Pennsylvania trout fishing season: expert anglers suggest these baits

Brian Whipkey
Gannett PA

Trout fishing season is a family tradition in Pennsylvania as fathers and mothers take their children to local lakes and streams each spring in the pursuit of rainbow, brook and brown trout.

Last year, there was no real opener as the COVID-19 pandemic struck and forced the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission to quietly open the season to avoid large gatherings. State officials still want anglers to practice social distancing to prevent virus spread. The PFBC also has synchronized the starts of the season in an effort to limit travel. (The state had different openers for eastern and western parts of the state in recent years.)

Make no mistake, trout season is back this year. Saturday is the statewide season opener. Fishing begins at 8 a.m. 

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Remember to know (or learn) state fishing restrictions, be properly licensed, and follow minimum fish sizes and creel limits.

With that in mind, here are some tips from experts on which baits or lures to use on opening day. It's a guide that the novice angler can use as a mother or father takes a child fishing for the first time or even a lifelong angler can scan for new tips.

These experts each list their top three choices: 

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Darl Black, outdoors writer, Crawford County

An angler since age 7, Darl Black began writing about fishing shortly after graduating college. Fifty years later, the Cochranton resident he is still catching fish and penning articles. He writes the weekly Northwestern Pennsylvania weekend fishing report for GoErie.com. "Here are three baits that have stood the test of time as best bets for opening day," he said.

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1. Worms: Whether it’s a small red worm or fat nightcrawler, a worm never fails to attract trout. Stitch the mid-section of a red worm to a size 8 hook, or cut a nightcrawler in half and thread part of the segment onto same size hook. Add a split-shot to the line so the worm tumbles along bottom in current.

2. Live minnow: Emerald shiners are best, but if not available at bait shops in your region, go with a 2-inch to 3-inch fathead minnow. Hook it carefully through both the lips on a No. 8 or No. 10 hook and drift in shallow runs, or clip on a small bobber to float through deeper undercut holes.

3. Spinner: Feel the need to cast and retrieve? Tie a snap swivel on your line and attach a small blade in-line spinner (size  0 or 1 blade is best). Work as slowly as possible without snagging bottom.

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Landon Firmstone of Wayne County holds a trophy-sized rainbow trout in this undated photo.

Landon Firmstone is a lifelong angling enthusiast who lives in Wayne County. He’s been trout fishing with his dad ever since he was a little boy.

Firmstone is a fixture on the regional competitive fishing circuit, regularly finishing at the top of his division. He’s excited for the 2021 trout season and is happy to share his three favorite baits.

1. In-line spinner: A blue fox size 0 or 1 silver or gold. Gold for overcast days and Silver for sunny. These is his favorite because you can cover water the fastest and get more of a reaction bite out of the fish. A faster, more fun way to fish.

2. PowerBait: power honey worm: He rigs it as a split-shot rig with a single hook and a small split shot 12 to 18 inches above the hook. This a simple easy way to catch trout. The worms spin in their face and they can’t resist it.

3.  PowerBait: This is a classic. The dough resembles the hatchery pellets and is literally a “do nothing” bait. I rig it as a split-shot rig again with a size 12 treble hook. Just form the dough into a ball and form it onto the hook. You can cast this and just let it sit. The dough floats up off the bottom, and because it resembles the hatchery pellets the trout are used to, they eat it very well

"I run all these baits on a 6-foot ultra light spinning rod with 4 pound fluorocarbon line."

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Rich Stoner is the owner of S&S Sport Shop in Rockwood. He said there are many good options for fishermen wondering what to use the first day.

1. Live bait: Stoner said live bait is the No. 1-requested item – worms, wax worms and minnows.

2. Berkley’s PowerBait: He said orange, green and yellow versions of soft paste-like bait works well in the spring.

3. Rooster Tail spinners: A variety of colors work. The spinners imitate a swimming minnow.

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Young Melanie McClain (now Melanie Krott) prepares to go trout fishing with her father, Greg McClain, on at Mammoth Park Lake in Mount Pleasant.

When Melanie Krott was a young girl, her father, Greg McClain, took her trout fishing on the opening day at Mammoth Park Lake in Mount Pleasant. "This started a yearly tradition, a fishing addiction and many wonderful memories. ... We would get up around four in the morning and go to Eat N’ Park for breakfast, then headed to the lake to make sure we got our lucky yearly spot."

Melanie Krott, captain, Group Therapy Sportfishing charter

Her father inspired her lifelong love for fishing. As an adult, about 28 years later, she is now Captain Melanie Krott. She owns and operates Group Therapy Sportfishing on Lake Erie with her husband, Paul Krott. "We charter for lake trout, walleye, and steelhead on our 27-foot Sportcraft vessel off of State Street, Erie."

Melanie Krott still loves trout fishing, too. Here are her top three trout baits for opening day:

1. Wax worms: Fish under a bobber, place a split-shot 12 to 16 inches above the bait. If you're fishing in a lake/pond, you can add a small white marshmallow.

2. Live minnows: Fish under a bobber, or place split-shot 12 to 16 inches above the bait and bottom bounce the bait through the current.

3. Gold, gold glitter, and lime green PowerBait: Use it with a slip sinker, so your bait is on the bottom of the lake/pond. You can also cast a trout spinner like a Rooster Tail or Mepps.

"Always remember to take your kids fishing," she said.

