breading first. Try a cornmeal crusted pan fry for a bit of southern flavor. If you use a finely-ground cornmeal, you won’t need an egg to stick it to the meat. Leaving out the egg will make the filets lighter and reduce the cholesterol of the meal. Toss it in a cast iron skillet with some olive oil and fry until crispy.
Finally, when summer is in full swing and you and the family are parked at a campsite, grilling is the way to go with rainbow trout. If you want to grill the fish whole, sprinkle the cavity with salt and pepper. Then, stuff with sweet onion slices, fresh thyme, and a sprig of fresh rosemary. Secure the fish closed with baking twine and put on a preheated grill. Flip the fish until both sides are dark and crispy. You should be able to smell the fresh herbs cooking.
First timer intimidated by cooking whole fish? Worry no longer, this recipe for Easy 20 Minute Oven Baked Trout includes simple cleaning instructions.
Now, you know a bit about rainbow trout and steelheads, where to find them, how to catch them, and even how to cook them as a delicious meal. The most important part of the process is to have fun. Enjoy your time out on the water and take in the joys of being out in nature. Good luck!