High Sierra Fishing Tactics
By Dave Finkelstein
You’ve seen it before, those guys coming off the dock with full stringers of trout. You’re wondering how are these guys so darn lucky? Having fished all day long you could only manage a couple of stockers. What are they using, some magic bait? Looking for an answer you ask “So what did you catch them on?” as they walk past you. One angler replies with a grin on his face, “Oh, just the usual trout stuff”. Your thinking, “Of course he’s not going to tell you his secret trout bait, lure or just where he caught them”.
They are the elite 10% of anglers who will consistently find and catch fish and you want to be one of the clan. Strangely enough, what he caught his fish on that day was also in your tackle box. To become one of the clan requires some angling skill but more importantly, knowing how, when and where to fish on any given day, whether you have fished this lake or stream before, will make all the difference between having a couple of stockers or a full stringer.
When fishing a new lake or stream, anglers need to understand that certain basic behavioral habits of their prey will dictate how much success they will have at the end of the day. Fishing new waters can be a real challenge for even the pros who fish for a living. Locating fish can be a tough thing to do when the wind is howling or the barometer takes a sudden drop in pressure. Anglers who can adapt to the changes in weather and fishing conditions will be those with the most fishing success.
The High Sierras can be a heavenly place to fish but with ultra clear waters the advantages of technology like fishfinders and using low visible Flurocarbon fishing lines may not be enough to guarantee you’re going to be on the fish. Trout by their natural habits tend to be finicky biters. Knowing fish location and presentation of lures makes all the difference between fishing and catching.
Marlon Meade is known to be one of the” best of the west” when fishing High Sierra trout lakes and streams. His earned reputation as one of the top 30 anglers in the western U.S. (Western Outdoors Magazine) and one of the select few California DFG fishing ambassadors have made him a much sought after seminar speaker. His seminars cover a lot of information on how to catch trout but ask him to reveal his secret fishing holes and he’ll answer “where the feeder streams enter the lake”. The truth be told, most of his favorite spots are usually fished by the general public on any given day, so why is it that he can catch more trout in one day then the average angler can catch in a season? He knows the behavior of trout better than most anglers.
Having this knowledge, he concentrates on fishing bodies of water when the best opportunities present themselves for trout to be in a certain place. Learning when and where trout may be holding out at, can help you determine how to fish a lake you have never fished. Most High Sierra lakes have some source of where the water comes in or out of a lake. Huge trout tend to visit these areas throughout the day but especially in the early grey light of morning and sundown.
Larger trout like to ambush their prey without expending a lot of energy.Creeks
that feed lakes are generally too shallow for larger trout to get an easy meal. Small Creek Chubs, minnows and other aquatic species use streams to hide from the big fish during daylight hours.
Brown trout are known for their aggressive behavior and become much more active at dusk and twilight hours. As dusk arrives, they position themselves for ambushing stockers schooling up at inlets. A big brown may feed on an 8-12 inch stocker rainbow and not eat for a couple of days or longer. Brook trout tend to frequent areas of vegetation close to shore and can be caught on natural baits and fly and bubble presentations.
Rainbows feeding habits are vastly different compared to brown trout and can be caught with many fishing lures and techniques.Rainbows tend to school up in deep water during midday hours but in early morning hours as sunlight warms the shallower water close to shore, they are found in more abundance cruising the shorelines, mouths of creeks and springs entering lakes.
Anglers tossing the usual cheese baits, nightcrawlers, salmon eggs and other assorted baits can have good success during the daytime but when the sun goes down, the bite usually goes as well.
Light conditions play a very important role in the feeding habits of trout whether they are browns, rainbows or brook trout. Look for areas where shadows fall onto the water close to shore for rainbows to gather during early morning and mid-morning hours. Lures presented into shadow areas offer a better chance of being hit than bright sun lit water. Anglers that move around the lake shore may have better success if they concentrate on fishing the shadows rather than fishing one spot only.
Being a mobile angler can pay off handsomely if you concentrate on where the fish are, rather than waiting for the fish to come to you. An old friend of mine, Pro fisherman Mike Gardner once told an audience at one of his seminars, that he credits his high fish counts to fishing where the fish are and not fishing where they aren’t. It’s laughable but very true.
I have fished a lot of lakes and streams in the Sierras over a span of 30+ years and encountered some truly epic days of fishing as well some really bad ones. Having fished in snow storms, howling winds, rain and blistering hot sun taught me to tailor my methods of fishing these lakes and streams. Being at the right place and time has accounted for my best catches .So when is the best time and method to catch trout? The answer is largely dependent on what species of trout your fishing for but generally getting on a lake or stream before the sun is up over the mountain ridges should be a rule of thumb. This is called this the grey light of day .It can also be when the sun has gone over the westerly ridges towards dusk.
