Catching cold water fish: a guide for beginning anglers

Sometimes the hardest thing about an activity is taking the first step, especially if it's an activity you've never tried before.

Coldwater flies
Using a fly with a bubble can be an effective way to catch trout and other cold water fish.
Photo courtesy of Ron Stewart

Most anglers probably don't remember that first step because they grew up with someone who fished. All they had to do was climb in a car; everything else was provided. As they got older, they were given fishing poles, reels, hooks, lures and other equipment. Eventually, they had enough fishing gear that they could go fishing on their own.

For those of you who weren't that lucky, or have forgotten what to take on a fishing trip, Lowell Marthe provides some suggestions. Marthe is the Flaming Gorge/Green River fisheries project leader for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources:

"A beginning angler isn't likely to own a boat," Marthe says. "So, for a first time shore angler, I'd recommend starting with a six-foot rod [light to medium action] with a closed-face reel and eight-pound test line. A closed-face reel is a bit simpler and less intimidating for a beginner.

"If you've fished before, an open-faced spinning reel would be a good choice. Unfortunately, open-faced reels often come with a heavy line, so ask the store if they can help you replace the heavy line with an eight-pound test line. Eight-pound test is light enough to cast but heavy enough to pull though most of the weeds and other things you might accidentally hook."

For cold water fish, such as rainbow, brook and cutthroat trout, Marthe recommends using baits or lures.

"I'd start with worm hooks [size 6 to 8], split shot weights and a few bobbers [also known as bubbles]," Marthe says.

Worms are somewhat universal. They'll work for a wide variety of fish under a variety of conditions.

Good lures to use include (L to R) spoons, spinners and crankbaits.
Photo courtesy of Ron Stewart

"In the spring, trout are often in shallow water, or they're suspended near the surface over deeper waters. So placing a worm, like a night crawler, on your hook, and adding a bubble or bobber on the line four to six feet away from the hook, works well.

"When you cast this out, the worm will float four to six feet below the surface. The bobber will also act as a strike indicator; when it goes under, there's something on your line.

"As summer progresses, the water on the surface gets too warm, and the fish go deeper," Marthe says. "When this happens, try hooking on a marshmallow or floating bait next to the worm, and replace the bobber with a few split shot weights two to three feet from the hook.

"When you cast this out, the weights sink to the bottom but the marshmallow or baits float the hook and worm above the muck and vegetation found on the bottom. Fish often cruise just above the vegetation, so this method places the hook where the fish can see it."

If sitting and waiting for fish to come to you sounds boring, Marthe recommends using fishing lures, or a fly and bubble combination.

"Spoons, spinners and rapalas are good choices for most trout and cold water species," Marthe said. "Rapalas come in floating and sinking varieties. Both of the varieties work well in the spring.

"Later in the summer, the sinker [rapala] will work best because the fish will be deeper. Depending on how large the fish are that you might catch, I'd start with two- to three-inch rapalas. In this case, you're trying to imitate a minnow, so silver and black, and gold and black, are good color choices.

"Spoons and spinners come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors. I'd start with a small selection of small to medium sizes [one to two inches long] in colors such as silver, gold, chartreuse, fluorescent orange or red, mixed with some darker colors."

Beginner's Tackle Box
This tackle box has much of the equipment that a beginning angler needs.
Photo courtesy of Ron Stewart

Marthe recommends casting the lures in a fan shape around the area where you're standing. Send some casts along the bank and other casts out to deeper water.

As the weather gets warmer, you should make most of your casts to the deeper water. To get your lure to go deeper, try counting off a few seconds before reeling it back in.

When reeling your lure, try reeling it in at different speeds, and watch how it comes in. The lure should show some action and look as natural as possible. It shouldn't skip across the surface or look like it's being dragged.

Fly and bubble combinations can also work well for cold water fish. "A fly and bubble is an effective but often overlooked way to catch fish," Marthe says.

"This method works best when the water is cold and you can see fish surfacing. Attach the bubble about five or six feet above the fly. I prefer using a wooly bugger [or wooly worm] in a dark color, either black, brown or green.

"Leach, mosquito, ant or mayfly imitations can also be effective.

"Cast this combination out, and then slowly reel it back in. Reel slow enough that the bubble makes no disturbance, or only a slight disturbance, on the surface of the water. Reeling the combination slowly will cause the fly behind the bubble to follow in an undulating pattern, slowly rising and sinking."

Fishing information/rod and reel checkout

Fishing can be an enjoyable activity for everyone. More information about fishing is available at Fishing poles and reels are also available for free checkout at most DWR offices and at many state and city parks.

For more information about fishing in Utah, call the nearest Division of Wildlife Resources office or the DWR's Salt Lake City office at (801) 538-4700.