December 16, 2019
Nervous water. A fish boiled near shore and I saw it a long way off. I stood up on the bow and, because the water was smooth as glass, this disturbance in the shallows caught my attention.
A pod of fish, each 1 to 2 pounds or bigger, swept along in 6 inches of water. They had their prey, a school of minnows, boxed in the shallows.
When days grow short and nights turn cold, where once the shallows teemed with life, where the weed beds produced large hatches of mayflies and chironomids, now brown trout have to hunt bigger prey. This was why, between deer season and elk season, we found ourselves, the only anglers on the lake, chasing pods of brown trout.
There are two times of the year when the trophy brown trout angler has the best shot at a big fish: in the spring, on opening weekend and, again, in the fall during that last week in the season. At both times there has been little recent fishing pressure; the biggest trout of all are more vulnerable and make the most mistakes.
We were on the water early in the day and, when the browns were within casting range, I threw a jointed minnow imitation about 10 feet to one side. Trout streaked toward the bait and one, a 2-pounder, reached it first.
In the ensuing battle, we lost track of the large school. After I released my trout, we stood on the boat and scanned for them again. Two rainbows shot by, one about 6 pounds and the other a 10-pounder. Thirty minutes later, we saw a smaller school of browns. While I ran the boat, my friend, Troy Neimann, cast from the bow and hooked a brown trout twice as big as our first.
The scarcity of food is what triggers these larger trout to take to the shallows. In the summer, they might have found kokanee in large schools or ambushed chubs around the weedbeds, but as the food sources become harder to find, they team up and can, like a pack of wolves, herd their prey into the shallows.
The kind of fish that are measured in pounds, not inches, do not come easy. Very few browns make it to the 20-inch range. Maybe one in 10,000 make it to 25 inches or bigger. These are the trout that turned from a steady diet of insects to feeding on minnows and smaller fish.
Very few anglers develop their skills to target big fish. Most fishermen opt for targeting a limit of smaller fish rather than that one chance they might catch a wall-hanger. The big-fish hunter may only get one grab in a day on the water.
Brown trout hunting takes patience and a different set of core values. It’s the thought that, at any moment, the big brown trout of a lifetime might smash the bait.
Make the first cast while other anglers are still sipping their morning coffee. And prepare the baits the evening before. When using minnow-imitating plugs, they should be washed with detergent to rid them of human scent or old attractants.
For the fly-fisherman, leaders should be checked and re-tied if there are nicks in the line.
Big brown trout, although they may be found cruising in the shallows early and late, are residents of deeper water. Lures and flies should be presented deeper than they would for other fish.
The biggest fish hold the very best spots, because they have earned them. When fishing in the middle of the day, use a deep, slow presentation to reach these special holding lies. Every lake has its unique ecosystem. Fish move from place to place dependent on where food sources are, and where weather, waves and temperatures drive them.
To read a lake for its structure, look at the tributaries like creeks where the water flows in and where the water flows out. In manmade reservoirs, brown trout rely on the old river channels to find the depth and temperature where they are most comfortable. Use a depth finder to locate underwater shelves and drop-offs that create currents and eddies.
Woody debris, rocky points and docks provide cover for baitfish and big browns can hold in the deepest water around this structure.
7 RULES FOR CATCHING BIG FLY-ROD BROWNS
- Don’t fish dry flies. Big trout don’t get that way by feeding on the surface.
- Feed them streamers. Trout that consume other fish put on pounds at a far greater rate than insect feeders.
- Use big tackle. If the trout are leader-shy, then tie up a stout 7½-foot leader and tie on 3 feet of 2X or 3X fluorocarbon tippet material.
- Target transition zones. Hunt along cliffs, rocky points, weed beds and submerged timber.
- Change depths often to find the feeders. Count to two and start the retrieve. On subsequent casts, count to 10, 15, or 20.
- Improve favorite patterns. You’re not likely to catch Mr. Big on a pattern he’s seen over and over.
- Slow down. Big fish get that way because they are lazy and gluttonous.
BIGGER BAITS VS. SMALLER LURES
The local food source should inform the size of the baits. In western lakes where the brown trout can eat kokanee, baits of up to 10 inches can be used for fish that might measure 30 inches or more. The rule of thirds applies here. In the Rocky Mountains and Southwest, where bluegill, perch, rock bass and other spiny rays might be on the menu, flies and lures that imitate these food sources can be put to good use.
When we hunt big fish, we are prone to focus on the larger lures, the fish imitations, but there are times when the trophy hunter should think small, as small as chironomids.
Picture a school of 1,000 kokanee, a fiery ball on the fishfinder, 40 to 60 feet down. Somewhere below the kokanee is a big brown trout, picking off the odd salmon as the mood strikes him. Between helpings of the main course, that big old brown is likely to snack on chironomids as well. This is one way we catch brown trout—they often take the bottom fly on a two-bug chironomid rig. Another way to tempt these deep-lying browns into a savage strike is to cast or jig a spoon like the Mack’s Lure Cripplure or a Needlefish.
Where brown trout share the waters with rainbows, the rainbow fry are another November food source. When the baby rainbows wriggle out of the gravel carrying that heavy yolk sac there is no more vulnerable point in their lives.
Tie or buy alevin imitations on a No. 8 wet-fly hook. Key elements here are the yolk sac, a silver body and big frightened eyes. Weight them up front with a lead wrap or a conehead bead.
Let the imitation drift on the downwind side of gravel beds and over deeper water. Cast and retrieve in 4- to 6-inch strips, allowing big pauses to let the fly dive headfirst like a baby rainbow seeking shelter.v
Whether an angler uses plugs or large streamers, it pays to make sure the imitation includes a blood-red component. Red suggests blood and blood means weakness and brown trout attack weakness. When using a plug, swap out one of the hooks (I suggest the middle hook because browns often strike the center of the target) with a dark red treble. Dark red is also the color of gill flash, which is a feeding signal.
Run minnow imitations in the transitions from shallow to deeper water and around the deepest water adjacent to a rocky point, mimicking the erratic action of a wounded baitfish. Mix up the swimming pattern by twitching the line and changing direction. Carry at least two rods, rigged up with a spare bait, ready to switch lures at a moment’s notice.
Big, predatory trout often stun their prey with mouth closed before trying to eat it. If a lure gets smacked hard, but the hooks don’t catch, let the lure pause and hang “stunned” for a few seconds. Then slowly reel while twitching the rod tip. The fish has likely circled aroundand is searching for its prey, getting ready to crush it.
Each lake has its own unique characteristics. Spend time observing the water before casting. Watch prime feeding locations and look for a commotion at the surface. Where are the big fish coming from? Where are they retreating to? Plan the cast before you throw. Not too close to the feeding, hunting fish, but close enough so they see it. Now make it twitch like a 6-inch kokanee dropped 50 feet by an osprey.
Across much of the West, in the Rockies and the Southwest, water temperatures are in their optimum range while food is growing scarce. Big hook-jawed trout are on the prowl.
This article was featured in the November issue of Game & Fish Magazine.
Gary Lewis is a television host, and the author of “John Nosler Going Ballistic” and other titles. Contact him at garylewisoutdoors.com.