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Trout Fishing In California: Species


There are five dominant species of trout for trout fishing In California Angler: rainbow, brown, brook, cutthroat, and golden. All of these trout are members of the salmonidae family of fish that also include varieties of salmon, mountain whitefish, arctic grayling, and char. There are a few lesser known members of this family that are also found in some isolated waters. These include the Kokanee (Sockeye) salmon, silver (Coho) salmon, and lake (Mackinaw) trout.


Rainbows are far and away the most abundant of the five species found in California. They have been extensively studied in both hatchery and natural environments, more than any other type of trout. They comprise the bulk of trout in the daily creel totals throughout the state.

The rainbows are an exceptionally strong, hearty fish. They can survive in water temperatures ranging from 32 to 80 degrees. Rainbows are a true native American, indigenous to many of the lakes and streams in California. These trout are excellent swimmers, but in creeks and rivers look for them on the downstream side of large rocks or boulders. Rainbows will locate here both for an ambush point and as an energy conserving measure. They are very territorial, seeking good cover among logs, roots, and tree stumps in lakes and rivers, and especially the shady undercut edges of little streams.

Rainbow trout feed primarily on insects in streams, preferring stonefly and caddisfly larvae. In many of our man-made lakes, threadfin shad minnows comprise the major portion of their diet. Thus, Rainbows are susceptible to both fly fishing techniques and casting artificial lures that represent the shad baitfish. Rainbows are also the easiest to fool with bait offerings. Garden worms, nightcrawlers, marshmallows, cheese concoctions, grasshoppers, crickets, live shad, and of course, the ubiquitous salmon egg, will all take a share of these fish on most lakes or streams. Rainbows are probably the least wary of all the trout family, and thus, the easiest to catch.


The brown trout is actually not a native to the western hemisphere. It was imported here from Europe in the late 1880’s. It gets its name from a dominant golden brown coloration. Browns will also have large reddish-brown or black spots on their sides, backs, and dorsal fins. These fish are overwhelmingly the most voracious and territorial of the five primary species, whether they are found in lakes or rivers.

Browns are not quite as adaptable as rainbows. They thrive in slightly cooler waters, preferably 54 to 64 degrees. These fish are also very touchy feeders. Biologists note that because of their basic diet, you will see little surface action from brown trout. Unlike rainbows, browns will usually not feed on insects, although I have discovered that they do find grasshoppers exceptionally tasty! They will seek out larger larvae and bigger prey including crayfish, frogs, newts, and worms. Brownies are also piscivorous, i.e. they are fish eaters — consuming both forage baitfish and smaller trout.

Figure on catching browns at greater depths than other trout. They like deep pools and steep banks in rivers as well as steep alpine lakes. Thus, I suggest throwing somewhat larger and deeper running lures for browns including spoons and medium to deep-diving plugs. Most of the bigger brown trout caught annually in the Golden State will be taken by faster trolling methods. Flashers with bait trailers will work, but forget about using small spinners — they will twist too much. Browns will also hit artificial flies, but prefer more of the “wet” patterns that represent larvae and larger aquatic insects or small baitfish. For bait fishing, it is hard to beat live worms, ‘hoppers, or nightcrawlers.

One more thing — browns are primarily nocturnal feeders. This makes early dawn and late afternoons near dusk the optimal (legal) times during the day to fish these tough fighters. Some veteran brown trout anglers estimate that 90 percent of the trophy class browns are caught in the last half hour before darkness sets in.


These scrappy fish are technically not a true “trout” in the strict sense, but rather are a member of the char group. They are characterized by the brilliant red and blue spots on their sides. Brookies are second only to rainbows in sheer numbers. They have exceptional reproductive capacities, often spawning under rather diverse conditions not conducive for other trout. This is both good and bad.

On the positive side, brook trout will be found in a wide variety of higher elevation lakes and streams. The negative aspect of this proliferation is that they often overrun other species and the water becomes crowded with a population of stunted brookies.

In streams, look for brook trout in the more sheltered areas, particularly in the shady undercut banks. They can be found in the shallow sections of alpine lakes, preferring gravel banks and downed timber for shelter. Brookies can actually actively feed down to 34 degrees, which makes them a prime candidate for the ice fisherman’s creel. This trout is most active, however, in water temperatures ranging from 57 to 61 degrees. They are rarely found in ponds, lakes, or streams where summer temperatures reach 68 degrees or above. Interestingly, this species is very short-lived, seldom exceeding four years of age.

