What Does A Rainbow Trout Eat? Prepping A Bow’s Smorgasbord 

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Trout Swim Up, Snack on Top.

If you ask a fly fisherman or any ol’ trout lover, they have a robust knowledge base about their quarry’s diet. 

Trout are known to be pickier eaters – even more than your little brother. So, when it comes to fishing for these coldwater creatures, a lot of time, research, and energy are put into understanding rainbow trout’s food selection.

A rainbow trout’s diet includes aquatic insects, terrestrial bugs, other fish, and even mammals. Luckily, rainbow trout are not as selective as other trout species and are, therefore, easier to catch. 

What Is In A Rainbow Trout’s Diet? 

Stocked Rainbow Trout

Stocked rainbows born in a hatchery have a simple diet consisting of pellets. Pellets look like a crumb that is filled with oil and protein. If you’ve ever been to a fish farm or stocked pond, you will see pellets used like kibble. Toss out the pellets and watch the fish flock! 

In my experience, throwing pellets at stocked trout is a blast for anyone. Sometimes, the trout will even take pellets out of your hand. Considering that trout are wary fish, this feels odd and extraordinary. 

After management agencies release hatchery fish into a natural watershed, these stockers adapt their diet. Over time, rainbow trout look for organic food available throughout the river or lake. But old habits die hard and stockers will remain susceptible to anything resembling a pellet.

Man feeds golden trouts in clear water.

Native and Wild Rainbow Trout

Native and wild trout have a mixed diet of nymphs, flies, fish, worms, leeches, and small mammals. As a result, rainbow trout are opportunistic and selective feeders.

Nymphs make up 90 percent of a trout’s diet, which makes sense due to convenience and availability. As trout face upriver, the stream’s current carries washed-out bugs like a conveyor belt. All trout have to do is swim in one place and open their mouth for their next meal. 

But trout are famous for their top-water explosions on a fly. Whether a fly hatched from the stream bed or fell from a tree, rainbow trout love looking up for a few more calories. 

Close-up of an insect called "plecopteran" on a branch.

When given the chance, rainbow trout will look for a decent meal in the form of baitfish, smaller trout, worms, leeches, and even mice. Many lures represent these baits and often yield a bigger catch.

When Do Rainbow Trout Bite? 

Rainbow trout prefer to feed during low-light conditions such as dusk and dawn. Luckily, rainbow trout’s aggression makes them vulnerable to a daytime catch. So for any angler who might want to sleep in, there’s no rush when it comes to catching rainbows.

Do Rainbow Trout Feed At Night?

Big rainbows love feeding at night as it provides cover, decreased vulnerability, and easy pickings. Though fishing logistics at night are tricky, the results are warranted. Since big rainbows feed on baitfish and other trout in the dark, I recommend throwing on a big streamer or lure.

Do Rainbow Trout Feed In The Rain? 

Yes, yes, and yes. Rainfall washes out bugs, worms, leeches, and baitfish for a trout-feeding frenzy. 

Rain also provides cover since the water can get murky or stained. This makes the fish less spooked and vulnerable to mistakes. If it’s starting to rain, I grab my waders and rod and run for the door.

Young David with a nice brown caught in the rain in Western Wisconsin.
Young David with a nice brown caught in the rain in Western Wisconsin

What Do Rainbow Trout Bite On? 

Anglers can use a variety of lures for rainbow trout, which is why they are such popular gamefish. Your bait or lure depends on your tackle. Since fly gear and conventional tackle have different functions, their baits also differ. Here are some standard options for each. 

Conventional Spinning Tackle Lures 

  • Worms and nightcrawlers
  • In-line spinners
  • Salmon eggs 
  • Crankbaits

These lures were listed by popularity. My first-time trout fishing was with a worm and a small hook, but I became obsessed with using spinners for trout fishing.

If you’re looking for a challenging adventure on the water, nothing beats spinners on a small stream. If someone thinks fishing is boring, they haven’t seen a trout chase a spinner.

Fly Fishing Flies 

  • Nymphs (pheasant tail, hares ear, zebra midge)
  • Streamers (wooly bugger, muddler minnow, clouser minnow)
  • Dry Flies (elk hair caddis, Adams fly) 

These are your primary fly classifications, and endless options exist within each category. The fly fishing world is confusing and overwhelming for every rookie. 

Here is an easy way to think about flies for trout: Nymphs replicate the underwater bugs that comprise most of a trout’s diet. If you’re in a river, pick up a rock off the stream bed, flip it over, and you will see what your nymph imitates.

Fly fishers study river bugs. They make fake bugs to fool fish.

Streamers resemble bait fish, trout, leeches, crayfish, or any other meat available. When fishing with streamers, expect to catch fewer but bigger fish. Get the camera ready! 

Dry flies are what they sound like. They are flies or bugs that are airborne. Dry flies can represent aquatic larvae hatched into their adult stage or bugs known as “terrestrials.” Terrestrials are insects born on land that, by circumstance, fall on the water’s surface to become Mr. Trout’s meal. 

If you can’t decide which fly to use, I recommend a “dry-dropper” technique. A dry-dropper presents a dry fly and a nymph at the same time. This is my favorite form of fly fishing and, often, my most successful. 

Related Questions

Are Rainbow Trout Bottom Feeders? 

Though rainbow trout will swim near the bottom, they almost always look up for their meal. Some anglers will “tease” trout off the bottom with a heavy streamer or lure. But even then, it’s best to have your lure or fly suspended. 

What Do Trout Eat When They Jump Out Of Water? 

The ripple or splash of a rainbow trout is a sign of them taking a dry fly. Experienced anglers can judge the type of fly eaten by the sound of a trout’s splash. Loud splashes with a tail slap signal a caddis fly or terrestrial fell victim to a trout. Subtle sips or small ripples are a clue that a midge or an emerging fly was taken. 

Do Rainbow Trout Eat Mice? 

If you want to catch monster rainbow trout, “mousing” is the strategy to use. Mice are common victims of big trout and are often used at night. Though mice aren’t as regular as nymphs, their caloric reward elicits a response from an opportunistic trout.

Do Rainbow Trout Eat Bread? 

In some circumstances, trout will eat bread, so it’s a viable option for someone looking for a different approach. When considering pellet-fed diets, bread is a close representation of a stocked trout. 

Final Thoughts 

Rainbow trout have lots of meal options, and preference comes down to quantity vs. quality. While nymphs and flies are lower in calories, they are abundant and available. Rainbow trout will also eat baitfish, leeches, crayfish, or mice if given the opportunity.

David Linsmeyer Avatar


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