Mini Mites

A new breed of microscopic minnows is teaching spin-fishermen what fly- anglers have known all along: In trout fishing, bigger isn't always better.

Spring took a kick in the teeth on Montana’s Big Horn River last March. As if some rheostat in the heavens was slowly turned down, the bone-baking sun that had smiled on our angling party the previous few days gradually dimmed to a pale disk before heavy snow squalls completely snuffed it out. The temperature dove to 12 degrees and the wind blew. And blew. It got so cold that if we failed to religiously monitor our rod guides we were treated to epic line tangles-impossible snarls that our frozen fingers could only peck at for a few agonizing seconds before diving for the relative warmth of deep jacket pockets.

Accuse us of suffering from frostbite of the frontal lobe, but we thought our reasons for enduring such madness were sound: The river’s underwater ledges held big brown and rainbow trout waiting patiently for specific morsels to drift by, and that included a few unconventional tidbits tied to the ends of our lines.

Big Horn trout are thought of as year-round bug-eaters. Yet we were not feeding them flies. Playing to subtler instincts, we offered them plugs-crankbaits, to be more precise-for the practical reason of catching more fish as well as for the chance to experiment with some new panfish lures weighing as little as 1/32 of an ounce.

The choice of miniature tackle wasn’t just a sideline diversion. In slow currents and cold water, mini-plugs, we soon discovered, hold a few distinct advantages over conventional spoons and spinners: They don’t sink like metal; they can be twitched practically in place as they swing; and they come in floating, diving and slow-sinking versions so that specific depths can be combed throughout an entire presentation. At the end of that presentation, you play the steelhead/salmon angler’s game, letting the plugs stream out on a tight line and swimming them in place from your boat anchored upstream.

On this frigid foray, though, our party didn’t have the luxury of a fishing boat. Friend and former Outdoor Life Editor Merritt Benson and his two young sons Charlie and Mark had joined me belly deep in the water. Local guide Paul Garrison, along for a busman’s holiday, jumped in as well. Although they prefer to toss flies, Garrison and the Bensons are anything but flyfishing purists, and they were obviously intrigued by the mini-plugs I’d brought along. So, with the collective input of an accommodating team of field-testers, I began to get a feel for how bait action, size and even color affect success with the tiny cranks.

In tough conditions like the ones that were bearing down on us, seemingly small changes in our offerings were indeed important. The gold floating micro-plugs we first tied on prompted only the rare hit. A quick switch to a 5/8-inch Yo-Zuri Snap Shad, a floater/diver that dug slightly deeper at the end of the swing, improved our luck with one batch of trout we found holding behind a bar that broke the river’s current at the head of a deep hole. Where the floaters had been sliding over the passive fish, the Snap Shad and a two-inch-long, 1/5-ounce Storm Pee Wee Wart medium diver dug down just far enough to swim right in front of their respective noses. Bingo. We tried several lure finishes before settling on a rainbow pattern that was more productive in the dull-light conditions than the metallics.

Once that problem was solved, landing fish in a snow squall presented another dilemma or two: First, my release net would freeze fully billowed the instant I snatched it from the water. Then, if I happened to hold a fish a moment too long in the biting breeze, the poor creature’s fins and eyeballs would begin frosting over. Suddenly stinging fingers didn’t seem like such a bad deal.

A Warming Trend
Mercifully, the snow relented a day later. The sun reappeared, the wind dropped and the air warmed into the mid-20s, a gift to our chapped hands. The fishing changed too, with brhter metallic finishes catching fish as well as the natural patterns. We also found places where the floaters and shallower-running plugs produced better than they had the day before. Tightly vibrating 1/8-ounce Tiny Traps and 1-inch and 3/4-inch sinking Yo-Zuri Snap Beans, along with floating two-inch Yo-Zuri Altima Pins Minnows,ÊallÊperformedÊwell inÊslow, quieter runs. The trick was to keep these lures twitching until they passed a fish and triggered a strike. WhenÊthey did, we’d position ourselves upstream and work a lure down to the lie, twitching the plug in place or, like steelheaders, letting it swim itself down on a tight line.

Both rainbows and browns responded readily to the tight-vibrating action, or to a floating minnow twitched constantly. But there were times when we would fish through slow to moderate flows-pools and runs we knew had trout-without getting the responses we’d expected. In those instances, switching to a wider- wobbling lure like a 1 1/2-inch Flatfish made a difference.

Given the ungodly weather (and the fact that Big Horn trout are primarily bug-eaters), my friends and I were pleased with our success. Still, we wanted to be certain that even in their slowed metabolic state, and when daintily sipping the tiniest of midges, both browns and rainbows would consistently hit the miniature plugs. At the head of a pool, Merritt and I watched for some time as one particular fish rose rhythmically, obviously sucking in emergers. It was a perfect opportunity to target a specific bug-eater rather than cast the general area of a hatch and catch a fish that may or may not have been originally feeding on insects. Benson let a gold Snap Bean swim down to the riser and the trout took the fake minnow confidently.

