How to Catch Rainbow Trout: Fishing Like A Pro

Catch Rainbow Trout
Written by Neal Walker

Looking forward to a weekend in the wild woods with a loved one, your kids, or a peaceful day alone on the lake?  What can only enhance this outdoor experience is a good old fashioned fishing trip to catch grub for your night or catch and release for the sport.

An excellent place to start your fishing adventures is with the popular rainbow trout. Not only is it the most common fish to find in lakes and rivers, they are perhaps the easiest variety of fish to catch.

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A wild-caught rainbow will not only be a delicious dinner, but these trout often find themselves in some of the most pristine and beautiful mountain lakes and rivers, meaning you get a view with dinner.

This article will briefly cover some key information on the rainbow trout itself, then go over gear, your methodology, and techniques, and finally, some tips are thrown into really enhance your fishing abilities.

Not only will you learn the basics of how to catch a rainbow trout, but by the end, you will be fishing like a professional.

What You Need to Know About Rainbow Trout

Your average rainbow trout will weigh in from around ½ to 3 pounds in their size and are easily found in most freshwater lakes in North America.

You can spot these fish by their length-wise reddish stripe down the sides of its body, they range in colors from brown to olive green.

Need to Know About Rainbow Trout

What is perhaps most important for you to know about these fish is that they are the ultimate carnivores and won’t be tempted to nibble on any veggie baits.

Ranging from insects to other small fish and mussels, rainbow trout will go after the larger carnivorous prey as they get bigger.

While it is a species of salmon, the freshwater trout differs largely in its migration pattern, they do not travel back to its birthplace to lay eggs like many salmon subspecies do.

If you are patient enough, you will catch one and notice it’s sharp upper teeth on the roof of the mouth, and as you unhook another distinctive feature, having no lower teeth, will be present.

What is important about this feature is that the rainbow has a smaller mouth than other trout you may be used to catching, this means if you are using a crawler or a larger bait, then you should only hook half and let them wiggle around so your trout is not only attracted, but can fit the bait inside its mouth, effectively hooking it.

There is a difference between stocked trout and natural trout. Your stocked trout are used to seeing colorful pellets and fish foods, so baits that are orange, white, and chartreuse are going to be the best as they are familiar with the scents and colors.

If you are still struggling, the stocked trout have a love for minnows, mealworms, maggots and night crawlers. Both fish have an affinity for salmon eggs, they love the color and the scent, and will normally swim right up to your line, especially for river rainbow trout.

Methods of Catching Rainbow Trout

There are a few different methods to catching one of these tasty fish, ranging from drift fishing, float fishing to tight lining.

  • Drift fishing. Drift fishing is effective in almost any season and condition and covers a large amount of river or lake. You essentially just gently drift down in your boat fishing with the tide. It does require a split shot placed from 12 to 24 inches away from your hook.
  • Float fishing. Float fishing is also one of the easiest ways to catch a rainbow trout, using an unbreakable float instead of a classic red and white bobber, you can have a versatile fishing trip, getting to fish every inch of the river with it’s unobtrusive and adjustable methods.
  • Lining. The last method one can use is tight lining, which is a type of bottom fishing. If the water is relatively slow moving, you can easily spot trout. First cast your line upstream from the trout and allow it to settle to the bottom, this method will not be effective in high water.

Rainbow trout, with their small mouths, will tend to nibble before they take a bit, so with this method, you must always watch your pole closely in order to see the slightest bob. Do read on more tips and guides on how to equip with the best trout lure for added reference.

How About The Water?

There are two other conditions to watch for when you are going to fish for rainbow trout, that is the clarity of the water and the structure of your water source.

Rainbow trout above Water

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The water clarity will help you determine the type of line you will use, in murky water try to use both a heavier line and a weightier split shot, the thickness of the line will be well hidden in the murkiness, and the weight necessary for faster and higher water.

