Fishing for Rainbow Trout, Top Game Fish West of the Rockies

Last updated on January 7th, 2021

Rockies rainbow trout fishing

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The Rainbow Trout: America’s Western Fish

The Oncorhynchus mykiss, or simply known as the rainbow trout, is one of America’s most recognizable fish. With a vast distribution on the west side of the Continental Divide and a fighting spirit that is second to none, it is also a solidly top 5 North American game fish.

Commonly stocked by fisheries and maintained by federal and local wildlife organizations for sport fishing purposes, this is a favorite catch amongst many anglers. Here in Montana, fishing for rainbow trout will routinely yield about five of these guys on a given trip.

Typically, a rainbow trout caught can range from 20 to 23 inches making it a larger freshwater fish than most. The average weight for this species is 4 to 8 pounds but can weigh more than that.

Trout have an average lifespan for salmonids spanning 6 to 8 years in the right conditions. The beauty of this species cannot be overstated with its shimmering “rainbow” pattern, especially when spawning.

What Do Rainbow Trout Eat?

As with most freshwater species, the rainbow trout can and will prey on smaller fishes and small amphibious and terrestrial invertebrates. Because of this, you have an array of rainbow trout lures and live baits that will prove successful when fishing for them.

If you have ever fished in the evening when temperatures cool you have probably noticed the insect life increase over the water. This is what I have always considered to be the best time for trout. If you cannot make an early morning fishing trip make sure you are there for the evening bugs.

All trout are opportunistic hunters and will always opt for anything that is injured or sickly. This is where a split crankbait or a manipulated plastic works well. Try to imitate prey that will be easy to catch requiring little effort on the trout’s part.

When fishing you will notice as the day goes on, trout will feed in a pattern up and down the shore. While it may seem that they are making “runs”, they are actually making a feeding circle.

The reason for these runs is to keep hunting new areas while giving old areas the opportunity to “settle” in terms of food sources. The important characteristic for trout, however, is their tendency to avoid higher temperatures.

As they migrate throughout the day, you will always find them moving towards deeper water as the heat increases. This is great for fishermen who prefer trolling as their method of fishing. It can also help shore anglers by means of moving their setup deeper and deeper.

Use the Spawning Season to Your Advantage

Rainbow trout have a large window for spawning running from November to May in the North and August to November in the South. Water temperature and flooding conditions can affect this greatly pushing the spawning period to be extended or shortened.

Consider this behavior as you fish for trout as they often prey on fry, even if it’s their own. Spawn beds are distinct and hard to miss. It is a round to oval-shaped cloud in the water that you can see from far away.

Egg sizes depend on the general weight of the female and the fats that she can collect. The reason I bring this up is that you can fish a few weeks before spawn begins and collect those eggs.

A popular tactic here in Montana is to cure the eggs you collect and tie them in spawn sacks. Throw these spawn sacks into deeper water and let them sit on the bottom and you will start catching trout.

The size eggs you use does not affect the luck when fishing, but rather the number of spawn sacks you can make. Keep these sacks in the freezer for up to 4 months for future use.

Good Table Fare: Eating Rainbow Trout

cooking and eating rainbow trout

Rainbow trout are a great red meat fish that is great served just about any way you can think of. They are full of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and taste incredible. Try keeping a few small trout and pan fry them as you would a perch, you will not be disappointed.

One factor to consider when fishing for rainbow trout and any other freshwater fish you plan to keep is the mercury level. Most states have an indicator in their fishing regulations warning anglers of this for a waterbody.

The good news is that trout have some of the lowest levels; but If this is a concern for you, read these warnings carefully and see where it is not as much of an issue. You will not find any water where mercury is not a factor, but some are worse than others. Try to avoid waters near any mining operations, for example.

There are a few good ways to eat rainbow trout that are worth noting. Keep in mind that these are only a few different options. This fish tastes good with just about anything.


Fresh dill is one of my favorites for trout. Grill with a soft butter infused with some fresh dill (use real butter for the best taste). This superfood brings a certain spice to the fish that pairs well with the natural fats. The grey fats are where the good stuff is.

I backpack for long periods of time here at home and while I am exploring, I always keep some dill and tinfoil handy. Clean the cavity of the trout and with the head attached, stuff sprigs of dill inside the fish. Wrap it in tinfoil and throw it in the coals of your fire for 9 minutes.


Rainbow trout smokes very well. While this fish does have fats, it is not as much as other species. This causes it to dry very nicely. The longer you smoke it, the more shelf-stable it gets, making dry smoked trout a good trail snack.

If you like snack crackers, I will share a good way to use smoked trout that I have been making for my family for an awfully long time.

Take your smoked salmon and break it apart into pieces. Soften some cream cheese until it can dip with a cracker and then add your smoked trout. Add some garlic powder and some finely chopped chives and blend.

If you come to my house on Thanksgiving you will always find a bowl of my ‘Trout Dip” for everyone to have and it is a crowd-pleaser. I often must make a huge batch so my friends and family can take some home.


Growing up near the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, I learned about a way to cure fish from the Snoqualmie people that is easy and fun. This tactic typically works best with red meat fish but any fish works.

