The Complete Guide to Fly Fishing for Rainbow Trout

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Video rainbow trout fly fishing

There’s no trout I would rather catch than a rainbow trout. Their fighting ability, picturesque environments and sheer beauty are extremely unique and challenging to find with any other freshwater fish. If you’re fly fishing for trout in a multi-specie body of water, you always know when you hook into a rainbow. Their power is second-to-none within the trout family. There’s nothing like the experience of a rainbow trout caught on a fly rod.

Steps for Catching Rainbow Trout with a Fly Rod

1. Selecting the Right Gear

When you’re ready to begin your excursion to land rainbow trout, you need to select the right fly rod, reel, fly line and flies. While you don’t need anything that’s overly expensive, high quality gear is going to give you a great shot to land these fish. Mid-weighted fly rods, reels and lines are usually enough to put a few into your net.

Guide Pro Tip: Once you get your fly fishing gear, let me show you how to assembly everything with this article (Don’t worry I’ve got videos to help) How to Setup a Fishing Rod and Reel (From Reel to Fly)

2. Find Rivers and Lakes that have Rainbow Trout

The next step is to find water that can hold these fish. While it may sound obvious, not every single trout stream in the world has rainbow trout. They’re specific to different regions so make sure you’re doing your fair share of research before you venture out to your local trout stream. You may have to travel a ways to get in prime rainbow trout water.

Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing
Rainbow Trout Fly Fishing

3. Find “Holding Water” for Rainbow Trout

Once you’ve located your home waters for rainbow trout, your next step is to read the water and identify where these fish may be holding. You can usually find them in pools, cut banks, riffles and pockets. If you need a dead giveaway, visit the body of water in the morning or evening when the hatches are occurring. They’ll show themselves when food is on the surface.

Holding water has a “formula” if food, protection and low energy expenditure all come together you’ve got the receipt for reading the water.

Rainbow Trout in Holding Water
Rainbow Trout in Holding Water

4. Observe to Understand what Rainbow Trout are eating

When you visit the water in the morning and evening, that’s going to be the easiest time to figure out what the trout are wanting to feed on due to the hatches occurring. Try and snag one of the insects flying in the air and do your best to hatch it to anything you may have in your box. If you’re not seeing any “rises”, flip over rocks or logs in the water and see the insects that are attached.

These are going to be the nymphs in your box. Finally, look to see if you see any bait fish or other larger prey swimming around. These will help you choose streamers!

5. Position yourself for great cast and presentation

Once you have the gear, location and fly chosen, now is the time for your skill to take over. Generally, you’re going to want to position yourself just below the place you’re wanting to fish. This way, you can cast your fly upstream and let it drift through the prime location. Do your best to give yourself plenty of room to make false casts and mends as the fly is drifting. This is an art, finding the best position for a perfect fly presentation

6. Make the cast and drift drag free

You’ve made the cast, now it’s time to make sure the fly is doing all the work. You don’t want your fly line to drag the fly downstream. Keep as much of the fly line out of the water as you can, and make mends to let your fly look as natural as possible. This is one of the trickiest parts of fly fishing.

Guide Pro Tip: The art of mending and achieving a drag free drift takes practice, but let me help with some tips in these articles. Drag Free Drift and How to Mending

Fly fishing for rainbow trout has brought me many joys in life. Targeting native rainbow trout in British Columbia gave me an entirely new appreciation for their beauty. The two hour kayak ride through the inland waters of the Pacific Ocean to reach these unnamed rivers was well worth all of the effort.

The pure joy and smile they brought to my face is something I’ll cherish forever. A chance to land a rainbow trout on a fly rod is something I’m willing to sacrifice days and weeks to do.

Selecting Fly Fishing Gear for Rainbow Trout

Thankfully, rainbow trout aren’t going to require any overly unique or specific gear. Any gear you purchase to fly fish for rainbow trout is going to work for many other freshwater species.

