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Fly fishing for rainbow trout is often the place where fly anglers start their fly fishing journey. I first cast a fly for rainbow trout 33 years ago on a small stream in the mountains of Kenya and have since fished for them in lakes and rivers all over the world.
Table of Contents
- Introduction To Rainbow Trout
- Rainbow Trout Size
- Rainbow Trout Diet
- Best Rainbow Trout Flies
- Best Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing Destinations
- Where To Find Rainbow Trout
- How To Fly Fish For Rainbow Trout (Step-By-Step)
- Best Gear For Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing
- Best Time of Day For Fly Fishing For Rainbow Trout
- Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing Seasons
- Rainbow Trout Spawning Season
- How To Catch Rainbow Trout on a Fly
- Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing With Different Flies
- How To Catch & Release Rainbow Trout
- Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing FAQs
- That’s How To Fly Fish For Rainbow Trout
With 30+ years of fly fishing experience and 10 years as a fly guide, in this post, I’ll take you through everything you need to know about rainbow trout fly fishing. We’ll learn about their size, behavior, what flies they like, how to target them in lakes and rivers, and lots more.
By the end of the article, you should have all the information you’ll need for some successful rainbow trout fishing with a fly rod.
More on Fly Fishing Different Species of Fish:
Introduction To Rainbow Trout
Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are endemic to the Pacific coast of North America and Russia which includes northern California through Canada, up to Alaska, and across to the Kamchatka region of eastern Russia.
However, today you can find rainbow trout all over the world from the UK and Europe to Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, and even in more obscure areas such as India, Kenya, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, South Africa, and more.
Rainbow trout thrive in water between 50°F (10°C) and 60°F (15°C) that’s clean, well oxygenated, and has a solid food source. Rainbows are more aggressive than browns when it comes to feeding, and will often out-compete brown trout in the same lake or river.
Rainbow Trout Size
Rainbow trout live for around 7 years on average and the size/length they can grow to depends a lot on where they live and the food available to them. On average, rainbows are between 12-20 inches in length and weigh between 0.5-2kg (1-4 pounds).
However, you can find rainbow trout that are a lot larger than 4 lbs if you’re lucky or fish in an area that’s known for its larger specimens.
Rainbow Trout Diet
Rainbow trout aren’t fussy eaters and will go after anything they can find. By understanding their typical diet, you can choose the correct flies to fish for them.
Most of their feeding is done below the surface during the daytime. In rivers, they’ll hold up in a spot and let the current bring the food to them whereas in lakes, the rainbows will cruise around actively hunting.
Winged insects include both terrestrial and dry flies. Terrestrials are blown onto the river and include things like beetles, ants, grasshoppers, and daddy long legs. Dry flies actually hatch out of the water and include midges, blue-winged olives, and mayflies to name a few.
Nymphs are the main diet item that rainbow trout eat in rivers and lakes. They are small aquatic insects that eventually hatch into winged insects, for example from a mayfly nymph into a winged mayfly.
Some rivers and lakes are home to freshwater shrimp and crayfish.
These are excellent protein sources for rainbow trout, and larger specimens will actively hunt these.
Emergers refer to when nymphs are “emerging” (hatching) into a winged insect. When they hatch, they float to the surface and have to fight their way out of their “shell” and the surface tension to take flight. Rainbow trout take full advantage of this.
Small Mammals & Fish
Rainbow trout are aggressive and not fussy. They’ll eat mice that try to cross the river, small lizards, snails, and even baby snakes. They also take full advantage of small fish and will eat fish others up to a third of their length.
Read more: What Do Rainbow Trout Eat?
Learn About The Diet of Fish:
Best Rainbow Trout Flies
Now that we’ve covered a rainbow trout’s diet, let’s take a look at the best Rainbow Trout fly fishing flies to match. Choosing the right flies and fishing them correctly is key to fly fishing successfully, so be sure to own all the flies I run through below.
Best Dry Flies For Rainbow Trout
While dry flies only consist of around 20% of a rainbow trout’s diet, there are times when all they’re eating is that which is hatching. There’s nothing quite like watching a rainbow trout sip your fly off the surface. I was catching them on a lake in North Wales last week on a stimulator, it was so much fun!
