Believe it or not, fishing topwater lures at night is one of the best ways to connect with a trophy holdover brown trout.
The fall season is a time when those of us who love to fish drive can ourselves crazy. There are so many fishing opportunities in our waters, both fresh and salt, that I feel like I’m on some medieval torture device that’s pulling me in two different directions. Although the options may seem overwhelming, there is one fish that has cast a spell on me, and it always gets my attention in the fall.
Sure, I love the surf and the excitement of fishing for striped bass, but even though the bass will be on a feeding rampage as they migrate south, there’s a topwater temptation that I just can’t fight. For most anglers, there is nothing more exciting than catching fish on topwater lures. Watching a fish break the water’s surface and cause an eruption of white water while trying to eat your bait is about as thrilling as our sport can get. So what is the one fish that really gets me worked up over fall fishing on top? Believe it or not, it’s the brown trout.
My obsession took root many years ago, when I was no more than 10 years old. That’s when I first had my encounter with a topwater trout, and even though it wasn’t a brown trout, it’s safe to say that it put the wheels in motion. It was just before sunset at Boston’s Jamaica Pond, and being the largemouth bass fanatic I was at the time, I was twitching a Smithwick Devils Horse on the surface, waiting for the explosive strike of a largemouth bass. That’s when the trout, a beautiful 6 ½-pound rainbow, erupted on the plug with as much ferocity as any bass I’ve ever caught.
At that time in my life, I knew next to nothing about trout, and even though I was impressed by their array of colors, I assumed they were a species only for the fly-fishermen. It wasn’t until eight years later that I had reason to rethink that encounter with the rainbow trout as something more than just a one-time coincidence.
I was again fishing Jamaica Pond, and this time it was late at night. I had been catching some nice-sized largemouths off of a sunken tree on a Chug Bug when the topwater popper was crushed by something other than a bass. The fish fought well, but the fight was different from a bass; it even took to the sky a few times, and I could see its twisting, slender body. When I brought the fish to shore and shined my light on it, I saw it was a gorgeous 3-pound brown trout that had taken my lure so far down its throat I had no choice but to keep it. A fluke catch, I thought, but two casts later I was on again, to another brown of the same size.
I had never heard of a trout fisherman using a topwater lure for trout, so I suspected that it was the flashy tinsel tail on the Chug Bug, which looked something like a shiny little trout fly, that had to do with the fact that those two browns had eaten my offering. But the two brown trout were too much fun to ignore, so I took what I had witnessed and went to work with it. What I eventually figured out over the next 20 years was that topwater and trout, especially brown trout, go together like chicken wings and hot sauce.
Don’t run down to the nearest trout pond with your topwater bass baits just yet. Trout don’t find these baits appealing at all times, and if you’re looking to catch that brown trout of a lifetime, you first have to understand why that is the case.
It’s no secret that browns are probably the most nocturnal species of the trout family. Even though they feed well during the hours of daylight, it’s the cover of darkness that puts them in their comfort zone. Head out in the dark at the right time of the season, and you increase your chances of connecting with that monster brown trout of your dreams.
Browns can be one of the hardest trout to fool-especially the big holdovers that survive multiple seasons in a pond or lake. If you want to fool one of these holdover trophies with an artificial lure, then believe it or not, one of the best ways to go about it is by using small topwater baits. It’s funny how whenever I tell a fellow trout fisherman that I take my share of trophy trout on topwater baits, they look at me like I am speaking a foreign language. The fact is that, as any dry-fly-fisherman knows, a trout spends most of its life looking up and feeding at the water’s surface. This makes them very susceptible to being fooled by small topwater lures at night.
For trophy browns, especially in the stocked ponds across the New England, fall seems to be the right time. Every fall, the browns in our ponds and lakes move in close to shore to feed on small fish and go through the motions of spawning. Even though most trout in our ponds and lakes do not successfully spawn, they still respond to nature’s urges. So come every October, brown trout along with brook trout move in close to shore to chase each other around and even build spawning sites in shallow areas. This can last well into November some years, and browns become very aggressive at this time. The males, with their big kyped jaws, sport some of the most vibrant colors of deep orange and the brightest red spots I have seen on trout. This puts them among the most beautiful fish we have in our waters, in my opinion. The female browns possess just as much color, and they will be full of roe and at their heaviest. They will make some amazing runs and pull with brute force.
Getting started is easy, and the equipment is pretty simple. Any setup you already feel comfortable using for trout or small bass will work fine. I prefer a medium-light 7 ½-foot rod paired with a 2500-size reel. I like using a longer rod to aid in controlling and handling the bigger fish on light line. Some of the browns I’ve caught in this manner have weighed more than 8 pounds, so being prepared for that whopper is always good. I also like my rods in a moderate to moderate-fast action, as the slow flex of the rod blank will help cushion the fight and aid in achieving a solid hookup without pulling the lure from the fish’s mouth. Keep your line light–I recommend not going any heavier than 8-pound-test monofilament. I like to use either 4- or 6-pound-test Suffix monofilament, which stays very limp and allows me to cast smaller topwater baits effortlessly. Although I don’t fish any of the braided lines, I am sure that they can be used with good results as long as you lighten up on your hookset to compensate for the lack of stretch in the line.
Choosing the right topwater lures for your tackle box before venturing out in the dark after that trophy brown trout is not difficult. You probably own most of these lures already if you do much freshwater fishing. My most productive nighttime trout lure may have you questioning whether it qualifies as a topwater bait at all. The Rapala floating jointed minnow is considered by most to be more of a swimming plug then a topwater bait, but when slowly retrieved on light line, this proven lure becomes even more deadly. This technique is called waking, and it gives the lure a tantalizing wiggle as it ripples across the surface like a wounded baitfish. I favor these jointed minnows in the J-5 to J-9 sizes and in natural colors, but I wouldn’t be afraid to experiment with other brands of jointed swimmers and other colors.
I also like to carry floating stickbaits, like the original Rapala, and small crankbaits in the 2-inch size and smaller, like the Mann’s Baby Minus-1 and Lucky Craft’s shallow fat CB crankbaits, which wake incredibly on a slow retrieve. Many companies are now starting to make small crankbaits that are designed to wake, and I plan to try some this fall.
I also bring along what most fishermen consider traditional topwater baits, and that is the Heddon Zara Spook in “pooch” and “puppy” sizes. These small ultralight Spooks drive the trout crazy on some nights with their side-to-side action. The trick to using these baits to catch trout is to work the bait softly and slowly, without overdoing it. That goes for any Spook-type bait made by other companies as well.
When looking for big browns at night, I like to cast out as far as I can get my lure then let it sit for about a count of 15 to 20 before starting the retrieve. I’ll incorporate several pauses during the retrieve, and I always stop the lure for a few seconds just before the end of the retrieve. This usually seals the deal for any trout that has decided to follow the lure.
Bigger baits can sometimes work well, and I have even caught brown trout on smaller saltwater plugs, like Tattoo’s small swimmer. At 4 inches and weighing no more than an ounce, this bait has accounted for some nice-sized brownies that didn’t hesitate to take on a bigger offering. Though you will miss out on catching many smaller fish, going with a bigger lure has the potential to pay off with a trophy.
Keep in mind that browns aren’t the only trout that you will catch. It’s safe to say that you will also catch the occasional rainbow, tiger or brook trout on top. Stay on your toes during the retrieve because the way that these trout explode on a topwater offering in the still of a crisp fall night is incredible. Expect most of the trout you hook to thrash on top for a few seconds after the hook-up before diving for deeper water, causing your heart to pound and your drag to scream.