Spinning for Trout with Lures, Soft Baits, Flies and Bubble Floats

A big brown trout taken on spin fishing tackle.
A big brown trout taken on spin fishing tackle.

Spinning for Trout with Lures, Softbaits and Bubble Floats

By Allan Burgess

For the novice angler wanting to catch his or her first trout, the vast range of fishing tackle available in many sports stores can be bewildering and confusing. Where do you begin? The answer to that question has, for many would-be anglers, been on light trout spinning gear. Not only is trout spinning a great place to start out; it is also an enjoyable, exciting and productive way of fishing for both the novice and the more experienced!

One of the best things about spin fishing for trout is the rod and reel setup is very flexible. You can cast the usual spinning lures like Tasmanian Devils and Tobys for trout. You can cast streamer flies with the aid of split-short or a D lead. You can use a float rig to fish dry flies and nymphs.

You can use the same rod and reel for bait fishing which makes it a great place for youngsters to start out.

You can of course fish a huge range of soft baits as well both during the day and at night. You can use the same rod and reel to fish small streams, wide rivers, canals and lakes for trout and salmon. You can even use the same gear to fish for kahawai at a river mouth.

Rods and reels are of higher quality today than they were a few decades ago. For a modest outlay of less than NZ$200, you can get everything you need; a very good rod, reel, braided line and lures. You should be able to get an inexpensive trout net from somewhere (not mentioning any names) for less than NZ$20. My advice is don’t skimp on the rod and reel. They are the most important part of the whole setup.

Fly Rod or Spinning Rod?

I must confess to having caught far more trout on spinning gear than I have on the fly rod. In certain situations, the fly rod is a far better option. When fishing crystal clear headwaters and lakes, particularly on a bright sunny day, the fly rod is sure to take more trout.

The fly rod is a better tool to use for floating a tiny size 18 dry-fly, or presenting a small wet-fly or nymph to a weary old brown trout that has plenty of time to scrutinize your offering before “taking a bite!”

If fishing a backcountry stream bed strewn with sharp irregular rocks and small, fish-holding pools you could lose an awfully number of metal spinners before finally landing a trout. If you tie your own flies you can afford to lose plenty of them without becoming upset at the cost. A fly is also less likely to get snagged than a spinner and they are way more expensive.

The fly rod, which takes more effort to master than spinning gear, enables the accurate presentation of the fly to a fish that has been spotted beforehand. Whereas for the most part spinning is usually more a case of blind prospecting.

Generally speaking, you would use a fly rod where delicate presentation is essential to success, and where the fish-holding water is small, and would more often than not result in the loss of spinning lures.

Flies on Spinning Gear

You can fish trout flies with a spinning rod by including a lead weight for casting about a metre up the line. I have caught many sea-run brown trout with this rig. I have used heavy line here to make it easier to see in the photograph. A D-lead is also a better option as the keel prevents line twist. Be sure to use a lighter line than your braid in case you get snagged. For clear high country lakes, use the minimum amount of lead weight only.
You can fish trout flies with a spinning rod by including a lead weight for casting about a metre up the line. I have caught many sea-run brown trout with this rig. I have used a heavy line here to make it easier to see in the photograph. A D-lead is also a better option as the keel prevents line twist. Be sure to use a lighter line than your braid in case you get snagged. For clear high country lakes, use the minimum amount of lead weight.

You can fish a fly on spinning gear fairly easily. This can be done by the use of a small lead weight usually a metre or so above the fly to give you enough weight for casting. A longer rod will make this method easier. Use as little weight as needed for casting. You don’t want the sinker to sink straight to the bottom as that will deaden the action of the fly. You will have to wind a bit faster as your rig nears the bank so it doesn’t snag on the bottom. When casting focus on a lob cast instead of a flick that way you will get fewer tangles.

Plastic Bubble Float

You can also use a plastic bubble float (also called a bobber) in order to fish a dry fly, nymph or streamer, particularly when lake fishing. This has the advantage of suspending your nymph or streamer mid-water without it sinking to the bottom. Use a small lead split-shot above the nymphs to take them down faster if they are un-weighted.

