After the last of the ice has thawed and before the beginning of major inset activity, a narrow window of opportunity exists for the fly angler to tempt huge brown trout with large streamers. Here in our part of the country, the Midwest, this is normally during late May and early June.
As water temperatures begin increasing, so does the activity of the fish. When they emerge from their winter lethargy of low metabolism, they’re hungry and ready to eat. Smaller baitfish swimming near the river bank and shallows resume active feeding as well. They too are foraging, looking for anything and everything that might offer nourishment. The occasional subsurface eruption is a tell-tale signal that one has just met a swift, piscivorous end.
One thing you can almost always count on during this time of year is a fast moving weather front. Thunderstorms can come on quickly and wreak havoc if you’re not prepared. For this reason, I take advantage of the internet and the Weather Channel to help me choose fishing days least likely to be affected by weather. Despite all the forecasting in the world, sometimes I can still find myself in a precarious situation.
One day is seared into my memory and not likely to dissipate any time soon. I was out with friend and fellow streamer freak Brad Turner during springtime a number of years back. We weren’t on the water for half an hour before a fast moving weather front came in. A number of lightning bolts touching ground too close for our comfort drove us under cover. With our graphite rods judiciously placed against a tree yards away, we were set to wait it out. Rolling thunder turned into a loud CRACK that sounded like big-game rifle being fired right next to us. Having been caught in more than a few storms over the last 30 years, I’ve seen them come and go, but it’s impossible to be ready for that blinding streak of silver from above. This one nearly required a change of britches ! It did pass, but not before giving us an incredible light show and display of the power that mother nature has hidden in those clouds above.
Big Trout Condos
Big trout like to live where they feel safe. They also like to eat feed not too far from familiar surroundings.
Brush piles, downed trees, uprooted stumps, logjams, old docks, manmade stream improvements and deeply undercut, heavily rooted banks all qualify as home-sweet-home to an old, hook-jawed brown trout.
Occupying some of the heaviest cover the river has to offer, he doesn’t make himself easy to get at. When in search of food, he will venture from the comfort of structure to spots in the river where a feeding channel is close, but never more than a tail-kick away from the lumber and his safely zone. His home habitat is as familiar to him as your favorite living room recliner is to you. He knows exactly where he is and how to quickly get back to safety should the need arise.
Although such large trout may move to and from their preferred lies for feeding purposes, once a dominant fish finds a comfortable location to call home, he is not likely to give it up to a subordinate fish. Work log jams with the most favorable looking surroundings. Continued depth downstream from a piling or a nice cut in the river bottom at the edge of the jam where current speeds come together below the structure and create a nice seam for fish to comfortably sit in. Oven overhanging branches from a neighboring tree that casts a shadow on the hole or run. Be deliberate and thorough in working these deep, dark, promising places.
One such location proved fruitful on a late May day couple years ago. With an arsenal of rods, fly boxes, a cooler of Mountain Dew and submarine sandwiches, Tommy and I set out for another day of streamer fishing. No long into the day we came upon a likely looking run. I was on the oars. With a couple of casts toward the front of an ominous jam, followed by one down the gut, Tommy’s line went taut before he could yell, “FISH ON !” The battle between man and beast was beautiful, each having its way with the other at different times during the tussle. I dropped anchor and hopped out of the boat, intent on getting downstream from the fish. With symphonic precision, Tommy worked the fish over a sand-bar shelf. I move in with the net and —in the bag ! After we caught our breath, out came the camera and tape; 24 inches of hooked-jawed majesty. One look at his elongated snout and his mouthful of teeth and we named him “The Gator”.
Another episode three years ago will not soon be forgotten. Only after casting farther and working line deeper in a run called “Kestners Corner” on the famous Pere Marquette rivers in western Michigan, did I find the sweet spot of this particular run. Sweet for the fish, but not for me and this one will remain a mystery. With friend Adam on the oars, I diligently worked tandem flies in and around various obstacles in this short S-bend of logs, stumps and boulders. Adam pumped the oars a couple times to set me up for the prime spot in the run. I measured the cast and sent my flies toward the jam. I had barely gotten my line under a finger to start stripping it back and out he came….BANG A short but swift hook-set and the battle was on. The heavy-shouldered golden brute made a dash for the wood, but with a downstream sweep of my rod, I kept him from reaching the lumber. He made another run for cover, but another rod turn and he was clear of danger. Luck was on my side…..I thought. His last run was downstream into fast, choppy water. I felt him tire, Adam was there with net in hand and ready. With a couple more turns of the reel, I was ready to bring him up. As he came to the surface, he revealed himself, “BIG fish”. Another burst of energy put him just out of the nets reach. My attempt to bring him back toward us ended with him splashing frantically at the surface nearly next to the boat and next thing I see…….pop, there goes the hook and one incredible fish.
