Targeting Trophy Trout

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

During my stint in the Army, I fished in the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean and the South China Sea, but before I went to the North Fork of the White River in Ozark County, the largest fish I ever caught weighed 256 pounds.

Ok, that record still stands.

I did go to the North Fork in search of a trophy, however. Defining a trophy on that river requires no relativistic value judgments. A portion of the river is one of four of the Conservation Department's Trophy Trout Management areas. Therefore, a trophy can clearly be construed as a trout exceeding 15 inches, the legal minimum size limit.

A 14 3/4 inch trout is not a trophy and a 15 1/4 fish is. Would that all things in life were so logical and straightforward!

Trout fishing in general is pretty simple and uncluttered. Essentially, all you need is a rod, line, hook, sinker and a bit of savvy. Trout fishing luxuries include a net, boots and a vest with a bunch of pockets. You can also take a canoe, but you'll use it mostly as a pack horse. Wading is the only productive way to fish most trout rivers.

If you've not yet visited the free-flowing portion of the North Fork of the White River, you have at least one love affair left in your life. Few anglers can help but be enamored of this beautiful, spring-f ed waterway that cavorts through wild and rugged forest land.

Let's face facts, though. Beauty won't bend a fishing rod, nor can you bake scenic vistas with lemon and butter, so let's return to the subject of trout.

Catching trout on the river is easy, once you understand this simple little fact about wild river trout: they stubbornly refuse to go through a cafeteria line.

Trout normally feed by taking up strategic positions in the river and letting the current wash food to them. If you anchor a bait to the bottom you might have to wait a long time for a trout to find it. However, if you let your bait become part of the natural drift of food materials, your chances of linking up with a trout are much increased.

That simple lesson applies to both artificial and natural baits and has few exceptions.

By the way, I use live bait most of the time and make no apology for it. I don't try to fool trout, I try to catch them, and I can't think of a better way to catch them than to give them something that looks, smells and tastes like food - in short, food itself.

Minnows? For sure! Worms? You bet!! Crayfish? Oh yeah!!!!

Let's use a bit of a nightcrawler to indicate how best to present baits to trout. First, however, we have to tie on a hook. I like a medium shank bronze #8 hook fastened at the end of the line - almost always 6-pound test in that river - with an improved clinch or Palomar knot.

Next you want to pinch some split shot on the line from 8 to 14 inches above the hook. The amount of split shot will depend on the current. It's a good idea to use small removable shot, so you can adjust the number of shot to match the force of the current. Start with two size 7 split shot, since we're going to be fishing a stretch of broken water with medium current.

Use a 7- to 9-foot long pole with at least medium action. Wimpy rods prove exasperating when it comes to pulling out of snags or setting the hook. I'm assuming you have a spinning reel - open face for extroverts, closed face for introverts.

Pi nch off a third of a large nightcrawler and run the hook point through it twice.

We're standing near the bank. The broken water looks to be about 4 feet deep and stretches from about 5 feet in front of us to the other bank of the river. Facing directly across to the opposite bank, cast about halfway across the river and about 30 degrees upstream.

Reengage the bail as soon as your bait hits the water to keep slack out of your line. Keep the rod angled at about 45 degrees.

No more reeling should be necessary. You now want to follow the bait downstream with your rod tip. Ideally, as the bait drifts downstream, you should feel the sinkers tick bottom, which indicates that your bait is down where the fish primarily feed. Once in a while the bait may hang up and you'll have to lift your rod tip gently to free it.

A mossy rock can feel like a fish but after hooking a few dozen of both, you'll learn when to set the hook and when not to.

The rod tip is tapping instead of ticking. Good gosh, we've got a bite ! Set the hook!

He's fighting like crazy - what a pull! Well, if it's too much pull, you can lessen it simply by not pulling as hard yourself. You're in an arm wrestling match with the trout; the more pressure you exert, the more resistance the trout provides. Take your time. That lesson will serve you well with big fish, which is what we're after.

Big fish - trophies - live in the same river as small ones, but seem to be only in the best spots. You get a quick lesson in this when you let your worm linger in marginal water at the end of your drift. You almost never catch a decent fish there; you either catch chubs or small trout. Similarly, you almost never catch itty-bitty trout from the middle of a deep run.

The big fish also seem to key on different foods. For example, nightcrawlers will catch a lot of fish up to 14 inches, but the trophy fish seem to snub them. I don't know why this is so.

What it means, however, is that we'll have to abandon nightcrawlers and try a different bait.

Crayfish see m a likely candidate for trophy trout. They're big, meaty and plentiful. Kick around the bottom of a trout stream and they'll scuttle from rock to rock. If you've got quick hands you can pin them against the bottom and get a thumb and index finger grip on their back shell before they can pinch you. (Being pinched might hurt a little, but it is not life-threatening or even skin breaking.)

Another option is to use a fine mesh net or seine. Keep the net downstream and near the bottom in fast current as you kick over rocks in the current. Keep at it; you'll catch crayfish.

I wouldn't eat a crayfish without peeling it, but trout do. However, they seem to prefer soft-shelled crayfish, sometimes called peelers. These crayfish have shed their old shells and their new ones have not yet hardened. Peelers are noticeably soft when you pick them up by the back. Because they are vulnerable to both predators and competitors at this stage, they tend not to be easily dislodged from their hiding places.

Use whole small crayfish or just the tails of bigger ones. Some anglers snap the pincer arms off crayfish before putting them on the hook and/or peel some of the hard exoskeleton away to expose flesh and increase the scent trail.

