What Do Rainbow Trout Eat – Favorite Foods in Their Diet & The Best Baits

Rainbow trout are an awesome fish species to target with both fly and conventional tackle. They are aggressive, fight hard, jump, and they live in some of the most beautiful locations on the planet.

While rainbow trout aren’t as wily as brown trout, catching them isn’t easy. However, understanding what they eat, when, and why is going to give you the upper hand.

So, what do rainbow trout eat?

Rainbow trout like to eat nymphs, flying insects, small fish, leeches, crayfish, snails, worms, fish eggs, tadpoles, small frogs, and more.

But, there is a lot more to their diet than this, as it varies with the seasons, their habitats location and lots more. Join me as we take a deeper look at a rainbow trout’s feeding habits and how they change throughout the year.

A List of Favorite Foods That Rainbow Trout Like to Eat

Let’s start off by listing all the top food found in a rainbow trout’s diet. I won’t list every nymph or flying insect they eat, as this is pretty much naming my entire fly box, but I will cover the main ones later in the article under the best flies section.

  • Nymphs (e.g. Caddis and Stoneflies)
  • Flying Insects (e.g. Mayflies and Salmon Flies)
  • Terrestrial Insects (e.g. Grasshoppers and Moths)
  • Fish Eggs
  • Small Fish
  • Leeches
  • Worms
  • Crayfish
  • Frogs
  • Tadpoles
  • Snails
  • Mice
  • Shrimp
  • Mussels
  • Salamanders

As you can see, rainbow trout have a very large and varied diet. What they choose to eat does depend on where they live though. For example, salmon flies hatch in some areas they live such as Montana but do not hatch in Europe.

closeup of rainbow trout caught in river

What do Rainbow Trout Eat by The Season

It is also not just habitat dependent, but seasonally dependent too. Different food items will be in abundance in different parts of the season and rainbow trout will always take advantage of whatever is the easiest thing for them to get their mouths on.

Let’s take a look at what prey items are most available to rainbow trout in each season.

What do Rainbow Trout Eat in Spring?

When spring comes, the water in the lakes and rivers begins to warm up. But, until the water warms up quite a bit, rainbow trout won’t be overly active.

In early spring, rainbow trout focus on feeding on nymphs. Nymphs are little invertebrates that are swimming around lakes and rivers that eventually become flying insects.

The most common nymph found in early spring is a midge nymph as well as march brown. These are easily imitated with the right fly choices including the zebra midge and the gold ribbed hare’s ear nymph in sizes 16 to 22.

Once late spring comes into play, worms and fish eggs begin to make up a large part of a rainbow trout’s diet as well as lots of other insects that begin to hatch. May is the time for mayflies, hence the name and damsel nymphs come into play.

Every habitat is different and may have different hatches at different times, so do your research so you know what is going to be hatching and when.

In lakes, rainbow trout will mostly be feeding on chironomids which are pretty much midges. Fishing static buzzers is pretty much the best way to catch them with a fly rod.

What do Rainbow Trout Eat in Summer?

All trout are very light sensitive as they have no eyelids and therefore can’t control how much light enters their eyes. They also don’t enjoy warm water either and will move deep and become lethargic.

This means that the best time to fish for rainbow trout in the summer is in the early mornings and the late evenings. This is when the light is less intense and the waters are cooler.

The late evenings and early mornings also coincide with a lot of insect hatches including black flies, caddis, sedges, drakes, midges, and more. The trout will feed on the most abundant one usually, so you will need to watch what they are sipping off the surface.

In the summer, rainbow trout will also eat worms, nymphs, crayfish, small bait fish, grasshoppers, ants, beetles, moths and even a mouse or two.

If you are fishing on a windy day, using terrestrials like grasshoppers is excellent as they get blown onto the water.

What do Rainbow Trout Eat in the Fall?

In the fall, both lakes and rivers are packed to the brim with freshly hatched minnows and rainbow trout will gorge on the shoals of them whenever they get the chance.

But, since they are coming to their spawning season and into winter, they are trying to put on as much weight as possible. This means everything becomes a target from midges to nymphs, grasshoppers, moths, ants, beatles, and more.