Gearing up for the Big Boys
He’s not your average trout. Leave your 4 and 5 weight fly rods at home. Casting full sinking or heavy sink-tip lines with oversized streamers requires greater physical strength and persistence. A 7 or 8 weight, medium to fast action rods, measuring 8 ½ to 10 feet will deliver your offering the best. Properly balanced, such rods are light enough to allow for sustained casting throughout the day, yet have the backbone to pull a big fish out of, or away from, heavy cover and structure during a dog fight such as this.
I recall a battle with a plump, feisty female brown trout with more speed than is often associated with large, lumber-hunkering browns. With the umpteenth cast of my 10 foot, 7 weight rod rigged with 250 grain sinking line in long deep runs, my fingers started to get number. Despite the fatigue, my cast landed between a boil from a submerged stump and a series of crisscrossed logs in a center river trough. Between strips of my streamer, the line jumped and I was off to the races with this butterscotch beauty.
After a run of 30-40 feet downstream, most of which was less than two feet below the surface, she reversed direction with just as much vigor and was back in front of us in no time. When she made her turn close to the boat, I could see the profile and knew this was no small trout. After negotiating a few more runs around the surrounding logs, she was safely resting in the soft mesh of the net. With a short, narrow nose and an opal blue dot behind her eye, she lit up in the midday sun, all 2 foot of her.
This pace of action can down right tire you out. It’s a good idea to take an occasional break to subdue the inevitable fatigue that will set in during a full day of “big boy” streamer fishing. If you’re too tired and not paying attention, you could end up casting a rather pricey rod/reel combo right into the river. However, with some patience and practice with your timing, such fishing can be very rewarding.
Different fishing situations call for the use of sinking or sink tip lines of differing lengths and weight. If wade fishing, I might opt for a sink-tip of 8-14 feet in length, in a 250-300 grain weight. Being able to mend the back portion of the fly line will allow you to work the bottom two-thirds of the water column.
Leaders are important, but not nearly as critical as they are for dry fly fishing. My typical streamer leader is about 3-5 feet, depending on water clarity and tapered down to 8-15 pound test. In other words, I let the river guide me……sounds odd! If the water is off color, I will increase pound strength of tippet and decrease it if water is low and/or clear. When tying fly to tippet with a standard improved clinch or Duncan Loop knot, it’s helpful to balance the line strength and diameter with “How” the fly acts in the water. Specifically, how does it look in the water based on the stiffness of both high/low pound test tippet material? I will use a Rapala knot or Perfection loop knot when tying on larger streamers. With an open loop type knot, it allows the fly/flies to “bob and weave” through the water in an erratic manner which often elicits vicious strikes.
Two years ago Marc Kiekenapp and I found ourselves drifting unknowingly close to one too many log jams and he got snagged up. I rowed over to it, he stripped extra line in to bring the snagged fly right to the rod tip to try and free it from the lumber….SNAP !….Marc’s four piece rod was not a five piece. More than one rod has fallen victim to big streamer fishing. Overhanging branches, strong hooks sets and strong tippet can be a recipe for rod breakage from time to time, bring an extra rod along just to be safe.
Let your conventional size 6 Black Nose Dace, Mickey Finns or Muddler Minnows rest comfortably in their own box next to your summertime dry fly box of Elk Hair Caddis and PMD’s. To lure a really large trout, you have to start thinking BIG. Streamers that look like small rodents with hooks. The flies you should be packing are four to six inches long, sometimes even longer depending on conditions. Often constructed with two hooks and connected with heavy backing, heavy monofilament, wire or a combination, they are truly a “creation” by the fly tier. Some are weighted to go deep, others aren’t in order to ride high in the water column. Some look more like Christmas tree ornaments than traditional trout streamers. Not to say that the “classics” don’t work, but you will increase your chances for a big boy considerably by increasing the size of the fly you’re fishing. A big trout wants a mouthful if it’s going to spend the energy chasing food. It’s a thrill to see a large fly, undulating through the water as it’s retrieved and then suddenly engulfed by a dark shadow that bolts out of nowhere and buckles your rod to the cork……my heart start pounding just thinking about it !
