Trout Species in Iowa
Tackle Selection   Bait Selection   Lure Selection
When to Fish   Summer Fishing   Fall Fishing   Winter Fishing
Angling Techniques   Fishing Structure   Landing Your Catch

Fishing for Trout
By Vaughn L. Paragamian, Fisheries Research Biologist, Iowa DNR

There is a mystique about trout that is rivaled by no other fish. This tradition probably evolved in the trout fishing fraterity for numerous reasons. Perhaps a great deal of it arises from the fine water quality that is essential for trout or from the tranquil scenery often associated with a trout stream. It might be the vivid colors that are characteristic of this fish family, or perhaps it is the delicate manner in which a feeding trout rising to devour a mayfly, or even their fickle unpredictability. Whichever it is -- there is a following for these fishes that is surpassed by no other.

Iowans have been long caught up in trout fishing. The first fish hatchery in the state was constructed to culture trout near Anamosa in 1874. As interest in trout fishing grew and hatcheries became essential to replenish fish stocks in heavily used streams, more and more emphasis was placed on trout culture until today the Commission operates three hatcheries that provide over 300,000 fish each year.

The intensity at which you want to satisfy your personal level of interest will most likely determine your trout fishing success. If you simply enjoy being outdoors, passing time, or satisfying other desires without a high degree of fishing success -- that's okay. On the other hand, most highly successful trout fishermen are usually those who are knowledgeable in the habitat preference, food habits, behavior, and fishing methods for their quarry. The writing in this chapter is not intended to reveal all the details on trout fishing or all the known behavioral traits of these fish; there have been entire volumes devoted to these subjects. Rather its aim is to pursue some points that trout fishermen can use to their advantage -- to help them out on the stream.

Trout Species in Iowa

There are three species of trout in this state -- one native, the brook, and two that have been naturalized, the rainbow and the brown.

Tackle Selection

Modern day trout fishermen have a wealth of fishing tackle to choose from, and much of it thoroughly adaptable to any situation in trout fishing. Spinning and fly fishing equipment seem to be the most popular. Of the two types of gear, spinning is most frequently used by trout fishermen. Several important points should be kept in mind when selecting spinning tackle for this type of fishing. Ultra-light equipment is usually preferred because of its usefulness for casting very light and small baits and lures. It is also best at handling light monofilament line of 6-pound test or less, and it allows for the maximum excitement when fighting a trout. There are some big trout in Iowa coldwater streams, but most of them are hatchery-stocked fish of less than one pound in weight, so heavy tackle is not essential. About any type of spinning reel will work as long as it is balanced with the rod. The rod should have a quick, sensitive action of 5 to 6 feet in length and be capable of using lures of one-sixteenth ounce and baits of that weight or less.

Fly fishing and trout are synonymous. Tackle for this type of angling comes in a vast array of styles and models, like most fishing equipment. But there are some important considerations for a comfortable experience. The rod, reel, and line should be matched -- use the manufactuer's recommendation that is listed on the rod. In general, a 7 1/2 to 8 foot flyrod with medium to slow action is just about ideal for Iowa trout fishing. The reel is least important since it merely stores the line; pick one that suits you best. Fly lines come in various weights and styles. Again, use what you are happiest with. A leader, preferably tapered, with a 3-pound test tippet should be attached to the heavy line -- there are small barbed eyelets available to do so.

Bait Selection

Natural baits for trout includes a wide variety of items -- worms, minnows, crayfish, fish eggs, grasshoppers, crickets, mayflies, caddis and crane fly larvae, waxworms and numerous other insect larvae. Hooks used for these baits can range from No. 6 to 14, more or less matching bait size with hook size. Worms should be threaded on the hook in at least two places and the entire hook concealed. On occasions trout will pick up a worm, crush it, drop it, and then pick it up again. This nibbling habit makes a cautious fish tough to catch on an exposed hook point.

There are two types of hooks that are best for worm fishing. The first is a split-shank hook, which has sharp points over which the worm can be threaded. The other is a tandem hook rig where two hooks are joined by a length of leader -- the lower with the bend directed downward, and the upper one about an inch above and the bend directed upward. Hook the worm so the head and tail extend about an inch past the points, leaving a loop in the middle. Worms are probably the best all-around trout bait and work especially well in spring and fall, particularly after rainfall.

Grasshoppers and crickets are most often used in the fall. They can be hooked once through the tough portion of their body, above the front legs, or simply threaded on to the hook. These baits are most effective when drifted downstream into likely trout cover.

