Changing Trout Fishing Tactics for May Fishing Success

By: Milton F. Whitmore

The last Saturday in April, a magic, almost mystical annual event celebrated by true trout stalkers has come and gone. The excitement of the opener has ebbed and the one, true, trout season is upon us.  It’s time for some May trout fishing tactics.

trout fishing tacticsThe month of May presents us with a wide variety of weather and river conditions. The successful angler has to be willing to adapt and be prepared for whatever comes along. Low, clear water and bluebird days might be followed by a near blizzard, when the barometer and thermometer join hands and take a suicidal nosedive for the nether regions. The rivers rise, color up, and the trout seem to sulk in their favored hides, where they, along with the rest of us, pout in want of more favorable conditions. Sometimes we are blessed with what; to this angler anyway, are the most perfect fishing conditions. Nighttime temperatures remain in the low 50’s, clouds move in under the moon’s cover and a slow, but steady drizzle fills the air. As the sun rises, set behind those low, gray masses, the day begins to warm a bit into the low 60- degree range. The wind is a mere puff, with only the occasional gentle upstart to signal its presence. The water, smooth flowing in its twists and twirls under, above, and around the river obstacles, is slightly colored by the all-night drizzle. Perfect!

How to fish under such varied conditions can perplex the angler, who is unwilling to shift gears and tactics. Assuming that your chosen river contains an ample population of trout, what then must be done to garner a fish or two?


The best time to fish is whenever you can fish. True! However, we need to be ready to fish under all conditions.

If you are fortunate enough to fish during “perfect” conditions as described above, get out and do so. Sunny, bright days with clear water are the toughest situation. Line size needs to be small. I use four-pound test mono for all of my upland trout fishing. With this fine filament I’ve landed browns over 20 inches, with no problem. Go small when it comes to line diameter.

Fish early when no clouds are forecasted. Trout will leave their chosen lairs under the cover of darkness. They will cruise into feeding lanes in shallower water and gorge themselves, especially if the night remains above 45 degrees. Get out on the river in the early hours of the morning and concentrate your efforts on these shallow-water feeding lanes, making your approach with caution. About an hour before the sun rises, the fish will begin to move toward deeper water, usually upstream of their feeding position. Move with them and begin to focus on the tail end of the holes and the outflowing run downstream of the deeper water. I’ve caught plenty of trout between the hours of 6 and 8 a.m., fishing these areas. The fish take just one more tidbit before swimming into their “home hole.”

The last few hours of daylight, as the sun’s rays lose their intensity, due to the decreased angle, can also bring on a trout bite.

Water, colored by steady rains, can turn many anglers off. “Impossible!” they exclaim in despair. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fish will go on a feeding frenzy and they’ll be in their nighttime feeding slots. The turbidity of the water offers them security. Water less than three feet deep, as long as the current directs foodstuffs their way, will harbor trout. If the water is on the rise and the current picks up speed, the fish will hunker down behind some midstream obstruction such as a boulder, dashing out to gobble passing morsels. Some of my best trout fishing has come under these conditions, using bait of some sort.

Sunny or partly cloudy skies do not spell doom for the trout angler. Fish stay close to cover and I do mean close. One of my fishing gurus, a guy named Matt from Spring Lake, Mich., is a spinner tosser of utmost skill. He makes his own spinners and advises, “I like to toss the spinner close to cover. Actually I try to make each cast about a foot longer then it should be.” I’ve fished with him and seen this. If his spinner flies a bit too far, he deftly flips it off the bank, log, or whatever the lure lands on and with a gentle flop, it settles into the water, right next to the cover where the fish lay.


Like any well-schooled Boy Scout, the angler must “Be Prepared!” To this I would add the gospel of, “be flexible”. Don’t rely on one bait. When the topic of bait comes up, especially in the early season of May, most anglers think of worms and/or nightcrawlers. Indeed, these two bait types are excellent choices. However, don’t neglect other tasty, at least to the trout, morsels that one might use.

Spawn sacks (I prefer steelhead spawn to salmon) are a wise selection. Many anglers believe in order for spawn to work, the stream must host a run of fish from the Great Lakes. Simply put, this is not so. Some of my favorite streams haven’t seen a steelhead or salmon, period. Spawn is gobbled, nevertheless, by brown and brook trout, despite the lack of a run of andromonous fish. I keep a ready supply of steelhead sacks tied in pink and chartreuse, with the latter being my first choice.

Minnows, shiners preferably, are useful in any trout stream. Fished live or dead, hooked through the lip or sewn on, the knowing angler keeps a supply handy. Any shiner from three to five inches long will work. What’s more, they are large enough to draw the look of any lunker trout lurking nearby. Bounced along the bottom with sufficient weight, worked upstream from a position above a hole or run, or reeled back toward a downstream angler, minnows are little-used trout bait. Try different amounts of lead, depending upon depth and current strength, to get the minnow down near the bottom in the fish’s feeding lane.

Wrigglers are another option. If you can dig your own, thus finding larger specimens than are generally sold where bait is offered, you’ll be better off. Fish these nymphs like any other bait; bottom bouncing in holes and runs.

If the month of May is warm, May beetles/June bugs will begin to emerge. Don’t scoff at using these large, reddish/brown insects for trout bait. They can be deadly. Just because you’ve never heard of anyone using this very different variable in a trout’s diet, doesn’t mean that they won’t work. They do.

Hellgrammites, dug from a stream, sculpins, crayfish, and even pieces of salt-water shrimp are all known trout getters. The key is to think “variety”.


I must confess that when it comes to tossing hardware, I use only two lures, Panther Martin spinners and Rapalas. This seems to belie my advice of being flexible. However, I keep a variety of colors of each lure.

My favored Panther Martin has a black/yellow spotted body and gold blade. I use this more than any other color combination. An all gold body and blade w/ yellow squirrel tail dressing is my second choice. In my spinner box I keep a ready supply of other colors, all in larger sizes. The larger size casts better. I find they are easier to control during the cast, a vital characteristic.

When using Rapalas, again I have a favorite, that being either gold/black or brown trout. I’ve always thought a brook trout color would be deadly, but have never seen it offered. The original floater or a countdown model is both kept on hand.

The key, as mentioned above, is to get the lure close to overhead cover. Take an ample supply of hardware, as the philosophy of getting the lure right next to the woody debris that all streams collect will result in lost lures. Don’t fret; it’s all part of the game.

When May rolls around and the weather and stream conditions change, sometimes on an almost day to day basis, get out of the standard tactic rut and try something different. The rewards will be a pleasant surprise.

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