When Is Rainbow Trout Season? Best Times To Catch ‘Bows

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A fisher gets ready to bait for the next throw by a pond full of fresh Trout.

If you’re lucky, you get to fish for rainbow trout all year! But if you’re an unlucky fishing soul (like me), you must wait through some grueling months to get back on the water – torture!

Rainbow trout season depends on where you live and your state’s fishing regulations. 

Rainbow Trout Season

Rainbow trout season varies from state to state. In most states, trout fishing opens in the late winter or early spring, but there are caveats. 

First, not all states have a devoted trout season. Their trout fishing regulations combine with all other fish species. Second, some states offer a season for catch and release and an open season to catch and keep fish. 

For example, here in Wisconsin, January through April are for catch-and-release only. Then, from May to October, anglers are welcome to keep legal-sized trout. By the end of October, trout season closes to protect trout and their spawning grounds. 

The lesson of the day? Look up your state’s regulations. 

When To Catch Rainbow Trout

Best Time of Day for Rainbow Trout

Many trout, such as the brown trout, prefer low-light conditions and will be picky about their mealtime. Trout’s preference for dark makes dawn and dusk perfect times for wetting a line.

Fishing a Wisconsin small stream at dusk
Fishing a Wisconsin small stream at dusk

But rainbow trout offer a flexible feeding schedule and are prone to midday bites. This is even more true when a prevalent hatch occurs in spring or summer.

The most fun I ever had fishing for rainbow trout was in the middle of the afternoon when they couldn’t help but attack my foam grasshopper. Whatever the time of day is, adapt, and you’ll find some rainbows. 

Best Months For Rainbow Trout 

In my experience, you can’t go wrong with fall and spring when it comes to trout fishing. Both times of year create optimal air and water temperatures that activate feeding.

Springtime stands out because rainbow trout spawn from March through May. While spawning, trout attack prey to protect their eggs. But they also become hungry due to the strenuous task of spawning.

There is only one party pooper to the springtime fishing frenzy: weather. Atypical heat, snow runoff, and rainfall can cause flooding. This makes any prospect of fishing challenging if not impossible.

Best Water Conditions 

Water flow and temperature define a stream’s conditions. Before going to the river, check USGS measurements to estimate your local water’s flow and temperature. 

Flow Rate 

Each stream has a prime flow rate, most commonly measured by cubic feet per second (CFS). Optimal flow rates for small streams are 100-200 CFS. The best flow rates for large streams are 1,000-2,000 CFS. But I wouldn’t trust these rates for all rivers. 

As you get to know a river, you will identify its characteristics and best conditions. My favorite time to trout fish is when the water rises and washes out bait for a trout-feeding frenzy. These increasing levels also create a slight stain that makes stalking trout easy. 

A good rule of thumb for the beginner? Look for stable flows to make hatches, feeding, and fishing more predictable. 

Perfect springtime flows in Western Wisconsin.
Perfect springtime flows in Western Wisconsin

Water Temperature

Rainbow trout need cool, clean water; the best temperatures are between 45 and 65 degrees. 

Anything over 65 degrees pushes a trout’s stress level beyond recovery. Conversely, my experience shows that trout hardly bite when the water is below 37 degrees. 

I used to check the water temperature every time I went trout fishing. Without a doubt, the 45 to 65-degree window is valid. So, do yourself a favor and get a thermometer to find perfect trout conditions and keep fish healthy.

Best Weather Conditions

The best conditions for rainbow trout also depend on the weather. Since trout are paranoid fish, weather can be your friend or foe. 

Look for a gray sky that is calm and overcast. Without the sun, you won’t cast a shadow across the river to spook nearby trout. 

But this doesn’t mean you can’t catch trout on a sunny day. In my experience, I’ve fished plenty of days with bluebird skies and caught dozens of trout. I caught over 60 trout on a sunny day only two weeks ago. 

If you have to fish on a sunny day, stay low on the bank and probe shadowed areas. Overhanging weeds and wooded areas become trout refuges on a hot day. Plus, these areas are more pleasant for the angler as well. 

Steelhead Season 

Once again, regulations for steelhead depend on your state’s laws. December through March is a great time to fish for steelhead along the west coast. 

If you consider rainbow trout in the Great Lakes to be steelhead, your best time to hook one is early to late spring. Check your local regulations so a warden can’t ruin your day. 

Related Questions

What Months Are Trout Most Active? 

Trout are most active in spring and fall, with slight recessions in winter and summer. Spring and fall activate the spawn for various trout species, and moderate weather can be perfect for feeding. 

But if your area offers year-round cold water with moderate weather, a trout’s activity can remain consistent. 

Can You Catch and Release Rainbow Trout? 

Catch and release regulations depend on your area, as all states have their laws. These regulations can vary by time of year and watershed. In some regions, certain rivers are catch-and-release only. In certain months, all fishing is illegal.

Call a local fly or tackle shop for your answer. Shop employees and guides can encourage you to keep rainbow trout to preserve native fish or tell you to catch and release for higher numbers. 

What Temperature Is Too Hot For Rainbow Trout? 

Put down your rod if a river or lake’s water temperature is over 67 degrees. Though the fish might swim away after release, many can still die from the remaining stress. 

In my early years of trout fishing, I saw this happen while fishing tailwaters. Though I thought the trout swam away unharmed, I later found it belly-up on the bank. 

Do Rainbow Trout Feed In The Winter? 

They have to survive somehow! Despite the winter’s brutal conditions, trout’s favorite meal is midges. These small, mosquito-like creatures hatch throughout the coldest months. That’s why many fly fishermen only throw midges in winter. 

A quick tip: If you’re considering fly fishing, give it a whirl on a moderate winter day with a zebra midge. You’ll also avoid fair-weather fans and potential snags from weeds, overgrowth, and leaves.

Final Thoughts

If you’re sitting around in the cold months asking, “Is it trout season yet?” Consider traveling for your trout fix. Some states are open year-round for catching rainbow trout. 

If travel isn’t an option, it’s back to vicarious fishing: Tying flies and watching more trout YouTube videos!

David Linsmeyer Avatar


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