The Kilnkhammer is a key dry fly to have in your box in sizes 14-18 and in a large range of colors. These are best fished on a 3/4 wt and they look like pretty much every small winged insect – which is why they’re so effective.
Grasshoppers form a large chunk of protein for rainbows. On windy days, hoppers are blown onto lakes and rivers, and this is when you should fish them. Hopper flies are made of foam and are very floaty, so they’re also ideal to fish with a dry/dropper rig.
The stimulator is a generic pattern and is more of an attractor fly than one that “matches the hatch”. However, the fly’s big thorax and buggy appearance make it irresistible and a rainbow will certainly take a look, even if it doesn’t eat it.
The Adams is one of the top dry flies for rainbow trout (and all other species of trout). It looks like everything from small mayflies to midges and more. The “parachute” top makes the fly easier to spot which is key as you should fish them in small sizes from 15 to 22.
Elk Hair Caddis
The elk hair caddis imitates a caddis fly very well along with a range of other hatched flies. The orange body with the elk hair wings makes it look very buggy and it’s a great go-to when fish are rising but you are not quite sure what they’re eating. Own these in sizes 14-18.
Read more: Best Dry Flies For Rainbow Trout
Best Nymphs For Rainbow Trout
Nymphs, as I already mentioned, make up the majority of a rainbow trout’s diet in both rivers and lakes. Having a larger selection of nymphs across various sizes, weights, and colors is key to catching trout consistently.
You should spend a lot of time fly fishing for rainbow trout with a gold ribbed hare’s ear nymph (GRHE) as it’s hugely effective. This fly looks like a lot of nymphs and I recommend you own it in sizes 12-18 in a range of colors and weights.
San Juan Worm
Worms are one of the best freshwater baits in the world, and the San Juan Worm imitates them perfectly. This is a fantastic go-to fly to use after rainfall when worms are washed into the river, or whenever you’re having a tough day.
The Colonel’s Creeper is a large double-weighted stonefly imitation. It’s super-heavy and quite irresistible to rainbow trout. Being so weighty, it’s excellent to use in fast currents, deep pools, and lakes as it gets into the feeding zone very quickly. Grab this in sizes 8 & 10 in grey & black colors.
Cased caddis’ are a large part of a rainbow trout’s diet. It’s a nymph that has built a case around it before it hatches, and rainbows look out for these in rivers. I was fishing this fly in North UK this week and it was deadly when drifted right with a tungsten head.
Read more: Best Nymphs For Rainbow Trout
Best Streamers For Rainbow Trout
Streamers are imitations of the larger prey items rainbows go for such as small fish, leeches, and crayfish. When fishing streamers, you may want to use a sink tip to get your fly a little deeper, and be sure to shorten your leader to 6 feet and fish a minimum of 4x (6 lbs).
If there’s one streamer fly you should own, it should be the wooly bugger. This fly imitates everything from leeches to small fish and crayfish too. Tied with a marabou tail, its action in the water is irresistible.
The Clouser Minnow is a streamer that works for every predatory fish out there, from rainbow trout to GTs. It’s tied with dumbbell eyes and a baitfish profile that looks the business underwater. When stripped, the fly rises in the water column and then drops on the pause – this motion is something that drives rainbows nuts.
The Muddler Minnow is a streamer fly of note for rainbow trout. It imitates a small fish very well and is tied with a deer hair head. This head is naturally buoyant and when fished, gives this fly a unique action.
There’s nothing quite like an olive conehead streamer as it imitates most baitfish in a river or lake perfectly. The conehead is weighted to help the fly sink in fast currents, deep pools, and lakes.
The bunny leech is a large fly that looks like a leech and a bait fish which makes it super effective. You can fish it on a dead drift, slow strip, or swing it across a pool. The dumbbell eyes help it sink, while the long tail made from rabbit fur has an incredible action that rainbows simply love to smash.
Read more: Best Streamers For Rainbow Trout
Best Wet Flies For Rainbow Trout
Wet flies are not nymphs, streamers, dry flies, or emergers but they do happen to imitate all of them some way, somehow. They look like drowned winged insects, small fish, and cased nymphs so are a great go-to when the rainbow trout are not playing ball.
The coachman has a body that looks a bit like a cased caddis and it features very obvious white wings. This means it imitates a lot of different things in a river/lake and is a fly that will always get a rainbow trout’s attention.