Cast out onto the lake and allow it to sit for a few seconds. Then make a couple of winds with your reel and let it sit again. This gives the streamer a natural-looking swimming action.

With nymphs, you want to just give the float a gentle twitch every 10 seconds or so.

If fishing a dry fly with the bubble float cast it out and just let it sit there. let the breeze do the rest. Hopefully, a trout will see it and come up and take your offering off the surface.

It works even better when there is a bit of chop on the water. The bubble float is also effective when fishing for trout with garden worms.

You can slide the plastic float along the line to increase or decrease your fly depth. There are many variations of this rig so don’t be afraid to experiment to best suit the water you are fishing. Take a look at the video from Addicted Fishing at the bottom of the pages to give you some good ideas.

Float rig for trout on lakes from Trolling and Spin Fishing for Trout.
Float rig for trout on lakes from Trolling and Spin Fishing for Trout.

Rivers

Spinning a lure across a wide slow flowing river is a great way to spend an afternoon. In the South Island, we have many such rivers that, in their lower reaches especially, are perfect for this style of fishing. The lower Waimakariri, Selwyn, Clutha, Mataura, Oreti, and so on, are wide and frequently slightly discoloured. On these waters, spinning is the best option for covering plenty of fish-holding water.

Where do you start when river fishing?

These wider rivers can seem daunting. Hundreds of cubic metres of water are passing your fishing spot every second. The trout are surely out there somewhere. Often fish will be close to the bank, under willows, or behind fallen trees and large rocks, or other obstructions on the riverbed. They like to sit close to the bottom just out of the main current where they can dart in and out of faster water. They also like to hold in the slack water behind obstructions. Trout are not always in the deepest part of the river. They can often be found close to the bank where the water is quite shallow.

As darkness closes in fish come on to feed. This is the best time of day to fish. The falling light also helps to disguise your lure and make it appear more fish-like!

A spinner that might seem large and clumsy during the day, can be just the thing to take a big trout in the late evening. This is also the time when fish will come right into shallow water chasing silveries and bullies. So don’t neglect to fish close to the bank when retrieving your spinner.

In big water, you can’t always tell where the fish will be. The best option is to cover as much water with your spinner as possible. Sooner or later you “will” catch one. It is amazing how many times I have arrived at a particular river, assembled my rod, strolled over to the riverbank and caught a trout within just a few minutes!

Start by casting upstream and allowing your spinner to sink as it drifts downstream before you begin winding the handle on your reel. Don’t wind too fast. You should be able to detect your spinner touching the bottom every now and again. If you wind the handle too fast your lure will rise to the surface and you won’t take as many fish.

Vary your casting distance, direction, and sink time in order to cover as much water as you can. Think of the trout as being lazy and holding in just one place near the bottom. By carefully quartering the river your lure will eventually find where he is holding.

I like to make a few casts downstream as well, winding the lure back to me close to the bank.

You have to be both optimistic and patient: these are the anglers best assets! Make every cast in the firm belief that a fish will take your spinner at any moment from the second your lure hits the water, to when you have it in the air for the next cast. Fish will often follow your lure to the bank and strike just as you are about to lift it for the next cast!

If fish are following your lure in but not striking try something different such as a smaller lure, twitching the rod tip, stopping/starting your retrieve and so on. You will often find this happening in crystal clear water such as the Canterbury high country lakes. Here the better option is a small nymph fished on a fly rod. Or you could try a dry fly fished with a bubble float.

With river fishing, you are also going to lose more gear than around a lake margin. There will be many “lure traps” that you can’t see from the riverbank. A certain number of losses is inevitable.

How to free a snagged spinner

When a lure does get snagged try letting the line go slack before winding again. Or let the line go slack, then walk downstream or upstream before trying to retrieve it again.

