Hints of autumn have arrived early here in Big Sky country. We are having frequent evening storms in the Madison valley, as you can see in the photos below. Last night, the upper levels of the Madison mountain range received their first dusting of snow this season.
With the seasonal changes, brown trout have begun to move to their spawning waters, followed by rainbows looking for a dinner of roe. This programmed event includes the older, mature fish, that is, the “big boys & girls”, and thus offers to fly fishers one of the best opportunities of the year to land a trophy trout.
It’s always best to define the subject of a discussion, but that would be difficult to do in this instance. Looking at the “grip and grin” photos that flood the Internet, it is clear that what constitutes a memorable or trophy fish lies solely in the eye of the beholder. I will therefore avoid using inches, pounds or other measures to frame the discussion.
I would suggest that we use the size of a fish relative to the size of the stream being fished. For instance, a brook trout measuring twelve to fourteen inches, caught in a small, Virginia mountain stream might constitute a trophy trout, but a rainbow trout of such size caught in Montana’s Madison River would not. So I will arbitrarily frame the discussion to be about trout that are very large for the river in which they are caught, among the largest 1% of fish present. Thus defined, it should be clear that most of us will encounter a few such fish each year. If we hope to land them and avoid lamenting about “the big one that got away”, we must be prepared for them.
Trophy trout are of course older trout, generally at least five years of age, and often many more. During their lifetime, they have learned to overcome the three major challenges faced by all trout: the need to hide from predators, including fishermen, the need to conserve energy, and the need to meet their caloric requirements. As trout grow, each of these challenges becomes more difficult, forcing them to change their behaviors if they are to continue to survive and thrive.
The holding water of trophy trout must be deeper or have other attributes that will conceal them. It must require minimal energy to hold in, and provide easy access to food. Their feeding pattern will often change as well. They tend to concentrate their feeding to low-light periods, sometimes only nocturnally. Their choice of foods will expand to include meatier offerings such as minnows, crayfish, snails or mice, dependent upon availability.
Always Think Big!
It’s easy to say that we should always be prepared for a large fish, but I must admit, that is not always the case for myself. However, I do become hyper-vigilant when I see water more likely to hold a large fish. I plan my approach more carefully, and focus especially on where a large fish is likely to run when hooked. Failure to do this may often result in loss of the fish in the first few seconds of the battle.
Some possibilities to consider are the presence of submerged boulders, around which a fish may dart, cutting or snapping the tippet. Nearby submerged trees can be used to snag the leader as well. If a downstream run is likely, will I be able to follow it, even getting out of the water if necessary. This becomes very important when using light tippet. A long downstream run, getting into one’s backing, may be exciting, but usually results in disaster! It places the weight of the entire line and the strain of the running fish on the tippet. This typically results in a broken tippet, and a heartbroken fisher.
With these thoughts in mind, let’s consider the situation seen in the photo below.
The stream is running from right to left, and divides, with the main stream bending sharply to the right. The bankside water is deep, and there is overhanging grass and brush, offering additional cover. The current is slowed, and there is a small back eddy, which is partially covered with foam. Spent bugs collect in the film, which will draw smaller fish. This offers everything a large fish seeks.
Next, let’s consider the likely reactions of a hooked fish. It might just dive deep and sulk, but other options are present. While there are no bothersome boulders, just downstream there is the land-head where the stream divides into the small back channel to the left, and the main stream to the right. Jammed against the land-head is a tangle of dead trees and limbs, which offers an ideal escape for the fish. The main stream continues downstream for several hundred yards, and offers another route of escape. Therefore, this water is best fished from the inside of the bend. This position will provide a chance to turn the hooked fish, should it head for the dead tree structure. If it gets downstream, it can be followed in the shallow water or from the bank.
I feel that these factors, recognition of holding water suitable for a large trout, and likely escape routes when hooked, are the most important factors to account for when fishing for large trout. Their recognition will determine the approach or presentation that will provide the best opportunity to land a trophy trout.
Another factor is the rod and reel. Most fly fishers think that a heavier rod is a necessity for landing trophy trout. But I would argue that fishing conditions, that is, stream size, wind and fly selection have more to do with the ideal rod weight. Having said that, I typically use a 5 or 6 weight rod when fishing large western streams, and a 3 or 4 weight rod when fishing smaller eastern streams. These preferences match the conditions present on such streams. In both instances, I prefer a rod with a soft tip. This will protect the tippet when a large fish makes a sudden, forceful turn or run.
When fishing larger streams, holding heavy trout, reel selection becomes important as well. Specifically, a smooth, easily adjusted drag system is needed to protect light tippets.
Playing Trophy Trout
How often have you had a guide shout, “keep your rod-tip up”? While this will usually work for average-sized trout, it is not a good idea for trophy trout. Such a position puts all the force of the fish on the tip of the rod, which may actually snap! In addition, a vertical rod position does not steer the fish.
Cowboys know that the body follows the head. Thus, when wrestling a steer to the ground, they grab the head. The same logic applies to playing trophy trout. To prevent a large fish from getting into fallen trees or heading downstream, its head must be turned away. This is best done by holding the rod to the side, and applying as much pressure as the tippet will allow. In addition to steering the fish, the rod will flex all the way to the butt. This helps apply maximal force, and protects the rod-tip.
The one circumstance in which a vertical rod position is helpful, is when a fish has made a long dash downstream. To reduce the weight on the tippet, the rod should be kept raised, keeping the line off the water. The added weight from surface tension on a floating line only increases the likelihood of breaking the tippet. The rod can be lowered after catching up with the fish, and retrieving line.
Netting Trophy Trout
Many large trout are lost when trying to get them into the net. Often this is due to the net being too small! Just as with playing them, the best approach is to lead them into the net, head first. If netted tail-first, hook-tension may be lost, allowing the fish to slip off the hook. In addition, unless the net is very large, the head will be facing outside the net, and the powerful tail will be lying against the netting. With a flip of the tail, the fish will be back in the water, usually off the hook.
Hopefully these tips will help prepare you for your next trophy trout!
Article written by Allan G. Simpson in August, 2014. Edited December, 2016.