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Zach Gohn of Meyerdale holds a 19-inch rainbow he caught early in the 2020 trout season. The season begins this year on April 3.

Zach Gohn of Meyersdale has been been fishing for more than 20 years. In recent years he would cast his line about four or five times a week in early trout season.

“My favorite thing about early trout season is shaking off the cold winter spent in the snow, smelling the dirt and rain again and reconnecting with nature in the most nostalgic and relaxing way possible,” he said.

He has found success in the spring with a variety of items.

1. Wooly buggers: “My go to is flyfishing with wooly buggers.”

2. Kastmaster: If he has his spinning rod, Gohn likes blue and white Kastmaster spoons. The heavy 1/4-ounce spoons cast well and imitate a minnow.

3. Worms: His back-up plan is live bait such as night crawlers, butter worms and Berkley Gulp! Floating Pinched Crawlers which are artificial worms.

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Mike Acord has been the owner of Susquehanna Fishing Tackle in Columbia for about 31 years now and was an avid outdoorsman and fisherman for many years before that. Here are some of his bait recommendations for Trout fishing season.

1. Yo-Zuri Pins Minnow: “That thing is a fish catching machine.” One of the real advantages of it is that it’s not commonly used and a different look for the fish. It makes the fish bite and makes the fish react to them, he said. Another great thing about these is they will show you where the fish are because they will come up and flash at it if they don’t really want it.

2. Panther Martin Gold Deluxe Spinner: The spinner is different from the usual spinners and it puts a different sound in the water. It is the perfect size and spinner that allows you to fish ultra-slow. “Due to the design, you can fish a lot slower and because of the design, you can flutter the spinner a lot more,” Acord said. “Because it is a lot slower, you will get a more bites with it.

3. Fat-head minnow: This is a live bait – a bottom fishing and bait-fishing lure. The colder the conditions, the live bait is better.

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John Stepto

John Stepto was born in California but grew up in Pennsylvania. He’s been a passionate angler all his life and also spent a great deal of time fishing the waters of Delaware and North Carolina.

He enjoys both fly-fishing and spin fishing. Over the course of nearly five decades on the water, he’s developed several tried and true strategies for catching trout.

1. Bait: “When fly fishing for stocked fish, I find that attractor baits or flies work best,” he said. “Salmon egg imitations and sucker spawn work well in a dead drift, meaning drifting along with the current."

PowerBait, which is a formable paste, or Trout Magnet, a brightly colored worm imitation work well. 

“If you're Old School, corn works just fine," he said. "Live bait such as a minnow works well because the natural motion and the flash of their scales are attractive." 

2. Wooly bugger:  “If the water is clear, moving bait such as a white wooly bugger either stripped straight down stream or swung across and down stream.”

3. PowerBait: Spinners such as Rooster Tails provide that attractive flash.

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Archie Kissell of the Latrobe area casts his fly line March 19, 2021, on the lake in Keystone State Park. He was catching trout and panfish in the waterway that is open year around.

Archie Kissell of the Latrobe area enjoys fly-fishing and ties his own flies. He’s been fishing more than 40 years.  “I just like being outside and getting some fresh air,” he said about early season trout fishing. 

His tips are for the more experienced angler who is fly-fishing during trout season.

1. Wooly buggers: It's a wet fly or streamer that is fished under the water's surface.

2. Hares ear: Is an artificial fly that imitates an aquatic insect larva. 

3. Black caddis: A dark charcoal brown fly with gray wings that is one of the first insect hatches of the early season.

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Bill Noble, who with his wife Lisa, own Tudor Hook-N-Nook in Girard, said you can’t go wrong with these baits on opening day.

1. Minnows: Small minnows work in small streams and in lakes.

2. Berkley's PowerBait: Try a variety of colors like chartreuse, orange and natural colors

3. Worms: Meal worms and maggots all really work well. “Don’t forget crawlers and red worms. Every fish will eat a worm,” he said. “There’s not a fish out there that won’t eat a worm.”

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Happy fishing

When it comes to having a fun morning on the first day of trout season where there are crowds, Noble said, “Be friendly, let people fish, let everybody have a chance, be courteous.”  

The state stocks a lot of fish in public waterways. “If you’re not catching fish, move to a new spot,” he said about finding trout.

Stocking trophy fish, too

The PFBC plans to stock about 3.2 million adult trout in 701 streams and 128 lakes open to public angling. These figures, which are consistent with the number of trout stocked over the past decade, include about 2.2 million rainbow trout; 686,000 brown trout; and 293,000 brook trout.

In 2021, the commission said anglers will have an excellent chance to catch large, trophy-sized trout. This year, the PFBC will stock about 60,000 brood fish, which are 2½-year-old and 3½-year-old hatchery-raised rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout measuring 14 inches to 20 inches. 

The allocation of these large trout will remain at increased levels established in 2020, which was more than double the allocation in 2019. Roughly 70% of these large fish will be stocked into streams and lakes during the preseason prior to opening days of trout season, and 30% will be stocked during in-season replenishment stockings.

As with past practice, the average size of the trout produced for stocking is 11 inches in length. The minimum size to keep a trout is 7 inches. (Minimum size is 9 inches in Lake Erie tributaries.)

Brian Whipkey is the Pennsylvania Outdoors columnist for Gannett. Contact him at bwhipkey@gannett.com or 814-701-6542. Kevin Edwards, Shreyas Laddha and Jeff Kirik contributed to this report.