In a nutshell bait fish and the brown trout that depend on them are going to be found in the warmest available water.


Brown trout will hit a wide variety of lures in the spring time. While these fish often suspend to target smelt and other pelagic forage species, brown trout are a species that is typically found near the bottom. Diving crankbaits like the Yakima Bait Mag Lip pictured here are deadly effective on spring brown trout. 


To countless Great Lakes anglers, fishing for brown trout signals that winter is over and warmer spring weather is on the horizon. Certainly there are places like Chequamegon Bay in Lake Superior or Milwaukee Harbor on Lake Michigan where brown trout are caught in the dead of winter and through a layer of ice, but the majority of these fish are targeted in March and April by a hardy group of open water anglers who are anxious to put winter behind them.

Besides being one of the first open water fishing opportunities of the year, many anglers enjoy brown trout because they can routinely be caught in shallow water and in small boats. Small boats and small boat trolling tactics account for the majority of Great Lakes brown trout that come to net.





You might say that the brown trout represents the “blue collar” version of Great Lakes trout fishing. The game can be played with affordable boats and tackle on a playing field that’s not only predictable but productive day in and day out.



Of all the species of trout and salmon found in the Great Lakes, the brown trout may well be the most predictable in the spring of the year. Finding consistent brown trout fishing boils down to locating the things that concentrate bait fish.

In a nutshell bait fish and the brown trout that depend on them are going to be found in the warmest available water. Pockets of water that are just a couple degrees warmer compared to the surrounding water can literally hold staggering amounts of fish. If that water has a little stain to it, so much the better. Stained water absorbs the sun and heats up faster and it also provides brown trout the perfect environment to ambush prey. Mix in a little bottom structure in the form of defined breaklines or basketball sized boulders and it’s game on.


The warm water discharge sites associated with electricity generation plants is a common place to find brown trout in catchable numbers.


Warm water discharge sites, places where tributary streams poor in stained and/or warmer water and shorelines were wave action silts up the water are as good as it gets when it comes to searching out brown trout water.



If there is a “traditional” way to catch brown trout in the spring it would have to be trolling stickbaits along shoreline structure. The benefit of stickbaits is they closely replicate smelt one of the primary forage species of the brown trout and these shallow diving lures can be fished up tight to shore without fear of snagging.

When I first started targeting browns in the early 1980’s it was common for
anglers to flatline stickbaits a country mile behind the boat. The theory was you had
to get away from the spooking factor of the boat to consistently catch brown trout.
A lot of anglers also preached that to get these fish to bite required using eight and even six-pound test line!

Thankfully, these days we know that a better approach is to use in-line boards to spread out lures and that 10- to 15-pound test monofilament fishing line is a much better match for the brown trout that commonly grow to double digit size.

Brown trout specific rods and reels however are not necessary. I generally run my walleye trolling rods when targeting spring brown trout. My standard set up is a Daiwa Great Lakes telescopic 7’-6” rod matched to a Lexa 300 line counter reel loaded with 10-pound-test monofilament.





On the inside lines or the baits running closest to the shore, some of the top stickbaits that have been catching browns for generations include the Rapala No. 11 and 13 Floating Minnow, Rapala Husky Jerk 12 and 14, the YoZuri Crystal Minnow, Reef Runner’s RipStick, Smithwick’s Elite 8 Rouge and the Perfect 10. The running depths of all these baits are modest and can easily be controlled by simply manipulating lead lengths.

On the outside board lines, the water is typically going to be deeper and to get the most from stickbaits requires incorporating in-line trolling weights such as the popular Off Shore Tackle Snap Weight. The beauty of using a Snap Weight is the weight can be placed on the line 20, 30 or even as much as 50 feet ahead of the lure.

This rigging method accomplishes the goal of getting shallow running baits to deeper depths, but it also creates a separation between the weight and the lure to avoid spooking fish. Just as important, the separation of the Snap Weight and the stickbait provides anglers the perfect opportunity to reel in a hooked fish, remove the Snap Weight when it comes close to the rod tip and then resume fighting the fish in a seamless manner.

For the majority of spring trolling situations, 1/2, 3/4 and 1 ounce Snap Weights will get the job done. For somewhat deeper applications, Snap Weights including the 1.5, 2 and 3 ounce sizes get the nod. Most in-line boards will handle up to the three ounce Snap Weight without issue.






While the stickbait may be the traditional way to catch spring browns, a host of floating/diving style crankbaits are also deadly effective trout lures. Diving crankbaits come in a host of body shapes or profiles and most are useful additions to the brown trout angler’s tackle box. Slender minnow diving profiles, shad bodies and even fat bodied bass baits serve a purpose for spring brown trout.

Minnow divers such as the Rapala Deep Husky Jerk 12, the Bandit 5/8 Walleye, Storm Deep Jr. ThunderStick or the YoZuri DD Crystal Minnow all do a good job of imitating smelt, an important forage species in all the Great Lakes waters where brown trout are routinely stocked.






