The Smolt Bite by Jim Bedford

Lake Michigan Michigan Tackle trout trout fishing

As featured in Great Lakes Angler—April/May 2013

brown trout stickbait fishing jerkbait crankbait plug

Each spring hundreds of thousands of chinook, coho, and steelhead smolts migrate from the Great Lakes’ tributaries down to the big lakes.  In some streams they are joined by pink and Atlantic salmon smolts.  Most of the species smolt in early to mid-May but young chinook salmon usually wait until early June to move down to the Great Lakes.  On a smaller scale this migration also occurs in the tributaries of our large, deep, and cold inland lakes that support populations of rainbows.  Most of these streams also support good populations of resident trout.  Brown trout are the most common but there will be many streams that also contain brook trout and resident rainbows.

It is for sure that when stream resident trout reach a large size, they become fish eaters. 

They will eat their own if minnows are not available.  When young salmon and steelhead begin their migration down to the Great Lakes they become less cover oriented and thus are more vulnerable to predation.  The resident trout take notice and really focus on these very hearty potential meals.  The combination of a vulnerable source of food and streams which are usually up a bit with spring flows that offer the feeding resident trout extra protection gives trout anglers their best shot of the year at landing trophy trout.

brown trout stickbait fishing jerkbait crankbait plug

Minnow shaped plugs are very effective lures during the smolt migration.  They are most effective when cast across or quartering downstream and retrieved across or against the current.  This usually limits you to fairly good sized streams where you can get above the fish but not be detected.  They will still catch fish when cast upstream and retrieved with the current which lets you also fish small creeks where you need to stay below the fish to go undetected.

Even though you will be casting across and down, it is usually best to move upstream when wading.  This keeps you from alerting the trout of your presence by sending sand and silt and a wake downstream ahead of you.  As you move upstream and read the water, plan to sneak up along the opposite side of the river from where the best depth and cover is located and then cast as close to the fish holding spots as you can.  Retrieve the plugs slowly for the most part so they act like smolts or wounded minnows struggling with the current.  Starting and stopping the retrieve is a good plan and many times adding twitches with your rod as you retrieve your lure will trigger a strike. 

The idea is to make the stick bait look like an easy, high calorie meal for the trout.

You can also very effectively fish minnow plug from a floating craft in large streams and rivers.  Again, planning ahead is important as well as making long casts. It will also be important to be quiet in the boat and try to keep as low a profile as possible.  Anchors should only be as heavy as necessary and slowly lowered to the river bed.  Utilizing a brush clip instead of an anchor may be helpful in slow moving streams with lots of overhanging bushes and tree limbs.

brown trout stickbait fishing jerkbait crankbait plug

Casting and stripping streamers is a lot like fishing plugs and gives fly anglers the chance to take advantage of the smolt bite.  There are many streamer patterns that imitate small, silvery fish.  Fly fishermen quickly learn that often big trout will often try to stun the streamer, their prey, first and then come back and grab it.  So they must steel themselves into waiting until they feel the weight of the fish before they set the hook.  Big browns often do the same thing to a plug, sometimes seeming to hit with their mouth closed.  Waiting until you can feel the weight of the trout doesn’t work quite as well with the hard plugs as the trout may not hold on to the lures long enough for you to set the hook.  So, often, setting the hook with the first strike might be the best way to get hooked up.

This kill before eating trait is a key reason to fish downstream with plugs whenever the situation allows you to without spooking the trout.  If you do fail to hook the fish you can leave or back the plug back down a bit to where the strike took place and twitch it without moving it.  This will often bring the trout back out for the big meal it missed.  Laterally moving the lure toward the cover will also be helpful if you can do it by moving your rod but not your feet.

brown trout stickbait fishing jerkbait crankbait plug

Many of the trout streams that salmon and steelhead reproduce in are small.  They drain directly to the lakes or, probably more often, they are tributaries to larger streams that maybe too warm to support trout.  When fishing small trout streams, one of my favorite things to do, it is rarely possible to get upstream from the trout without spooking them.  If the trout know you are present, there is very little chance they will strike a lure.

