Chasing Rainbows

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Doug Pike

For many winters now, the state of Texas has stocked a few hundred thousand bite-sized rainbow trout in urban and suburban ponds. They’re great for any fisherman, young or old, who needs to feel a tight line and can’t get to the coast or a big reservoir.

Some lakes get more fish than others, and I don’t know the criteria that determine which ponds get how many trout. Two things I do know: The trout will be small, averaging maybe eight or nine inches, and they won’t survive a Texas summer or even a warm spring (which makes it a little easier for conservationists to drop a daily five in a plastic bag and take them home).

What matters more than which lakes gets how many rainbows is the date on which they’re to be stocked, and I learned a valuable lesson from that chapter during the trout-dumping season of 2013-2014.

Turns out, published delivery dates are not carved in stone. They’re penned, but there is wiggle room, and errors nearly always favor the fishermen. One lake in Houston not only got its delivery two days early, for example, but there happened also to be a couple hundred extra rainbow trout in the truck’s tank when it was emptied.

I’ve heard other stories about early drop-offs and extra fish, but I’ve never had anyone tell me their favorite lake’s fish didn’t show on time or that the state didn’t deliver as many as promised. That’s probably happened, again being fair to this fine program, but not by such margin against either measure that anyone but a fisheries biologist might notice. By a day or two after tpwd.state.tx.us says the fish are in a lake, they’re in the lake. And weather permitting, I’m going after them.

Which leads us back to the complication thing. Now that my son is 6, I eye that trout-delivery schedule more closely. I even have sacrificed dozens of hours of my own time pre-fishing lakes to gauge their productivity – wouldn’t want to take him to a mud hole.

I’ve recruited a second scout, too, my writing colleague, Joe Doggett. Despite having fished around the world a couple of times, we’ve embraced the challenge that these little fish present and have increasingly serious about honing our techniques.

He’s long-ago retired and most days has nothing better to do than fish or think about fishing. He’s logged twice my hours, and I’ll concede that he holds an ever-so-slight edge in numbers of trout sent to the skillet. I, on the other hand, have caught them from more different lakes and by a wider variety of methods.

Together, we usually can figure out the pattern and get busy catching fish quickly. If there were a tournament circuit for TPWD’s stocked rainbows, we’d be tough to beat.

Thanks to my son, I’m as comfortable fishing with bait as with lures. The commercial, bite-sized nibbles work well enough, as do small, scent-juiced nightcrawlers threaded just so onto the hook. I’m equally fond of vanilla-soaked corn, especially since it doesn’t stink.

The key with anything from this class is to use small (No.8-No.12) hooks, only one or two pieces of bait, and suspend them several feet beneath a grape-sized bobber. Heavier gear makes it tough to detect strikes, and I’ve always done better on suspended baits than on anything pinned to the bottom.

Bait that smells is the only solution in off-color water – such as is present in one lake near my house, where visibility is the same as through concrete. Don’t waste time with lures under those circumstances; appeal to their noses.

In relatively clear water, and trout are stocked in many beautiful lakes, we’ve had equal success over time on a variety of spoons, in-line spinners and flies. Smaller is always better, even if it means adding split shot up the line to cast into the wind. These fish have mouths the size of nickels; baits too large won’t draw strikes.

Fly gear is fine in clean, protected water, but limited casting distance keeps the long rod in the truck more days than not. When you can throw it, use a slow-sinking insect imitation. If fish are rising, sling a dry. I’ve used flies as small as No. 16 with good success in clearer lakes, but the trout will climb all over a soft-landing grasshopper imitation.

A final tip, and a good one: Leave the micro-light rig at home. The delicate outfits won’t sling a lure much beyond your midday shadow, and they’re no good at all for muscling a little trout over shoreline moss or reeds. Stay light – it’s only fair to the fish – but don’t get carried away.

Pressure on these fish is surprisingly light, especially on weekdays beginning a week after the dump. Hundreds or a few thousand rainbow trout won’t vanish overnight, even where they’ve been discovered by cormorants.

These rainbows are stocked for our enjoyment and, on the right days, provide plenty of that. Quit whining about having no time to fish in winter. They may be small, but these trout are plentiful, tasty, hungry most days, and right down the street.

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