Rooster Tail Grand Slam: Small Spinners for Early Spring Trout
By: Bill Herzog
It’s 2023…do you know where your Rooster Tails are? If you are as passionate about the grab a trout executes on a spinner as I am, then you have them in every zippered pocket in your pack, vest or wader pouch. “Executes” may be the perfect word for how large trout treat a well-presented spinner. A recent early spring trip to Western Montana featuring Rooster Tails of various sizes and colors proves still (in this era of almost daily constant improvements on a better mouse trap) a tackle bag “must have” for trout.
Western Montana has been ground zero for trout fishermen for a hundred years, I can vouch for that with a few thousand of my closest friends. I go there not only for the spun-out trouting but to get away from the hordes of anglers in my part of the Northwest. The numbers of people out this early in the season was surprising.
We primarily fished Rooster Tails because of the many types of water they can be oh-so-effectively used on. Lakes, from shore is where the R.T. works best. Even if you are in a boat, unless the lake you are on features a relatively even depth. Position yourself near shore or right above drop offs. On drop-offs from shore, the classic presentation is long casts, allowed to sink until bottom is reached, then immediately begin reeling/retrieve, close to the bottom, reeling just fast enough to make the blade slowly thump and rise along the drop-off. Trout will be right on the deck, looking for insects/small fish to move out of the weeds. That is just Trout Lake Spinner Fishing 101, regardless of what style of spinner is your thing.
Every lake we found on this Montana adventure had identical features, that is sharp drop-offs close to shore. And what do ya know? Trout feed primarily on those drop-offs, as we were there not long after ice out and the warmer water is always in the shallows. Beautiful, big, Westslope cutthroat in particular.
Early morning on the clear, vodka clear, holy-smoke-I-ain’t-never-seen-no-water this clear-no-nope, a brass blade (brass gives off 60% light) with a brown body/brown and yellow tail in 1/8th oz. worked in each cutthroat lake we fished. Most were 14 to 21”, fat and tropical fish colored. Trout at ice out are, well, let’s not call them stupid hungry and fall down easy to hook compared to all other times of year, just “aggressive”…Wherever you target trout in the early season, their behavior will be the same under identical lighting/clarity/depth/water temperature.
I will be straight, we brought-and-used-other types and styles of trout lures. Oh, you have heard of them. We’ve all bought some, own some. I’m glad we do this. Without other types of trout lures to compare, the real commander and chief would only be an anecdote. To see how the Rooster Tail stands out, all you need to do is fish one in the same waters as other lures. Results talk.
Success when fishing small spinners depends on, like so many other techniques that is, matching size/color body/color blade finish to water/light conditions and often species of trout. While there are literally hundreds of spinners, countless styles/color/sizes, we stuck with two sizes and a few standard color schemes that produced almost too well in previous trips in early spring no matter where we find trout.
Note that early spring trout rivers are usually at their lowest of the year, rivaling fall. Before warmer weather comes, before snowmelt, rivers will be low and cold. Under these colder (35 to 41 degrees) flows, fish will be looking to feed but still shivering a bit. A bright, flashing blade can excite trout to move to strike, when more subtle presentations may not. Some blades/body/tail combos that worked more than well in the clearer, low flows:
On rivers/early morning low light- silver blade/all yellow or silver blade/all black.
For clear lakes/mid-day on rivers- brass blade/all brown, or brass blade/black body.
These combinations on size 1/8th oz and 1/6th oz covered all conditions we ran into and seem to produce steadily under cold, clear early spring conditions.
Early season trout in low water seek out and live in choppy riffles, from 2 to 4 feet were target areas and what do you know, a spinner performs at its best when glided over riffles and flats, the buoyancy of the blades mimic Teflon over tackle-eating large rocks.
Rigging the Rooster Tail: Single Hook
Many of the rivers we fished in Western Montana feature single hook regulations. Wherever you go, so many streams and lakes have “special regulations” which mean single, barbless hooks, no bait or scent. Where legal, we usually keep the factory small treble on the lures. When we changed to singles, here’s how we made the modifications.
Start by removing the treble-carefully-from the spinner shaft. Place a #3 small split ring on the wire loop. Then, place a #10 small swivel on the split ring. Last, place a #6 (on the 1/8th oz) and a #4 (on the 1/6th oz) siwash hook on the swivel. Use adequate magnification, especially if you are of a certain age and do not do “tiny” anymore with a neutron microscope.