Make a wooden lattice or tripod structure and hang your trout fillet on, meat side towards the sun. Once the fillet is hanging, apply a mixture of 2-parts rock salt and 1-part brown sugar. Rub the mixture in the meat and let it bake in the sun.

Rotating the fillet towards the sun every few hours, it will eventually be bone dry like a jerky and can be cut into strips. As kids we called this “Eskimo Candy” and it is delicious. It was a lunchbox staple when we went to school on the reservation.

How to Catch Rainbow Trout: Tactics for an Opportunistic Predator

We have discussed what they are, what makes them tick and how to eat them, but how do you catch them? There are quite a few ways to catch rainbow trout and they are all focused on the biology and instincts of the trout itself.

The best tactic I have found is to remember that they are opportunistic hunters as we have already discussed. Let us look at a few different ways you can get on the trout the next time you go fishing.

Have you ever watched a documentary of a predator of any species and noticed that they always seem to go after the infant or sick prey? In biology, we call this opportunistic survival and the philosophy makes sense when you think about it.

A predator is going to go after prey that offers the smallest chance for failure or exhaustion. This is the same way wolves turned into your lazy dog. Suddenly they did not have to hunt. This philosophy increases the chances of survival for the trout and for all species.

Because animals behave this way, we can take advantage of that and with trout, predict their behavior and strategies. I use what I call “laming” a lure to give it a crippled action in the water. This tactic works very well with tailed plastics.

All you are doing is altering the lure’s motion just enough to make it appear lame. One way to achieve this is by simply cutting half of a tail and that will be enough to give it the desired appearance in the water.

You can get creative and manipulate any lure to suit this need and it can be fun to do – experiment. Follow the carpenter’s rule though, cut a little and see if it works. Better to cut again than to cut off too much.

Rainbow Trout Bait

All bait works well but there are some regional preferences that I have noticed in my years of fishing. Nightcrawlers are a good choice just about anywhere. I even use them when ice fishing in place of maggots.


Leeches are a great option over here in Montana, but I did not have much luck when I was in Walla Walla or anywhere west of the Rockies for that matter. Here in Montana, you can rake them out of the shore with your hand. No need to even buy them!

With leeches, there are two good ways to hook them. Either just through their head or through their head and tail both like a Texas rig setup. Use the double hook method for turbulent water and single hook method for still waters.


I remember when I was a kid helping my grandpa at the golf course collecting worms to box and sell. They sold so fast that we could not stock them fast enough and we had to grow them to keep up with the business demands.

Nightcrawlers are extremely popular for bringing in fish, plain and simple. I have not fished anywhere in the world that a fish was not appealed by a nightcrawler.

Using nightcrawlers is straightforward enough. Unlike the leech, think of baiting a nightcrawler as threading. They stay on the hook very well and keep alive on the hook for a long time.

Canned Corn

Yes, as odd as it may sound, rainbow trout go absolutely nuts for canned corn. It is the sugars that translate to the water that attracts them. I never ice fish without a can of corn for this reason.

Try keeping a can in the fridge, whether it is open or not. I recommend warming the corn up to room temperature before fishing with it because the sugars will seep to the water faster if the corn is warmer.

I was taught this method as a child by a good friend on the reservation back home and it works well on the coast and here. At a dollar a can, fishing bait does not get much cheaper than that!

Choose Your Method

fly fishing rainbow trout in montana

There are many methods for fishing after rainbow trout and they are all exceptionally good. I will break it down into two categories: shore fishing and watercraft fishing.

Watercraft Fishing

Trolling is a great method of fishing great distances very quickly and with today’s technology in sonar and navigation, it really is a great way to catch fish.

Trout love seeing the same thing twice, so do not be discouraged if you have a few runs that yield nothing. Try a wedding ring setup or a simple Rapala. Be careful that you use the right amount of line if your lures dive.

Here in Montana, trout love a Rapala at about 2 to 6 feet from the bottom regardless of depth. Try this tactic and enhance it with bait. Invest in a worm threader for simple and quick changing of bait.

Keep in mind that the trout will run for deeper water as it heats up. Try steadily running deeper and deeper with your runs to stay on top of them. If you have water temperature readings on your sonar then they would be very handy in this situation.

Shore Fishing

Shore fishing is different from fishing from a boat as you must concern yourself with wind and currents. Also, following the fish towards deeper water can be tricky but not impossible.

Lures of any kind will work from shore and it depends on many environmental factors. Because shore fishing is shallow water when compared to deeper waters, try to understand the insect life where you fish.

Remember, the fish are eating these insects, and if you try to imitate them, you will have a better chance. Consider the science and biology of this species to better understand how it works and how to catch it.

A Staple Game Fish

The rainbow trout is by far one of my favorite species of Salmonidae for its resiliency. Both in my professional life and my recreational life, I have loved to study and learn about this species.

When I left home to chart my path in Montana, rainbow trout was a staple. We had just moved to Montana; we were extremely poor, and I can honestly say that this beautiful species sustained my family for many years.

It is one of the most caught fish west of the divide and easily one of the most popular. If you are after this fish on your next trip, you, my friend, are lucky.

The rainbow trout is one of nature’s most beautiful creations and also one of its fiercest competitors. Fishing for these finned gems is one of the greatest experiences you’ll have as an angler.

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