Brookies are similar to rainbows in their preference for lures and baits. Smaller spoons, spinners, and occasionally even scaled down minnow-like lures will be effective. Live red worms have to rank right at the top as far as favored baits go. However, salmon eggs, Velveeta Cheese, and floating cheese mixes will also work quite well, especially in lakes and small ponds. Fly fishermen can test their prowess with a dry fly, as brook trout will readily rise to an insect hatch on the surface.

Golden Trout

The golden trout have been designated the official state freshwater fish of California. These are spectacularly colored trout, identifiable by the carmine red stripe down the lateral side, the yellow-white side side portions, and the brilliant bronze belly. Goldens are found primarily in the southern portion of the High Sierras. Mostly in Fresco and Tulare Counties, at elevations between 8,500 and 12,000 feet. Because the feeding and growing season is dramatically restricted with the cold winters and ice, a golden over 12 inches in length is truly a trophy catch.

Trout Fishing In California

These high country residents have a tremendous appetite for insects and larvae. Mosquitoes, ants, caddisflies, midges, and damselflies, in addition to small leeches and freshwater shrimp, comprise the bulk of the golden’s diet. Hence, both dry and wet fly patterns that replicate this menu will definitely work on many of the remote lakes and streams where goldens are found. Both traditional fly rods and spinning fly and bubble combinations are effective in these back country golden haunts. A wide range of spoons and spinners primarily in gold finish are also dynamite on golden trout.

Golden Trout of California

Compared to most rainbows and brookies also found at these higher lakes, goldens are the most touchy of all. They primarily feed in the morning and late in the afternoon towards dusk. It requires some very stealthy maneuvers to approach these wary little trout in either shallow streams or crystal clear lakes.


There are actually three separate sub-species of Cutthroat trout found in California. The coastal variety is the most common, and has feeding patterns and a life history most closely resembling rainbow trout. The other two types, the Lahontan and Piute Cutthroats, have very limited distributions. Most ‘cutts will be found in coastal streams from Humboldt County north.

Cutthroats are often mistaken for rainbows. Upon closer examination, you will see prominent double red-orange stripes underneath the lower jaw, giving this trout its unusual name. A more subtle feature separating cutthroats from rainbows is that rainbow trout do not have teeth on the back of the tongue as do their cutthroat cousins. You can stream fish cutts in pretty much the same way you would rainbows. Spoons and spinners are productive, along with red worms, nightcrawlers, and especially, salmon eggs.


This post should have provided a very broad overview of the five dominant types of trout found in the Golden State. Although these trout are members of the same family of gamefish, each has its own unique feeding and behavioral patterns. Trout anglers should keep this in mind when they set out to do some fishing. It is important to familiarize yourself with the different species that are in a particular lake, the kind of terrain where they are typically found, favorite n

Strategies for Spinner and Trout Spoons

Trout Spoons

Trout Spoons

There are a few other things the weekend trouter can do with spinners and trout spoons to enhance their fish-catching potential. For example, sometimes the factory stocked treble hooks that come with these lures are not the best options available.

If you seem to be missing some strikes, take a pair of pliers and offset the hooks. By offsetting each of the three hooks, you will open up more space between them. This will make the overall treble hook somewhat more prone to getting hung up, but in open water it will also make the treble hook more effective for hook-setting.

Similarly, often the stock treble hooks are too small for the lure and many fish are lost. Replace them with larger trebles — preferably in the more natural bronze finish instead of the flashy chrome versions.

Trout Spoons

Treble hooks on trout spoons and spinners can also be replaced with a sharper single Siwash hook. This single hook arrangement actually provides better leverage and hook-setting qualities than most treble hooks. Add a chunk of crawler colored yarn, or even a tiny 2 inch plastic worm as a trailer to the single hook.

Trout Spinners

With trout spinners, you can bend out the blade a little to create a wider arc in the blade’s movement. This results in greater vibration. Or, you can bend the blade in a little, cupping it, to generate, more “thumping” action.

Above all, take the extra time and effort to sharpen all the hooks on the lures you throw, trebles and single hooks alike. Far too often a quality trout is lost because the angler relied upon the hooks right from the factory box. Carry a hook sharpener with you in the field and re-sharpen points as needed.


More Ploys with Fishing Plugs

Fishing Plugs

Not only do Western anglers overlook using fishing plugs for trout, they miss out on tossing some of the more exotic patterns that catch larger fish. An illustration of this is the small Rebel crawdad-shaped crankbaits. These plugs have been producing some lunker-size fish for shore fishermen for years on the lower Owens River and Pleasant Valley Reservoir.

No doubt, other imaginative trouters have used this little plug elsewhere in California, but have pretty much kept quiet about it. Crawdads are a major forage food for these larger rainbows and and browns. This small Rebel plug excels at replicating this natural bait.

