With the statewide general trout opener set for this Saturday, April 29, we have a series of stories in our April issue previewing the big day. Today: An angler talks about the joys of not only teasing wily wild and native trout, but also for catching planters in local fisheries.
By Tim E. Hovey
This time of year, I’ll start rummaging through my fishing tackle and dusting off the rods.
The days are getting longer, and I’m about done staying inside.
As we move into spring, I’ve started looking at extended weather reports and checking road conditions to some of my favorite fishing spots. For me, it’s a very welcome time of year, and much needed – it’s finally time to chase trout.
When I was a kid, freshwater fishing was all about catching whatever was biting. I’d fish bait for catfish, drag spinnerbaits for bass and bounce small jigs in the shallows for panfish. During those early years, I’d occasionally catch a stocked trout or two while fishing for other species, but I never really specifically targeted them. That changed after I finished my first year of college.
A good buddy, Rich Rosen, suggested we head out during summer break to fish for trout in the high Sierra. On that trip, we caught some beefy rainbows, a few nice brown trout and I hooked and landed a beautiful chrome-colored rainbow out of Crowley Lake. After that trip, if I was fishing in freshwater, be it a lake or stream, I was targeting trout.
PLENTY OF OPTIONS
With stocked rainbows and native and wild trout present throughout California, there are many trout fishing options here in the Golden
State. Stocked trout are hatchery- raised rainbows that are seasonally stocked in various lakes and reservoirs throughout the state. Native trout are species that exist in their historic range and have evolved there. Wild trout are species that have been stocked in waters outside their native range to provide additional recreational angling opportunities.
Many new anglers probably started their trout-catching career with stocked rainbow trout. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife maintains a data portal on its website (nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FishPlants) to provide updated stocking information for every place that the agency stocks trout. If you’d like to head out with the family and catch a few stocked trout, or are looking to get your kids into fishing, go to the site and check out the schedule.
STAPLE STOCKER RIGS
A great all-around rig for catching stockers is the tried-and-true Carolina rig. Using any of the various floating trout baits out there, mold some dough around a small treble hook, cast it out and let it sit. Depending on your leader length, the floating bait will stay up off the bottom, ready to be encountered by a swimming trout.
All trout are predators and usually obtain their food by chasing it down. For this reason, trout can also be caught fishing small spinners or spoons. I’ve done well catching stocked trout on small lures like Kastmasters, Panther Martins and Mepps lures.
I really enjoy lure fishing for trout, and if I’m looking to quickly evaluate a body of water for trout presence, I’ll grab a small spinning outfit rigged with a trout spinner.
TEMPTING WILY WILDS
Fishing for native or wild trout will take a little more effort than fishing for stockers. Making another visit to the CDFW website, you can search for locations where both native and wild trout exist. These areas are almost always well off the beaten path and will definitely require more fishing effort than soaking dough bait.
To advertise the native fishing opportunities here in California, CDFW maintains a Heritage Trout Program (wildlife.ca.gov/ Conservation/Inland-Fisheries/Wild- Trout). This program awards anglers who challenge themselves and catch six different subspecies of native trout from six different drainages within their historic range. For the purpose of this challenge, the historic range includes the trout’s native distribution in California, prior to human influence, and all waters that feed into this watershed.
Wild trout fishing in California is challenging and rewarding. It’s the type of fishing that requires dedication and a good set of hiking boots. Working backcountry creeks and streams for wild fish will give you a new appreciation for trout angling.
I’ve fished remote canyons for wild trout for over two decades, and honestly, it is one of my favorite types of freshwater fishing. I’ll pack light and hike up a trout drainage for a mile or so, and then fish my way back down to the trailhead. With limited room for casting, I’ll usually pack an ultralight rod and use ultralight spinners, small hooks and varied natural baits.
Rock hopping down the creek, I’ll sneak up on pools while looking for swimming trout. Even if I don’t spot any fish, I’ll toss a small hook baited with a small artificial worm and no weight into the water. Letting it sink naturally, I’ll watch for trout darting out from the shadows to grab it.
These trout are opportunistic and will often swim close to investigate any sinking offering. If after a few casts I don’t see any fish, I’ll move on down the creek. If I encounter a larger pond, I switch up tactics and use a small spinner to test the waters.
A few years back, after an upstream fisheries survey I decided to fish my way back down to the truck. I spent the next 90 minutes slowly fishing downstream, catching and releasing wild trout. I caught several beautifully marked fish during that short trip, and that area remains one of my favorite wild trout locations.
A FLY GUY
Some of these locations can be easily fished with a fly rod, but my experience with fly fishing was limited. Despite some serious recommendations from my hardcore angling friends to try fly fishing, I resisted for a number of reasons. I had tried it early on in my angling career, but it just wasn’t for me. My dad even gave me a nice two-piece fly rod for my 10th birthday. Lacking any true technique, I messed with it for a few days and stored it away.
Then in 2015, my good buddy Ed Davis invited me out to a high- elevation meadow to fly fish for golden trout. Ed almost exclusively uses a fly rod when fishing for trout, and I was excited to get out and see some new territory.
At the campground, Ed pulled out two fly rods and ran me through the specifics of using one of them. The next morning, we fished a small creek near our camp and I caught my first rainbow trout on a fly set-up. Later
that afternoon, we drove to a trailhead and hiked about half a mile into a beautiful meadow. Weaving through that meadow was a narrow creek full of golden trout.
Using small flies such as Parachute Adams and black ant imitations, we caught dozens of beautiful golden trout. The markings on these fish are amazing. They have a bright orange chin and belly. The gill plate has a brilliant red smudge on it, and the length of the body is yellow, merging to green, with dark markings along the side. In my opinion, it is the prettiest of California’s trout.
And now, thanks to Ed, I have three fly rods of my own.
TIME FOR TROUT
From stocked rainbows to the beautiful goldens of the mountains, California has a lot to offer trout anglers. If you’re new to trout fishing,
investigating the fish stocking portal on the CDFW website will point you in the right direction.
If you’re more adventurous and want to experience backcountry fishing opportunities, look into chasing wild and/or native trout. The same website is a wealth of information on where to locate these populations. Just know that with this 2023’s snowpack, some backcountry waters may take much longer to melt out than recent years.
Whether it’s casting floating bait into a reservoir or gently laying a fly on a meandering creek in a high- elevation meadow, California trout fishing has something for every angler, no matter your experience. Spend a little time this spring experiencing what the Golden State has to offer the trout fisherman. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised where your journey takes you. CS