If it lives in their waters and happens to be an easy meal, then they will go for it. Also, in some rivers and lakes, a lot of fish eggs will be available and they will be eating a lot of these if they can.

rainbow trout caught by a fly fisherman in autumn river

What do Rainbow Trout Eat in Winter?

When winter comes, rainbow trout slow down their metabolism and find warmer water in the deep to hang out in. This means they do not feed as actively but they still have to eat.

There aren’t a huge amount of different food sources available for rainbow trout in the winter. In lakes, they will feed largely on minnows and chironomids (small midge nymphs) so long as they are an easy meal.

If you are fishing a tailwater, which is a river that flows out of a lake, the rainbow trout in it will behave quite differently. The water flowing out of the lake will be warm, and warm enough for rainbow trout to remain active and for midges to hatch.

This means you can fish midge nymphs and even midge dry flies on the warmer part of the day as the rainbow trout will be rising to them.

How does the Season Affect a Rainbow Trout’s Feeding Habits?

As you can see, each season makes a big difference to a rainbow trout’s feeding behavior. Rainbow trout are affected by water temperatures and light intensity.

Too much light and too cold/warm water makes them move deep and slow down their feeding. This can happen in winter and summer, just be sure to fish when the light is low and the water temperature is optimal.

Also, as the seasons move through each other, different prey items start hatching from nymphs to hoppers, minnows, and more. This means their diet varies based on what is hatching at the time.

The key to being excellent at trout fishing is knowing exactly what hatches and when, and being able to identify it on the water. If you can do this, you’ll be able to catch rainbow trout all year long.

catch of a rainbow trout with a fly in winter

What do Rainbow Trout Like to Eat the Most?

Rainbow trout are not fussy eaters. In fact, they are over-competitive eaters and can muscle out more fussy trout like brown trout.

This means that rainbow trout will eat whatever is going, and their choice will always be what is the easiest thing to eat. Therefore, if a huge hatch is going off, like the mayfly hatch, they will be sipping them off the surface all day long.

If there are lots of minnows swimming around, like in the fall, they will focus on those instead. Basically, rainbow trout are opportunistic and will always select the easiest meal.

What are the Best Baits for Rainbow Trout?

The best bait to use for rainbow trout are live minnows, grasshoppers, maggots, and worms. Simply dig up some earthworms, catch some grasshoppers, or use a minnow trap.

I personally love to use grasshoppers as it is a lot of fun to see the rainbow trout sip them off the surface.

When it comes to dead bait, worms and maggots are also excellent along with dead flying insects, grubs, and you can even use corn if fishing for hatchery rainbow trout.

caught rainbow trout in water with fishing lure

What are the Best Lures for Rainbow Trout Fishing?

There are lots of different lures that are excellent for catching rainbow trout with and these include:


Spinners are deadly when fishing for rainbow trout in both rivers and lakes. You will want to use a small spinner of about 2 to 3 inches in length. The spinning blade creates a lot of boise in the water and catches the light which causes the rainbow trout to attack.

For even better results, use a spinner with a feather on the trailing hook, as this creates a natural action the fish love.


Spoons are also great for catching rainbow trout. They look just like small fish when you retrieve them across a river or lake.

Spoons are also pretty heavy meaning you can fish them deep in lakes when you need to search for rainbow trout along deeper drop offs.

You should fish spoons slowly with a consistent retrieve for the most success.

Small Crankbaits

In the fall, when rainbow trout gorge on the small minnows that are in ambulances, a small crankbait can be a deadly lure to catch them with.

Crankbaits swim and look just like the minnows the trout are chasing. I personally prefer to use black and gold crankbaits as these seem to make the trout super aggressive.

Small Feather Jigs

Small feather jigs are also dynamite lures to catch rainbow trout with. They come with weighted heads and therefore are great for fishing at different depths, searching out deep pools and drop offs.

The feathers also create an excellent pulsating action that fish love. You can also fish them with a pause and go retrieve which creates the impression of an injured fish which rainbow trout cannot resist.

rainbow trout in fishing net and fly fishing rod

What are the Best Flies for Rainbow Trout Fishing?

There are literally thousands and thousands of different trout flies and it is impossible to name them and own them all. I’ll only highlight the top ones you should have in your box.


