Spring will always be king for trout, no doubt, but I always look forward to the fall. In many ways, finding success is a bit more challenging this time of year, which I believe is part of the fun. Flows tend to be lower. The water is often clear. You might have to deal with ripping a bunch of fallen leaves off your line every few casts. But it’s worth dealing with these minor nuisances, because fall offers a lot of perks.
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The biggest may be a lack of bug life. From late spring through mid-September, wild trout in much of the country are focused on eating aquatic insects. That’s great for fly anglers, but if you’re a gear chucker like I tend to be during the colder months, it’s a problem. When trout get keyed in on bugs, you can pull a spinner or work a jerkbait through a pile of rising trout without so much as a sniff. There is a window in spring when bigger lures rule, but it’s early and fleeting and tends to wind down as temperatures rise and bugs start hatching. In fall, however, this “meat season” is extended, and anglers wielding a spinning rod have an advantage.
I’ve broken down locations, tactics, and some of my favorite lures for fall trout in two kinds of water: large rivers and small streams. Depending on the size of your local trout waters, you may find that a combination of the information relating to both water types will be the secret sauce that puts more toads in your net this fall.
Big River Breakdown
What qualifies a trout river as “big?” The answer may vary depending on who you ask, but for our purposes, I’m calling any river “big” that you can safely row a drift boat down, or perhaps navigate with a powered jon boat. The important thing to keep in mind is that I’m not saying you need any type of watercraft to fish a “big” trout river. The Upper Delaware in New York, the White River in Arkansas, and the Lower Manistee in Michigan would be just a few of the hundreds of rivers that fit my description, but there are still loads of anglers that fish them very successfully on foot.
In many cases, bigger rivers simply hold bigger trout. Likewise, the more water they have, the more they can spread out. If you are in a boat, you have an advantage; if you’re not, you have to be more strategic about planting yourself in one or two good spots within a given day and really picking them apart or moving around a lot.
On big rivers, covering water becomes critical, and I don’t just mean specific spots, but in many scenarios, wider swaths that require longer casts and specific lures. But before getting into what you should throw, let’s look at what you need to throw it.
Gearing Up for the Big River
In simplest terms, good big-river trout spinning gear is just standard bass spinning gear. You may already have plenty of it, though it’s not what you’d grab to head to a small trout stream. I like a 7-foot, medium-heavy rod with a sensitive tip and plenty of backbone, akin to what smallmouth guys often lean on for finesse tactics like drop shotting.
I spool with 15-pound braided line. Though you may not need line that strong to land your average trout, it has advantages in larger rivers. For starters, thin braid casts lures farther than monofilament, and sometimes a few extra feet keeps you in the strike zone longer. Given that casts can be long, the lack of stretch makes braid more sensitive, so I can feel a fish tick a soft-plastic jig at a distance more clearly. That lack of stretch also provides surer, faster hook penetration when a brown clobbers a plug on the first twitch. If I had to choose the best all-around leader, it would be 10-pound-test fluorocarbon, though I will scale up or down depending on the situation.
Essential Big River Lures
My go-to for trout is the Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue Junior. Brand, however, is less critical than function. You want a jerkbait that dives 3 to 5 feet and will hover in place when you pause. Jerkbaits shine because they can cover a lot of water, and you can tailor the retrieve based on conditions. Earlier in the fall, an aggressive steady action often trips trout triggers; as the water temperature drops, these baits can be finessed, getting the attention of sluggish fish with a quick jerk, but drawing the strike while hovering in place.
Though soft plastics are generally not as closely associated with trout fishing as they are bass fishing, they are lethal in colder water. In autumn, trout feed more heavily on chubs, shiners, and crayfish than they do during the warmer months. Likewise, a soft plastic on a jighead gets to the bottom of deep holes fast and can be worked at a snail’s pace or a steady swim. You don’t need to overthink lure selection—simple curly-tail grubs in white and brown have caught me lots of big trout. Any slim-profile swimbait with a paddle tail is also a great choice. However, one of my favorites is the 3.5-inch Tremor Shad from Jenko Fishing.
