The following appears in the June issue of California Sportsman:
Trophy trout, anyone? This huge 8-pound rainbow hammered a 4-inch trout worm teamed with an Action Disc and trolled at 2.4 mph. Soft plastic baits are associated more with bass anglers, but trout also love to devour these offerings. (CAL KELLOGG)
By Cal Kellogg
From the title of this article, you know I’m going to take a deep dive into the subject of tempting trout with soft plastics. We are going to talk about trout tactics in a bit, but first I want to give you some background so that the information I convey about trout will make more sense and, hopefully, carry more gravity.
For starters, I’ve been an avid trout angler my entire life. The first fish I ever caught was a rainbow trout while fishing a Sierra stream with my dad way back in the 1970s. Since then, I’ve caught many thousands of trout of all sizes all over the Western United States and helped other folks catch many thousands more.
I’ve worked in the fishing industry full time for more than 20 years as a writer, magazine owner, video creator, lure manufacturer and professional trout fishing guide.
During the 16 years I spent as the managing editor of a popular West Coast fishing magazine, I had the opportunity to fish with a lot of other talented anglers and often found myself interacting on the water with some of the best in the country.
In terms of freshwater fishing, I believe bass anglers are the all-around best on the water. They are talented boat handlers; they are beyond technically proficient with fishing gear as well as electronics; they have a deep understanding of the aquatic environment; and they can quickly and accurately predict the movement patterns and temperament of the fish on any given day, 365 days a year.
The time I’ve spent on the water watching, photographing and chatting with bass anglers has been extremely educational. The bass fishing community has a lot of specialists. There are the swimbaiters, the topwater enthusiasts, folks who specialize in ripbaits, and those who spend a lot of time provoking reaction bites with crankbaits or spinnerbaits.
Yet, when you spend a day on the water with a tournament angler or bass fishing guide, at some point they will be throwing soft plastics. It might be creature bait on a jighead, a finesse worm crawled along the bottom, or a Senko fished vertically.
Regardless of the presentation or shape of the bait, soft plastics are the common denominator of the bass fishing fraternity.
There are accomplished bass pros who don’t use swimbaits. Some never toss ripbaits or chatterbaits. All of them utilize soft plastics at one point or another and without those soft plastics, they would suffer in terms of the size and number of bass caught throughout the course of the season, period. End of story!
For vertical presentations in stillwater and drifting in a stream, a small wacky-rigged worm is a highly effective option. (CAL KELLOGG)
THINK LIKE A BASS ANGLER
Why are soft plastics so effective for catching bass? That’s easy; they come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colors. They can be presented in myriad different ways. The baits feel real when the bass grab them, and they hold scent extremely well. Soft plastics are about as close to fishing live bait as you can come without pinning a nightcrawler or minnow on a hook.
While I do fish for bass and enjoy catching them, I’m not a bass fisherman. In terms of freshwater fishing, I’m a trout and salmon guy. Observing how bass anglers rely on soft plastics, I started wondering why trout anglers don’t make serious use of soft baits.
Occasionally I’d be out with a bass pro at a lake like Pardee or Berryessa and they’d pick up a random trout, often a jumbo rainbow, on a soft plastic bass bait. I’ve seen quite a few nice rainbows caught on wacky- rigged Senkos and flukes worked along shoreline structure. Clearly, in the right situation trout will blitz a soft plastic bait with gusto, yet trout anglers rarely if ever employ soft baits.
Fast forward to the time I’ve spent guiding for trout full time. On my boat we catch a lot of trout and most of my anglers like to take some trout home for dinner. As a result, I clean a lot of trout and I find some interesting things in their stomachs, in addition to the shad and immature panfish which represent the preferred forage of most trout in most California reservoirs.
Sometimes I’ll find a crawfish, small twig – even a rock. The most common nonorganic item I find in their stomachs, however, are soft plastics discarded or lost by bass anglers.
I’ve found dozens of Senkos, plastic worms and creature baits in the stomachs of trout. Most of the baits are faded, weathered and look like they’ve been in the lake for quite a while. I concluded long ago that these baits are not being stolen from the bass anglers while fishing.