Another old salmon anglers trick when snagged is to make yourself an otter from a stick found on the riverbank. Take the stick and tie it to your line with a length of mono. Let it slip down your line to be pulled along by the river’s current, letting go line as it floats down. With luck, the pull from the opposite direction will free the lure.

With experience, your ratio of fish on the bank to lost spinners will improve a great deal. My twelve-year-old son would lose spinners at about four times the rate I did! He also gets upset every time he gets snagged and his spinner is lost! Fear of snagging will prevent you from fishing your spinners effectively.

Spin Fishing in Lakes

A big advantage of spin fishing is that you don’t have to worry about your backcast. Some Canterbury high country lakes such as Selfe, and Coleridge when the water level is high, are difficult to fish with thick matagouri bush down to the water’s edge. If fishing a fly rod in these sort of situations you really need to wade out a bit from shore to give yourself a bit of casting room, otherwise, you can waste a lot of time retrieving your fly line from this thorny native plant.

The same thing applies when fishing in the strong northwest wind; spinning gear is much easier to operate than a fly rod. But again in calm bright conditions presentation is important and a well-worked fly will often produce quicker results.

I remember a winter’s day a few years back when six of us travelled to Lake Coleridge for a most enjoyable day of spin fishing at the Picket Fence. It was a glorious day at Coleridge: snow on the high tops, crystal clear mountain air, blue sky, the sun shining, the lake flat calm, and company stimulating and humorous. However, we weren’t catching much fish.

From memory, I think it was only two fish in total. We were all fishing a variety of spinning tackle that had proven successful here in the past: Cobras, Tobys, Tasmanian Devils, Hex-wobblers, and the like. We had already been fishing for an hour or so when a bloke arrived and joined us with his fly rod.

Photo: Richard Cosgrove/Fish & Game NZ Opening of the high country fishing season at the Coleridge lakes
Opening of the high country fishing season at the Coleridge lakes. Note, these anglers are all spin fishing. Photo: Richard Cosgrove Fish & Game NZ.

You guessed it! He was soon pulling out fish after fish! In these flat calm conditions, his small well-presented nymph was king. While our clumsy hardware wasn’t fooling even the dumbest of fish. In this situation, our fly rods would have been a better bet. That said, it isn’t often that Lake Coleridge is flat calm. In fact, it is more often than not blowing a gale. When the wind is howling down the lake spinning is much easier and just as productive. I feel that a bit of wind on the water is an advantage when spin fishing. It helps to disguise the “plop” of the spinner hitting the water. For this same reason spinning at dawn and dusk when the light is poor, or even after dark, is also more productive. The trout are generally more active at these times as well.

lt always amazes me how a trout can catch a small moving target in the inky darkness of a lake or river at night!

Spinning Rods & Reels

There are so many spinning rods and reels on the market that it can be hard to decide which set to buy? Your first consideration is line weight. For river and lake work most anglers, myself included, used to fish with a 6-pound monofilament fishing line. Nowadays, everyone fishes braid instead of monofilament and you should too.

Braid has practically no stretch, lasts for ages, and is much thinner in diameter for a given breaking strain than monofilament.

I would select a braid that is the same equivalent diameter as a 6-pound monofilament. That might mean buying a spool of braid that has a 20-pound breaking strain. That doesn’t matter. It will help you get your fish to the bank a bit faster which is a good thing if you are going to return it to the water. A long drawn out struggle with a big fish on a very light line will exhaust it to the point that it will more than likely die anyway if you release it. A slightly heavier braid like 20-pound will be less inclined to break, and you will also be able to use the same rod and reel setup to fish for kahawai at river mouths. You need a reel that will hold at least 120 metres of the braid. That means a size 2500 or 4000 “eggbeater”.

Get a graphite rod that is at least 7 feet long, with single foot line guides. The longer rod will enable you to cast a greater distance.

Braid colour

There is some debate about whether a gaudy coloured braid frightens the fish. Why risk it. I prefer earth or green coloured braid.