Fly Rod for Rainbow

For your fly rod, you’re going to want to make sure you know the type of water you’re going to be fishing before you make your purchase. If you’re spending time on only mountain streams and small rivers, then a 3 or 4-weight rod should do the trick. If you’re going after rainbow trout in medium to large rivers, then a 5 or 6-weight would be ideal.

If you want a safe, all-around fly rod, then go with a 5-weight 8’6” or 9’ rod. It’s going to be able to perform in smaller bodies of water, but also give you enough power to throw streamers at large fish in large lakes and rivers. Again, understand your needs and it’ll help you make the best decision for you.

In terms of action, a moderate action is going to work well for rainbow trout. It has enough power to fight any fish on the larger side, but still has the sensitivity you need to detect any smaller strikes.

Fly Fishing Reel

When you’re purchasing your reel, make sure it matches with your rod. For example, if you’re buying a 5-weight rod, then you’re going to use a 5 or 6-weight reel. You have a bit of wiggle room, but you want the balance of the rod to be as even as possible. Once you’ve decided on the size of the reel, you want to make sure a few other details are in order.

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Guide Pro Tip: If you’re putting an outfit together and need some pointers selecting a fly reel, read -> How to Select the Right Size Fly Reel

The drag system is an important feature that you shouldn’t overlook. Ideally, you purchase a fully-sealed disc drag system. They’re easy to operate and they’ll stay in great shape for a long time with some general care.

Finally, the last thing you need to ensure is that the reel has a large arbor. Most fly reels are large arbor, but make sure you take the time to check before you purchase one. A large arbor reel is going to allow you to fight fish and not worry about getting spooled. 125 yards of backing and 30 yards of fly line should be plenty for any rainbow you catch.

Fly Line

The next decision you need to make for your setup is the line you’re going to use. For most moving water rainbow trout fishing scenarios, floating line is your best bet. Floating line will stay on the surface and rely on your leader and fly to get to the necessary depth where the fish are hiding. It’s easy to cast and maneuver!

What do I think is the best fly line? Checkout this article -> Best Fly Line for Catching Trout

If you’re fishing extremely deep water (over 25 or 30 feet), then sink tip line is a smart option. You want your fly to be where the fish are sitting, so a sink tip line is going to get your leader and fly to the necessary depth. Sink tip line is used in very large rivers or lakes!

Leader

For your leader, you’re likely going to want somewhere between a 1x and 4x depending on the type of flies you’re throwing and the size of fish you’re targeting. A 1x leader is going to be great for throwing streamers. The 2 through 4x leader would work for nymphs and dry flies. If you need to throw streamers with them, that would work as well!

In terms of length, it depends a bit on where you’re fishing. However, a 7 to 9 foot leader is a standard length that works great in most situations! If you want to make your life easier, you can choose to fish with tapered leaders, so you don’t have to worry as much about tippet.

Tippet

When you’re fishing with tippet, you’re likely using nymphs or dry flies in some way. Whether you’re fishing a nymph rig or a dry dropper, tippet is vital when you’re targeting trout. Trout are wary fish.

Tippet is going to give you the best chance at staying hidden! Bring along a 4 or 5x tippet if you’re going after rainbow trout. It’s going to be useful!

Favorite Flies for Rainbow Trout

Flies can be the difference maker between a good or bad day on the water. Do your research on what flies work best in the waters you’re fishing, but the following six flies are fairly universal and can always catch you fish.

Elk Hair Caddis- Size 14

Elk Hair Caddis are a wonderful fly to use if you know Caddisflies hatch in the water you’re fishing. On most rivers in the United States, you can find some sort of Caddisfly hatch. Since this is the case, you’re going to want to keep a fair share of these patterns in your box. Fish with these during the evenings or mornings when you see fish rising towards the surface.

Attach them to 4 or 5x tippet and you’re going to be in good shape. Throw it anywhere you see a rise, and see if a fish is interested! If anything, it’s a great searching pattern for dry flies.

