Hogs. Toads. Donkeys. Pigs. Whatever name you prefer, these are the fish you really want to catch. Quantity fills the freezer, but trophies earn the bragging rights. This series is dedicated to the pursuit of the true heavyweights across all species. The meat eaters. So, pull out the sink tips, 7-weights, and Sex Dungeons and rethink your approach if you want to see giant trout most anglers don’t even realize exist in their home waters.
Ugly Stik fishing rods recently put out a delightfully tone-deaf commercial that portrayed two red-blooded bass fishermen in a little boat, talking about how “hipsters out West are spending all day trying to catch 7-inch trout throwing feathers on little hippie sticks.” Then these actors (very clearly not actual anglers) proceed to easily land a 1-pound largemouth whilst singing the praises of this superior, far more masculine fish.
Class warfare and political dog whistles aside, I must state the obvious: pound for pound, wild browns, ‘bows, and bull trout grow larger and fight harder than largemouths. Mature fish run, jump, and bulldog with enough tenacity and energy to put the toughest ditch pickle to shame. Seven-inch trout on feathers? I’m trying to feed 7-inches of feathers to 30-inch trout and char. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. Fishing oversized streamers is downright infectious.
Don’t get me wrong, I own just as many conventional rods as I do fly rods and would probably pick bass over trout any given day—mostly because they’re less available where I live in Montana. As a young kid, I’d tell anyone who would listen that I wanted to be a pro bass fisherman when I grew up. I’d quit my MeatEater gig in a heartbeat and go on tour if I wasn’t certain I’d get my ass handed to me. Trout and bass are both great fun, and I feel badly for people who get stuck on one particular species.
But to say fly fishing for trout is effete and lame? Respectfully shut the hell up. (Sorry, for you Ugly Stik marketing folks reading this, “effete” means pretentious, feminine, or ineffective. Try to work that in next time.) Anglers from Alaska to Arkansas to Pennsylvania catch 10-pound trout with nearly the same regularity as 10-pound bass. And while it’s occasionally just lucky happenstance (like the 12-pound brown I helped my buddy Ty haul through the ice this winter after it ate a miniscule perch jig), most of folks who regularly stick giant trout are following the same school of thought as big bass hunters nationwide: big fish want big meals.
Kelly Galloup is widely hailed as the godfather of modern trout streamers. He wrote two seminal books on the topic and invented such famous, effective, and meaty patterns as the Sex Dungeon, Pearl Necklace, Barely Legal, Butt Monkey, Peanut Envy, Stacked Blonde, and other equally filthy titled big bugs. Born in Michigan, Galloup now lives in Montana and owns the Slide Inn Fly Shop on the Upper Madison River. He’s spent decades fishing, guiding, floating, snorkeling, and scuba diving here and many other great American rivers trying to better understand big trout and what they eat.
When Galloup talks about trout, he’s mostly talking about Salmo trutta—brown trout to you and me. Sure, his techniques apply to big rainbows, brookies, cutties, and bulls to some degree, but those are merely bycatch. Like most trophy trout hunters nation- and world-wide, he’s pretty focused on browns. And he says that past a certain age and size, brown trout become almost exclusively predatory. Galloup has also doubled as a taxidermist for most of his adult life and has examined the stomach contents of hundreds of big, dead fish. One constant is that those big fish contain big meals, not insects.
“It’s almost impossible to catch a fish that measures 2 feet or longer on bugs,” Galloup said. “And there’s a lot of studies on this, it’s not just fish talk either. It happens so rarely. I’ve found anything you can imagine. I’ve found squirrels, tons of mice, a blackbird wing. Crayfish parts are almost always in a trout. My buddy found a 36-inch brown floating dead with a 19 ½-inch brown in its mouth. It got it all the way down to the dorsal fin and they both died.”
Galloup says that streamers or big lures are basically a prerequisite for big trout in rivers. But there’s a hell of a lot more to it than just slapping around a giant wad of marabou from a driftboat all day.
“Just like big bass, pike, whatever, you can’t just sell your soul to a big f*ckin’ fly and think it’s gonna be the end-all. You have to match your forage base at that minute,” Galloup said. “I think it’s one of the biggest things people have done wrong in the last 10 years is that all they throw are huge flies and they have the same mantra that they’re looking for ‘the one.’ Personally, I don’t buy into that because it’s almost like saying that ‘the one’ is the dumbest fish out there.”
It’s still trout fishing, so you still need to “match the hatch,” to some degree. Does your river have crayfish or sculpins? If there are big daddy trout present, baby trout will be there too, and they’re fair game as food. Other juvenile fish and minnows will fill in. If all of the above are present, cycle through colors, profiles, retrieves, and patterns until you find one that is getting attention. Don’t get stuck on a particular fly if it isn’t working.