Minnows are occasionally used for trout, particularly for large Brown's. Hook the minnow lightly through the back or lip and drift it into the deep pools that have hiding habitat structure. Small, soft-shell crayfish and fish eggs, usually from salmon, can also be productive when drifted in a similar fashion. Egg hooks should be used for salmon eggs. Insect larvae are productive at times, epecially while they are abundant in streams and are beginning to emerge. Most of the time they are fished like worms, but take care in casting because they come off the hook easily.

Prepared trout bait ranges from commercial products to homemade concoctions. Most varieties have a cheese base and come in small chunks or balls. Cheese baits are usually cast across a pool and the bait allowed to drift with the current. Other popular baits include whole kernel corn, marshmallows, and cereal types. It doesn't take much imagination to fish for trout with these items, although all of them have enticed many trout to bite.

Lure Selection

Artificial lures for trout are about the same kind as for any other game fish; only the size is usually smaller. Spinner-baits and leadheads are used most often. Two of the most important suggestions are to use smaller lures -- one-sixteenth to one-thirty/second ounce in weight, and present these lures by fishing upstream with a moderate speed retrieve. In this position the lure appears more natural, and it is easier for a trout to pursue and pick up. Both spinner-baits and leadhead lures can be dressed with a variety of materials or with live bait. Marabou or soft plastic dressings are by far the most popular with most trout fishermen. Remember speed of the retrieve is most important -- not too fast.

No other terminal tackle has received more acclaim from fishermen than the fly, especially from trout anglers. In fact, fly fishing is synonymous with trout fishing worldwide. Most trout flies imitate some type of natural food organism, such as mayfly, caddis fly, sculpin stonefly, grasshopper or midge. Trout fishing flies can be found that match just about all of the varying life stages of aquatic and terrestrial insect that are likely to occur along any coldwater stream. If you can not find one, tie your own. This will add immense enjoyment to your trout fishing adventures. One of the keys to successful fly fishing is learning to select the appropriate fly -- in fly fishing jargon, "to match the hatch." To succeed in this task, the angler must also learn the food habits of trout and be able to identify common insects and their larvae. This trait is usually gained from other fishermen or by trial-and-error.

When to Fish

One of the most prevalent questions asked about trout fishing is, "When is the best time to fish for trout?" The answer is simply, "When you can." Too often anglers have the mistaken belief that the only time to go fishing is when the trout streams are being stocked with hatchery-reared fish in April through October. The fact is that trout can be caught year around, and with few exceptions most of our trout streams contain fish long past the usual stocking schedule -- and some contain trout continuously.

Each of the four seasons have important meterological events that make one day better or worse than the next. Spring showers, for example, can turn Brown trout fishing into a virtual bonanza. Increased flows after a gentle rain dislodges food organisms and this, in turn, spurs the trout to go on a feeding spree. As rainfall freshets enter the stream, water clarity becomes a bit more turbid, a condition which is advantageous to the angler since it camouflages the leader and line. Worm fishing is best at these times along with nymphs and streamers, but don't expect to catch trout on dry flies since they are foreign to the stream biota during these events.

Summer Fishing

Summer angling is a period of natural selection for the most avid fishermen. The warmest period of the year tends to reduce the number of anglers. Bait fishing is still productive in summer, but this season is the best opportunity for fly fishing since natural insect hatches are frequent and intense. Fishing with spinner-baits, those that imitate minnows, is also at its peak because natural minnow abundance is highest at this time. Summer also marks a critical period for trout survival as temperature and oxygen become important factors. The optimum temperature for trout is 62 degrees F, and the dissolved oxygen should be about 8 parts per million. Trout always seek out preferred habitats that have environmental conditions near the optimum, so look for springs or artesians that flow into trout streams and work these sites carefully; many contain some nice fish.

Fall Fishing

By autumn, live or prepared bait, wet flies, and spinner-baits are back into the trout fishing picture. Fall is also grasshopper time. They can be gathered in the cool of the early morning and are especially good for Brown trout. Imitation grasshoppers also work well at this time. Equally effective are night crawlers, particularly following light rainfall.

Winter Fishing

Perhaps the most overlooked period for trout fishing is winter. Instead of dreaming about fishing, a fisherman should be doing it. The best time for trout in this period is the warmest part of the day -- 10 AM to 2 PM. Fly fishing is probably out, but nymphs and wet flies, especially those that imitate small, freshwater shrimp will catch some trout. Spinner-baits also work well just below open riffle reaches. Most trout in winter have not seen a lure for months.

Angling Techniques

The most common mistake made by many anglers is trying to locate trout only by sight. On occasion even a novice can get away with this trick, provided the fish are recently stocked. However, even these fish rapidly become wary of shadows and noise. The adage -- "a seen trout is seldom caught" -- prevails in most instances. The best advice is to learn to "read" a stream, that is, to be able to identify habitats that offer food and cover.