Leaders

I always attach a leader of clear monofilament or fluorocarbon measuring about two-rod lengths to the end of my braid mainline. I then tie my spinner or soft bait to the end of that. In recent years I have changed over to using a very small Fastach swivel to the end of my leader. These things are brilliant. They prevent line-twist and make changing lures quick and easy. Using a Fastach swivel also means you aren’t constantly cutting your lure off which shortens your leader all the time.

FG Knot

Attach your leader to your braid with the FG knot. I always joined these lines with a double Uni-knot. But not anymore. The FG knot is not only very strong it also passes through your line guides effortlessly when casting.

lf you intend to fish near rocks, or in a Canterbury braided shingle riverbed, a heavier line would be a good idea, with even 10-pound not being too heavy. Therefore you need a reel that will accommodate from 120 to 240 yards of 8-pound line. I would go for reels at the upper end of this range.

The fixed spool reels (eggbeaters) are the best all-around option. They are easy to cast and a top-quality model can be had for a very reasonable cost these days.

Lightweight baitcasting reels are preferred by some anglers. They allow for very accurate casting, making it possible to land your spinner within inches of the opposite riverbank and so avoid the willows. However, you are more likely to get a ”birds nest” casting into the breeze, and they are more difficult to fish with after dark.

Rods are designed to cast a particular lure or sinker weight. Let’s say you want to cast Tasmanian Devils, Tobys and Cobras. These weigh between 12 and 20 grams. Therefore you need a rod designed to cast lures in this weight range.

Generally, the better quality ”eggbeaters” employ more ball bearings in their design.

Entry-level spinning reels often have no ball bearings. Better quality light spinning reels will feature at least three ball bearings. At the very top end reels such as the remarkably you can buy eggbeater reels with ten ball bearings in their construction.

In my experience, any reel made by Shimano is going to be sound and reliable. That applies even to the cheaper models. If you get a mid-priced Shimano 2500 or 4000 size reel with a spare spool you will be buying a good value for money product that will catch you plenty of fish and won’t break down. Daiwa is also very good. I am sure there are other good brands but I haven’t tried them.

When looking to buy a new reel ask your tackle store assistant if you can have a go at turning the handle on various different models from several manufacturers. You will soon feel the difference between a top-quality reel and a budget model. A quality product from a leading manufacturer will be very smooth as you wind the handle and there will be almost a total lack of vibration.

It is always a good idea to order an extra spool when purchasing a spinning reel. Though many models now come with a spare spool in the box. This enables you to carry several line weights; heavier ones for braided rivers and lighter lines for lake work. However, nowadays with braid, it is more a case of personal preference.

It is wise to use monofilament or fluorocarbon that is about half the breaking strain of your braid. Then if you do get snagged around a sunken tree stump or the like you won’t lose half the braid off your reel pulling your line free!

My advice when buying fishing tackle, particularly rods and reels, is to get the best you can afford. They will perform better, last longer, be more reliable, and most importantly be a pleasure to fish with.

Soft Baits

Soft baits are very popular nowadays to the extent that they have taken over from many of the old tried and tested spin fishing hardware of old. Much of the reason for the success of soft baits can be attributed to braided fishing lines which have overtaken monofilament as the line of choice. Braid has almost no stretch so with the right rod you can feel almost any touch by a fish on your lure. I think soft bait often work out cheaper to buy than many other types of lures. Most importantly soft baits catch fish. 

My advice, if you are new to spin fishing is to get a broad selection of soft bait colours and a good range of lead jig heads. Generally you would use bright coloured soft baits during the day and darker colours in low-light or in discoloured water. 

You want a range of jig head weights between 1/16 oz and 3/8 oz. You might also want a few 1/32 oz jig heads as well for slow moving, still or shallow water. The lighter ones will be difficult to cast unless you are using a longer rod and light braid designed to cast them.

If fishing a deep lake like Coleridge on a bright sunny day casting into a headwind for landlocked salmon you would use the heavier 1/4 and 3/8 oz lead-heads. 

