I have places I love to fish because I enjoy catching what's
there, or because I like being where
they live - experiential fishing
rather than trophy hunting - like little Smoky Mountain specks, cutthroats across the Rocky Mountain West, or largemouth from a tannin-stained Southern cypress swamp. Same is true of my hunting and other outdoor pursuits - getting somewhere special. And I think it's
important to point out that this type of fishing is probably the bulk of
what we all do. It's the heart of fishing and should not be brushed
aside in favor of 'bigger is better.' But with that said, bigger often is
better, and that's deeply rooted in the heart of fishing too.
From the perspective of chasing trout and other cool water gamefish in moving water, and wishing I knew what I was doing...
|25 inches of deep structure brown|
We all know "big" is a relative term. Maybe "mature" is a better word. In the right water, a 12-inch brookie is a monster to celebrate. Somewhere else it might be an eight-pound brown or a 30-inch walleye. Figure out what a reasonable definition of "big" is for the where
, and how
of your fishing. It varies by location. It varies with species. It varies within a species across different regions. "Big" can even vary with chosen techniques - perhaps you're on a quest to beat your personal best using a fly rod, maybe even a specific type of fly. And I've come to learn that my own definition varies with my own age and experience - what I saw as 'big' ten years ago and what I see as big now are quite different. At the same time, pictures of what I presently call big would probably not get pinned to the bulletin board in more than a few tackle shops.
Set your expectations and goals reasonably, but don't underestimate a stream's potential to produce. Think
big. Whatever you do, don't look at another guy's photos and whine that his fish are bigger than yours. Drooling is fine..... but so is adding his water to your bucket list. Or his methods to your toolbox.
Fish where big fish live.
|Beast of a brown from the creek where it lives|
Such an obvious statement, but even with the knowledge of relativity, so many people just continue
to hit what they are used to and hope for better results than last
time (and with baits they are used to - more on that next). They stay put in their rut of familiarity rather than spending time searching, researching, and ground-truthing. If you want to chase something bigger,
search out water with a reputation for size, or check out unsung water that you think has
some potential. Start generating some local or regional "go-to" spots. I'm not necessarily talking about destination fishing. Admittedly I do
live in Montana, but I've never been to New Zealand, Patagonia, or the Amazonian watershed. I haven't even fished Alaska or the White River in Arkansas. I'd love to do all that. Hopefully I will. But I do know (to some extent) which waters within my reach are better than others for producing hogs. And there's still more than I can ever possibly explore.
There are established places I go when I want to hunt big ones. And I'm always looking for clues about where to try next to expand my list. I take note of reputable waters. I look for trends of larger fish on brag boards, articles, fisheries research and surveys, etc. This past year I noted a couple monster rainbows (as in well over ten pounds)
caught by different anglers from the same Montana river, each listed on a
different online brag board. I haven't been there yet.... but now I'll
make a point of it. That river has demonstrated it can generate size.
I shamelessly glean info off landmarks and terrain in the background of people's photos (hey, if they don't blur it out or do a better job of discretely framing the shot, it's public domain). I spend time analyzing aerial photography and picking "hot spots" ahead of the trip, sometimes marking them on a gps to be sure and hit them as I float or hike by.
|Pre-float aerial photo scouting|
Hit fertile waterways (hint, they aren't always the most picturesque - instead they might be murkier, slower, nutrient-rich cow pasture streams).
Fish above lakes and below dams - and both at the same time if possible
Fish the transition sections of rivers where they go from cooler to warmer (baitfish population and other meaty forage can increase, and carnivore size can go up, even if overall trout population decreases).
|25-inch "transition section" December brown|
Often my search for big trout translates into hunting browns.
Brown trout are a tantalizing fish to target, and when it comes to browns,
bigger can't help but be better. And a good thing about a stream that has browns -
there's always a big one.
The typical fish in the system might be under a foot long, but there's generally a brute or two that makes their living eating those typical fish. If you think the streamer on your rod is too big for that water, or if a flat-brimmed guru with a suitcase of size 24's laughed at you as you walked by, then you are probably using the right one.
Use a food they prefer.