Now you have a lure that is not only legal everywhere the hook turning on the swivel makes for a very high percentage of solid hookups. And storage is easier, we’ve all tried to pull one spinner rigged with trebles out of the box and have the rest hanging on. Single hooks, not so much.
Rods, Reels and Lines for Small Spinner in Rivers and Lakes
Spring means fish waiting to eat after basically surviving through winter. Eastern Washington, Oregon and especially Montana where I love to go in the pre snowmelt of spring means encountering trout from six inches to six pounds, with potential to hook something larger. Rods seven to eight foot, rated for 4 to 8 or 4-to-10-pound lines with fast tips are ideal. Rods must be long enough to generate enough tip speed for casting distance, light enough to load the rod yet just enough backbone to set a hook and deal with a larger than expected trout. Spinning reels in sizes 1000 hold plenty of 10-pound braid. Nanofil by Berkeley is the finest line I’ve ever used for light gear spinning. It’s a soft white, very visible to the angler but not too garish. No stretch braid casts farther, transfers the vibration of the blade in 3D and hooksets are lethal at any distance. Double Uni-knot six feet of 8-to-10-pound mono or high-quality fluorocarbon to the braid, tie that to a small #7 swivel. Use 2 to 3 feet of leader from swivel to your spinner. Tie directly to the top wire loop on the lure. A snap swivel can hinder the blade rotation, the swivel will prevent line twist.
You may add weight to this rig. Small split shot(s) immediately above the swivel can add casting distance and get the Rooster Tail down quicker on lake drop-offs or deeper runs on rivers. Always use smaller shot, as they go through the water easier and additional shot can be added for a gradual weight increase.
I fish this rigging, from rods down to Rooster Tail, wherever I go from ice out through early spring. We used this same rigging our entire time in Montana last April. How did we do, just trusting a nearly 80-year-old lure with our vacation time? Case in point, I present to the jury, our day floating one of the most popular trout rivers on, dare-I-say, oh, the entire planet? The Madison River has always been more than generous over decades for us, today-no exception.
There is a wee deal called the “Madison Grand Slam”, that is catching a brown trout, a rainbow trout, a cutthroat and a whitefish in the same day. Takes a bit of luck to pull this off, but you must be using something that grabs the attention of all those species. The Madison is nicknamed, “The Fifty-Mile Riffle” well, nice shootin’ Tex on that nickname. Being one continuous riffle this place is tailor fitted to a spinner. That is featuring 2 to 4 feet of water in nearly 90% of the river. Unplug your steelhead brain before you trout fish, as any spot deep enough for them to be, well, cast there!
The attraction radius of a flashing blade in that clear water is around 10 feet, so sweeping the wide, shallow runs was more than effective. A presentation either slightly above, or directly across from your position, either floating with current or wading stationary is the most productive. Presenting a spinner always works best when allowed to “float” with current downriver. Wounded small fish or whatever the trout think the spinner is do not go upstream.
Starting in the early-early, under low light, there is simply no color/blade combo of Rooster Tail more scrumptious than a silver blade (yes, real silver plate that reflects 90% of light, making every revolution a bright pop of brightness) with all yellow body/hackle tail. A 1/8th ounce version caught the first player, a 16-inch Westslope Cutthroat, a now rarity on the river. Next up, a magnum Rocky Mountain Whitefish, eighteen inches of non-trout that fooled me into thinking it was a nice brown. I hook some trophy sized whitefish in the Yakima River above my house on Rooster Tails every year, and they are always the largest in the river. Two down, two to go…
A tough bite today, but a color change in the brighter afternoon sun kept our lures in the “attraction threshold”, that is cutting down the flash of the blade and toning down the body/tail colors. Late afternoon produced the last two trout, ironically the two most numerous species, the brown and the rainbow. Only a few browns hooked today, one landed was only 14”, but they all don’t have to be giants…like the one that hit the R.T. so hard it almost got the rod from me and shook the hook…couldn’t move…it…at…ALL. It was a giant brown that – surprise- dropped the barbless hook after two alligator head shakes. Never saw it, but it felt and acted like a small Chinook. Last but not least, at days end a 21” mini steelhead took the spinner just off the rod tip and just kept jumping. We caught plenty of trout, of course, but sprinkled throughout that day was a rainbow, a brown, a whitefish and a cutthroat. Madison River Grand Slam.
All on a Rooster Tail!
Not too shabby for a lure entering its ninth decade.