If you will be travelling to far off water for an extended holiday it pays to purchase a good selection of soft bait minnows and jig heads. You may not lose any but that is better than running out.  

Harts creek, we saw countless midnight lurkers but could only fool this little chap that night. There are some trees that have fallen over Harts creek and the fish that live in/under those trees are some of the biggest wild brown trout I’ve ever seen. Without a lie they look bigger than most salmon. Very clever and cunning however! Night Time Lurking.
Brown trout caught on a 75mm soft bait minnow by Tim Nichol. Harts creek, we saw countless midnight lurkers but could only fool this little chap that night. There are some trees that have fallen over Harts creek and the fish that live in/under those trees are some of the biggest wild brown trout I’ve ever seen. Without a lie, they look bigger than most salmon. Very clever and cunning, however! See: Night Time Lurking – Fishing Lake Ellesmere and its Tributaries
Soft baits. On the left is an assortment of Dragon V-Lures. On the right at the top are two 75mm minnows with jig heads attached. Underneath them are two different 50mm soft baits which are a better option in very clear water. Note the soft baits on the right are all paddle tails which will vibrate when retrieved even at quite slow speeds.
Soft baits. On the left is an assortment of Dragon V-Lures. On the right at the top are two 75mm minnows with jig heads attached. Underneath them are two different 50mm soft baits which are a better option in very clear water. Note the soft baits on the right are all paddle tails that vibrate when retrieved even at quite slow speeds.

Spinning Lures

There are enormous numbers of different trout spinners available on the New Zealand market. These come in a bewildering range of colours.

My advice, if you can afford it, is to get a couple of dozen spinning lures all at once. You will soon forget the cost, and having a good selection will work to your advantage later. Down at the river you will be less concerned about a few inevitable losses if you have heaps more lures in your bag or tackle box. Take it from me; if you go down to the river with three lures you will lose them all in the first ten minutes! You are sure to hook a few unseen snags beneath the surface such as tree branches, rocks, weed beds and so on. If you are anything like me the occasional overpowered “flick” can also result in your Cobra or Tasmanian Devil becoming hopelessly hung up in willow branches on the opposite bank. This is particularly annoying when you can see the offending projectile but can do nothing to retrieve it!

You will also need a colour selection based on the time of day. Black or dark coloured lures work best during the late evening, after dark, and when there is a bit of “colour” in the water following rain, or from melting snow.

Spinning Lures. Left column: Ticer 18g, Topy 10g, Toby 17g, Glimmy 9g. Right Column: Zed spinner 12g, two blade spinners.
Spinning Lures. Left column: Ticer 18g, Topy 10g, Toby 17g, Glimmy 9g. Right Column: Zed spinner 12g, two blade spinners.

Brighter colour schemes – silver and gold – seem to work better during bright sunshine.

Rainbow trout also appear more inclined to go for bright colours than do brown trout. In general pick lures that will give the best action when retrieved.

Ticers have relatively little action. The advantage with ticers though is that they cast well, even in a headwind, and they sink to fishing depth quickly. This makes them a good choice when casting from the shore of deep lakes, and when fishing in faster-flowing rivers.

On the other hand in shallow still water, you need lures with more action. The amount of flutter or action a lure produces is very much linked to its rate of retrieve: too slow and it will have little wobble and flash; too fast and it will rise quickly to the surface and be virtually useless at catching trout.

Blade spinners such as Rublex and Mepps are at the other end of the scale. They produce heaps of flash even when retrieved slowly. They send out both fish-attracting sound, and light flashes from their spinning blade.

The “Action Scale” looks something like this:
1. Ticers – Very slow action
2. Spoons – Slow/medium
3. Cobras and Tasmanian Devils – Medium
4. Soft Baits Slow/medium (depends on the tail, paddles vibrate the most, and the shape of the lead-head).
5. Blade spinners – Fast spin

Spoons like the Zed Spinner, Bingo, Gypsy (also called a Glimmy) and Toby flash when they “kick over” to show their opposite side. Again retrieve rate is very important: too slow and it will be life-less; too fast and it will plane to the surface.