After years of experimenting with foot-long and longer flies, Galloup says that 7 inches is just about the maximum size he’ll fish in most conditions. It’s not that those big fish don’t want really big meals, it’s hard to get much action out of bug much longer than that. And the way the fly wiggles makes a world of difference.
Swim for your Life
Rapalas and other big stickbaits were producing big trout long before Galloup and his ilk began tying up feathered versions. But he says that streamer fishing is a lot different because you can’t just crank the fly in under constant motion.
“You don’t get to do that when you’re fly fishing. It’s starts and stops and starts and stops,” he said. “And so your fly has to have some degree of realism in motion. It doesn’t have to necessarily look like the fish that you’re mimicking, but it has to have that action.”
For that reason, many of Galloup’s signature patterns are articulated —or jointed in conventional lure speak—in the middle. He often employs natural materials like feathers and fur that “breathe” in the water. And he’s not the only streamer fisherman who loves deer hair or other bulky heads on flies. These bulky materials not only create a big profile, but they are not very hydrodynamic. That means when you strip the fly forward then release tension, it will stop hard. That often makes the tail jackknife to the side, the materials pulse, and sells the wounded fish charade. Most predatory fish prefer to eat head-on or broadside, so they are more likely to eat a fly that isn’t moving rigidly in a straight line.
Galloup also advocates for changing your retrieve often to mimic different forage fish and crustaceans. And he says that just yanking in the line does not cut it. The best streamer anglers, just like the best in the bass circuit, use the rod tip to enhance the presentation. The more movement, the better.
“I subscribe to the big fly as long as it swims. That’s the big thing,” he said. “You have to be able to swim it.”
Predatory trout that are hungry will typically lie in an ambush position. And Galloup says they don’t follow or chase like bass or muskies. If they’re going to eat it, they’re going to eat it right away. So, he says, the way you deliver your fly to the bank and what you do with it immediately after it hits the water is critical.
“I hit that fly down as hard as I can. I move that fly the second it touches the water,” Galloup said. “And then if you want it to go deeper, you want to pause, then I will. But I never miss that first strip. As soon as it hits, I move that fly right away as hard as I can, then I start doing whatever retrieve it is I’m going to do. But usually that fly hits the water, that fish is hip that it’s in his zone. And so then if it sits there and doesn’t do anything, you probably blew your chance.”
Streamer eats are reactionary in nature, so you always need to have tension on your line, good contact with your fly, and be ready to strip set hard as soon as the bug lands. Like many things in hunting and fishing, big moments occur when you least expect them.
Knife to a Gunfight
One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen when friends try to wade into streamer fishing is using the same basic setup they would for nymphing or dry fly fishing. First of all, it’s going to be a giant pain in the ass to cast a big streamer on a 5-weight. Second, while floating lines may be useful in small or very shallow waters, a sinking tip makes a huge difference in getting your fly down and keeping it in the zone. To properly deliver even a short sink tip, you need a rod with more backbone than your standard dry fly stick. Likewise, when a trophy trout eats a big streamer, you need to set with force and then fight that pissed off brown without snapping your rod.
Most serious streamer anglers fishing rivers with big trout are using 7- and 8-weight rods rigged with integrated sink tip lines—often very heavy ones. That set-up will make it so much easier to keep the big, wet, heavy fly in the air and deliver it accurately, get the fly deep enough for a big fish to see it, and then let you get that big fish to the boat. The leaders I use with sink tips consist of about a foot of 20-pound Maxima mono tied to about a foot and a half of 12-pound Maxima, so that the sink tip drags down the fly quicker than with a long leader. The reaction strikes you’re trying to elicit with big streamers aren’t usually deterred because a fish gets leader shy. You could go heavier if you want, but if you’re landing your fly close to structure like you should be, snags are inevitable and you want to be able to break off if you can’t get unstuck easily.
As anyone who has tried them knows, big streamers don’t work all the time. Galloup loves to remind people that mature trout are usually pretty nocturnal, so dawn and dusk, spring and fall, cloudy days and thunderstorms will often produce better than high noon under the summer sun. But that said, one of the biggest browns I ever saw caught on a streamer showed up in early afternoon on a July scorcher with drunk inner-tubers all around us.
With oversized streamers, you’ll often work your “hippie stick” harder for fewer fish. But when one eats, it’s not going to be another 7-incher. Big trout are inarguably among the greatest freshwater sportfish on Earth, and big streamers are simply the best way to catch them.
Feature image by Tim Romano.