Why can’t I catch trout?

Healthy brown trout caught on tiny Nymph.

The challenge of trout fishing makes it rewarding. But, many new, and some experience fishermen still wonder why they can’t catch trout. This guide looks at some of the many reasons why trout can be so difficult to catch.

I can still remember one of my first trips fly fishing, I was fishing a deep cool pool with overhanging willows. My lure of chose was a long discontinued little minnow lure. It got the attention of a ‘large’ brown trout. Well, I thought it was large at the time. But, looking back I doubt it was over 3lb. Still a respectable fish.

That trout, followed my lure in several times. Each time stopping short, before turning tail and gliding back to its lay beneath the willows. I changed to a inline spinner, and kept trying but had no luck. I eventually drove home to get more lures. I never caught that trout, despite thrashing its pool with my entire collection of lures. Even today, with years of experience, some trout continue to frustrate and prove to be all but impossible to catch.

A feeding trout can be caught.

I suspect all experienced anglers have been tormented by a feeding trout which just ignores everything we throw at it.

It is important to remember, if a trout is feeding. It can be caught. You just need to present the correct morsel in as natural way as possible.

The importance of matching the hatch

Sometimes, the trout can really hypnotize themselves to just one prey. I first experience this with trout in New Zealand which were feeding upon willow grabs. The trout will ignore every nymph, dry, lure or even spinner I throw at them… but they keep feeding. I got a few hints, and it turned out they were feeding on extremely tiny willow grubs. With this knowledge, grubbing trout are some of the easiest to catch. While willow grubbing trout are most well known in New Zealand it happens in all countries where the two species coexist.

This just highlights the importance to know exactly what the trout are feeding up

I can still remember one of my first trips fly fishing, I was fishing a deep cool pool with overhanging willows. My lure of chose was a long discontinued little minnow lure. It got the attention of a ‘large’ brown trout. Well, I thought it was large at the time. But, looking back I doubt it was over 3lb. Still a respectable fish.

That trout, followed my lure in several times. Each time stopping short, before turning tail and gliding back to its lay beneath the willows. I changed to a inline spinner, and kept trying but had no luck. I eventually drove home to get more lures. I never caught that trout, despite thrashing its pool with my entire collection of lures

Sub-surface feeding

First, try and figure out what the trout are feeding on. If it holding deep, and drifting side to side it is likely to be eating nymphs or at some times of year dislodged fish eggs.

If it is patrolling a weed bank in still water. The trout might scavenge for floating snails or snatching emerging mayflys before they reach the surface.

One trick, I was taught early on is to lift up a few stones and take a look at the aquatic life. A tiny mesh net is useful for grabbing a sample. Studying the sample gives a good idea on what the trout are eating. Then try to match your fly as close as possible to the natural food.

How to catch surface feeding trout

When a trout rises to the surface, it is likely feeding on hatching insects. They frequently take insects sub surface as well as floating. A few times I even seen energetic trout jump to grab hovering damsel flies mid-flight.

If the trout is feeding on the surface, then try a selection of dry flies, Emergers or small terrestrial insects. Again, it is important to match the hatch. Try to collect a few of the prey insects.

Sometimes, the trout can really hypnotize themselves to just one prey. I first experience this with trout in New Zealand which were feeding upon willow grubs. The trout will ignore every nymph, dry, lure or even spinner I throw at them… but they keep feeding. I got a few hints, and it turned out they were feeding on extremely tiny willow grubs. With this knowledge, grubbing trout are some of the easiest to catch. While willow grubbing trout are most well known in New Zealand it happens in all countries where the two species coexist.

This just highlights the importance to know exactly what the trout are feeding up

How to catch a following trout

Little is more frustrating than a trout following the lure in, only to reject it at the last moment. The good news, the trout was interested. Below are a few tricks you can try. Stop the retrieve, and pause the action. This can sometimes trigger a follow trout to strike.

Importantly vary the speed of the retrieve. In clear water, I like to retrieve faster. It gives a since of urgency giving the trout less chance to inspect the lure before striking.

If fish continue to follow, without striking consider changing the lure. I suggest dropping down one size. Trout feel more confident grabbing smaller prey. I am a big fan of fishing with a wide selection and style of lures. When spin fishing, do not just fish the most popular sizes and styles. Trout which see heavy fishing pressure have seen them before. I advise getting some less well known styles or colors to try. For some inspiration I suggest reading my top 21 trout lure guide.

Once or twice I had a trout follow right to my feet. Only to look confuse when its prey vanished right in front of its eyes. It was darting side to side, obviously looking for the lure. In this situation I quickly flicked the lure back down nearby and with pure intent the trout slammed into it.