When the water is clear, utilize two-pound test line, trout are clever fish, and they will notice a big line and hide in less visible conditions.

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The second condition is the actual structure of the water source, some habitats are man made and others are all natural.

You can tell the all natural habitats because the cover will be boulders, bank covers, aquatic plants and tree logs. In a man-made habitat will attempt to employ the same techniques by creating bank hides, which conceal even the largest of trout.

What You Need

  • A good pair of waders, it is going to get wet when trying to catch these fish!
  • A hand net for scooping the trout up and out of the water. You will find that these fish like to jump and can easily break the line when being extracted.
  • A fish vest to store all your goodies in a safe and dry location
  • Polarized sunglasses are a must, being able to see trout under the water will exceptionally help your fishing abilities.
  • Bait and tackle box to store multiple different lures and baits in case you need to switch up your method to draw in more fish.
  • Rod, standard spinning rods are fine, but the ultra-light rods are more flexible and allow you to feel the catch. A rod that is six feet long is going to allow for an easier float and cast.
  • Reel, as before, a standard reel will be fine, but having the ultra light spinning reel made for a light line will make your trip much more successful.
  • Fly line, with this, make sure that your rod, reel, and fly line all match up, you can use the manufacturer recommendation on the rod to make sure you’re using the right combination.
  • Fishing hook, if you are going to use worms for bait, then you are going to want to pick up a split-shank hook, which will allow you to pierce the worm in more than one place.
  • Barrel Swivel to prevent the line from twisting.
  • Split shot to allow you to cast well, but also to control how fast your bait drifts.
  • Baits and/or lures, as we briefly covered above, your bait will depend on the season. Regardless if you use fresh bait, paste bait, or an artificial lure, the scent and the taste of the bait is what will bring your trout in for a nibble.

Hot tip: Worms are best used in spring and fall, especially if there has been a good downpour, though they can be used successfully year round. In fall, look into grasshoppers or crickets. If you want to hook the bigger trout, and know there are larger ones in your water source, hook a minnow gently through its back or lip.

Rainbow trout gear

Useful tip: Still lost on artificial lures? There are two types of artificial lures, that are most commonly used, this includes spinner baits and lead heads. For rainbow trout use smaller sized lures, though the big ones are tempting.

Also when you place the lure, go upstream so that it seems more natural, and easier to bite. The soft plastic dressed lures are a fan fisher favorite. A must have is the tiny crawfish lure made y Pro Fisherman.

How to Catch Rainbow Trout

  • Step 1: First and foremost, know the rules, get yourself a fishing license from the state that you are fishing in. These rules might seem a bit silly to you at first, but they help protect the  population and the ecosystems.
  • Step 2: Before you even head down to the lake, all your gear in tow, make sure to rig your tackle before you depart, this involves tying on the barrel swivel, do not use an overhand knot or the line will cut itself. Use a simple clinch knot to tie with ease.
  • Step 3: Attach the split shot weight on to your line about 2 feet from below the hook after you have placed it, you a pair of needle nose pliers to pinch it so it won’t move, but not too hard as you may wish to adjust it later.
  • Step 4: Many fishers will tell you not to unpack all of your items before you go out and scout the lake, check for slow moving areas of deep water or just areas where it goes from deep to shallow or visa verse. Then head back with your gear to your favorite spot.
  • Step 5: Bait your hook, refer back to our hot tip in order to figure out how to best hook your bait.
  • Step 6: Cast your line, rainbow trout fishing is a lot like fly fishing, and the steps are generally the same. Check to make sure you are casting up the river, so that the bait and line can drift downriver in the current.
    Think of a clock and cast about 11 o’clock. Slowly, bring the rod tip behind you will pressing and holding the button on the reel. Then in one swift motion, bring the tip around to directly in front of you and release the button in the middle of your arch. If you whip it too hard, you will knock off your bait and have to start again.
    A Little Extra Help: Not interested in using bait and choosing a lure instead? You will cast on the same area, but once the lure is in the water you are going to pull the rod tip back slowly.
    No Button? No problem! Using your forefinger to hold the line, flip the bail up and hold the line, then follow the same instructions.
  • Step 7: Keeping the tip up and around face level, let your bait drift until it gets past you, you will feel the line tighten up. Any small pull could be bait bouncing along, or it could be trout nibbling at your tasty worm. A big pull will let you know that you have a trout on the line!
  • Step 8: Set the hook, you have trout on the line, quickly jerk the rod tip up 1 to 2 feet up, the rod will be consistently bent over if you caught a fish. Slowly reel in, keeping the rod tip over your head at all times, otherwise, the fish can get off the hook as trout is a wiggly jumper.
  • Step 9: Using your fishing net, scoop your new catch up as soon as he is in reach, as the thin line will snap if you let it thrash about.

