Whether you call them hogs, slabs, donkeys, or studs, there is something universally attractive about big trout. Use any of these superlatives in your local fly shop and everyone in the place will slink towards you like a group of bird dogs hearing the rustle of a kibble bag. Big trout fascinate us and inspire us because not only are they the biggest and baddest things in the river, they’re also rare. For fly anglers these fish represent a challenge, a mountain to climb, an inexpressible wish every time we cast a fly into the water.
During autumn as the water temperatures cool, big trout become more active in search of calories before winter. Sizeable brown, bull, and brook trout migrate out of lakes and mainstem rivers to spawn, and mature rainbows and cutthroat abandon caution as the cold sets in. It’s a time of feasting for trophy trout and a time for anglers to put away the dry fly rods and get out the heavy gear.
It’s well known that the best way to catch these big, 20-inch-plus trout in the fall is by fishing big streamers. These large flies mimic baitfish, the preferred prey of large, aggressive trout in need of more calories than they get from eating insects like mayflies or even bigger bugs like stoneflies and hoppers. However, fishing streamers can be a challenging venture. Big trout don’t feed often and can be very selective about which presentation they’ll chase down and eat, making for many fishless days on the river. While every fly angler has a favorite streamer—a pattern or color they believe in and fish religiously, but such devotion isn’t necessarily the best strategy. To put more big trout in the net more consistently, a streamer fisherman must match their fly to the water conditions. You want to use the best fly pattern to trigger a big predatory trout—no matter where they’re hiding.
Streamers for High or Muddy Water When river currents are high, swollen, and stained from heavy fall rains or melting snow, trout will move away from the center of the river where the current is strongest and push to the banks. The fish will move into undercuts, back eddies, up into flooded vegetation, and beneath overhanging bushes. These are places where they can comfortably hold and dash out from cover to eat any baitfish or smaller trout that pass by.
During high water events, the current is moving quickly, and the fish aren’t going to look over a streamer too closely or chase down something moving in the main current. The key to catching big trout during these conditions is using streamers that make an impression. Flies with a big profile, a lot of flash, and a heavy weighted head that will splash down and get in the strike zone quickly are usually the ticket—flies that just scream “I am food!” as soon as they hit the water. Such patterns include the Dolly Llama, Galloup’s Nancy P, or Mike’s Meal Ticket, in dark colors like black, brown, or olive that contrast against stained water are some of my favorites for these conditions.
As far as equipment goes in high water, you’ll want to be as beefy as possible. Fishing these flies during these conditions is less like fly fishing for trout and more like flipping and pitching for bass. You’ll be pulling fish out of cover and heavy current, so a stiff 7 weight or even an 8-weight rod with a heavy shooting head fly line like an Orvis Bank Shot and heavy 15- or 20-pound tippet is the way to go. Fish tight to the bank, splashing the fly down inches from shore, skipping it under bushes, and flipping it into log jams and back eddies. Let the fly sink for a moment and then make two or three strips from the bank before casting again. Strikes will most likely come as soon as the fly hits the water or after the first strip, so fish fast, cover a lot of water, and hang on tight!
Streamers for Average Flows When river currents are at their median flow and the water is relatively clear, streamer fisherman can be overwhelmed with options. The myriad of fishy looking spots and streamer designs and colors can leave you rifling through your fly boxes trying a little bit of everything while you pull out your hair in frustration and feel in need of a hug. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.
During these times, I’ve found it best to follow the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) rule. Remembering that I’m not after any old trout but a true monster, I’ll concentrate my fishing effort on where I feel a truly big trout is most likely to be. Deep holes, long undercut banks, sharp drop-offs, logjams, and submerged boulders are all likely spots that a slab of a fish will be waiting to ambush its prey. That’s where I’ll focus my fishing using a few versatile streamer patterns.
The best streamers to fish during ideal conditions are patterns that have good swimming and/or jigging actions. Flies that cruise through the water on a dead drift or with a long, smooth stripping action like an unsuspecting baitfish that will also rise and dive like a wounded minnow when stripped quickly are critical. Both actions mimic easy prey for a big hungry trout waiting to attack.