Chubby Chernobyl

Chubby Chernobyl’s are the perfect rainbow trout fly. When late summer hits, make sure you’re using these flies. If you find yourself in an area with quite a bit of grass and some slight wind, you better believe that the Chubby’s are going to be working. Cast them along the slack water near the banks and watch the trout pounce. They love these flies.

You can even use these as the top of a dry dropper rig. They are capable of holding a decent sized nymph, so pair the two together if you’re interested in covering quite a bit of the water column.

Royal Wulff- Size 12

If it’s one of those days where you can’t quite get the fish to take anything you’re throwing, the Royal Wulff can be your best friend. It doesn’t quite represent anything specific, but looks enough like a few insects that it can fit in almost anywhere you need. It’s an attractor pattern that will entice a slightly curious fish. Cover it with quite a bit of floatant and let it sit high on the water column. Watch what happens when you do.

Identify the rises, throw the fly near them and you’re in for an eventful few hours.

Pheasant Tail Nymph- Size 14

Nymphing for rainbow trout may not be the most “fun” type of fishing, but it’s hard to argue with the productivity. Tie one of these flies on a 3x or 4x tapered leader and fish it through small pools, riffles and cut banks. You don’t have to work overly hard with nymphs. Cast 15 or 20 feet upstream from you, high stick as it comes across your body and watch what happens. Fish will feast on this fly if it’s presented well. It’s a great early season option.

San Juan Worm

Never forget about the usefulness of a worm. The San Juan Worm is a classic pattern that often gets left behind for more complicated options. As fly anglers, there’s a desire to challenge ourselves, but that doesn’t always mean it’s the most productive. There are days when you just want to catch fish and the San Juan Worm is going to help you do that.

You can fish this shallow or deep depending on what you need. A simple split shot is going to get your fly deeper in the water column.

Woolly Bugger– Size 4

Lastly, the Woolly Bugger is a great streamer to use if you’re hoping to land rainbow trout. It can represent everything from a baitfish to a crayfish. Depending on the type of prey swimming in the waters you’re fishing, tie on a Woolly Bugger and let it work. You can dead drift it or swing it depending on what the fish want.

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Use this fly when you’re fishing in pools! The large fish sitting near the bottom are going to have a hard time saying no. You may have to give it a few hard strips to get the fish to chase, but once you do, you’re in for a wonderful fight.

Flies for Rainbow Trout
Flies for Rainbow Trout

How I Like to Set Up my Fly Rod for Rainbow Trout

Every angler has a different method when they are fly fishing for rainbow trout, but my setup has continually worked for me no matter where I fish.

Rod

For my rod, I like to use a 4 or 5-weight depending on the water I’m fishing. Usually, I fish small to medium rivers and tight mountain streams. As a result, I find myself fishing with my 4-weight moderate action rod more often than not. My 4-weight is an 8’6”, so I don’t often run into trouble with vegetation! Plus, I can still get my tip far out over the water column when I’m nymphing.

Guide Pro Tip: I’ve got a FREE Download PDF to help illustrate my Fly Rod Setup for Rainbow Trout (plus some tips) Just click -> HERE

Line

I like to use a floating line with my setup. Even if the pools that I’m fishing are a bit deeper, I rarely need a sink tip line. My streamers can get heavy enough that they pull the line far enough below the surface of the water to get them where I need. I use a fly line that’s one size heavier than my rod and reel to allow me to get a little further with my casts. This is a personal preference, so it’s not an absolute necessity.

Leader Length

I am a fan of using 8- or 9-foot leaders whenever I can. I feel as if this length gives me enough room between my fly and fly line that the fish don’t get overly suspicious. Plus, I almost always use a tapered leader unless I’m throwing heavy streamers. These tapered leaders are great for nymphing and throwing dry flies.

Flies

In terms of flies, I like to throw streamers whenever I get the chance. I like to throw Muddler Minnows, Buggers and Clouser Minnows. Also, if I’m fishing water with crayfish, I’ll throw as many of these patterns as I can. I find that rainbow trout hit crayfish patterns with a nice amount of authority.