Instead, the baits are in the lake and the trout seek them out. Are they drifting into shore and moving as a result of wave action, or just sitting on the bottom when a trout comes by and gobbles them down? I don’t know and unfortunately the trout aren’t talking. The only thing I know for sure is that trout find soft plastics, pick them up and swallow them!
“The sun has risen on the new frontier of trout fishing,” Kellogg says. “We have entered the era of soft plastic trout baits!” (CAL KELLOGG)
PUTTING PLASTICS TO WORK
All this information swirling around in my mind pushed me to a conclusion: I needed to integrate soft plastic baits into my trout fishing arsenal. This was going to be a challenge, the kind of challenge I really enjoy, because there were few soft plastic baits manufactured for trout fishing, and since trouters didn’t utilize soft plastics there was zero information on how to rig and present them. If I were going to start hooking trout on soft plastics, I’d have to hack both the baits and the tactics out of the wilderness, so to speak!
Going down the soft plastic rabbit hole, the one and only soft bait routinely utilized by trouters was the soft plastic grub. I trace the use of curly tail grubs back 20 years or more to Eagle Lake, located outside of Susanville in Northern California.
Anglers there, such as the legendary Sep Hendrickson, have been using soft plastic grubs to imitate tui chubs for a long time. They typically use earth-tone 2-inch grubs and troll them slowly without flashers or dodgers.
Author Cal Kellogg displays a husky lightning trout that blitzed a Trout Trix Worm trolled at 2 mph and 15 feet beneath the surface. “Observing how bass anglers rely on soft plastics, I started wondering why trout anglers don’t make serious use of soft baits,” he writes. (CAL KELLOGG)
TROLLING SOFT PLASTIC GRUBS
Having been introduced to soft plastic grubs at Eagle, I’d fished them quite a bit all around the state. However, the results you get when trolling grubs are very hit and miss. The trout will either fall all over themselves to inhale a grub, or they’ll pay it no mind and reject it.
If you look at a 2- or 3-inch grub being trolled at 1.5 to 2 mph, they look absolutely fantastic. They move like a frantic baitfish, with both a ton of tail action and a slow, disoriented roll, so why don’t trout pounce on them all day, every day? The same reason they don’t grab fast-trolled spoons all day long. Sometimes all that action is simply too much for trout that aren’t actively feeding or inclined to chase.
For soft plastic trouters, grubs should have a spot in your tackle array, but they are not an end-all, be-all bait.
Author Cal Kellogg’s five top soft plastic trout baits include (from left) a 4-inch worm, a minnow bait, a grub, a tube bait and, last but not least, a thin 3-inch plastic worm. (CAL KELLOGG)
A DIVERSE COLLECTION OF BAITS
Soft plastic trout baits are all about shape, size, color and action. My plastics arsenal currently includes five different shapes in a range of different colors. I manufacture trout gear, so I’ve developed my own baits to meet my needs. However, to be clear, you don’t need to buy my baits. You can find effective soft plastic baits among the traditional bass baits at any well-stocked tackle shop.
My No. 1 bait, the Trout Trix Worm, is a 3-inch plastic worm, which I use for both trolling and casting. I like to have the worms in both bright and natural colors. Before I came up with my own design, I used 3-inch sections of the tail end of hand-poured finesse worms used by bass anglers. For trolling, I simply thread the worm on a hook with an Action Disc rigged directly above it on the leader.
The disc gives it an incredible erratic swimming action while trolling the bait at speeds from 1.5 to 2.5 mph. It’s a killer on inactive fish because it has a ton of lifelike movement at slow trolling speeds, so it stays in the strike zone for an extended period.
For casting applications, whether for stream or lake fishing, if I want a horizontal presentation, I rig the worms on light jigheads. If I want a vertical presentation in stillwater or a drifting presentation in a stream, I wacky-rig them on a No. 4 octopus hook and add a small split shot to the leader for the proper amount of weight to get the baits down.
This quality rainbow couldn’t lay off a naturally colored minnow-shaped bait trolled just beneath the surface of a lake in the California foothills. (CAL KELLOGG)
Running a close second behind the worms are 2- to 3-inch minnow- shaped baits. In the bass fishing world, these are most often called drop-shot baits. The ones I pour are called Trigger Minnows. For trolling, I rig these baits just like I rig the worms with an Action Disc. For casting, I rig them on a jighead and present them horizontally. The minnow shapes are a match-the-hatch sort of bait, so you are trying to imitate the movements of a frightened minnow.