Brass backed metal spoons can be polished with a piece of cloth so that they catch the light as they wiggle through the water. The effect is an overall blur rather than an accurate baitfish imitation.

Spinning lures. On the left are Johnson’s Super Specials. These are also ideal in clear water. On the right are two 13.5g Tasmanian Devils. AQt the bottom is a small green 7g Tasmanian Devil for use in clear shallow water.
Spinning lures on the left are Johnson’s Super Specials. These are also ideal in clear water. On the right are two 13.5g Tasmanian Devils. AQt the bottom is a small green 7g Tasmanian Devil for use in clear shallow water.

A Few Last Thoughts When you do hook a trout try to keep calm. Lift your rod tip immediately. Take your time. Keep a bend in your rod and don’t be tempted to get the fish out of the water too quickly. With a big trout, you may have to follow it upstream or downstream.

This is fine in big water where the banks are clear, but if the stream is small, or there is a lot of undergrowth and trees to the water’s edge you could be in trouble! Think about how you would land a fish before you even start casting. In some situations, it can be next to impossible to land your fish because of obstructions.

I once hooked a good trout in the Waimakariri River right underneath the old State Highway bridge. The big sea-run brown trout immediately took off with my Cobra. It went about ten metres downstream, broached, and then headed back upstream on the opposite side of the next set of bridge piles. The Waimakariri River was running quite high. lt was that deep green colour you get about a week or so after a flood. I had that fish on for all of about 30 seconds before he broke me off. On reflection, it was a silly place to start casting from, to begin with!

It is also a good idea to carry your lures, line clippers, pliers and so on in your pocket, fly vest or bag. This saves having to walk all the way back to the car to get another lure following a ”bust-off.” Something I have had to do quite a few times.

A landing net is also worth carrying. You can’t lift a fish clear of the river on a 6-pound line without the line breaking. If there is a beach area you can drag the fish out no problem. But if the riverbank is steep a landing net is essential.

Likewise, waders are not essential for spin fishing but are worth having in cold weather, as is a good quality coat with a hood to stop the rain from running down your neck.

Polaroid glasses are an essential item to have, not only for spotting fish but for cutting glare on a bright day.

Spin fishing is great fun for a modest outlay

You can cover a lot of water with relative ease. This makes spinning gear a useful option when you don’t have a lot of time. You can leave your rod set up in your vehicle and be casting within a few seconds of stopping.

Successful spin fishing requires more skill and experience than you might think. Many times I have been out fishing with very experienced anglers who know how to get the most from their spinning gear. In a party of six anglers, it is surprising how one or two will often catch almost all the fish, despite everyone using much the same tackle!

The difference between catching and not catching fish can be subtle. It could be slower or faster retrieve speed, allowing the lure to sink deeper near the bottom, or running the lure close to the bank when others are casting out into the middle of the river. As with all trout spinners if you wind too fast they will plane to the surface reducing their effectiveness.

Another good technique is to periodically stop winding for a moment or two during your retrieve. This can often trigger a strike from a following fish.

I always keep a diary when I go fishing. In this l record the time of year, day, weather, successful lures and so on. What works well in one place often works equally well on other water, but not always.

For instance in a deep lake like Coleridge, a fast sinking lure such as a 1 oz black ticer will be effective, but in nearby Lake Selfe, which is clear and shallow, a green Cobra or Tasmanian Devil will have more action through the water and be more effective at fooling 6-pound browns or big rainbows.

Video: In this video learn how to catch trout using floats or bobbers, and flies. Trout fishing with flies is one of the most effective ways to catch trout, but sometimes you may not have a fly rod or know how to fly fish. In this video Jordan from Addicted Fishing is going to break down how to rig and fish this very easy and effective trout fishing rig. Thanks for tuning in, please drop your questions below and don’t forget to please smash that thumbs up!