Tuesday, December 6, 2016

My [present] take on targeting big trout (always subject to change)

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...

Define "big."
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, what, 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.

Beast of a brown from the creek where it lives
Fish where big fish live.
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.  

mouse-eating rainbow
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 tailwaters.

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).

Side note:
25-inch "transition section" December brown
-lanky post-spawn-
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.

    - Downsize?
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.

Watch the weather and hit the water as a front approaches. Activity can spike as weather moves in. Bigger fish may wake up from their daytime trance and start to hunt as the clouds build and the pressure drops.
Springtime high water brown
Run for the river instead of away when rain is setting in.  Try to fish stained and rising water. Browns especially are on the prowl in dirty water, particularly freshly dirty water. And if you've located them previously, go hit them while the water is rising and you may have a multiple big fish day.  Don't worry about whether they can see.  They can see just fine, are actively searching, and are more comfortable to move about under the cover of stained water. Throw the same types of baits you would have thrown in clear water - meaning, no need to switch to a brighter streamer or flashier plug.  Maybe a little bigger is appropriate. But the forage hasn't changed, only increased, and the fish have cover into the shallows and plenty of food suddenly available.  This may be the most aggressive you find them.

And in all of this, hit stretches over and over that you know to contain or suspect hold big fish.  Then hit them again, with purpose - that night, the next day, later the same day, and on your next trip.

If what turns you on is to always fish new water and see new scenery, then adjust your expectations to simply just be thrilled with the occasional nice fish that you luck into.
   Nothing wrong with that at all!

But if you want to target big fish, then hit their haunts over and over, and as often as possible during prime times.  When you locate big fish, especially browns, note the spot.  Maybe you had a follow, a hit and miss, or just caught a glimpse of one.  Maybe it swiped at a smaller trout you hooked. He's likely not going anywhere.  And if he does - such as a shoreline prowl at night - he's probably territorial enough to return.  And whatever attracts him to hold in that spot is likely appealing to others, whether it holds multiple fish or will hold another when this one has moved on.  Approach that spot with new knowledge and expectation next time, until the river changes and the hunt begins again.

Brown in the rain, caught from a hole I'd fished earlier
in the day but under clear sky.
If it's a place you can scout before casting and try to see the fish, you'll be that much more ahead.  I know lots of folks do this, and I agree that spotting a fish gives you an obvious edge.  Knowing it's there is half the battle. More than once I've located fish a day ahead of when I would be taking someone fishing - whether spotted them from a vantage point, or more frequently, had them swipe at a lure and then left them alone - returning with my guest the next day and had them hook up with it (or another in the same holding water).  I never rely completely on sight fishing, but I take full advantage of it when I can.

But scouting isn't only for locating fish.  It can be for knowledge of what lies ahead when you fish at night in the pitch black.

Don't be afraid of spinning gear. Don't be afraid of fly gear.
If you are willing to avoid pitching a tent in one camp or the other, you can select from among the best tools for the job for whatever your particular situation.  Ditch your stigma.There is nothing else like cranking a big plug. There is nothing else like floating a big mouse fly. Spinning gear can't target a mayfly hatch or participate in the grasshopper action of summer. Fly gear can't come close to reproducing the retrieve of a jig, especially at depth. I am more about the pursuit of the fish than I am the allegiance to a style, plus I like the unconventional and the experimentation that comes with it.  I'm not going to force my fly gear to do what a spinning rod can do better and I'm not going modify spinning gear to do what fly gear excels at.  Like the title says, this article is my take on the pursuit of big fish, and I like to serve up offerings that are going to trigger strikes.
I'm not going to put my nose in the air while passing a deep hole or vertical rock wall and not sink a jig just because it involves a spinning rod.  Nor am I going to attach the jig to my leader and try to force the presentation on the fly rod for the sake of 'purity.'