Thus, you must usually cast your minnow plug upstream and retrieve it with the current.  This makes hooking the trout that try to kill the stick bait first more difficult because you can’t leave it in place for them to circle back and grab.  Also, I’ve found that the plugs only work well when you are fishing a fairly long run or hole where you have a chance to get the lure down and give the trout a fairly long look.  There are many pocket, nooks, and very short runs that hold trout where the plugs won’t work well.

brown trout stickbait fishing jerkbait crankbait plug

Weighted spinners and compact spoons don’t resemble smolts very closely but they do flash like the future salmon and steelhead do.  So the solution for me has been to constantly switch back and forth between these lures and minnow plugs as I fish upstream. 

Given the time, I think most big browns would hit a stick bait imitating a chinook smolt in a stream in May more readily than a spinner.  But there are so many spots that you can fish better with a quick sinking spoon or spinner.  In a couple miles of stream I will probably change lures 50 times.  Cutting and retying would be way too time consuming so I use a small, black duo lock snap to attach my lures to the line.  You will want to use a snap for minnow plugs anyway as the loose attachment allows the best action from the lure.  By the way, if your chosen crank bait comes with a split ring, I suggest taking it off and using the snap as it is difficult to tie a good knot to the split ring.  The split ring inherently has a spot with smaller diameter and sometimes the ends of the wire that is formed into the ring can be sharp.

brown trout stickbait fishing jerkbait crankbait plug

Because you are changing lures without retying it is easy to neglect checking your knot and the line near it.  Casting and retrieving lures can be tough on your knot and the end of your line.  Check your line and knot often and perhaps retie after every good sized trout you catch.

Large trout are very cover oriented and will ambush smolts from their hideouts.  Examples of prime cover include logs with space under them, overhanging grass, bushes, or other vegetation, undercut banks, and riffled or choppy water surfaces.  Water depth also provides protection but trout feed less efficiently when the water is deep.  Retrieving your plug as to close to as much trout-holding cover as possible will be a key to your success.  Often you will want to cast past the suspected lair so that the lure is down and swimming when it passes the log or bush.

While some of the smaller, lighter minnow plugs can be cast with the fly rod I believe ultra-light spinning tackle is ideal for fishing smolt imitating stick baits for trout.  With this tackle you can cast light lures a fair distance and accurately land them close to good cover.  A quality reel with a high retrieve ratio is very important as the reel is a big time work horse for cast and retrieve fishing.  Pick a premium, highly castable line in 6 or 8 pound test.  My favorite is Trilene XL because of its fine diameter and limpness.  Its drawback is a slight lack of durability or abrasion resistance but I solve that by changing my line often.  You only need to change the top 40-50 yards of “working” line so it is not a big expense to keep fresh line on your reel.

brown trout stickbait fishing jerkbait crankbait plug

For minnow plugs, I like those that suspend such as the Rapala Husky Jerk and the Rebel Holographic Minnow.  They still float when they land so you can drift them into position before starting your retrieve.  Then, when you pull them under on the retrieve they will remain there if you need to pause them to entice a big brown that has made pass at your lure to come back and grab it.

Finally, if some of your favorite salmon and steelhead tributaries are good trout streams but are also stocked with smolts to supplement the natural reproduction that takes place, give them extra attention with minnow plugs.  Hatchery smolts are usually stocked before they are ready to smolt to make sure they imprint to their stocking location.  They mill around in the streams prior to smolting and then usually take their time migrating.  These fish are not stream savvy like their wild brethren and thus are very vulnerable to predation by the larger resident trout.       

- written by Jim Bedford



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  • Johanna on

    Superb and very informative article. Will be moving to the UP about this time next year. I have much experience as a troller, but alas without the finances to purchase another 🚢, i will be using other tactics. The shore/trib/stream tactics and methods are great to learn about. KEEP THEM COMING. THANK YOU


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