Shad baits including Rapala’s Shad Rap series and Berkley’s Flicker Shads do an excellent job of imitating both alewife and gizzard shad, two common forage species.

Wide body wobblers such as the Yakima Bait Mag Lip, Luhr Jensen KwikFish, Heddon Tadpoly, Storm Wiggle Wart and Hot n Tot are all good examples of high action baits that when fished in close proximity to the bottom closely replicate the round goby, an evasive species that is becoming increasingly important to the diet of brown trout and other species that forage near the bottom.


Stained waters such as indicated in this drone shot represent prime waters for brown trout that routinely position themselves in the stained water where they have a better opportunity to ambush prey.


All of these lures have the advantage of featuring a predictable “Dive Curve” that makes it possible to fish these lures at precise depths by simply manipulating the line diameter and lead lengths used. The Precision Trolling Data phone app (precisiontrollingdata.com) provides the running depths of these popular crankbaits and hundreds of others based on two different line types and line diameter thicknesses and also trolling lead lengths.

Armed with this technology, it’s easy to present crankbaits to precise depths, catch fish and then replicate that pattern or select other crankbaits that dive to the same depths and experiment with different lure options.



When targeting brown trout near bottom and in moderate depths, a simple three way swivel rig can be used effectively to present stickbaits, diving crankbaits, trolling spoons and in-line spinners near bottom. This set up is best fished as a flatline with rod holders mounted near the back corners of the boat.

For modest depths (30 feet or less) 10 to 15 pound test monofilament is the ideal main line. For deeper depths (30 to 50 feet) using a 10 to 15 pound test super line that is thinner in diameter and also features near zero stretch will make it easier to maintain contact with bottom.





When setting up a three way rig, attach the main line to one of the swivels on the three way, then attach a 60 to 72 inch leader featuring 12-15 pound test fluorocarbon line to a second swivel. Finish the rig by adding a 24- to 36-inch dropper line featuring 8- to 10-pound test monofilament terminated to a pencil sinker. Running a lighter line on the dropper compared to the main line or the leader makes it possible to break off the sinker should it snag bottom without losing the entire rig.

A three-way swivel rig is set in much the same way a walleye angler would set a bottom bouncer rig. Set your boat speed and then free spool the three-way rig until the weight hits the bottom. Put your finger on the spool to prevent more line from playing out and let the forward travel of the boat pull the line tight for a few seconds. Now take your finger off from the spool and allow line to play off the reel a second time until the sinker once again strikes bottom.

The instant the sinker strikes bottom a second time, click over the reel bail and place the rod in a corner rod holder. A three-way swivel rig set this way will fish near bottom with the sinker ticking along bottom, but not dragging continuously on the bottom.

Some might consider this set up a “poor man’s” downrigger. The three-way swivel rig is surprisingly effective on brown trout. While brown trout can and often do suspend in the water column, they are regularly found holding close to bottom.


The author has been chasing Great Lakes brown trout since the early 1980’s. Few fish are as predictable as the brown trout in the spring of the year.




The directional diving planer continues to play a major role in producing spring brown trout. Popular divers such as the Luhr Jensen Dipsy or the Slide-Diver are most effective when fishing in water deeper than 20 feet. It’s best to set these divers on the No. 2 or 3 setting that allows the diver to plane out away from the side of the boat a few feet. This option opens up the back of the boat for other options such as downriggers or three-way rigs.

Other in-line divers such as the Off Shore Tackle Tadpole Diver or Big Jon Mini Disks are another good option for present-ing stickbaits or spoons. Simply attach the main line to the tow point on the diver and add a 48 to 72 inch leader terminated in the lure of choice.



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While some of these small divers are directional, it’s best to fish them on the zero setting that enables them to dive like a crankbait. In turn, these small divers can be fished in combination with in-line planer boards to effectively spread out lines and cover the maximum amount of water.



While most anglers consider the downrigger as a tool for fishing deep water, the truth is a downrigger is also very useful for fishing shallow water. The beauty of using a downrigger is it allows the angler to fight hooked fish without having to burden with the resistance of in-line weights, planer boards, directional divers or other heavy trolling gear.

Downriggers can also be used with all the popular terminal tackle options including spoons, stickbaits, diving plugs, in-line spinners, cut plugs, etc., etc. When targeting brown trout with downriggers I like to use a medium/light action rod equipped with a level-wind reel that has a silky smooth drag system. Instead of the typical 20- to 25-pound test monofilament that most anglers use with downriggers, spooling up with 12- to 15-pound test fluorocarbon line helps to generate more bites and makes the experience of fighting fish more rewarding.

Until an angler has fished a downrigger in shallow water, he can’t fully appreciate how useful this trolling tool can be to the avid brown trout fisherman.



A lot of brown trout have fallen victim to a stickbait fished straight out the back of a small boat. While there is something to be said for keeping things simple, the modern brown trout fisherman has a lot more tools at their disposal.



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1 comment

Very good article on brown trout fishing.

Robert Marchand

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