Trout are not randomly scattered in a stream. Most of the fish population is arranged by physical features and habitat cover. The stream current carries food to the trout while it waits. Although trout are streamlined, they do not haphazardly use up energy. They invariably locate themselves along the edge of the current flow near protective cover. A simple method of locating trout in a stream is to spot likely looking cover where the most food with the least effort is available. Some fishermen use flashers, usually a large polished spoon, in hopes of enticing a trout to chase it.

Trout populations in any reach of stream have dominant fish. As a result of this pecking order, the dominant fish will occupy the preferred feeding stations in the most sheltered sites. For this reason, smaller trout are often caught in the less likely parts of a stream or in a riffle.

Fishing Structure

Iowa trout streams contain a variety of cover habitats, both natural and man-made. Natural cover includes dead water pools, boulders, bank-cover, aquatic vegetation, and log jams. In high gradient streams with swift current, an excellent place for a lurking trout is on the downstream side of boulders. Just behind most of these rocks an eddy is formed where a feeding trout can face upstream, protected from the main current in the still water of the eddy. Sometimes in slower current Rainbow trout position in front of a boulder where the current is split. Browns and Brook trout prefer the slower, more protected eddies.

Bank cover is preferred by trout when it has at least 6 inches of overhead shading and a foot or more in depth. The bank slows the current and provides habitat that is similar to boulders. Obstacles such as brush, logs, and tree roots that extend outward from the bank add even greater attraction for cover. It is very difficult to predict the precise location of trout in a brush or log pile, so take your time and fish this habitat with utmost care.

Aquatic vegetation is probably the most difficult yet one of the most productive habitat covers to fish for trout. In most instances the main stream current scours a tunnel through the vegetation bed. Thin strands of the plants extend out from the main body that become a nuisance by fouling baits and lures. Trout often lay at the inside edge of the vegetation where it slows the flow and provides a comfortable feeding station.

Deep pools interspersed with riffles provide a variety of places for trout fishing. They are logical places for the fish to hide and ambush their prey. The riffle provides feeding sites for small trout, while the lunkers often inhabit the pool. The upstream end of a pool is the best location to fish for trout, where the inflowing current is strongest. Trout will congregate near the bottom and forage on drifting food organisms. The fish will sometimes move to the lower end of the pool during late evening when there is a heavy insect hatch.

Locating trout near man-made habitat improvement structures follows the same procedures as natural cover. Bank hides that have been constructed on the outside bends of streams are probably the most difficult to fish, but they are also very productive for trout. These structures provide excellent concealment for even the largest trout. Trout often orient themselves at the upstream end of these structues and capture food items that drift along the outside edge. The best method is to drift the bait or lure into this vicinity. Many unsuspecting trout fishermen have stood directly on a bank hide and fished the water at their feet without success. These structures blend very well with the surrounding landscape, so concentrate on the bank terrain as well as the stream.

Orientation of trout along a rip-rap armored bank is similar to that in pool habitat except the fish tend to locate closer to the rock structure. Half-logs are not common structure in Iowa streams, but where they are found the fish usually conceal themselves directly under the structure where they can ambush forage.

Be alert at all times while trout fishing. Actively feeding trout will often times reveal their presence to the perceptive angler. Learn to look for specific habitats and approach these locations with care and patience. Make mental notes of drifting aquatic organisms, both on the water surface and substrate. Ask yourself questions about water quality and take notice of what terrestrial activities along the stream bank that might influence trout. Try to become a part of the stream system -- try to read the stream.

Landing Your Catch

After you have a fish on, there are many techniques necessary for playing and landing a trout, and several are very important. Keep your rod tip high, so the impact of a sudden run is on the rod and not the line. Do not allow or encourage a large fish to swim downstream; it will only prolong the battle from the current. If this happens, the best advice is to follow the trout along the bank. Trout tire easily, especially if they have to work in the current in an upstream direction or the fish is allowed to make several runs. If you intend on releasing the fish -- don't overplay it -- stress may kill the fish. Fish intended for release should be landed quickly and netted. Release the fish while it is underwater and in the pool where it was caught.

The trout program in Iowa has something for for every angler. No matter what your realm of interest or what you desire in quality trout fishing, there is fishing that will suit your needs. There is an ever-growing number of anglers that look towards rewards other than just catching fish. It is not particularly difficult to do that, and you will find more satisfaction in your fishing.


*Mayhew, J. (editor). 1987. Iowa Fish and Fishing. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Des Moines, Iowa. 323 pp.