Topwater Fishing Plugs

On a similar vein, believe it or not, big trout will crash on a large topwater plug! Occasionally, some creative anglers have used plugs such as the distinctively cigar-shaped Heddon Zara Spook on magnum-size surf ace-feeding fish. This style bait is made to imitate a dying, fluttering minnow struggling on the surface.

fishing plugs 1

It is no mere coincidence that these would work on a marauding cannibalistic brown trout on a big reservoir. Early morning and dusk are the best times to take a shot with these large surface plugs.

Bass Fishing Plugs

Other mainstream bass plugs can also be productive at times on bruiser trout. Arbogast Hula Poppers and Storm Chug Bugs can be fished on the surface. Or, where there are a lot of threadfin shad around, try a thinner profile crankbait such as the Storm Thin Fin, Bayou Boogie, Cordell Spot, or Rapala Shad Rar. Purchase these plugs in foil, shad, perch, or rainbow trout colors. You can also troll them fairly quickly on straight 8 pound monofilament using a toe-one approach.

Plugs can also work on rivers as well as lakes. If there are a lot of obstructions to get snagged on, replace the treble hooks with single Si wash hocks. These will hang up much less in the fast-moving water.


Unusual Soft Plastic Baits

soft plastic baits 1
soft plastic baits 1

More and more recreational anglers are experimenting with soft plastic baits for Western trouting. Many of these lures have enjoyed prominent success among bass and crappie fishermen, but not too surprisingly, they will often prove very effective on trout.

Tiny plastic panfish lures such as the Mini-jig or Baby Gitzits can be dynamite on a variety of trout. Fish these directly on 2 to 4 pound monofilament and definitely add some scent to the lure. In the case of the tubular baits, put the scent directly into the hollow body. The fluorescent pink color in particular seems to be a “hot” combination with these small jigs.

Soft Plastic Baits: The Scrounger

The Scrounger is another intriguing lure that also has been a proven winner for California trout. This tiny plastic grub with the curl tail also features a unique plastic-lipped jig head. This pronounced lip results in a tremendous oscillating effect from the Scrounger even with the slowest retrieves.

The Scrounger is made to resemble a small forage minnow, erratically swimming from a hungry gamefish. Fish the lure on ultralight gear either casting it or working it on a slow-troll pattern. Silver, clear, white, and yellow colors are suitable for trouting.

Soft Plastic Baits: Plastic Knob

Plastic knob-tail baits such as Western Plastics popular Shakin’ Shad are similarly viable trout getters designed to have terrific tail-throbbing action. These should be rigged on either 1/16 or 1/8 once lead-beads. They can be casted aad steadily retrieved back to the boat or shore. Or, they can be slow-trolled like the Scrounger. The Shakin’ Shad is available in a very realistic rainbow trout finish that can be effective on larger, quality fish along with shad patterns.

soft plastic baits 2

Soft Plastic Baits: Plastic Worm

One other soft plastic lure is a rather bizarre “sleeper” of sorts among the trout fishing experts — the plastic worm. Our first encounter with this bait’s application on trout waters occurred one evening at Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains. Larger 1-1/2 to 3 pound rainbows were puddlin’ near the surface, occasionally lazily rising to a weak insect hatch late in the afternoon.

After a few strikes with an assortment of regionally-favored dry flies we threw a six inch plastic worm across the surface. This worm was in the natural nightcrawler color with both a front and “stinger” hook in the rear. With just a few twitches of the rod tip, the worm moved sinuously just under the surface. In a matter of seconds, there was a vicious boil on the bait and a fat 2 pound rainbow quickly ended up on an otherwise empty stringer. Give these worms a try — especially fished with an open hook just under the surface. The results may surprise you!

Northern Sierra Fishing

Northern Sierra Fishing
Northern Sierra Fishing

The Northern Sierra offers some of the most consistently good trouting to be found in California, with limited angling pressure. Too many Southern Californians make the mistake of hammering it out with the crowds on lower eastern Sierra waters. Taking the time to drive a little further north is well worth the effort.

Northern Sierra Lakes

The magnificent Feather River area with Lakes Almanor CA and Oroville has extensive facilities for the weekender. The Plumas-Eureka sector with the Gold Lakes Basin, Davis, Frenchman and Bucks Lake CA is a virtual smorgasbord of diverse trouting waters. Gold Lakes Basin and Jackson Meadows feature clusters of smaller trout lakes. And finally, the Truckee River and its satellite waters, Donner, Prosser, Stampede and Lake Boca, can generate rice trout fishing on an all year basis!