In northern California trout anglers can find action at one location or another all year long, but the fishing during the winter to spring and fall to winter transition periods often provides the best action of the entire year. Since fall is about to give way to winter, let’s take a closer look at the late season transition.
During the fall, shorter days and cool nights drop the surface temperature at mountain and foothill lakes and reservoirs. At many destinations, cooler water marks the beginning of fall trout planting routines. In addition to planters, holdover and wild trout that spent the summer lurking in deep water feeding on baitfish, move back to the surface putting them in the crosshairs of both boaters and bank anglers.
At this time instinct directs the trout to feed heavily in preparation for the tough winter months ahead and the result is aggressive trout that hit just as well during the middle of the day as they do early and late.
As a general rule, both trout and threadfin shad enjoy water temperatures that range from about 54 to 60 degrees. When surface temperatures initially drop it’s common for both trout and baitfish to scatter simply because there is so much water available that falls within this temperature range. At this time, bank anglers can often catch trout right next to shore, while trollers hook up well off the bank.
As the fall season continues and the winter transition occurs surface temperatures continue to decline. Once the temperature drops below the comfort zone of the baitfish, both threadfin shad and pond smelt tend to move toward the banks, since this is the zone that features the warmest water. Where the bait goes, the trout will follow. Not surprisingly this is the time of the year when bank anglers score particularly well.
During the early to mid-fall, trollers typically outpace bank anglers. This is when you’ll want to troll quickly with shad imitating offerings. Spoons, smallish minnow plugs and small crankbaits are particularly deadly for this work. If you have downriggers, you’ll want to cover a variety of depths from the surface down to 30 or more feet.
As the surface temperature continues to drop you’ll find that your deeper lines will stop producing and eventually most of the strikes will come in the top 10 or 15 feet of the water column.
When boaters are experimenting with different depths bank anglers will want to do the same thing. Set up in areas where the shoreline drops away sharply and use one rod to fish bait and a second rod for tossing lures.
Rig the bait rod with an inflated worm, worm and marshmallow combo or a glob of floating dough bait such as PowerBait or Zeke’s Sierra Gold. Toss that rod out as far as you can. This will put the bait in deep water. Every 5 minutes or so, pick up the rod and reel the bait in a few feet, progressively moving it into shallower and shallower water.
With the lure rod, tie on a baitfish imitating spoon that you can cast a long distance such as a ¼ ounce Kastmaster. Initially fire the lure out and work it back just beneath the surface. Once you’re confident that the near surface water has been thoroughly explored start counting the lure down, working various depths.
Using these opposing bait and lure approaches you’ll often be able to pin point the depth of the most active fish pretty quickly. Some days you’ll be able to get trout on bait and lures and other days bait will be the only thing that works. When the fish are really aggressive and chasing bait the action can be so good on lures you won’t even want to fool with bait, but to find out you’ll need to try both approaches.
At times when I’ve hit it right and the lure bite is on, I’ve caught more than 20 fish in a morning while hiking and casting in likely areas, generally in areas like narrows and on points that funnel and concentrate the trout and bait.
When the water gets chilly and the baitfish suck up to the bank, the advantage falls to the shore fishing crowd simply because it’s tough to troll tight to the shoreline.
When the trout are close to the shoreline one of the ways bank anglers tend to shoot themselves in the foot is tossing their baits out too far. Depending on the fall of the bottom, if the trout are only holding 5 to 10 feet deep you may need to keep your baits within 20 feet of the shore. Cast them out further than this and they’ll be sitting in water that is simply too deep and is devoid of trout.
While fall and winter trout holding tight to the bank are a boon for bank anglers, they can be a curse for trollers since getting lures tight to the bank when trolling is challenging.
Legendary guide and tackle inventor Gary Miralles targets these fish by maneuvering his boat out past points and then swings back toward the bank at a hard angle, causing his lures to sweep across the shallow water at the tip of the point. This works great for Gary because he intimately knows the contours of the lakes he fishes and has been practicing for 30 years.
For the rest of us, using a side planer offers a short cut to success. If you’re not familiar with side planers, here’s the scoop. A side planer is a piece of wood, plastic or foam that when attached to a line, travels away from a moving boat based on its shape.
These devices skim along the surface and track along from 50 to 100 feet beside the boat with 20 to 100 feet of line tipped with a lure or bait tailing out behind them. This enables the angler to present the lure to trout without moving through the area where the trout are holding with the boat.
There are a couple different types of side planers available to anglers these days. There are small inline models that are efficient, inexpensive and easy to use. Sep’s Pro Fishing offers the Pro Side Planer. This inline planer can be adjusted to track either to the port or starboard.
Anglers that become serious planer trollers will want to graduate up to the large mast-pulled models that have become so popular on the great lakes. These planers require the angler to mount a short pole or “mast” in the boat.
At the top of the mast there are a pair of large reels spooled with heavy line. These lines are attached to big stable planer boards that will buck stiff breezes and surface chop.
When using a planer to target near shore trout, simply let a lure out 10 to 30 feet behind a planer and then spool it out from 75 to 100 feet off the bankward side of the boat. Once the planer and lure are out, it is a simple matter to steer them within feet of the bank while the boat stays safe in relatively deep water.