In addition to that richly marked brown, we took a number of other risers the same way, and in doing so discovered two problems that arise with the smallest micro-plugs. One: Since these lures are only slightly larger than a cold-weather nose drip, trout can swallow the tiny cranks if you don’t react quickly to a strike-a tendency that makes long-nose pliers and flattened barbs essential. Two: With the Snap Beans there was a unique problem. In cold weather, Paul Garrison finds his largest Big Horn River rainbows over fairly deep, light sandy bottoms adjacent to grass. At one point, we reached just such a place with a great snag of a tree smack in the middle of the run. I watched as Paul drift-twitched the 3/4-inch plug through the slot. A fine raspberry-striped rainbow took, blowing through the surface in an icy shower, and then was off. Another quickly followed. Garrison struck on a third fish, but nothing happened. A fourth strike turned up empty. He reeled in: The micro-plug had been stripped of its hooks.

Admittedly, Snap Beans and Snap Shads are designed for meeker fish, armed as they are with nothing more than fine-wire open-shank trebles closed together with a drop of solder. And there are no split rings. A strong trout can break the solder seal during the fight, allowing the open shank of the soft-metal hook to open and slide off the plug’s hook hanger. I’m going to try rigging up Mustad’s Model 7790X trebles and 7827 double hooks in sizes 14 and 16. Both of these bronzed hooks have open shanks as well, but I suspect they’re stronger than the OEM stuff, and hopefully not too heavy. A concern over weight is why I won’t even bother trying split rings: The extra heft would affect the action of these delicate lures.

Some credit for our success with the mini-plugs has to go to the clear water we were fishing. I consider March to be one of the two best times for clearwater plug fishing (the other being November through December). When waters get dirtied, it’s a good idea to forego the tiniest plugs. If visibility is slightly diminished, for instance, I’ll try Normark’s 2 3/4-inch original floating Rapalas and 2 3/4-inch Countdowns. In stronger currents with even poorer visibility, rattles and deeper divers begin to show their worth. Consider using a plug like Storm’s 2 1/4-inch Wee Wart fat body floater/diver with rattles; in deep holes, try Storm’s three-inch Rattlin’ Flat Wart.

**Still-Water Variations **
Don’t get the impression that micro-plugs are strictly river tackle. They’re also useful in trout lakes, especially those clear waters where fish patrol the inshore shallows or take insects around vegetation beds offshore. As I discovered on a later trip last year, subtle variations in baits and presentation are as important in still water as they are in rivers-maybe even more so.

Last June, Outdoor Life’s Hunting Editor Jim Zumbo, his wife, Madonna, and I were wade-fishing near the Zumbos’ home in Cody, Wyo. It was windy and the sun was at its midday high, but that didn’t keep fat rainbows in the 20-inch class from cruising within casting distance. Jim had several trout approach his slow-sinking gold plugÉbut they refused to take. One of the fish actually bumped the bait before snubbing it. Then Jim saw a trout charge a silvery chub, half white from fungus. The trout hit twice and then ate the lame baitfish. Jim swapped his original crankbait for a floating silvery Pins Minnow and was soon hooked up.

When we compared notes at day’s end, I told Jim that all my fish had come on a silvery rainbow pattern Pins-the copper and gold weren’t productive on this day. And the fish were equally finicky about retrieve rate. Steady cranking-at any speed-just wouldn’t do it. The fish ate best when I kept the plug in one spot, twitching it in place.

Such nuances make mini-cranking one of the more interesting angling challenges. And since I returned home from my trip with considerably fewer mini-plugs than I had started out with-acquired by a panel of fly-anglers-it’s fair to say that these plugs will fit nicely into any trout fisherman’s cranking arsenal.onger currents with even poorer visibility, rattles and deeper divers begin to show their worth. Consider using a plug like Storm’s 2 1/4-inch Wee Wart fat body floater/diver with rattles; in deep holes, try Storm’s three-inch Rattlin’ Flat Wart.

**Still-Water Variations **
Don’t get the impression that micro-plugs are strictly river tackle. They’re also useful in trout lakes, especially those clear waters where fish patrol the inshore shallows or take insects around vegetation beds offshore. As I discovered on a later trip last year, subtle variations in baits and presentation are as important in still water as they are in rivers-maybe even more so.

Last June, Outdoor Life’s Hunting Editor Jim Zumbo, his wife, Madonna, and I were wade-fishing near the Zumbos’ home in Cody, Wyo. It was windy and the sun was at its midday high, but that didn’t keep fat rainbows in the 20-inch class from cruising within casting distance. Jim had several trout approach his slow-sinking gold plugÉbut they refused to take. One of the fish actually bumped the bait before snubbing it. Then Jim saw a trout charge a silvery chub, half white from fungus. The trout hit twice and then ate the lame baitfish. Jim swapped his original crankbait for a floating silvery Pins Minnow and was soon hooked up.

When we compared notes at day’s end, I told Jim that all my fish had come on a silvery rainbow pattern Pins-the copper and gold weren’t productive on this day. And the fish were equally finicky about retrieve rate. Steady cranking-at any speed-just wouldn’t do it. The fish ate best when I kept the plug in one spot, twitching it in place.

Such nuances make mini-cranking one of the more interesting angling challenges. And since I returned home from my trip with considerably fewer mini-plugs than I had started out with-acquired by a panel of fly-anglers-it’s fair to say that these plugs will fit nicely into any trout fisherman’s cranking arsenal.