Landing the Trout Tip: You have now caught your first rainbow trout and you are wondering the best techniques. Whatever you do, do not play cat and mouse with these trout, allowing or even encouraging these fish to swim downstream will not only make them more likely to swim off hook, but the current will give you quite the battle as well.

If you have accidentally allowed your fish to wander downstream, simply follow it. These fish are smart, but they tire very easily.

Catch and Release, Another Thing to Consider

You have decided not to eat your little rainbow trout and are fishing for the joy of the sport. Trout, unlike some other sturdier fish, can not handle prolonged stress of being caught and held.

If you wait too long the stress will kill it. If a fish is caught it needs to be swiftly landed and netted. The swim upstream in an attempt to run will tire and stress you fish out quite a bit, it will be pumping up lactic acid in its body, so even if swims away it might die from the sheer stress and movement.

Once it has been netted do not leave the area, it needs to be released underwater in the same exact spot from where it has been caught.

Catch and Release

The net time and the type of net you use are also important to these trout. A netted trout will rub along the sides in the battle, its slime layer that helps keep it safe from the disease is depleted.

If your game is catch and release, then purchase the more rubberized mesh nets, and try to stay away from fine nets as their gills can get caught and pulled. In what might seem to be the most obvious aspect of keeping these fish alive, air time is the worst thing for trout.

What you may not realize is that every second count for your trout, the survival rate for a trout can drop by over sixty-two percent, with only thirty seconds of air exposure. If you are taking a picture with your trout out of the water, have your camera ready, as you have about ten seconds before the big trout you just landed starts to have too much exposure.

A caught and released fish has a ten percent, if not more, of a chance of dying, even if you are exceptionally careful.

Time to Get Finishing

Feeling like a pro? Great, it’s time to hit the lakes with all of your gear to catch these delicious fish and really show off your skills. While there is quite a bit of gear involved, fishing as a sport is both relaxing as a solo adventure, or a great way to spend time with loved ones and new friends. Check out our topic on how to choose the best kayak for fishing to help you make a great catch!

Finishing Rainbow trout

Remember that rainbow trout might be easy to catch, but they still can be tricky when reeling them in, all methods require you to be alert to your bobber, and noticing even the smallest fluctuation in the bend of your rod can mean that you have caught yourself a rainbow trout.

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Your best bet is to take note of the season, and then watch the trout for their eating habits, much like humans, they are drawn to the smell of the bait, and then the looks of their food before taking a big bite.

Change up your bait if you can’t seem to catch any rainbow trout, and ask your fellow fishers what they are using to get the trout nibbling. Did we cover all of your favorite fishing tips, or do you have one way to really draw in the big trout we missed? Let us know in the comments below what we have missed! For more tips on how to fish for trout, check out our earlier piece on this outstanding topic.


Neal Walker

Neal Walker started fishing when he was 4. His father took him to the fishing trips all over USA and Canada. Later he took Angling Education Program at Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, but most of his knowledge comes from experience. Now he takes his sons with him to share his passion.