Large In-Line Spinners
Small in-line spinners are stream trout staples, but these lures perform very well in big water if you upsize. Larger spinners not only cast farther and match the profile of bigger forage, but their wider blades also produce more thump and vibration than their little cousins. This can be heard and felt by trout from greater distances. Some of my favorites include the ¼-ounce Blue Fox Vibrax and the Panther Martin Salmon and Steelhead Spinner, however, there is a caveat to these lures. I’ve found that when water temperatures drop below approximately 45 degrees, they catch fewer trout because the fish don’t want to chase food far and they can’t be paused or finessed.
Top Locations for Big-River Trout
When big rivers make a turn, water is pushed with more force to the outside of the bend, and a soft, slow spot is typically created on the inside. This is an ideal feeding area, because it’s a transition zone—fish can move freely between fast and slow current. Earlier in the fall when water temperatures are warmer, trout may gravitate to the middle or outside flows; as temperatures fall, they’ll spend more time in the soft inside water, darting into heavier flow only to snatch a meal. Depending on the size of the river, one long cast can cover the entire transition. Note where a strike comes from and focus the rest of your efforts in the same part of the turn.
Banks that slope away quickly tend to be money in the fall, because like inside turns (note the theme, here) they create a transition zone. Though the specifics will vary river to river, a good baseline description is a straight bank with slow to medium flow that drops off quickly, bottoming out in 6 to 8 feet of water. These areas can produce right through the winter, and you’ll often find that where the hit comes from will vary as the season gets later. Early on, it’s not uncommon to draw strikes tight to the bank. Later, you may get blasted as lures cross from the deep water to the rise. When the water gets really cold, hits will come fishing low and slow with soft plastics focusing on the bottom at the base of the drop.
Almost every big trout river I fish has a series of wide, swirling eddies. These backwaters can be almost lake-still along the bank and, in some cases, they can be 20 feet deep or deeper. But these spots can also be some of the most frustrating because it’s harder to read the current and determine the exact position of the fish within the eddy. The most important thing to understand is that the fish do, in fact, relocate within eddies, so where you caught them last week may not be the zone today. Shore-bound anglers can post up and really pick a big eddy apart. Once you get bit, you can assume other fish are in that same area. It might be at the head of the eddy, the tail, dead center, or close to the bank, but wherever it is, focus on that one “room” within the mansion.
Small Stream Breakdown
“Small” is a subjective term, but I use it to qualify any stream that is most accessible to and predominantly fished by anglers on foot. This could be anything from a brook trout stream you can jump across to the upper reaches of larger rivers where boats can’t play. Though there are some similarities in feeding behavior among big- and small-water trout, presentation, gear, and locations vary greatly.
Small streams may not have the larger chubs and king-size crayfish that fuel big-water rainbows and browns each fall, but that doesn’t mean small-stream trout don’t look for these forage species. Scaling down lure size to match what’s in the river is key, but so is presentation. In general, trout in small streams see more lures than the ones spread out in a larger system. They can be more pressured, therefore far more selective and wary. Whereas a big lure splashing down on a big river might not spook any trout, a soft landing on a little stream can make the difference between a grab and a fish instantly bolting away. Starting with gear properly tailored to these waters will help increase your success.
Gearing Up for Fishing a Small Stream
There are plenty of trophy trout in lots of small, wade-friendly streams, but you don’t need to beef up your outfit to catch them. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, because small-stream tactics require shorter casts and more delicate presentations. Even if you do tie into a bigger-than-average trout, fights tend to be shorter and closer, so you can get away with a much lighter rod. My preference is a 6- or 6.5-foot ultra-light rod with a fast action. I like the extra length and stiffness to send small lures farther, and the tip sensitivity to detect subtle bites when the situation calls for finesse tactics.
Many anglers stick to braided line on small streams, but I don’t. My preference is 4-pound fluorocarbon, because it’s strong enough to handle bigger fish, but it also disappears underwater—a plus in pressured streams. Filling your entire spool with fluorocarbon also gets rid of the need for leader.