Don't be afraid of bottom and structure.
Wintertime tailwater rainbow - from a tiny
stream not known for holding trout
You can pass by structure for fear of losing your high-dollar rig. You can avoid bottom and snags. But you'll avoid fish, and likely the ones you're hoping to connect with. Penetrate structure. Bounce bottom. As you get better at it, you'll lose less gear. A tight loop shoots flies under limbs. A longer drift than you might be comfortable with carries them into a root wad. A jig walked on the bottom drops into holes, over ledges, and behind rocks. The "feel" of impending snag versus safe bottom-bouncing will come. You'll always lose gear, but you'll get better and better at penetrating "impossible" spots and navigating the terrain of the bottom you didn't know was there before - before you could feel it. You may not realize how much less you snag up because you are always pushing the limits until you fish with someone else and notice how much time they spend hung up in easy drifts.

Match your gear to the lure & presentation more than to the fish.
In other words, you don't need a big rod and heavy  line to catch big fish.  In fact, it might be quite the opposite.
This is a big one.  I feel like I am always having to convince people of my theory here.  Would you rather use a heavy line and rarely hook up - or would you rather use a lighter line and risk losing the occasional battle? Use the gear that best achieves the presentation that's needed.  Don't undergun yourself, that's just silly.  I'm not talking about finessing an ultra-light rig "for the fight." Just use the lightest line that makes sense to get the most out of your lure - longer casts, better action, less drag, less visibility, faster sink, higher float.  Use a rod that matches that line and also compliments your presentation (long, short, etc, depending on the water, your approach, and your preference).  For most of my spinning scenarios with trout I find that a 4lb line (monofilament) achieves what I need.  Sometimes bumping up to 6lb is prudent.  And in some cases tossing heavy plugs or jigs requires a stouter line (8 to 12lb) that can withstand the cast and resulting retrieve.  It's a balance of relativity among the components of the gear. A quality reel matched to the line called for by the situation is the final piece.  A good drag on a reel designed for your line weight is the heart and soul of a wild fish battle.

Beautiful after-midnight mouse-eater
For most of my fly scenarios the same principle remains true, but I approach it with an opposite train of thought.  I'll choose or tie a leader to match my fly, keeping it as stout as I can while achieving the presentation that's required.  In general, the presentations I make are simple - a dead drift, a slow swing, strips and twitches.  The fly line serves to get the bait out, to keep it high or to sink it down.  The lure itself imparts relatively little action.  It comes to life according to how the angler manages the line rather than how the angler manages the lure (yes, I know streamers wiggle and flutter, I'm just speaking in generalized terms).  Match the length and weight of your leader first to the fly you are using and then to the water.  In an obvious example, I'll fish a dry fly on a longer and lighter leader than I would a streamer, but if the water is stained or turbulent, I may shorten it and beef it up.  If I'm mousing at night I may fish with a leader that's only 5 or 6 feet long, tapering quickly from perhaps a stiff 30lb butt section to a stout 10, 12, or 15lb tippet. The nylon floating Big Bug leader from Cutthroat Furled Leaders is perfect for this - just add a foot or so of 12lb tippet and you're in business. Erring on the heavy side, particularly with fly gear (when throwing meaty offerings, even floating ones), and especially at night, is always best in my opinion.  But I'll be the first to admit, I have a lot to learn.  And again, matching both the rod and reel to the fly and/or leader and tippet rather than to the fish being pursued is essential to good presentations.

Ignore social convention of the clock and other measuring devices.
One of the biggest "obstacles" I overcame in my pursuit of big fish was to toss out the daytime/nighttime structure inserted into our lives by the ticking of the clock and social expectations.  If the bite is at 2am, let's go.

Nice brown on a wonderfully nasty rainy day
This can be projected from the clock to the thermometer or barometer as well.  If the bite is on a day when you've got to push the ice out of your eyelets before you can cast, or it's during a nasty rain, let's go.

If it means casting repeatedly in a boat for 12 hours straight, no problem.

Similarly, if you have to miss a meal or settle for a squished Snickers bar that's been through multiple meltings instead of actual food, do it.

I've said it before - a "fair weather" fisherman is a "hardly-ever" fisherman.