The Invicta is my favorite wet fly for rainbow trout and I’ve found it to be deadly everywhere from the UK to Ethiopia and more. The fly looks just like a small fry and a caddis; imitating two of a rainbow trout’s favorite things.
The Mrs Simpson is a very popular fly in Kenya, but it truly works everywhere. It imitates a crayfish, small fish, and even big dragonfly nymphs. This is best in sizes 6-10 and fished on a dead drift or with a short slow strip.
The Alexander is a fly that dates back to the 1800s and four different people claim to have come up with it. It was even banned a few times for being too effective. It imitates both drowned insects and small baitfish which is why it works so well.
The Black Pennel is one of my top wet flies when fishing for rainbow trout in lakes in the UK. It looks just like an emerger, a drowned insect, and even a nymph.
Find The Best Flies For Any Fishing Scenario:
→ More About The Best Flies To Use
Best Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing Destinations
You can find rainbow trout all over the world these days, very far from their endemic waters of the northwest coast of North America and the east coast of Russia.
Some of the best rainbow trout fishing is still in their native waters but can also be found in Argentina, New Zealand, Tasmania, and many more places. Let’s take a look at these awesome rainbow trout fly-fishing destinations:
Rainbow Trout in the USA
The US has some of the best fly fishing for rainbow trout in the world, and it makes sense considering they are endemic to the Pacific Northwest. The best rainbow trout fishing in the US is in Alaska.
Its rivers are packed full of big rainbow trout and steelhead (sea-run rainbows).
Other great rainbow trout rivers in the USA include the Missouri River which flows through Wyoming and Montana. You should also try out the Deschutes in Oregon, Green River in Utah, and Henry’s Fork in Idaho. I additionally recommend you head to the Great Lakes region where you’ll find some big rainbows.
Rainbow Trout in Canada
Canada is one of the countries that rainbow trout are native to and you can find some of the best fly fishing for rainbow trout there. Rainbows up to 15 lbs are a reality and you’ll want to use a 6/7 wt rod with a 3/4X leader to handle them.
Some of the top rainbow trout fishing spots in Canada include The Bow River, Lake Athabasca, and the Crowsnest River in Alberta. Other great places to cast a line are Nootka Sound (Galiano Bay) and the Columbia River in British Columbia.
Read more: Fly Fishing in Canada
Rainbow Trout in Argentina
Argentina is another of the best places in the world to catch rainbow trout on the fly. Between the rivers and lakes in Patagonia and the other fisheries around the country, you’ll find some impeccable fly fishing. The scenery, crystal clear rivers, and incredible food only add to the experience.
Some of the best places to cast a fly for rainbows include Jurassic Lake and the Alumine River in Argentinean Patagonia is another epic spot as is Desierto Lake.
Rainbow Trout in New Zealand
If there’s one country in the world that’s home to incredible trout fishing, it’s New Zealand. Whether you’re on North or South Island, rainbow trout up to 12 lbs won’t be far away.
When fly fishing in New Zealand, you’re going to want a 7-wt to handle the size of the rainbows and long leaders over 20 ft as these fish are big and clever. Some of the top rivers and lakes include the Tekapo Canal, the Eglinton River, the Mataura River, and the Ahuriri River.
Rainbow Trout in Russia
Russia is the only place outside of North America where rainbow trout are endemic and the fishing there is off the charts. Days of 20+ rainbows all 3 lbs and over are common, especially if you head to the Kamchatka Peninsula.
The Kamchatka Peninsula is very remote and is full of wildlife and stunning scenery. The rainbows here are as wild as they come. You’ll want a 6+ wt and to book with a lodge to fly fish here.
Rainbow Trout in Ethiopia
This might come as a surprise to you, but some of the best rainbow trout fishing I have ever experienced was in Ethiopia. The fish are not huge, around 2-3 lbs max, but the joy of this fishing trip was the cultural experience that came with it and the stunning wildlife.
The trout in Ethiopia are found in the Bale Mountains – a day’s drive from Addis Ababa. The fish were stocked once in the 60’s and are still going. There are two rivers to fish and they include the Webb River and the Shaya River.