Fish the crayfish with a drift, the same way you would a worm. I prefer fishing them in fast water, where the current tumbles them along the bottom, making them look temporarily vulnerable.

My first cast with a crayfish on the North Fork produced a 16-inch rainbow - a trophy! - from a swift run, convincing me that I had discovered the magic bait for the river.

But the trout must have been a fluke, because I didn't catch another on the second cast. In fact, I probably cast 20 times before I had another bite, and then I reeled in a 13-inch trout.

Apparently, I'd been demoted from trophy fishing status.

Once, when I was scrambling around among the rocks looking for more crayfish, I discovered an ugly minnow in my fine-mesh trout net. It was a sculpin.

Sculpins look a bit like catfish and a lot like grumpy, toothless old men.

When you first encounter one, you don't want to touch it because you're sure that it could either bite you or sting you. Certainly it looks mean enough to cuss you to death.

As soon as you get one in hand, though, you realize why trout might like them. They are so smooth and soft finned that they must slide through a trout's gullet like water down a drainpipe.

When I was growing up, we often traded fishing tales about secretive old men who caught huge trout using sculpins for bait, but we never actually tried using them.

I was still reluctant to fish with the sculpin because I really didn't know how. I had, however, seen pictures of them in fishing books rigged with a special long-shanked double hook that went through the sculpin's vent and out the mouth.

Lacking one of those, I simply hooked the sculpin through the lips with my small hook and cast it to the head of a truly fast-rushing strip of water.

It never reached bottom. A fish hit the sculpin almost the same moment as it landed behind a standing wave.

This was a big fish, had much more heft than my previous trophy. The fight lasted only about 10 seconds, then my bait slipped out of the fish's mouth. I reeled it in. The sculpin had scars on its side and its fins were bedraggled, but it still wiggled.

I cast it to the same spot and had another brief fish fight. I cast it again, had a bite and let the fish hold it for a few seconds before setting the hook, which resulted in another short tussle with the trout.

Despite the peaceful setting, I was getting uptight. Probably the trout was, too; after all, he'd captured three mouthfuls of sculpin and was still hungry.

I moseyed up atop a gravel bar, shucked my fishing vest so I could reach all the pockets and tied a stinger hook, a small treble hook on a short leader that I connected to the main hook. When I was done I had the main hook through the lips of the sculpin and one hook of the treble stinger piercing the flesh near the dorsal fin.

That arrange ment ended both the fish's and my frustration. The brown trout - not even a fraction shorter than 17 inches - came in after a battle.

Although trophy trout were being creeled at a comfortable pace, sculpins proved more difficult to catch. Apparently the first one had been infirm or had a death wish, because no matter how much I swished through the shallows, I couldn't catch another. I saw some, but they were too fast for me and avoided the net.

Some may think it a boyish way to spend the day, turning over rocks, chasing sculpins with a fine mesh trout net, occasionally grabbing crayfish, but to me it was serious business. I wanted to catch another trophy trout.

Through trial and error, I finally discovered that I could occasionally capture sculpins by standing in shallow water so swift it almost knocked me down and dislodging rocks with my fingers. (I couldn't use my feet, I needed both of them planted firmly to keep my balance.)

The rush of swift water apparently discombobulated them briefly and swe pt them into my net, which I held against the bottom immediately downstream.

After I had a few swimming around in my little bait bucket, I started learning about fishing with sculpins.

The first thing I found is that sculpins are strong swimmers and will scoot right to the bottom and under a rock, bringing your hook with them.

This is crude, but the best way to fish sculpins is to kill or stun them. After I had them firmly hooked, I swung them - splat! - against the side of the canoe or slapped them on the water, as if trying to clear a lure of weeds.

The sculpins were tough and stayed on the hook no matter what I did.

Sculpins seemed to work best in real fast water, the stuff with standing waves, especially when the water poured off a shallow gravel area.

The double hook arrangement allowed me to set the hook as soon as I felt a hit - I never had a "nibble" - so that the treble hook was easy to remove with the help of hemostat pliers.

The fish I caught with sculpins, by the way, weren't all trophies, but they probably averaged two inches longer than the ones I'd been catching with nightcrawlers and crayfish.

Nor did I catch as many. That didn't matter, though, because the ones I caught were so nice, culminating in a trophy of trophies, a 19-inch rainbow. And I'd lost a bigger fish, a brown trout that you'd measure in pounds, instead of inches.

That may be my next goal: see if I can land a brown trout over three pounds. No, that wouldn't be a record, but it would be a pretty good fish, and the challenge of catching one would give me a good excuse to take another fishing trip.

Not that you need much of an excuse to spend the day on a beautiful Missouri trout stream.

Trout water on the North Fork River, in Ozark County, begins at the upper outlet of Rainbow Spring and extends as far downstream as Dawt Mill.

The upper stretch, from Rainbow Spring to Blair Bridge, this year was designated a Wild Trout Management Area. Only flies and artificial lures may be used, and trout creeled must be at least 18 inches long. The daily limit is three trout.

The water from Blair Bridge to Norfolk Lake and its tributaries continues as a Trophy Trout Fishing Area. Live bait is allowed, and any fish you keep must be 15 inches or longer. The daily limit is three trout.

The North Fork is a popular canoeing river. Several private and public campgrounds are nearby.

The river has long shallow stretches, but each bend contains turbulent, "fishy" water. Strong current combined with slippery, diatom-coated bedrock can make the footing treacherous in some places.

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