Are Trout Bottom Feeders? Yes … and No

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Man's hand holding a trout above the water.

Yes, trout feed on the bottom. But trout are opportunists that follow their food sources and feed throughout the water column. The depths at which trout feed depends on what food sources are available at any given time.

Trout are opportunists that feed throughout the water column. They’ll eat bugs on top, nymphs on the bottom or streamers, like this Slumpbuster, in the middle of the water column.

A trout might be the ultimate opportunist when it comes to what it eats. 

While some anglers insist on only fishing for trout with dry flies, others are more pragmatic. If you want to catch more trout, you will understand what trout are eating at any given time of the year, or even the time of the day.

You will understand where in the water that food source will be. And you will try and imitate that food source to catch more fish.

Find the Food, Find the Fish

If you can identify what a trout is eating, you can likely catch trout. It’s as simple as that. 

And here’s a news flash to all the dry-fly anglers out there who refuse to chase trout with anything but top-water flies: trout eat 90 percent of their meals below the surface

But does that make the trout a true “bottom feeder?” That connotation is inherently negative, and often assigned to the grungiest of game fish. The answer is nuanced. Yes, trout feed on the bottom. No, they’re not classic bottom feeders.

As I noted above, trout are opportunists. And, if you want to catch more trout, you’ll be an opportunist, too. This means you’ll offer trout a meal and put that meal where the trout will feel good about eating it.

For instance, simple observation will reveal a lot about where in the water column fish are feeding. You just have to spend some time watching rather than fishing

How to Find Feeding Trout

Chad Shmukler and his companion watches the Rio Malleo in Argentina before they make a single cast.
Find a place where you can watch the water for a bit, before you start fishing. Here, Chad Shmukler watches the Rio Malleo in Argentina before he makes a single cast.

Before you even wet a line, take a few minutes and find a good spot where you can see the water you’re about to fish. Then, watch the water.

Several years ago, I hiked into a backcountry river in Montana to fish for native cutthroat trout. When I got to the river, I didn’t see any signs of life. 

Typically, on smaller water or in wild settings, trout are less cautious. They readily rise to food. They move out of their feeding lanes to grab drifting nymphs or worms. And, if you look, you’ll find them

So, rather than just start blindly casting for fish, I took a minute and found a rock above the creek to sit on. Through polarized sunglasses, I gazed intently into the water. 

For the first minute or so, I didn’t see any fish. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a subtle flash. I focused in on where I saw that flash, and a few seconds later, I saw the flash again, and found the feeding trout. 

Meet the Trout on Its Terms

Man's hand holding a trout above the water.
A Girdle Bug is a good fly for trout in streams where stoneflies are present. It’s fished near the bottom.

Resting in slow water behind a rock, a sizable cutthroat trout would occasionally drift out from behind the rock and grab a drifting nymph in about two feet of water. 

It was early July, which, for high-elevation rivers in Montana, means that stonefly nymphs were getting ready to crawl out of the river and hatch into big, flying insects. 

Knowing what I knew about the river and where I saw the fish, I tied on a Girdle Bug, an impressionistic imitation of a stonefly nymph. I carefully walked down the slope to the creek, and cast the nymph under an indicator so it would drift next to the trout as it lay in ambush.

And, after two casts, I managed to catch the trout. And I caught the trout on its terms.

Observation Pays Off

Now, had I noticed fish rising to dry flies, like mayflies or caddis flies, I most certainly would have offered imitations of those insects. But, since my observation told me that this particular trout was keyed in on stonefly nymphs, my choice was easy

And, because of where stonefly nymphs tend to hang in the water, I did, indeed, catch that trout very near the bottom. 

That does not make the trout a classic bottom-feeder, however. Trout eat prey that ranges from the top of the water column to the rocks at the bottom of a river. I have even seen trout jump completely out of the river and grab hatching mayflies out of the air. 

Trout feed everywhere. You just need to figure out what they’re eating before you offer them a fly, a lure or even bait. 

Final Word

Trying to generalize a fish like a trout by where it finds most of its food is an incorrect approach to fishing. Trout are not bottom feeders. Nor are they top-water feeders. Trout eat a variety of prey, and, like other worthy game fish, they use all of their habitat to survive. 

Yes, the vast majority of a trout’s food comes from beneath the surface. That does not mean that trout feed solely on the bottom

As an angler, you should try to present your fly, lure or bait to the trout where they’re feeding. In order to do that, you’ll need to invest some time into watching the water and finding feeding fish. 

Once you find the fish and observe for a bit, you’ll know what flies or lures you’ll need to use. And, you’ll know where in the water column you’ll need to put your offering. 


What Are Mayflies, Caddis Flies and Stoneflies?

All of the above are aquatic insects that spend most of their lives in their larval form as “nymphs.” Eventually, they work their way to the top of the water column and “hatch” from the water. All three insects fly, and once “emerge” and their wings dry, they get busy mating and making the next generation of aquatic insects. 

What Fish Are Bottom Feeders?

While trout don’t feed exclusively on the bottom, other game fish derive most of their meals from the bottom. Suckers, catfish and sturgeon, for instance, are largely bottom feeders. 

Do Trout Only Live in Rivers or Streams?

No. Trout are also found in lakes and ponds. But, in order to reproduce, they need well-oxygenated water, so when they spawn, they will usually spawn in water with a current. 

Why Do Some Anglers Only Fish for Trout With Dry Flies?

It’s simple. It’s all about the take. Dry-fly fishing is a visual game, and some angler believe that fooling a trout with a dry fly is the ultimate form of fishing for trout. 

Chris Hunt Avatar


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