Using flies or lures that
are truly representing preferred foods of larger fish (or at least a food that triggers a predatory or opportunistic response) might rule out
"normal" fish. You are certainly going to greatly reduce the number of
hookups you could have on a given day or night if you are willing to ignore a
majority of the gamefish population. Be willing to throw baits that are
outside of convention - could be oversized, could be something intended for another species entirely. Picking up decent fish on #11
Rapalas? Jump to a #13, or even an #18. Cast big mouse imitations in the dark. Swing
streamers that are next to impossible to fly cast with your regular trout gear. For me, unless I'm
mousing (I love mousing!) or working crayfish imitations, this almost always means
appealing to the fish-eating side of
Of course a caddis imitation may draw
more strikes - but on the hunt for a big
one I want what is willing to eat the mouse.
trout. I love big meaty minnows -
streamers, jigs, plugs, and soft plastics. More often than not I'm tossing some of these when hunting bigger-than-average trout in any given water.
But a "food they prefer" does
not always translate to "big." There are times when smaller is better. Even times when all this goes out the window and you just need to drift
microscopic nymphs (maybe the flat-brimmer above was right) - the timing of which I can never seem to anticipate, so I'm no help to you there, but it happens often enough that it's worth mentioning, even if the practice of it doesn't appeal to me that much and I practically never do it. Add to that the fact that the "targeting" of big ones with tiny flies (without the luxury of sight-fishing them) is essentially lost.
Be willing to downsize if your [well-learned and wise] gut
tells you should
have seen a fish or two by a certain point but haven't - but don't
fall back on this too soon!
Downsizing can be tempting - it leads to more action, more numbers, and takes you back to the familiar. And remember, "familiarity" isn't necessarily your ticket to finding heftier fish.
|Taken at night in a small river in a bend|
that had proven itself as a holding spot
for larger browns on previous day trips
The hunt for big ones is a mental game of
patience and persistence. You have to be willing to fish all day or
night for that one
bite. But it's also a game of observation and
intuition, and after you've been at it long enough to recognize trends,
you may be able to distinguish between when you truly feel it is necessary
to downsize and when you just want some action.....
I downsize most
frequently in water that is ultra clear and water that is both clear and
slow (or rather, nonturbulent) - such as dropping from a heavy four- or six-inch jig or streamer to a lightweight 2-inch that more closely matches the minnows or fry I'm seeing. I think it often just comes down to visibility - a bait has more calling power in clear water than it does in off-color or turbulent water and the fish needs to come closer to a smaller offering before it determines to reject or not, by which time it's more apt to hit (my theory from observation anyway). Likewise, it can make the determination to reject a larger artificial from a greater distance.
I may also downsize in temperature extremes - cold
winter days or hot midsummer days. But when truly hunting bigger trout,
I try to stay with larger baits the majority of the time. Fish a big plug or an ugly streamer long enough and you're going to see that dinner plate-sized flash sooner or later.
Time your trips to coincide with their presence or activity and be repetitive.
It may seem obvious, but I think it's often not put into practice. Be intentional about trying to intercept the seasonal movements of fish, especially the ones that coincide with elevated feeding activity - such as rainbows in the spring or browns in the fall. This is when it's worth driving three hours one way for just a few hours of fishing instead of staying on the usual water and spending an entire day on fish you know won't be big. Play the odds of hitting stretches of river where the population of big fish should increase as fish stage prior to or after a spawn (confluences, deeper water alongside gravel bars, etc), during a special hatch (salmon flies, summer hoppers, etc), or maybe during high or low flows. And often it pays big dividends to 'always
travel with fishing gear' because you just never know when the place and timing may simply fall into your lap - if you're prepared and looking for the opportunistic.
Taken on a mouse from a stretch of rocks I've targeted
repeatedly for 3 years after learning it held good fish. Finally paid
off big. I hiked 2 miles in darkness to fish 100 yards of 2am shoreline.
But also be intentional about intercepting daily movements and activity levels along with the seasonal. Make a point of being on the water for first light and last light. Take advantage of the movements of larger fish in the dead of night - as they move from their mysterious daytime haunts to feed in the shallows, sitting in water you wouldn't even look at during the day. Particularly in summer. This gets me really excited. Some of my favorite trout fishing is pulling all-nighters and swinging mice through shoreline structure.
I like topwater hits.
I like big fish.
I like solitude.
Summertime mousing in the dark brings all that into one place.