Opening day of trout season popular rite of spring

The annual spring carnival known as the first day of trout season will get under way next Saturday morning on streams and lakes throughout Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, no one around here needs to be reminded that the weather has been anything but springlike in recent weeks. Most of the trout streams in our region will likely be running full with water temperatures on the cold side.

And I’m not about to speculate what the weather might be like next weekend. Who knows, we might have a couple inches of snow for the opening day of trout fishing this year.

The first day of trout season, however, is an event when hordes of anglers will turn out for the 8 a.m. start regardless of the weather or water conditions. The resulting crowds on some of the more heavily stocked waters often turn fishing strategy into an exercise in gamesmanship among fellow anglers rather than a challenge of luring the fish.

Some dedicated fishermen will arrive several hours before the official start time to claim their preferred spot at a favorite pool. For those who choose the right location, success usually comes quickly once the casting starts.

One somewhat dubious reason the first day of trout season is so popular even for casual anglers is that hatchery-raised trout can be pathetically easy to catch. Naive hatchery trout can be coaxed to eat just about anything that can be put on a hook, despite how badly the offering may be presented. But just as remarkable is how quickly those same fish transform from suicidal to skeptical once they are exposed to some fishing pressure.

For many stocked trout, their first mistake will be their last as they are kept and killed by the angler who catches them. But a significant number of fish also receive a second chance, either by slipping off the hook or by being intentionally released by fishermen who practice catch-and-release. Even the most gullible hatchery trout seem quickly to learn that humans are its number one predator, and given the time to acclimate themselves to the natural foods found in most streams, they can become almost as tricky to catch as their wild cousins.

Trout are among the most popular freshwater game fish because they can be caught by so many different fishing techniques, from live bait to artificial lures to elegant handcrafted flies. Stream trout are primarily drift feeders, meaning they hold in a preferred lie and allow the current to deliver items of food past them.

Probably the most common mistake I see inexperienced trout fishermen make is failing to achieve a natural drift with whatever bait, lure or fly they happen to be using. You want your offering to appear as if it is floating by unattached and at the same speed and direction of the current. Learn to read the current and you will catch more trout.

Every accomplished trout fisherman I know is an expert at what is generally referred to as “reading the water.” And when it comes to fishing for trout in small to medium-sized streams, reading the water has two primary components. The first is identifying the most likely places where a feeding trout will hold.

Next is presenting your bait, lure or fly so that it drifts by the targeted feeding lie as naturally as possible. Both those skills take some practice and experience, but once you understand them, trout fishing will become much less complicated or mysterious.

When streams have a good flow of water as they do this spring, trout will hold practically on the stream bottom where bottom irregularities create a thin cushion of slow current there, so getting your offering near the bottom where the fish are is vital.

That band of softer current allows the trout to maintain its position and feed with little effort. A trout will often move right or left a foot or more to intercept food that is in this bottom zone, but rarely will it move up a couple of inches into the main flow to take food.

Trout that are subjected to any amount of fishing pressure quickly seem to get the message that anything that is not behaving naturally with respect to the current is likely to have a hook in it and should be avoided. They will reject almost any bait that is moving too fast, too slowly or in the wrong direction.

Therefore, it is vitally important to get your offering right in that zone, usually drifting along about three or four inches off the bottom, by adding a few small split shot to your line at least a foot or more above the hook. Make sure your bait or lure is moving at the right speed in the current with the sinkers just ticking the bottom occasionally.

And don’t hesitate to add or remove shot as the current speed or water depth changes to achieve the proper drift. That takes a bit of extra work, but it’s one of the essential secrets of those anglers who catch fish consistently.