My third shape is a basic 2-inch Gitzit-style tube, much like the baits used by crappie anglers. For casting, these baits do a great job of imitating a chunky-bodied minnow, such as a small threadfin shad, when rigged on a jighead and moved through the water column with a rise-and-drop retrieve.
I rig them on a treble hook for trolling. I often pair them with an Action Disc, but if the trout are being especially timid, I get rid of the disc and troll them naked and slowly in the 1- to 1.8-mph speed range and employ a do-nothing action.
Rigged this way, the tubes don’t look like much moving through the water, but they are often just what the doctor ordered for triggering trout with lockjaw.
My fourth bait is a curly tail grub, usually in the 3-inch size. We’ve touched on these a bit, but here’s the specifics on how to fish them. For trolling, I rig them on a No. 2 Mustad Slow Death hook. When rigged this
way, the grubs have a killer rolling action combined with the swimming tail. It’s a real killer on active fish and I’ll pull it at just about any speed, from slow to fast to very fast.
For casting, rig the grubs on a jighead just like a bass angler. Fish it like a miniature swimbait. Cast it out, count it down and slow roll it through likely areas. That’s all you need to do to get hit; of course, you can play with pauses and such to make the bait rise and fall in the water column.
My fifth bait looks absolutely ridiculous, but it catches trout, particularly big fish. As of this writing I had a client land an 8-pounder on the bait about two weeks ago. The bait I’m describing is a thick-bodied plastic worm. Think 4-inch Senko.
To rig it, I take a piece of 10-or 12-pound fluorocarbon, tip it with a red No. 4 treble hook and then slide on a bead.
I string the leader through a threading needle and insert it about an inch from the bait’s tail. I then run the needle through the bait, exiting at the head, and pull the leader all the way through. You end up with a big worm with the leader going right up the center. The treble hook just hangs outside the bait. I know it’s crazy, but stick with me.
Take the smallest-sized Action Disc and slide it down the leader. Add a drop of super glue to the stem on the disc and shove it inside the nose of the worm. Tie a surgeon’s loop in the top of the leader and you are ready to troll.
It took me three years to develop the rigging method I just described. The bait has a killer swimming action when trolled from 1.8 to 2.5 mph and the trout actually seem to strike at the exposed treble. Yes, I’ve designed a bait that makes the trout strike the hook!
If you want to cast the bait, make the leader short, attach it to your spinning rod, add a few split shot and fish it just like you’d fish a Rapala or other minnow bait.
SOME FINAL NOTES
Yes, soft plastics are the new frontier of trout fishing. Fishing them for trout is in its infancy and it’s a world ripe for experimentation. I’ve barely scratched the surface.
In terms of color, I use both bright and wild hues, along with natural colors. As bizarre as it sounds, bubble gum has proven to be deadly on everything from fresh planters to wild high-country trout that earn a living selectively eating natural insects.
I think scent is key. I use Pro-Cure Super Gel. I really like Anise, Anise Krill, Trophy Trout and Sweet Corn. You probably have your own favorites.
When fishing these baits, the trout often come in and hit them a time or two before getting hooked. If you see or feel a tap when working the baits, it is critical not to react. Just keep the bait swimming through the water column. Remember, the baits feel and taste real. Sometimes, particularly when trolling grubs, a trout will hit the tail of the bait three or four times before getting hooked.
Finally, I have a theory about trout baits in general and my array of soft baits in particular. Consider the old- school Floating Rapala. It’s deadly for a long list of gamefish that includes trout. Why?
I think in part we can trace its attractiveness to the long, thin profile. Predatory fish instinctively know a long, slender bait is easier to swallow than a short, fat bait. Slender profile equals easy prey item, if you will.
This is why 3-inch worms are my No. 1 most effective soft plastic bait for trout, followed by the slender minnow shapes. These baits are long and thin, combined with a fluid action and realistic feel. They are truly baits that scream “Eat me!” to trout! CS
Editor’s note: Cal Kellogg is a longtime Northern California-based outdoors writer. Subscribe to his YouTube channel Fish Hunt Shoot Productions at youtube. com/user/KelloggOutdoors.