Spooked trout are always hard to catch

Keep in mind, if a trout has been fished over earlier in the day. They can become increasingly difficult to catch. They are on high alert for anything out of the norm. To catch these trout you can not afford to make a single mistake.

I remember one day. I spent the early morning fishing a mountain lake, I started near the access track before working my way further around. The fishing was good, and I landed several trout. From the far side of the lake I saw two older fishermen arrive and start fishing.

On my way home, I spoke with them. They had blanked, and were blaming the spooky trout on the calm conditions. I did not have the heart to tell them I landed 4 trout from that section in even calmer conditions just prior to their arrival. The trout were still spooked from my fishing earlier in the day.

The wrong scent can put trout off feeding.

When tying on lures or flies, try and avoid contamination them with insect repellent or sunscreen. The faint aroma is enough to discourage wary trout from feeding. After applying lotions, I always try to rub my hands clean in sand, before thoroughly rising them clean.

The scent of an angler wading upstream can also discourage trout. When fishing streams and smaller rivers, I always fish upstream. I also tend to wear long pants, that way I do not need to apply sunscreen or repellent to my legs.

Wild trout, are much more likely to be wary of scent than stock trout. Stock trout were raised around people so are less cautious around them.

They can see your line, or there is micro drag

Trout have amazing eyesight. When presenting flies to trout. Even the most miniscule of drag can be enough to deter a take. Drag occurs when the pressure from the current or wind pushes against the line causing the lure or fly to move in an unnatural fashion. This highlights the importance of drag free presentations. When fly fishing, keep slack in the line certainly helps remove drag. It is less easy when spin fishing.

But, tackle selection is just as important as presentation. When the water is gin clear, and the trout spooky. It is time to go for very long, and very thin leaders. Having the skills to cast and present a 21ft leader, finished with a 5 or 6x tippet will result in more fish being landed.

Reduce false casts.

Trout can see fly lines, both in the water and above. Minimize the number of false casts, because every cast you make increases the chance line flash will spook the trout even before the fly reaches the water.

Water temperature can make trout hard to catch

It is not a bad idea to check the water temperature before going for a fish. Trout are very sensitive to water temperature. Thermometers are inexpensive and can provide very useful information. I use and can recommend this one by SAMSFX. When water gets too warm, say after several hot days with low rainfall. The amount of dissolved oxygen in the water decreases. When it gets too low, the trout really start to struggle.

In the chart below, I will list the optimal feeding temperature for various species of trout


Optimal Feeding temperatureTemperature trout become stressedLethal temperature
Brook Trout44-64f (6-18c)65f (18c)70f (21c)
Cutthroat trout39-59f (4-15c)60f (15.5c)68f (20c)
Rainbow trout44-67f (6-19c)68f (20c)75f (24c)
Brown trout44-67f (6-19c)68f (20c)75f (24c)
Lake trout40-59f (4-15c)65f (18c)






How to check the temperature

Take the water temperature about a foot down, avoid taking the temperature in the extreme shallows or on the surface because it trends to be warmer than the water column. Take several temperatures to get a representative idea of the water temperature.

If the water is above the stress point, then the trout will be reluctant to feed. During these warm conditions trout are more likely to hold near springs or at the mouth of cooler streams. Trout also tend to leave pools and start holding in rapids. When the water reaches the lethal range, stop all fishing. Give the trout a break.

Throughout the day the temperature of the water can climb or fall by several degrees. So during the hottest part a summer day. The trout might be reluctant to feed. So avoid fishing during that time. Try instead early morning or late in the evening when temperatures are a bit lower.

The reverse is true early in the spring. When the water is cold early morning. Trout are reluctant to feed. It is only after the water has warmed by late morning that they become active.

They are sick

I have experience this quite a few trout on popular rivers. These trout always seem a bit doggo. Certainly not in the mood to feed, are barley move.

These good-looking trout, hold right on the edge with barely any movement. They are sometimes in very shallow water, with their fins out of the water. Their back is normally dark from too much sun exposure. At times, I have walked right up to them, nudging them with my boot to check for life.

If you place a fly right in its mouth, you can hookup. The fight is sluggish. On closer look they often have marks resembling hand prints on their back. Some people put it down to fungal infections caused by dry hands and prolonged photo sessions.

I have also seen similar trout, post spawn. Or far up spawning streams early in the season. They had the strength to survive the spawn, but not the strength to recover over winter. They often resemble scale covered skeleton.

Today, if I see trout which I suspect I sick, I leave them alone. That includes trout laying doggo on the bottom. Now, if the trout looks healthy but laying in the shallow. I intend to catch it. Many healthy fish decide to feed there.

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