Any educated brown-trout angler knows the best method for catching big browns is fishing with small, live rainbow trout. Unfortunately, it’s highly illegal to do so!
As a result of the laws that prohibit using trout as bait, more than 25 years ago anglers throughout the Rockies, the Sierras, the Cascades and other mountain ranges in the West turned to trout-imitating swimbaits for targeting big browns. The first replicas were wooden, followed by plastic molded lures. Finally, almost life-like rubber lures arrived on the scene.
No matter what the lures are made from, dragging swimbaits through the water in spring and fall takes effort, skill and patience, and tends to restrict anglers from catching anything other than trophy browns, those heavier than 8 pounds.
Meanwhile, many Western fishing guides targeting big browns have been reverting to a long-time trolling technique, practiced on several cold-water game fish, and are tweaking it to give them an advantage over others. Taking less effort and requiring much less education to put to use, trolling anchovies, sardines and shad is rapidly becoming an effective technique to brown-trout enthusiasts. The tactic doesn’t necessarily fool trophy fish every time, but working cut baits in this way can help anglers increase catch rates on medium-sized browns.
“I’ve been doing it about 30 years, and it’s definitely not a secret out there,” said veteran guide Danny Layne. “But most guys still shy away from doing it because they don’t want to mess with the cut bait. They’ll use lures instead.”
However, few can argue the success of live bait – or dead bait, in this case. Cut baits achieve many things plastic and rubber molds cannot. Particularly, when a fish grabs cut bait, they don’t let go. It’s really very simple, Layne said: Shad and anchovies feel like fish and taste like fish. Therefore, browns aren’t likely to swim up to it, take a sniff and dart away.
Which cut bait is the best? Knowing when to use shad versus anchovies isn’t as tough as it might seem. When trolled at 1 to 2 mph, the bait is moving fast enough that the trout don’t necessarily have time to inspect it. Often, they strike out of aggression because of the smell or the action of the bait.
“In many lakes in the West there’s shad or some type of minnow, and the browns are accustomed to seeing and eating them,” Layne adds. “The reason I troll anchovies is to imitate small trout and small kokanee, because we know the browns are inhaling them all year long.”
Trolling cut bait is no different than dragging a large Rapala X-Rap. However, rigging them can take a little experience.
Layne personally uses two No. 2 Octopus Gamakatsu hooks, snelled with a 2-inch gap between the hooks. To keep the bait positioned properly and maintain a realistic trolling motion, he pierces the bait with the trailing hook, just in front of the bait’s tail. The leading hook penetrates the lip or front end of the shad’s or the anchovy’s head.
“It can be intimidating for guys to have to rig them, even though it’s fairly simple. A lot of times I simply go to a Pro Troll E-Chip harness, which puts the correct spin on your bait and rolls the shad or anchovy properly,” Layne said.
The slow-rolling motion of this trolling rig is key to drawing the browns to strike. Hooking the bait properly or using a harness is the first and most important step to achieving this. Next, Layne said, the bait is trolled anywhere browns are found in the fall, particularly near inlets and outlets and around drop-offs. He mostly trolls them in the top 40 feet of the water column.
“Trolling these baits makes the browns think it’s crippled. It’s supposed to be simulating a crippled rainbow, kokanee or other small fish,” he said. “We know trolling bait triggers strikes or we still wouldn’t be doing it all the time.”
Layne also recently added another contraption that’s running his catch rates upward. Tinkering with the color and smell of these baits often makes them stand out more to browns, he said, and draws them in from greater distances. He does this by giving the browns a choice when pulling four baits simultaneously. He explains that he trolls two baits as is – possibly adding crawdad, anise, garlic or other scents to them – but he dramatically alters two other baits.
Layne prepares one of the two baits by adding Pautzke’s Liquid Krill to a bag filled with the shad and allows the krill to penetrate the bait to maximize the scent trail. He leaves the liquid and the baits in the bag for several hours.
Layne then alters the second by changing its color and its scent. He takes two plastic bags and pours a cup of water in each bag (with the shad or anchovy in it already). To each of these he adds a bottle of Pautzke Nectarred in one and blue in the other. He then leaves the bait in the bag overnight so the bait toughens and colors.
“The scent and the flash draw in the browns,” he said. “When it’s down 20 to 40 feet, the blue or red shows up well and can really help draw browns in from greater distances.”
Brown trout largely shift their diet to small fish when they reach about 14 inches long, but that doesn’t mean they shy away from other foods. In fact, they’ll eat worms, bugs, insects and other natural baits as often as rainbows.
That’s why fishing guide Mike Nielsen of South Lake Tahoe cautions anglers from overlooking the trusty night crawler.
Nielsen is a strong believer in trolling stick-baits and big swim-baits for browns. He’s the kind of guide who has enough patience to troll a lake for hours in search of one strike from a big brown. But oddly enough, night crawlers somehow remain high on his list of “go-to” brown-trout baits.
The biggest mistake anglers make when using night crawlers, Nielsen said, is they tend to use them where browns aren’t found. Because brown trout spawn in late fall, early fall is the easiest time to locate browns. Do your homework and learn where brown trout live at any given time, he said. If you do, you’ll learn quickly to develop night-crawler trolling techniques for the fall in areas where inlet and outlet streams are found or in coves and across points near tributaries. With browns heading to these places to spawn, they’ll often be feeding heavily in these areas before they migrate into the tributaries to attempt at reproducing.
Another oversight anglers let slip through the cracks when trolling night crawlers is trolling too fast.
Dragging lures like a Rebel Spoonbill or a Bomber Model A at 3 to 5 mph is common, but that action isn’t natural in a worm. Of course, it would be hard to defend any sort of trolling speed as a “natural” action for a night crawler, but Nielson said decreasing your trolling speed to 1 1/2 miles per hour or less is ideal during flat, calm conditions.
“You want the worm to look natural, or the brown won’t grab it,” he said. “What I do is use a set of flashers or dodgers in front of it. That will create vibration and a flash to draw browns in, because you aren’t going to do too well simply dragging a night crawler around. You need something to attract the browns.”
Nielsen’s choices for flashers include Ford Fenders, Vance dodgers or Jensen dodgers, and he typically does not use the larger sizes. And he emphasizes he often uses outriggers rather than side planers to separate the trolled rigs.
Outriggers are not often used by trout guides in the West. Outriggers are more effective than side planers because they create far less friction when retrieving the fish after it’s been hooked, said Nielsen.
“People have to remember that browns are skittish by nature. They aren’t as dumb as rainbows,” Nielsen said. “You need to do anything you can to get your bait away from the boat. Run longer lines if you have to, but get those lines away from the boat. The farther out to the side you get them, the more bites you’ll get.”