If I’m not throwing streamers, I’m usually fishing a dry dropper pattern with a Royal Wulff or other attractor pattern on top and a Pheasant Tail or Prince Nymph trailing underneath. I find these two options to work quite a bit of the time.

There are certain instances where I’m only throwing dry flies or fishing with a nymph rig. If I know I’m fishing a hatch, I’m going to live and die by the fly that best represents the hatch. Even if I’m not landing a ton of fish, it’s still a blast to wait and see if a fish wants what I’m throwing.

What Additional Gear is Great to Have when fishing for Rainbow Trout

Fly fishing gear for rainbow trout doesn’t have to stop at rod, reel, line and flies. There are other accessories that can make your life a bit easier and the fishing more efficient.

Forceps

Do your best to not forget your forceps when you’re fishing for rainbow trout. Rainbow trout are a delicate fish and a good pair of Hemostats are going to go a long way in keeping these fish healthy. They allow you to unhook the fish without having to use your fingers and further damage the gills of the fish.

You can also pinch your barbs if you’re fishing with forceps. Depending on where you’re targeting rainbow trout, you may be required to fish with barbless hooks. Forceps can help with this process!

Sunglasses

Fly anglers are sometimes as good as their sunglasses. A high quality pair of sunglasses is going to allow you to read the water in an even better way that you could with the naked eye. Polarized sunglasses can give you a glimpse of structure or even fish sitting under the water. On clear or even cloudy days, you can sightfish with a high quality pair of sunglasses.

Guide Pro Tips: For years I’ve been using a checklist to remember what to take on a fly fishing trip. It’s a FREE DOWNLOAD get it -> Fly Fishing Checklist

Different Line Spools

If you’re fishing in bodies of water with significant changes in depth. Carrying a couple extra reel spools can make your life that much easier. Attach floating and sinking line to spools and change them out if you’re going to be jumping from the mouth of a creek to a deep reservoir. Any advantage you can have while you’re on the water, the better.

Where to Find Rainbow Trout

Knowing that rainbow trout are in the water you’re fishing isn’t enough to help you land them. You have to know how to read water in order to give yourself a chance to land these fish!

Moving Water

When you’re fishing moving water, you should try and find a couple different things. Pools, cut banks and pockets are all great places to focus your time.

Pools

The first thing you should look for are pools. Pools are always going to hold fish. Often, there is shallow water on either side of the pool. This shallow water brings in food and allows fish to eat it without doing too much work. You can cast your fly into the beginning of the pool and let it dead drift and see if you get any takers. Otherwise, a cast into the beginning of the pool and a few hard strips might get some of the more hesitant fish to react.

Cut Banks

Cut banks are ideal places for fly anglers to focus when fly fishing for rainbow trout. They provide a great amount of shelter, but still give fish access to food. Trout always want to stay hidden as long as possible. Cast your fly deep under a cut bank and you’re going to get a shot at landing a few.

Pocket Water

fly fish pocket water
fly fish pocket water CLICK HERE TO LEARN HOW TO FLY FISH POCKET WATER

Pocket water is another easy place to focus your time. If you see a boulder or tree in the middle of the water that breaks up the flow, you can almost guarantee that there’s a fish sitting behind it. Cast your fly upstream of the pocket and let it drift down into the slack water. The strike zone isn’t very large, but it’s always productive!

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Still Water

Stillwater isn’t as technical as moving water, but it can easily be as complicated to fish! It takes patience and time to learn.

Focus on Structure

The best thing you can find in still water is structure. Lakes and ponds are vulnerable places for fish. They’re easy targets for aerial predators and large fish. If you can find a rock pile or log pile, you’re putting yourself in a better place to find fish. Cast your fly in the structure, near the structure and any other place around the structure that you can. If your fly looks real enough, you’ll receive strikes.

When is the Best Time to Fly Fish for Rainbow Trout?

Thankfully, rainbow trout are willing to eat your fly all year round, but there are definitely times when it’s going to be more productive than others.