Fly Fishing In The USA
Where To Find Rainbow Trout
Whenever you get to a river or a lake, the first thing you need to decide is where to fish. This all comes down to knowing where rainbow trout are going to hold in said river or lake, which is what we’re going to look at next.
Fly Fishing Rainbow Trout in Rivers
A large part of how to fly fish for Rainbow Trout in rivers is knowing where rainbow trout will hold in rivers compared to lakes.
The key is fishing an area with enough current, but not too much, as the current brings food and oxygen to rainbows.
Pools are large, deep parts of rivers that are often found below rapids and waterfalls. They are ideal places for rainbows to hold in as they provide cover from predators, good water temperatures, and plenty of food.
Riffles are also great places to find rainbow trout in rivers. They are shallower and have a faster current than the surrounding water, which means more oxygen and more food.
Under Overhanging Structure
Rainbow trout are not at the top of the food chain in most places and therefore they need a place to hide from the likes of birds and other predators.
Overhanging structures provide this protection and they also offer shade on hot sunny days. Be warned, you might get snagged casting around these, but it’s worth it.
Along The Banks
Banks can provide both cover and a lot of food for rainbows. If there’s enough current, be sure to drift your fly down the opposite bank and wait for a big rainbow to come out and inhale it.
In and Below Rapids
Rapids provide a ton of food and oxygen for rainbow trout but they also have a lot of current. Nevertheless, rainbow trout still hold in them. When fishing in a rapid, focus on the section of water that’s slower than the rest. Just below rapids, where the current is weaker is also a great place to find rainbows.
In Quiet Water
There are lots of river sections that form quiet water.
For example, a boulder sticking out in a river creates a quiet patch of water behind it. This is a great place for rainbows to hold out of the stronger current with ample food.
Some sections of rivers, particularly big rivers, are long deep, and slow. They will hold a lot of rainbows but the current is usually gentle. Fishing a streamer with a sink-tip is your best bet in these sections.
Pocket water is a small little pocket that consists of a single pool in amongst a shallow rapid-like section of river. These look small, and as though they might not have much fish in them, but do not underestimate them. Drop some nymphs through these and you’ll likely be successful.
Fly Fishing Rainbow Trout in Lakes
Finding rainbow trout in a lake is a lot harder compared to rivers in my opinion. However, there are some parts within lakes that are pretty much guaranteed to hold rainbows. These include the following:
A lot of lakes have rivers flowing into them and these are rainbow trout hot spots. The river brings a lot of food and oxygen into the lake, two things rainbow trout need and love. During the spawning season, rainbows will go upriver and congregate in large numbers in these rivers.
Outflows are areas where lakes empty into rivers, and these are also rainbow trout hotspots as food is channeled into them. If there’s an outflow on the lake you’re fishing, definitely fish it.
When water temperatures are low, rainbow trout will also hunt along shallow beach areas.
In early spring and late fall, be sure to spend some time fishing along the shallow beaches of rainbow trout lakes.
Around Underwater Structure
A large part of how to fly fish for rainbow trout in lakes is knowing where underwater structures are, such as fallen trees or rock piles. The structures not only provide a solid source of food but also offer cover from predators.
Along The Banks
The banks of lakes are usually filled with vegetation and this is where small fish, snails, nymphs, and other food sources like to live; making it an ideal hunting ground for rainbow trout.
Changes in depths, such as drop-offs (where shallow water drops steeply to deep water) are places that rainbow trout patrol on a regular basis. Finding these can be tricky – look at a chart of the lake or fish with a depth sounder.
On the Windward Side
The windward side of a lake (the side of the lake the wind is blowing towards) is a great place to fish as the wind drives all the food in the top 1-2 ft of water to that end of the lake. However, casting into the wind can be challenging.
How To Fly Fish For Rainbow Trout (Step-By-Step)
Now that we’ve run through how to find rainbow trout, their behavior, and what they eat, it’s time to talk about how to fly fish for them. Below, you’ll find a step-by-step guide to catching rainbows with a fly rod. Be sure to follow them in the correct order:
Step 1: Find A River Or Lake with Ample Rainbow Trout
Choosing a good place to fish for rainbow trout is paramount to your success. Do your research and find a lake or river with a healthy rainbow trout population.