Don't be turned off by the presence of other fisherman.
Assume no one else knows what they are doing (often you will be right). Even if they do know what they are doing, chances are they aren't doing what you are doing. And if you are on water with a reputation, of course there will be other folks. Unless the guy ahead of you is stomping through holes or the water is pretty small,
The only brown hooked on a full
night of fishing - and it didn't hit till
dawn's glow had begun to show
swallow the disappointment, set your alarm all the earlier for the next day, and start dissecting the water as you would have done without someone there. I've discovered that more often than not they didn't touch the fish I'm reaching with my tactics. And I prove it to myself by fishing a stretch of stream with one method, then passing right over it again using another, catching fish both times.

But then again, if you are doing your homework and hitting rivers when it matters most - rain, snow, high water, middle of the night, and so on - then you won't be seeing too many folks anyway.  I'm on a streak of two straight summers where I probably average a mousing trip once a week.  I am YET to run into another angler, and I am fishing very popular water most of the time. People just aren't there at night, and the big fish are.

Make sure your gear is ready (and carry a net that means business).
I hate breaking a fish off because my fly line was wrapped around the rod or because I was standing on a loop of it.  When you hook the fish you are really after, there won't be a moment of forgiveness, no time to fix petty little errors.  Be conscientious and meticulous.  Avoid being sloppy.  Either will become a habit.  And the first time you lose a beast of a brown that crushed your mouse and then blasted through your tippet because the coil of line you were dragging behind was hung up on an unseen rock, the throbbing pain in your head and shriveled feeling in your heart will remind you to keep your line management skills in order.

Healthy nighttime mouse-eating rainbow
And with your spinning gear, keep your drag set appropriately - loose enough to pull line by hand, but tight enough to drive a hook home.  Proper setting will vary with rod length and action. Check it frequently if not constantly.  Sometimes I bump my dial just flipping the bail to cast.  Make sure it's not too loose from adjusting down during a previous fight.  Make sure its not too tight. Like inadvertently wrapping your fly line around the rod base, there's nothing worse than breaking off in the initial surging run where your drag was overly cinched.  I will, however, overly loosen a drag during a fight sometimes and then palm the spool for infinite control of tension - much as you'd do with a fly reel.

Keep your knots fresh.  Retie lures and flies as second nature, especially ones that frequently contact bottom and structure, or vegetation and rocks on the bank.  Check for nicks or roughness.  Retie.  Retie again.  If you are hunting big ones, the minutes lost to keeping fresh knots are well worth it once you've hooked up. 

Back into the night
Likewise, keep your line fresh. Change tippets. Re-spool spinning reels. Why risk aged line? Nothing irks me more than somebody climbing into my boat with a half-filled spool or curly leader that they later admit they haven't changed since last summer. They just decreased both their effectiveness in presentation and their chances of landing a nice hook-up significantly.

I also protect my reels from the sun. Often there is a pile of rods in the passenger seat of my truck.  I always toss a shirt or jacket over them to keep the line out of direct sunlight.  Every time I see a car going down the road with a rod sitting under the back window I wonder how much integrity that line or leader has left.

Lastly, carry a net that means business.  Get one that will easily hold the fish that you really intend to catch. The first time I hooked a trout that I didn't have a prayer of folding into my carry net was the day I hung it up.  From then on when mousing in the dark I have packed my boat net along, even when on foot.  I'll get one that carries more easily eventually, but when I do, it's going to be capable of scooping up a walrus.

Don't give up!
Everybody gets their tail kicked. More often than not. During my early days of living in Washington State I was given some advice on steelhead at a local shop - "fish until you are ready to give up - and then it will happen."  It was so true.  Those days and weeks that passed before I landed my first steelhead....
And it's applicable to other big trout as well.  Once last winter I chopped through ice along the shore with an ax to launch my boat in what I knew was a producing spot - didn't land a thing, and I fully expected to.  This summer I took two folks on a mousing trip where we fished dusk to dawn on familiar water to me - only two trout were landed despite my high expectations and three skilled casters. Neither were browns. The more often you go, the more frequently you'll hit days when big fish cooperate. Last fall I spent three solid days on a river targeting big browns I knew were moving through to stage for spawn. Never even got hit by one. But I could have.... They were there, and so was I.  Where were you?

David Knapp hunting lunkers on some of his favorite western water

1 comment:

  1. Great post, my friend.

    Thorough write up on the anatomy of a big fish fisherman.