Spring Spawn

Many rainbow trout spawn during the spring when the water hits around 50 degrees. It’s good to carry a temperature gauge with you when you’re fly fishing. It gives you a great idea about whether or not the fish are going to be active or more sluggish. They’ll spawn anywhere from March to June depending on the water! Be careful about the regulations of targeting spawning trout!

Fall

Brown trout often spawn in the fall, but that doesn’t mean you can’t catch rainbow trout. They’re still extremely active as they’re fattening up for winter. I’ve got a full article on Where to Fly Fish in September

Summer

Summer months are the most common time to target trout. Remember, as the air temperature and water temperature get warmer, the fish are looking for more structure and deeper water. Remember, water between 50 and 65 degrees is best! Looking for where to fly fish in July?

Time of Day

The best time to land rainbow trout is during the morning and evening hours. This is when the hatches are going to occur and the fish are most likely to feed. The warmest parts of the day are when the fish hunker down and aren’t as active in their feeding.

Different Fly Fishing Techniques for Catching Fish

You’re going to have many anglers swear by different techniques when they’re fishing for rainbow trout with a fly rod. It takes time to find your preferred method, but once you do, you’ll have success.

Dry Fly

As mentioned earlier, you should fish with dry flies when you see “rises”. These rises are fish breaking the surface of the water in pursuit of hatching insects. These hatches likely occur during the morning and evening hours. Identify the type of hatch that is happening and have your dry flies ready.

Cast your flies anywhere you see a rise and wait to see what happens. Fish usually strike within the first couple seconds that your fly hits the water. If you don’t get action right away, strip your fly in and try again.

Streamer

Streamer fishing can be productive during all parts of the day! Trout have a hard time passing up a larger meal. While the mornings and evenings are going to lead to more active feeding windows, you can still trick a sluggish fish into striking during the heat of the day. Cast these in deeper portions of the water where the big fish are waiting to ambush a small baitfish that was too bold!

Nymphing

For many, nymphing is the most productive type of fly fishing you can do. It catches quite a few fish, but it requires skill on the part of the angler to put the fly in the proper position. Look for seams and riffles to cast your nymph. Cast 15 to 30 feet up and across the river or stream, reel in the slack as the fly gets to you.

You want to raise your rod tip as well! This is going to put your fly in complete control and entice the fish into striking.

Tips for Catching Rainbow Trout with a Fly

Patience

Stay patient when you’re fly fishing for rainbow trout. They’re picky and often need an extremely accurate presentation to get them to strike!

Cold Water

Trout are particular about their water temperature. They’re going to find water that makes them comfortable. As a result, you may have to travel to find the water that’s best for them. Bring that thermometer!

Guide Pro Tips: If your looking for a list of Fly Fishing Tips, check out this download -> 50 Fly Fishing Tips

Fighting, Netting and Handling Rainbow Trout

When you’re in the process of fighting and netting rainbow trout, remember that you’re quite a bit more powerful than them. You don’t need to horse a rainbow trout into you in 10 seconds. Let the fish fight and take advantage of it when it’s not on a run. There is an ethical way to fight fish, so make sure you’re doing your best to keep the fish safe.

When you’re netting the fish, try not to lift it completely out of the water before you net it. Slide it into your net as it’s coming closer to you. This leads to a more ethical and clean net job. Also, try and take the hook out of the fish while it’s still in the water. This allows it to still breathe while you’re unhooking it.

Finally, when you’re handling the fish, make sure to wet your hand before you touch it. A dry hand can wipe the protective slime covering right off of the fish. Wet your hand, bring it out of the water for a few seconds to snap your picture and then immediately place it back in the water!

Last Cast for Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout are beautiful fish that will leave you telling story after story about them. Not only are you going to visit some amazing places on earth, but you’ll also be catching a breathtaking species of fish that will give you a fight you can remember.

Be sure to check out our “Best Flies for Rainbow Trout” and “Biggest Rainbow Trout” articles before you hit the water!

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>