Once you’ve found it, check for some other info such as what flies will work, whether the access is easy, and if you need a boat to fish it, etc.
Step 2: Choose The Right Gear
Generally speaking, a 3wt and 4wt are great for fishing dries and nymphs on rivers. 5/6 wt setups are ideal for streamers on rivers and long casts on lakes. Be sure to stock up on flies that you don’t yet have, but need.
Step 3: Read The Water
Next up is deciding where to fish on the river or lake you’ve arrived on.
On rivers, move towards the sections that hold fish and only fish upstream. On lakes, look for the holding spots I explained in the section above.
Step 4: Check What They’re Eating
Before choosing a fly, it is prudent to check what the rainbows are eating. Look around for insects hatching, and terrestrials near the water, and do some digging. Put a seine in the water for 30 seconds and see what you find in it. Match your fly as best as you can to the fly life and nymphs in your seine.
Step 5: Walk Quietly to Your Spot
The last thing you want to do is spook all the fish holding in your chosen spot. Take your time walking or wading to your spot. Tread lightly, only whisper, don’t let your shadow hit the river, and get low if need be.
Step 6: Get Within Casting Distance
The worst thing you can do is get to a spot and then not be able to cast to where the fish are holding.
Make sure you get close enough so that you’re within casting distance of the “zone” you think the fish are in. Check behind you for snags that you might catch when casting too.
Step 7: Cast Close, Then Far
Quite often, fish will be holding very close to you. Do not send a long first cast as this will spook them all. Start by casting close to where you’re standing and slowly cast further and further.
Step 8: Your First Cast Counts The Most
When fly fishing for rainbow trout in rivers, your first cast is the most important of them all. If you can put your fly where you want it to be on the first go, you’ll have a very high chance of catching a fish. Make a few false casts to get your distance right before dropping the fly.
Step 9: Present Your Fly Naturally
Rainbow trout are not stupid and if your fly doesn’t look natural, they simply will not eat it.
In rivers, your fly needs to drift with the current unaffected by your fly line, be sure to mend as much as you need for this to happen.
On lakes, you’ll have to retrieve your fly by stripping. Slow strips are ideal to start with, then you can mix it up to see what the rainbows prefer.
Step 10: Try Different Flies
If you’ve fished your spot for a while and haven’t had any success, then it’s time to pause and change flies. Take your time, resting your spot in the process, and choose a different fly that fishes deeper, shallower, or imitates something else.
Step 11: Keep Moving
If you’re not catching any fish, it’s possible you are just in the wrong place.
As soon as I’ve fished a spot thoroughly enough with a few flies and haven’t caught much, I move.
Step 12: Repeat Steps 5-10
Once you’ve found a new spot that looks fishy to you, repeat steps 5-10 above and continue to move if your next spot isn’t fruitful, (or when you’ve overfished it). Fly fishing is about being on the move.
Best Gear For Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing
Catching rainbow trout successfully is all about being able to put your flies where you want them, fishing them properly, and being able to land a monster the day you hook one. This all comes down to the gear you choose to use.
Below, I will run through some of my favorite fly gear for catching rainbows in every situation you might come across, from streams to rivers and lakes:
Best Rainbow Trout Fly Rods
When targeting rainbow trout on the fly, you’ll want a range of rods for specific situations. I highly recommend one rod for nymphing, one for dry flies and all-around use, and one for lakes. Here are my favorite rainbow rods:
Sage ESN 3 wt
The Sage ESN is designed for Euro-Nymphing, the most effective way to catch rainbows on a nymph in a river. The rod is super responsive, durable, and highly accurate. In a 10-1.0.5 ft 3-weight, it is deadly.
Sage Trout LL 4wt
The Sage Trout LL is the perfect dry fly and all-around rod. It delivers flies accurately with delicate presentations at short and long distances. A 9-foot 4-weight is the way to go.
Hardy Ultralight 6/7 wt
The Hardy Ultralight in a 9 ft 6/7 weight is the perfect streamer rod for rivers and is great for lakes too. You can cast heavy flies long distances with accuracy and it has the backbone to handle some big rainbows too.
