Skip to main content

Go ‘Big & Ugly' for Trout

This tactic and others will make your future fishing trips more productive.

Go ‘Big & Ugly' for Trout

Even if you don’t see bugs on the surface, it’s still a smart tactic to give rainbows the opportunity to rise to a fly or lure. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

Trout angling is one pursuit in which where you do it is just as important as what you are doing. The appeal of free-flowing cold waters has an allure trouters can’t resist. We go because we need to be there.

But, once you are on the water, it does make the effort more worthwhile if you catch fish. We know the trout are there, and we must discover how to fool them into biting. Thus, we spend plenty of time on the water simply trying to figure out what the fish are doing and how to use that knowledge to our advantage.

Rainbows on the Top

Matching the hatch when aquatic insects are coming off the surface is the most important part of trout fishing. It’s also exciting and satisfying. But, particularly on smaller waters, fishing on the surface can be successful even when the bugs are not showing. That applies to fly-casting, but also for spinning anglers.

By interpreting the data from some past surveys, it’s possible to understand why targeting the surface can be a good tactic at any time. Research has suggested that up to 90 percent of the feeding time invested by rainbow trout centers on subsurface activity, much of which takes place very near the stream bottom. The knee-jerk reaction to such information would be to conclude that we need to always be fishing deep, unless we see actively rising fish.

When studies of the stomach content of rainbows on canvased waters are factored in, the issue is not that cut and dried. While only 10 percent of the feeding takes place on the surface, up to 30 percent of the forage found in the trout likely came from the top of the water. That leaves 70 percent coming from underwater.

Obviously, the rainbows are looking up, since the amount of food they find there takes less time to capture. A big tasty morsel floating or wiggling on the surface during non-hatch times can be too tempting to pass up.

For fly-casters, putting a big, buggy-looking attractor fly on a pool just might be the ticket. Spinning anglers twitching a minnow imitation also can pay dividends, while likely attracting the larger rainbows present.

Regardless of what you see happening on the surface, giving the rainbows an opportunity to rise is a good idea. The research says they are looking in that direction a great deal of time.

Reading The Water

Knowing where in the stream to place that fly or lure may be the most important part of trout fishing. As much as 80 percent of a stream may hold no fish at any given moment. Reading the water to figure out where the trout are holding is the key to catching them.

Most trout waters are composed of pools interspersed with shoals. Anglers regularly target the heads of pools where the water enters, and the deeper body of the pool. Also, pocket water within a riffle gets a share of the attention. But one area that sometimes is overlooked is the lower lip of the pool, where the water exits.

Particularly on a pool where a band of larger rock is blocking the flow and creating the pool by forcing the water over them or funneling it into a chute, the lip is a good place to find trout holding. The rocks provide some cover for them, offering sanctuaries from the current, but at the same time funneling forage coming out of the body of the pool in their direction. In other words, some good feeding lies are found there.

Fishing such spots is not easy, which contributes to why they may be fished less. Approaching from downstream presents problems with getting a good drift due to line drag. You also have to avoid putting the line over the fish. Fishing from upstream makes it likely the fish will see you and spook.


This is a situation that calls for stealth in your approach. Coming at the lip from a 90-degree angle from the side, but using any boulders, stumps or other streamside cover to hide your presence is needed. Then you still need to get your fly or lure into the current above the lie without much commotion. As noted, fooling these fish is not an easy proposition, but one that may pay off with some bigger trout.

Break The Mold

As pointed out earlier, matching the hatch is a mantra on most waters. On the other hand, on a number of occasions I’ve found myself outfished by a tactic I refer to as “fishing big and ugly.” Most often this has occurred when sharing the water with novice anglers, who do things that we “knowledgeable” trouters know to avoid.

This phenomenon has usually taken place on days when the angling is proving tough. If the fish are finicky, the tendency is to go smaller with the lure or fly, which often does produce some action. On these occasions, when checking back with my fishing companions that are new to the sport, a number of times they have pulled up photos of a rainbow, but usually a brown trout, that dwarfs what I’ve managed.

When the requisite question of what they were using is posed, it proves to be big and ugly. Not knowing any better, they have tied on an over-sized purple and orange in-line spinner, or a No. 8 chartreuse dry fly — something that should never work.

It’s not a tactic that I’d suggest turning to often. But, I do keep a couple of big, gaudy patterns in my fly box that are far more appropriate for some big Western river. When the fishing gets really slow, or in cases where I’ve located a bigger trout that seems uninterested in any of my reasonable presentations, those flies offer an alternative. Sometimes simply providing a fish with something it hasn’t seen before just might pique its curiosity.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now