My favorite streamer for these times is Dally’s Twerking Minnow. The fly has a great baitfish profile in the water, a subtle flash, and can be either dead drifted along undercut banks and deep holes or fished with a stripping action around big boulders or the edges of drop-offs. Other great big trout catching flies during these sorts of conditions are the Circus Peanut, Galloup’s Sex Dungeon, the Cheech Leech, and the Grumpy Muppet. All of these patterns have similar swimming and jigging actions. Fish them in lighter colors such as white or yellow on sunny days or darker colors like olive or gray on cloudy days. They’re the perfect thing to call up a monster trout from the depths.
Your equipment for these times should be as versatile as the flies you use. A tip-flex 6- or 7-weight rod with the ability to cast heavier flies at distance yet accurate enough to drop your bug between logs and boulders is the perfect combo. Pair the rod with a short, fast shooting-head fly line like the Rio InTouch Streamer Tip for tight loops and accurate casts. Depending on the size of the trout in your river, use between 10- and 15-pound tippet.
Remember that the key to success on those average-flow days is versatility. Pick three or four streamer patterns in different colors and fish each one for 20 to 30 minutes. If you don’t hook up or at least get a bump or grab, change out the pattern and color. Make a drastic change at first, say from a size 2 yellow fly to a size 2/0 olive, to see if fish are immediately active on a completely different fly. After that, change more subtly, such as from olive to brown or from a size 2 to a 1, as you get a few strikes and become more dialed in on what the fish are feeding on.
Streamers for Low and Clear Water Many fly anglers believe that fishing streamers during low and clear conditions is an exercise in futility. The fish are spread out and extremely spooky. However, I’ve caught some of my largest trout during skinny water conditions. It all comes down to choosing the right fly and equipment. You want gear that allows you to cast far and cover a lot of water and flies that swim well and look as natural as possible.
Tying into a big trout in shallow water calls for large, neutrally buoyant flies that can suspend beneath the water, have a sleek natural profile, and a small amount of flash. Flies that can be jerked, paused, and twitched, much like a jerkbait for bass or walleye. My favorites include the Junk Yard Dog, Drunk and Disorderly, and Sluggo, but when it really comes down to putting big fish in the net, it’s hard to beat Schmidt’s Double Deceiver. These simple bucktail flies swim incredibly well in the water, have an extremely realistic look, offer a versatile action, and are tough for a giant trout to resist.
The key to success in low and clear water conditions is covering water. Big trout can hold almost anywhere in the river during these times, from shallow flats to small pockets behind structure. You want to be sure your fly is swimming over everything and anything that can possibly hold them. That means long casts and a lot of stripping. Choose a stiffer 7-weight rod and a line with a shooting head that won’t make a big splash on spooky fish like an Airflow Streamer Max, preferably with sink tip to help an unweighted fly get down in the current. Use lighter 10- to 12-pound fluorocarbon tippet and be prepared for a long day on the water hunting cruising trout. Cast your flies as far as you can and then jerk-strip and twitch back to the boat or shore, paying careful attention not only to the fly but what’s around it. In low-clear conditions, big trout will often follow a fly almost to the rod tip much like a muskie or pike, so you have to be on alert for any shadows or movement around the fly and be ready for a strike.
The Bigger They Are… Remember that streamer fishing in the autumn isn’t about catching a lot of trout, but rather catching one you won’t forget. Many of these fish are unavailable at other times of the year, so you need to be ready to be surprised. Big trout like big meals, so the bigger the streamer you fish, the better. Remember that while 4- or 5-inch streamer may catch two or three 18- to-20-inch fish in a day, which is a solid outing in anyone’s book, if you use a larger 8- or 10-inch streamer you’ll catch fewer fish but stand a chance of finding something truly epic. So, do the math and make your choice. If you’re patient and willing to sacrifice numbers in the streamer game, this fall season may be the time when you end up with that trout of a lifetime.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.