Deep thoughts: Getting bait to the right depth is half the battle

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You're casting the right bait at the right time in the right place, but the trout aren't biting.

Don't blame the fish.

Trout guides, biologists, bait shop owners and state waterways conservation officers say the most frequent mistake made by trout anglers is not placing the bait at the proper depth.

If you're dangling a red worm 2 feet under a bobber in 15 feet of water, have a seat, put your feet up, take a nap -- you're in for a long wait. Might as well drag a spinner through the fast-moving top current far above a hungry brown turning up stones in search of caddis larva. Same goes for protecting your nymph from snags by drifting it fast and high over the back of that same brown trout.

"The anglers that really know how to catch [trout] know they've got to get the bait down right to the fish," said Dwight Yingling, owner of North Park Sports Shop in Allison Park. "Actually, people make two mistakes -- it either floats too high or they sink it all the way to the bottom."

In recent weeks, Ray Schubert of the North Side, has released dozens of rainbow trout per day at North Park Lake. The trick, he says, is to keep it deep.

"These big rainbows aren't going to come up for it," he said. "You have to put it where the fish are."

For lake anglers, estimate depth by reading the water and evaluating visible geography. Changes in weed growth and water color can indicate a rapid change in depth -- the darker water is deeper. Ground features -- a slight, easy slope or steep hillside -- will probably continue as the terrain dips into the water. In impoundments, use visible ground features to estimate the location of the submerged creek channel.

Fine-tune depth estimates by casting weight with no bait.

"First, just put weight on the line and cast out and try to feel when it hits the bottom," said Yingling. Keep the line taut as it sinks. When it starts to slack, you're on the bottom.

For bobber fishing, experiment with depth settings from about a foot off the bottom to half the water depth. Keep the bait at the desired depth by pinching split shot onto the line above the bait. Remember that many paste baits float, and without weight to hold them down, live minnows often rush to the surface when a gamefish approaches.

Yingling regulates depth using small flavored marshmallows. Curiously, they float.

"Put it on the hook and tip it with maggots, butter worms, red worms, whatever," he said. "The marshmallow will float it up a little with the worm moving, struggling a little. Trout like that."

In slow, still pools on rivers and creeks, bobber fishing is fine. But bobbers can be counterproductive in moving water, where getting the bait to the proper depth is vital.

Floating above the faster-moving top current, a bobber drags the bait through the strike zone faster than the flow of the slower-moving bottom current, which doesn't look natural to wary trout. As the bobber speeds through the pool, the bait rises up behind farther from the fish. Furthermore, the proscribed depth set by the float doesn't reflect the changing bottom terrain of many pools, and repeated splashes of the bobber may frighten trout on smaller waters.

In moving water, there are two easy ways to get bait right in the fish's face.

"Squeeze the split shot 18 inches to 2 feet up from the hook," said Yingling. "You can use other kinds of weights, but anglers often use too much and get hung up."

Another option is to tie on the hook, leaving about a foot of tag line extending below the hook. Don't snip off the tag. Pinch split shot appropriate to conditions near the end of the line. They'll hold the bait at fish level. If the split shot gets wedged between rocks, just pull the line through the shot's jaws until the shot drops off and the line is free. Reapply a slightly lighter split shot and recast.

Fly anglers see water depth from a different perspective. Trout efficiently use the least energy possible to get maximum nutritional gain. Biting at food directly below their eye level is about as efficient as it gets.

Swinging streamers or wet flies is best accomplished through careful positioning. Some fly anglers also use weighted leaders to accelerate the rate of drop.

Nymphing is generally done in closer quarters and requires a different approach.

"Most guys use split shot because it's so easy and quick to change," said Chuck Thompson, owner of International Angler in Robinson. "Apply the weight 9 to 18 inches above the fly. Put it too close and it gets snagged."

If fishing deep is so important, why do trout rise for flies?

"When bugs start hatching and presenting themselves as food higher in the water column, the fish become acclimated to that," Thompson said. "But most of the time -- 99 percent of a bug's life -- they're not in that section of the water column, and trout are looking deep. Most of the time that's where your fly should be."



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