Read more: Best Rainbow Trout Fly Rods
More Lists Of The Best Rods:
Best Rainbow Trout Fly Reels
You will need a reel to match the rods I’ve recommended above. Big rainbows pull hard and therefore having a reel that is reliable and offers a good drag is very important if you want to land a big fish. Below, you’ll find a range of reels I recommend to suit different budgets:
Nautilus X Series
The Nautilus X Series is the perfect balance of excellent quality and an affordable price. If your budget allows it, this is the reel to go for. It’s light, durable, and has a superb drag.
If your budget is a little tight, then the Maxcatch Eco is the rainbow trout reel for you. This reel will handle most of the situations rainbows put you in. However, it’s not so reliable when it comes to drag, and I’d be worried about fighting a rainbow over 4lbs with this.
Hardy Ultralite MTX-S
The Hardy Ultralite MTX-S is a rather expensive reel but it’s worth the investment if you can afford it. Super light, very tough, with an excellent drag – there’s nothing a rainbow can do that this reel can’t handle.
Read more: Best Rainbow Trout Fly Reels
All The Best Reels
Best Rainbow Trout Fly Line
If there’s one bit of core fly gear for rainbows that’s worth spending some cash on, it’s a great fly line. A good line will make presenting your fly to rainbows at short/long distances a lot easier.
You should also invest in a few types of fly lines for different situations so that you can fish for rainbows effectively no matter the scenario. A floating line, sink-tip fly line, and sinking fly line are all needed.
Airflo Superflo River & Stream
The Airflo Superflo River & Stream is the ideal floating line for all-around use. You can cast nymphs, dries, and streamers very efficiently with this fly line.
Rio Mainstream Sinking Line
When fishing lakes, it’s important to be able to fish deep when the time comes. The Rio Mainstream Sinking Line is great to cast and will help you get your flies down to where the rainbows are feeding.
Scientific Angler Sink Tip
Sink-tip lines are perfect for swinging streamers on rivers and for fishing a little deeper on lakes. The Scientific Angler Sink Tip fly line doesn’t sink too fast but will get your flies to that ideal mid-depth.
Read more: Best Rainbow Trout Fly Lines
Our Lists Of The Best Fly Lines
Our Lists Of The Best Fly Lines
Your tippet sits between your fly and your fly line and it is imperative that the rainbow trout can’t see it. If they can, there’s no chance of them eating your fly. Make sure to buy fluorocarbon tippet as it’s invisible underwater.
You’ll also need a range of tippet sizes depending on the size of fish/water clarity/flies you are fishing for/in/with. Having 3X, 4X, 5X and 6X tippet will cover you nicely.
Other Gear You Might Need To Catch Rainbow Trout on Fly
Outside of the rod, reel, line, tippet, and flies, there are some other bits of gear you’ll need when targeting rainbow trout with a fly rod. These are all essential items in my eyes so be sure to grab them:
Fly Fishing Net
Landing a big rainbow trout without a fly fishing net is not easy.
I’ve lost a few big ones at my feet trying to land them without a net – believe me it is not worth it.
Waders keep you warm and dry, protect you from stings, and allow you to access parts of rivers and lakes you might not be able to otherwise. They are essential for being able to fish comfortably and get to areas the rainbows are holding in.
You will also want some grippy wading boots. These will stop you from slipping and sliding on algae-covered rocks and protect your ankles from turning over.
Polarized sunglasses are a must-have. They cut the glare allowing you to spot fish and see the depth of the water, plus they protect your eyes from any flies that might come your way.
You’re going to want to carry water, lunch, a camera, extra layers, and potentially lots more while you fish.
There’s nothing better than a waterproof backpack to keep everything dry and ready to go.
You will be changing flies, building leaders, and adding new tippet often when fishing for rainbows. Having a good pair of nippers close by is going to make this a breeze.
When nymphing, you might want to use some indicator so that you can adjust the depth of your flies and instantly notice when a rainbow takes your fly. The Biostrike Putty from Loon is what I recommend.
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Best Time of Day For Fly Fishing For Rainbow Trout
When you have a chance to fly fish for rainbows, choosing the right time to go is imperative. Time of day is one factor and the other is weather.
Cool-weather, cloudy days, and light rainfall are a rainbow trout’s ideal conditions.
When it comes to the time of day, low-light and ideal temperatures are the best. These change across the seasons. In summer, dawn and dusk are the best, whereas in winter, midday into the afternoon are ideal.
Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing Seasons
One of the reasons fly fishing is so addictive is that you constantly have to adapt – a lot of this comes with the changing seasons. Rainbows will behave differently and feed on different things in each season and understanding this is imperative to your success.
Fly Fishing For Rainbow Trout In Spring
Spring is a great time to fish for rainbows as the water is heating up, more fly life is hatching, and the rainbows are actively feeding trying to gain weight after a long winter. As temperatures increase, the fish will become more and more active.
The fish will focus on nymphs at this time of year and you’ll see some midge, BWO, Green Drake, and March Brown hatches.
Fly Fishing For Rainbow Trout In Summer
By the summer, the water temperatures will be their highest and the rainbows will have eaten a lot over spring.
This means they’ll be more selective and feed most actively at dawn and dusk – when light and temperatures are optimum.
You may need to fish deep on hot days as the rainbows go down to find cooler water. Common hatches include hoppers, salmon flies, caddis, midges, and tricos.
Fly Fishing For Rainbow Trout In Fall
In the fall, rainbows will be well aware of winter on the horizon and will try to put on as much weight as possible. This also coincides with a lot of small baitfish in the system so fishing a streamer is an excellent idea.
Water temperatures and light are at their ideal settings in the fall. You can fish all day long and the hatches you might see include hoppers, green drakes, midges, and caddis.
Fly Fishing For Rainbow Trout In Winter
A lot of rainbow trout fisheries will be closed in winter. However, if you live near one that’s open, be aware that the fish will be slow and sluggish due to the cold water temperatures.
Fish between midday and 4 pm when it is warmest and midges as dries and nymphs are the best flies.
Rainbow Trout Spawning Season
Rainbow trout spawning season happens between February and May depending on the location. The fish will wait for the water to be between 42°F / 6°C and 46°F / 8°C which happens earlier/later depending on altitude.
How To Catch Rainbow Trout on a Fly
Fly fishing for rainbow trout is not easy, and part of the enjoyment is the challenge. Here are some super useful tips to help you succeed on tough days:
Once you have chosen a spot to fish in, positioning yourself correctly is imperative.
Think about where you want your flies to land and if you can cast there. Move closer if you need to, and look behind you to see if you can cast without catching any obstructions behind you.
Think About The Wind
When fishing on windy days, you want to adjust your casting to the wind. Ideally, the wind will be behind you, but this is not always possible. You want the wind to come over your non-casting shoulder as this will push the flies away from your head as you cast. If this isn’t possible, cast on the other side of your body.
Pick The Right Fly
Look up what’s hatching at the time of year you’re fishing, and then use what you see to make your decision. If there are no rises, a nymph or a streamer is the way to go.
When fish start rising, switch to a dry fly. Keep changing until you find what the rainbows like.
Fish Your Flies At The Right Depth
Depth is key when you’re fishing anything but a dry fly. In rivers, nymphs and streamers need to be fished close to the bottom. In lakes, 10-20 ft below the surface. Use heavier nymphs in stronger currents and deep pools. Use a sink-tip to get your streamer and nymphs down in lakes.
Natural Presentations Are Key
Your flies need to look as natural as possible from when they land on the water until a rainbow trout eats them. In rivers, nymphs and dry flies need to drift with the current, unaffected by your fly line. Mend your fly line to adjust for currents affecting your drag.
Stripping is also a part of fly presentation in lakes and rivers with streamers. Strip slow or fast depending on the fly you are fishing and how you want the fish to respond. Slow strips for nymphs and medium strips for streamers are a good place to start.
When fishing on clear lakes and rivers, keeping your eyes peeled to spot fish is very important. Move slowly and scan the water next to you moving further and further away.
Look for wiggly movements caused by the tail.
Once you spot a fish, approach with stealth until you are within casting distance.
Cast Your Flies Ahead of Fish
You always want your flies to land ahead of the fish you intend to catch. This allows the flies to sink and look natural before the fish sees them. Make sure you cast far enough ahead so the flies have time to sink to the desired depth taking into account factors like current and wind.
Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing With Different Flies
Each fly type requires a different technique when fly fishing for rainbow trout. The differences are subtle but essential.
