Fishing natural bait is as close as you can get right now to a fail-safe trout strategy. It’s your end run around nature at her springtime worst, and it can be primitively simple or elevated to a kind of finesse status. Consider some of the possibilities.
Look, I know that kid with the big brown trout caught it on a clump of crawlers that looked like Medusa on a bad hair day. But you’ll catch more trout using small red worms. Hook one or a couple amidships or through one end (try it both ways). Pieces of crawlers also may work. Before heavy rains or snow runoff, even big rivers can be low, which means a subtle approach works best. The best way to drift worms is beneath a fixed or slip float. Slip floats let you feed bait and line downstream. Probe an area, then let the float sail farther down-current and feed line again. Takes can be subtle and indicated by very slight movement of the float. In deeper water, add some split shot pinched 8 to 10 inches ahead of the bait.
Some of the tastier members of the grub family includes mealworms, maggots and natural caddis you collect from the river. (Break them from their cases and hook them once through the head end as you would a maggot.) Fish these mini-worms below float rigs, especially in slow, smooth glides of the river. Grubs are not as resilient as red worms. You must change them regularly as they “milk” out and lose the tantalizing body fluids that trout so love. Grubs are terrific bait in skinny water where trout otherwise would surely flee, fins over heads, from a gross ball of wadded crawlers.
Spring trout like creepy-crawly creatures like hellgrammites (called “nippers” because they nip) hooked lightly under their “collars.” They’ll eat large natural stoneflies if you can get them, and little leeches-yes, the walleye bait. Perhaps they mistake leeches for baby lampreys or escargot without the shells (trout do scoff snails, you know). I haven’t tried them, but crickets might work in spring, given that grasshoppers work great in late summer.
Trout blast dead minnows harder than they do other baits. The trick to rigging dead minnows is to “sew” them in an arched attitude (see illustration below) so they’ll slow roll in the current and rise and fall in response to your rod lifts like a dying baitfish. You’ll need a good swivel 10 to 12 inches above this bait to avoid line twist. These are good rigs to use in deep pools (split shot required), around deadfalls and along undercut banks.
Live minnows are something else. I really like them for rainbows after the spawn, or brook trout any time in spring. The small ones are best. Carry them in a chest bait can and hook them through the lips or nostrils. Place them into pockets and little pools as you work downstream, or flip them gently upstream and let them drift down through a glide.
Use a bait needle to wrap the line around a dead minnow so it will do slow rolls in the current.
Illustration by: Dimitry Schidlovsky