Crucial Tactics for Catching Big Trout
June 27, 2016
The very thought of hooking a trophy-sized trout makes my head spin. There are two important prerequisites, though. First and foremost, you need to know where big trout live. Secondly, you need to understand the three "W's" of what they eat: what, when and why.
While this knowledge is not considered rocket science, it's useful to know the difference between biological fact and folklore. The good news is most of what you need to know can be gleaned from books, magazine articles and loose-lipped anglers. Figuring out how to best deliver an offering to denizens of the deep is more difficult, something that requires both patience and careful study on your part.
Whether it's native cutthroat, wild rainbow, giant brookie or sly brown trout you seek, there are common themes. Let's start with the easy stuff first.
WHERE BIG TROUT LIVE
As a general rule, big trout live in big water. They favor large lakes and deep reservoirs, and they exist in larger rivers having abundant food resources. While you may find an occasional big trout in a small body of water, you need to up the ante to consistently catch them.
One step in your quest is to focus on water bodies managed specifically for trophy or quality fishing. Look for streams and lakes where catch-and-release or limited harvest regulations (e.g., restrictive "slot" size limits) exist to protect larger, more mature trout. Many of these same water bodies are managed to maintain wild stocks.
Regulated rivers, or those rivers where flows are managed from operation of upstream storage reservoirs, provide more consistent flow, which translates to productive conditions for stream trout. In contrast, freestone streams have more variable flow conditions due to seasonal snowmelt and rainfall. Trout respond to these conditions in ways that may confuse the uninformed angler. Local guide services and tackle shops can help point you in the right direction if you are new to an area.
Trout generally grow faster and attain larger size in quiet water environments. What do big trout lakes have in common? By and large, they have shallow shoreline areas that support growth of submerged vegetation, abundant insect life and forage fish. Deep-water refuge and a range of cover are also essential to maintaining populations of big trout.
Another way to locate where big trout live is to consult state fish and wildlife websites. Management agencies routinely list the number and poundage of fish stocked along with dates and locations. Inland lakes often receive plantings of so-called "jumbo" or triploid trout, which may be several pounds in size. These plantings occur throughout the year with most occurring in early spring.
WHAT BIG TROUT EAT
No doubt you've heard the adage "big bait (or big lure) catch big fish." This concept derives from the fact that big fish prefer to eat prey such as sculpin, minnow, crustaceans and larger insects where available. There is a good reason for this preference. It's called "optimal foraging strategy."
Let me explain. According to fisheries scientists, feeding activity involves a series of programmed behaviors, each linked by a decision train. The first behavior involves searching. Once a trout finds a particular food item or prey, they must decide whether to eat it or keep searching. If they choose to eat, then how long before they quit and search for more? The theory is that the net energy gained per feeding event is maximized over the course of time, either by minimizing energy loss or maximizing net gain per item.
A trout's foraging strategy is triggered by sensory systems that respond to visual (sight), mechanical (movement), and chemical (smell and taste) stimuli. Because trout are primarily sight-feeders, it's mostly size, movement and contrast of food items or prey that factor into their decision-making. Big fish have an advantage because they can consume a wider size range of food items than small individuals of the same species.
The rub is the amount of time spent to locate and consume small food items may be more costly in terms of energy expenditure than a large item. What does this discourse mean to the well-informed angler? For one, it means that it takes as much energy for a big trout to grab a tiny mayfly from the surface as a giant stone. That they might sip caddisflies during a seasonal hatch, but ignore and chase minnows the rest of the time. This knowledge should be factored into your approach.
BIG TROUT BEHAVIOR
After locating big trout and figuring out what they eat, the next step is to understand the "when and why" part of their habits. I spent much of my early career in the hinterlands of Oregon and Washington, where you could catch trout all day long. You could imagine my surprise when I visited a certain iconic river in central Oregon (where giant redsides are purported to live) and failed to bring a single trout to the net at the peak of the famous salmonfly hatch. I got better, but it involved hard work.
The lesson is to adapt your approach in heavily fished waters because big trout are wary. They are wary of movement, wary of noise and wary of gear tossed at them. You could say big trout are wise to the ways of anglers, certainly more difficult to fool when the sun is shining bright overhead. Consequently, your success rate will improve if you fish early morning and evening, what I call the "magic hours" of the day. The odds of fooling a trophy-sized trout are also higher on overcast days or during foul weather.
Targeting big trout is a different game that might involve sight-fishing rather than random casts. It's a fact that stream trout rarely move far from their feeding station. Let shadows on the water arise from landscape features rather than your backside. Take time to observe, approach the shoreline cautiously and pause before you enter the water. Because stream trout are used to taking items that drift in the current, the biggest, strongest trout will often reside at the head of a pool.
Cast upstream to reduce the chance of spooking big trout, most of which will face upstream, a behavior known as "positive rheotaxis."
One key to a natural presentation is a minimum of line drag. Knowing this, fly-fishers mend their line or use a strike indicator to keep from snagging on the bottom. Gear anglers cast slightly upstream, let their spinner or spoon sink until it bounces off the bottom, then hold the rod tip high to allow the lure to work slowly across the current. You might employ a similar technique for a jig. Give it a toss, feel it touch, twitch, follow the drift. Keep your line as short as possible to reduce slack. Experienced bait-fishers are better at this technique than most.
There's more. Longer days and increased sunshine lead to warmer water temperatures and big trout becoming more active. While stream trout tend to conserve energy via a lie-and-wait strategy, quiet water trout move around more to search for food. Focus on an active presentation to get their attention.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
It's a fact that more big trout show during springtime hatches of the big bug version: Mother's Day caddis, salmon fly, golden stone, green drake. Seasoned fly-fishers can't wait to get on the water because it may be the only time big fish feed consistently on the surface. In between hatches though, you may need to go deep. A European nymphing technique that involves dragging beaded flies along the bottom is effective in many waterways. Or you might dead-drift a heavy nymph. Both techniques can get you to places an indicator rig won't go.
Sometimes different is good. If all else fails, downsize your offering. Consider that caddisflies and midgeflies are present in almost every western stream. Neither insect is large in size, yet provide a year-round source of food for trout. Which reminds that some of my best action occurred in the middle of a stonefly hatch (think No. 6 Giant Stone), after I tied on a No. 14 Dark Caddis.
I attended a recent seminar where a trout guide discussed how to catch big trout in still water. He pointed out that mayflies move vertically in the water column during their emergence cycle while dragonflies and stoneflies move erratically at depth before they crawl out on vegetation and rocks. Knowing these behaviors, you should adapt your presentation by varying leader type, length and sink rate and possibly type of line to ensure that your offering mimics insect activity. Big trout can tell the difference.
It's not all about bugs, however. Big trout eat little fish and also crustaceans. Minnows and suckers spawn in the spring, and it's their eggs and fry that provide food for big trout. Work the edge of the shallows, where highest concentrations of trout prey reside, with a spinner, spoon or jig. Or cast a streamer-type fly that imitates the color and size of forage fish.
ONE LAST CAST
The odds of catching big trout increase when you get away from the beaten path. Don't like to hike or drive long distances? Don't have a boat? Sometimes a float tube or pontoon boat allows you to fish water not accessible to others. One last piece of advice is to match your tackle to the scenario. Although you might hook a 24-inch brown on a three-weight or ultra-light outfit, can you land it?
In summary, find out where big trout live, study what they eat and put your lure in their strike zone. If you've done your homework, they will optimize their feeding strategy and choose to eat your offering. Finally, practice safe catch-and-release. Big trout are too precious to be caught only once.