Nymphing For Rainbow Trout
When nymphing in rivers it’s all about depth and drift. Pick nymphs heavy enough to drift close to the bottom in the current.
Then present them far enough upstream so they have enough time to sink before getting to where the fish are.
In lakes, let your nymph sink long enough before stripping it in. Vary the depth by counting to 5/10/15 seconds before stripping it in. Strip slowly to keep your nymph deep, and fast to bring them shallower.
Emergers & Dry Fly Fishing For Rainbow Trout
When fishing dries or emergers, your flies are on the surface and need to land delicately ahead of the fish. The key is natural drift. Use the current on rivers, and the wind on lakes. Be sure to strip to keep the tension so that you can set the hook when a rainbow sips your fly off the surface.
Streamer Fishing For Rainbow Trout
When fishing streamers, you want them to sit rather deep and I recommend using a sink-tip line for this. Make sure your streamer sinks and then strip it in with medium strips to make it look like a fish/leech. On lakes, cast, and strip, on rivers cast across and let the current swing your fly across the pool.
Mousing For Rainbow Trout
When fishing a mouse fly, you want the mouse to look like it is struggling to cross the river/lake. Choose an area without much current and let the mouse fly swing as you make short consistent strips.
Wet Fly Fishing For Rainbow Trout
In rivers, you can fish wet flies for rainbow trout just as you would nymphs (dead drift) or streamers (stripping them across the current).
In lakes, simply cast them out and strip the flies in slowly.
How To Catch & Release Rainbow Trout
Fishing “catch & release” is imperative to the health of rivers and lakes these days. Here’s how to hook, handle, and safely release a rainbow trout:
Setting The Hook
To set the hook on a rainbow trout, simply lift the rod quickly but gently. You need to do this as soon as the fish eats the fly or it could spit it out very quickly.
If you lift too hard, you risk pulling the fly out or breaking the line.
Fighting Rainbow Trout on a Fly
Once hooked up, the fight is all about keeping tension so the hook does not come out. Use the reel or strip line to stay in contact. If the fish heads for a snag, try to guide it away from it. If it wants to run, do not try and stop it, just keep tension as you let fish take line.
Safely Netting Rainbow Trout
When the fish is ready for netting, make sure your net is sunk in the water. Slowly guide the fish with its head out of the water to the net and lift it. Once netted, quickly return the fish to the water so it can breathe.
Handling Rainbow Trout
Step one is wetting your hands before handling them, as this stops you from removing their slime layer. Always keep the fish in the water so it can breathe.
Hold the fish by supporting it gently under the mouth and holding the fork of the tail.
If you want a picture, get your camera person ready and lift the fish out of the water for 5 seconds as you take the shot, and return it safely to the water.
How To Safely Release Rainbow Trout
Before you release a rainbow trout you may need to revive it first. In a river, hold the fish facing into the current so it can breathe without any effort. In a lake, hold the tail and push the fish forward and backward so water moves through its gills. When it begins to kick, let go so it can swim away.
Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing FAQs
Here are my answers to some of the most common questions new fly anglers have about catching rainbow trout with a fly rod:
What is the Best Rainbow Trout Fly?
It is very hard to pick just one fly that’s better than all the others for rainbow trout. However, I can tell you my go-to fly is a GRHE with a tungsten head in both rivers and lakes as it imitates a lot of different nymphs.
What Color Fly is Best for Rainbow Trout?
There’s not one color that stands out as the best. When matching the hatch, size and shape are more important factors than color. In dirty water, use dark or bright colors. In clear water, use natural colors that match the prey you are imitating.
What Size Flies Are Best For Rainbow Trout?
When it comes to the best-size flies for rainbow trout, I would say sizes 14 and 16 are ideal. They cover the sizes of most natural nymphs/insects. With streamers, use sizes 2 to 6.
That’s How To Fly Fish For Rainbow Trout
We’ve now covered most of what you need to know to start fly fishing for rainbow trout. Everything else you will learn on the water, and time spent fishing is the best teacher. Once you see how well the above techniques and tips work, you’ll find it hard to stop.
Fly fishing is hard, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Enjoy the learning process, expect to fail, and correct your failures. Look around and remember how lucky you are to be standing in a river or lake doing something you enjoy surrounded by stunning scenery and immersed in nature – it’s what it’s all about!
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