If your using a boat to fish from, then hit the shorelines by tossing Trout Traps Pearl white mini jigs or Mimic Minnows in pearl white, green/black or a hologenic clear body with a black top in the 2” sizes. These same lures have also done very well in stream culvert areas. Other good choices include Rapala Countdowns in the CD 3 and 5 sizes with either a black/gold or black/silver coloring. Removing the center treble hooks on Rapalas can make casting a little easier with less line fouling issues.
Your rod choices should include a long ultralight noodle rod in the 7’3” to 8 foot lengths like the Shimano Compre line or other quality rods such as G Loomis and Phoenix which have a loyal following amongst anglers that frequent these waters.
Quality reels like the Shimano Sahara in the 750 size, Abu Garcia Cardinal ALB 501 or Okuma Epixor series that have at least 3 or more ball bearings and a smooth drag system are worth their weight in gold when you’re hooked up to that once in a lifetime fish.
Line choices should include Maxima Ultragreen 2 lb.test, Izorline XXX Supermono 2 lb.test in grey or clear and P-Line in Ultragreen.All of these lines have great casting qualities and a controlled stretch that I can count on when hooked up to a big trout.
Try positioning your boat to glide parallel to shore tossing lures as close up to the shoreline as possible and reel steadily back to the boat . One trick that Marlon likes to use is lightly moving his rod tip up and down several inches while retrieving his lures. This action mimics a wounded, disoriented fish and an easy target for a large hungry trout.
Whenever conditions allow, use the wind to move the boat along the shoreline without using the motor. That one tip really helps put fish in the boat. As the sun comes over the ridges, move your boat and try to fish the inlets and mouths of coves. As the sun moves directly over the water, trout tend to go deep and school up. You may consider this the time to start trolling or drift fishing your lures like Phobes, Thomas Bouyants in gold patterns, super dupers, and spinners with either gold or silver blades in the 1/8oz. to 1/4 oz. sizes.
Summer months can require the use of leadcore lines for trolling but rarely do I use leadcore up in the Sierras. Fish can be found from the surface to depths over 30 feet down most of the fishing year. Using S or Zigzaging trolling patterns offer greater chances of success than straight line runs of the lake. Once a fish is caught trolling you should return to the area and use zigzagging patterns to maximize on any remaining schooling fish that still maybe in the general area where you hooked up.
Essential trolling equipment should include a quality electric trolling motor such as a MinnKota or Motorguide with at least 36 thrust lbs or preferably higher power. Driftfishing techniques should also be considered when the wind kicks up.Using a drift bag to slow your boat down or correct the boat’s path when drifting will allow you to give a lure’s presentation a decent shot at success.
Drift fishing lures may constitute half a threaded nightcrawler with a very small red fluorescent bead and a small silver teardrop blade on the mainline. Other good choices can include Needlefish, small lightweight spoons in silver or gold colors. Berkley power worms can be added for trailers to Needlefish and spoons or just fished by themselves provided that a small splitshot is used about 3 to 4 feet from the plastic worm as not to hamper the worm’s swimming action.
For those anglers confined to shore fishing, using Berkley Gulp Power baits in the gold glitter, rainbow glitter,orange, chartreuse and combinations of these colors would be [ go to ] favorites. Power Mouse combos using a single Berkley Gulp egg in pink, white, orange and green colors threaded just above the eye of an Owner Mosquito #10 hook , then adding a Berkley Powerworm, Lip Ripper, or half an inflated nightcrawler can really be the hot ticket for larger rainbows cruising the shoreline.
Atlas and Paluske salmon eggs fished on a size 16 or 18 bronze treble hook has always been an all round favorite for streams.Adding some Procure Super Garlic oil or Berkley garlic spray maybe the needed attractant on tougher days of fishing. Other scents that may work well are Berkley Dip in corn and roe.
Many anglers prefer using a1/4 or 1/8 oz. sliding egg sinker setups when fishing these baits but using a very small splitshot with the line wrapped around the shot and lightly pinched may see less bottom snags. This method allows for adjustments to leader lengths quickly and without serious damage to your line then just pinching your splitshot. Use the smallest splitshot that conditions will allow. All of the above baits mentioned will work well in streams and use just enough weight to keep your baits in the target area you intend to fish.
Conditions change at a moment’s notice up in the high mountains but knowing how to adapt your fishing tactics to suit the weather and conditions can help the average angler fish confidently for a successful trip to highlands.