Essential Small Stream Lures
Small Suspending Jerkbaits
Tiny spoons and in-line spinners may rule small-stream trout boxes, but a couple suspending jerkbaits should be in every arsenal. Not only can they be finessed more easily to match varying levels of trout aggression throughout the fall, but they can also weed out some of the dinks and find the heavies in the pocket water. My all-time favorite is the 2.5-inch Rapala X-Rap, with the 2 ¾-inch Yo-Zuri Pin’s Minnow being a close second. These lures will also stay in the shorter zones on smaller streams longer than in-line spinners and spoons.
I could have roped Trout Magnets into a catch-all small soft plastics category, but the truth is, I haven’t found a small soft-plastic that works better. The body of these tiny lures is modeled after a mealworm, which subsequently provides a shape that can match all kinds of forage. In black, a Trout Magnet is a stone fly. In rust it’s a tiny crayfish. In white it’s a mini baitfish. Pair it with Trout Magnet’s micro shad dart head and suspend it under a light slip float, and all you have to do is drift the rig through juicy seams and eddies and watch the little bobber drop. The slanted head deflects water, allowing the current to impart subtle action. These lures are deadly all season, but as fall turns to winter, they are often the first lures I tie on.
Small In-Line Spinners
Mirroring what I noted when discussing in-lines for big-river trout, small in-lines do seem to shine brighter in early fall when the water is warmer, but they are still a critical piece of kit. They also tend to produce a later in the season on smaller streams, particularly boulder-strewn pocket water. On these streams, zones are often small. As an example, whereas you might get bit anytime within the retrieve of a 40-foot cast on a big river, you might only be in zone as the lure comes behind one large boulder on a small stream. That said, even as the water cools, trout will be less willing to cover distance to eat a meal. They have to make a decision fast, and a Panther Martin or Mepps burning right across their face can trigger the chilliest trout.
Top Locations for Small-Stream Trout
So many anglers are attracted to faster current on small streams, and for good reason—lots of trout hold in it. But what’s important to remember is that come fall, feeding behaviors change as bug life diminishes. What won’t be as prevalent in faster water now is baitfish and crayfish. These forage species gravitate to areas with muted flows that often feature a mix of rocks and soft bottom. To your eye, these areas might seem uninteresting, so you pass them up, but trout follow the food sources, and these long, slow stretches are prime hunting grounds when the days get shorter and the mercury drops.
Keep in mind that the faster the water, the more energy trout must expend to hold in it. And the colder the water, the less energy they’re willing to expend. Whenever you’re eyeing up a run, consider which part of it would require the least amount of energy. When dealing with riffles that open into pools, the answer is often at the bottom—or tail. If it gets cold enough, trout may move out of these areas entirely, but for most of the fall season, they provide the perfect spot to hold, allowing the current to carry forage right to their mouths.
Any place you can find faster current butting up against slow water is a prime location for trout year-round, but in the fall, these areas can be extra productive. Given that trout can be more apt to grab a larger meal this time of year, the best approach is often positioning yourself so casts land in the faster water and are either worked or drift into the slow water. Spend extra time in these locations and assume somebody is home. If aggressive presentation like a jerkbait or spinner don’t get whacked within a few casts, switch over to that Trout Magnet and keep adjusting color and depth until you dial in the bite.
Where Not to Fish
I’d be remiss if I didn’t close by talking about trout breeding. Rainbow trout spawn in spring, but brown and brook trout are fall spawners. To let wild trout get busy, some states will close specific waters or even shut trout fishing down entirely this time of year, so always check local regulations before heading out. Many states, however, do not close streams in fall, which means it’s up to anglers to not target actively spawning trout. The good news is that in any given river with a breeding population, not all the fish will spawn every year and not all the fish that are going to spawn will do so at the exact same time. During spawning, trout build nests, called redds. They generally do so in relatively shallow water where the bottom is made up of smaller pebbles or gravel. Identify these areas and do your best to avoid them. If you see a single trout or pair of them seemingly glued to a small patch of bottom, leave them alone. There will be plenty of other pre-, post-, and non-spawning fish to target.