When you make the shift from catching fish to catching big fish, the sheer amount of time needed to have decent odds is staggering.
I’ll admit it: As an angler, I’m spoiled. Eight different rivers lie within a half-hour drive of my house, and each one has a decent population of above-average sized trout. Most folks would call that a good problem. It is, but it also forces me into a bit of a rut.
I’m used to catching good-sized trout. When I’m on water that has the potential for big trout, I don’t approach it like other anglers I know because I’m used to a very laissez-faire fishing style. I’m not used to crouching behind a boulder so a fish doesn’t spot me and spook.
However, I’ve spent ample time chasing bigger trout lately. Note that I said “chasing” and not “catching” – I still have a lot to learn. What I’ve learned so far, though, is more than enough to help you plan your own trophy trout hunts this summer.
Big trout need a certain type and, more importantly, amount of habitat. A good food base, room to grow and ample hiding places are imperative for sustaining trout populations.
A good friend of mine guides for Falcon's Ledge here in Utah. We were out on a photo shoot a few weeks ago discussing work. I asked him something along the lines of, “What’s the most valuable tool you have as a guide?”
He gave a few different answers, but “time” was one of them. As in the time he’s spent fishing, both before and after becoming a guide.
Charlie Card, another good friend and guide, has fished the Green River since before he could drive. The same goes for my semi-retired guide friend and photography buddy Ryan Kelly. I consider Ryan and Charlie among the best guides with whom I’ve ever fished. Consequently, they’ve both spent the majority of their lives on the water.
When you make the shift from catching fish to catching big fish, the sheer amount of time needed to have decent odds is staggering. Unless you live near a hatchery or one of the overcrowded tailwaters in the West (I’m looking at you, Frying Pan River), you’ll need to dedicate some serious time to catching bigger trout.
Case in point: A favorite lake of mine is home to some impressive fish. Each fall, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources routinely nets fish in the 8- to 10-pound range. I’ve fished the lake for nearly a decade.
I didn’t catch a big trout from it until last year.
Writer Spencer Durrant (above) caught this 22-inch cutthroat trout in 2017, after ten years of pursuing trophy trout in his favorite Utah lake. Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant.
Big trout need a certain type and, more importantly, amount of habitat. Obviously, “big” is a relative term; a big trout in the stream nearest my house would be 17 inches. On the Green, that’s an average catch.
Let’s agree that a big trout cracks the 22-inch mark (the cutthroat pictured about was 26 inches).
To get that big, a trout needs:
Enough room to grow: Tiny spring creeks are gorgeous, but they rarely have enough space for big trout to roam. They need more than two or three deep holes in the fishiest parts of the river; they need that habitat consistently throughout the water. When you’re on the hunt for big trout, make sure the river or stream – and lakes, too – are deep enough to house trophies.
A good food base: I get asked fairly often why trout don’t get bigger in this stream or that pond. I can usually point to a short growing season or dewatering as the explanation, but more often the food base matters most. Trout only get so big eating mayflies and caddis; if they’re really going to pack on the pounds and grow a pair of shoulders, they need sustainable forage. That means either mice, baitfish, crawdads, other trout or literal tons of scuds. One lake here in Utah is known for growing giant rainbows at an unbelievable pace. It’s main forage? Scuds. But the sheer volume of scuds in the lake means a trout could literally filter-feed scuds for its entire life and never run out of food.
If the waters you’re hunting in don’t have a good forage base, it’s time to look elsewhere. A call to your local game and fish department usually sheds light on which streams have the best food base.
Hiding places: A few months ago, I was rowing down the A-section of Utah’s Green River. Ryan, my semi-retired guide buddy, fished from the bow. We were only a mile or so down from the Flaming Gorge Dam in a stretch of river that’s slow, deep, and full of huge boulders.
I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I asked something to the effect of why bigger fish aren’t routinely found in the yearly electrofishing surveys conducted on the Green. Ryan pointed to the big boulders beneath us and said, “You can’t get the shocking gear that deep, and those fish probably sit under there all day, come out at night, eat a few 15-inch planter rainbows, and go back into their hiding spot.”
Not long after that, a 13-pound brown was pulled from that section of river. It proved Ryan right and highlights the importance of knowing where to look for trout once you’ve found a good river.
Boulders, deep pools, fallen logs and undercut banks all constitute great big-trout habitat. This is the water you should target.
Big fish don’t always take a fly on the first drift – or the fiftieth. It takes time to convince trophy trout to eat your bundle of hair and feathers. Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant.
Some anglers swear brown trout are entirely piscivorous once they reach a certain age or size. I don’t buy it, simply because I’ve caught too many 25-inch browns on size 24 and 26 midge patterns to think they won’t take an easy meal if it’s right in front of their noses.
That being said, small flies are not the way to catch big fish. Streamers are your best friend when fishing for trophies, with the rare exception of rivers with hatches impressive enough to bring every fish to the surface.
I’m partial to simple patterns like Zuddlers and bunny leeches. But within reason, any streamer should do the trick.
You’ll also end up fishing differently than normal. Big fish don’t always take a fly on the first drift – or the fiftieth. It takes time to convince trophy trout to eat your bundle of hair and feathers. Work each piece of water deliberately, hitting every spot in the water column at every type of retrieve you can think of. In reality, you could spend one or two hours on one good pool, making sure you gave every trout a chance to smack your streamer.
Catching big trout isn’t a walk in the park. It never will be. But if you take these tips to heart and spend the summer looking for the trophies, there’s a good chance you’ll walk away with a big taxidermy bill and an even bigger grin.
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