Nymphs imitate the small invertebrates that eventually hatch into flying insects. 80% of a trout’s diet are nymphs and therefore these are some of the most important flies to have a range of.

Here are the nymphs you should have in sizes 12 to 22 and in a range of colors from olive, to gray, black, and red.

You should also have some gold head, tungsten head versions of them too:

  • Prince Nymph
  • Copper John
  • Pheasant Tail Nymph
  • Zebra Midge
  • Blood Worm
  • Buzzers
  • Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear
  • San Juan Worm
  • Mop Fly
  • Caddis
  • Damsel Fly
  • Montana


Emerger flies imitate the moment when a nymph is metamorphosing into a fly insect. When trout are feeding on emergers, you will see them sipping just below the surface and finning too.

Here are the top emergers to have in your fly box:

  • Caddis Emerger
  • Blue Winged Olive Emerger
  • Pale Morning Dun Emerger
  • CDC

Dry Flies

There is nothing more fun than watching a rainbow trout sip your dry fly off the surface. Remember to match the hatch on the water, and by having these in your box it should always be possible.

  • Foam Hopper
  • Foam Beetle
  • Foam Ant
  • White Moth
  • Cranefly
  • Salmon Fly
  • Mayfly
  • Adams
  • Parachute Adams
  • Green Drake
  • Black Gnat
  • Griffiths Gnat
  • Deer Hair Sedge
  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Kilnkhammer
  • Pale Morning Dun
  • Blue Winged Olive
  • Stimulator
  • Hedrickson

Be sure to buy these in various sizes so you can match the size of the flies hatching on the surface.


Streamers mimic the small minnows rainbow trout love to eat in the fall and are a ton of fun to fish as the rainbow trout get very aggressive when going after them.

Be sure to buy the streamers below with weight and in a range of colors and sizes.

  • Wooly Bugger
  • Cats Whisker
  • Viva
  • Muddlers
  • Articulated Streamers
  • Olive streamer
  • Black streamer
  • Sculpin
  • Zonker
  • Egg sucking leech

Rainbow trout in fly fishing landing net


How much do rainbow trout eat per day?

How much a rainbow trout eats per day is dependent on its size and on the time of year. In the winter, a rainbow trout only needs to eat 1% of its body weight per day to survive the colder months.

But, during the warmer months of spring, summer, and fall, young rainbow trout need to feed all day long as they have to grow. But, large rainbow trout don’t need to eat as much to maintain their weight.

Overall, it is hard to say exactly how much rainbow trout eat per day but they will eat every day and take advantage of an easy meal. Just know that younger rainbow trout will feed more than larger rainbow trout.

How often do rainbow trout eat?

How often rainbow trout eat depends totally on what they are eating. For example, if they are feeding on some midges just a few millimeters across, they will need to eat a lot of them to get the sustenance they need.

However, if they are feeding on mice, just a few will be enough and they can pause for a while until they need to feed again.

What do rainbow trout eat at night?

At night, rainbow trout tend to target much larger prey such as big suckers, ciscoes, and any mice trying to cross the river too.

Nighttime is not the time for insects and worms, it is the time for bigger prey items, and it is also when the bigger rainbow trout tend to come out to play.

What do baby rainbow trout eat?

Baby rainbow trout start their life feeding on zooplankton and once they are large enough move onto water fleas and then onto small nymphs, and small flying insects.

Eventually, they will work their way up to the larger prey items adult rainbow trout enjoy!

Do rainbow trout eat other fish?

Yes, rainbow trout will happily eat other fish in the form of small minnows. They will also eat small baby trout of any species including their own.

They can not help but gobble up a large protein snack in the form of a small snack when they have the chance.

Do rainbow trout eat when they spawn?

When rainbow trout spawn they stop eating but they will protect their spawning site with their mouth.

This means that if a fly or lure goes past their nest, they will attack it. But, in all honesty, one should not be fishing for them when they spawn.

Winding Up

There you have it, everything you need to know about what rainbow trout eat and what are the best lures, baits, and flies to catch them with. When temperature and light is optimal, be sure to match what is most abundant and you should catch some fish.

If you have any questions about the article or want to share any of your rainbow trout fishing stories or knowledge, please leave us a comment below. We would love to hear from you!

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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