Vary color and combinations to correspond to differences in water depth, clarity, flow, light conditions and even physical makeup of the river. When throwing tandem streamers, I like to have one offset the other in color and/or action. Tip drab olive fly could be followed by a sparkly rainbow pattern, black followed by white, cream deer hair head (will suspend a bit due to deer hair), trailed by a bright yellow. The combinations are many and it doesn’t hurt to try out different combinations on different rivers.
I have found some consistency in productive patterns when fishing high water with some “tint” to it. Under such conditions, a fly with a good silhouette will draw more attentions from fish than a sparse, faint pattern. When working a stretch of river filled with log jams that have a dark back drop, I will use lighter combinations since they will show up good with that dark wood behind it. If the run is a deeper “cut” or trough adjacent to quality lumber based cover, but has a sand bottom, I will be quick to go dark due to the comparatively light back drop of the sand bottom.
Two years ago I was fishing a black strip leech, trailed by a white baitfish pattern. An enormous brown trout bolted from cover to inspect the leech, only to pinwheel back and absolutely HAMMER the white fly. I often wonder if an attention-getting front fly acts as an attractor more often than we “know”. Since only the fish have that answer, it’s still just a theory. There are no hard and fast rules here, experimentation has often led to some great discoveries in the world of fly fishing.
Casting supersized flies cannot merely tire you out; it can be downright dangerous if not carried out with your full attention and some practice prior to getting in the river. Case in point – following a heart-pounding episode where a true trophy TRUTTA showed himself with a quick chase and short inspection of my fly, I frantically attempted to re-cast to the same spot, only to have it all come to a halt with a five inch streamer pattern hanging from my EAR !…..OUCH ! Sunglasses or other eye protection are critical to have on when casting big flies.
Given that most any river can be fished with large, gaudy streamers, it’s now a matter of how to effectively cast such large flies, get them where you want AND not put a hook in your fishing buddy.
My vision of traditional streamer fishing involves casting toward a bank at a 90 degree angle – perpendicular in other words – and working the fly back into mid river as though it got caught sideways in the current and is now susceptible to any nearby ambush artists….big trout ! Logic here is that by casting toward the bank, “maybe” just a bit downstream from perpendicular, that you’re putting your fly in front of the greatest number of fish. This is due to the fact that trout need to keep their noses into the current to most effectively pump water and oxygen through their gills. After retrieving fly/flies to just shy of the sink line-leader knot, pick up, false cast once, maybe twice to lengthen slightly or change direction a bit, present fly, let is sink slightly and begin the stripping sequence and repeat as you work your way down river. Repeat the process, focusing on likely holding water such as medium depth and medium current speed runs, troughs and jams.
Sounds good, but what’s wrong with this approach ??? Nothing, IF you have the room to back cast 15-25 or more feet of line. When using larger flies that cast and track differently in the water, a few things can be done with the cast and retrieve to keep your flies where you want them and not beat your body up too badly while chucking around big macs all day.
I like to employ a roll cast set up when working with heavy sink lines and big flies. Like a traditional roll cast, the motion is similar, but for different reasons. Rather than stripping the fly all the way back to nearly the tip of the rod, instead begin the roll cast motion once you see your fly or have a pretty good idea that it’s only 6-8 feet out from the rod tip. By starting the roll cast at this time, you’re accomplishing 2 things in one continuous motion; not bringing ALL of your line in and then having to cast a clunky knot through various snake guides on your rod, but still keeping flies in the water for the greatest distance you can. Should a strike come at the end, when your flies are a mere few feet from your casting position, you can strip one big arm length of line in and still have enough tension to set the hook. Polarized glasses help a lot when training your eyes to look for the flies, versus aimlessly stripping away until you hear the line-leader knot clumsily climb through the tip-top of your rod.
By keeping some line outside your rod tip and using the first part of the roll cast motion as a “set up”- soft roll cast that has your flies land very close, but in FRONT of you – it’s rather easy to then simply pick up line, execute a short back cast and shoot the remainder of your fly line. An exceptional technique on smaller streams, it’s also a great way to fish larger rivers. Once you get into a rhythm, it’s a very effective method for covering a lot of water and minimizing the wear on your body, especially the casting arm and shoulder.
Once in the “big fly” mindset, it’s critical to strip whatever streamer pattern(s) you’re casting, at a speed consistent with that of the natural that you’re trying to duplicate with your fly. In other words, don’t strip a 2″ baitfish pattern in rapid, 20-30″ increments, a fish that small cannot swim that fast ! This being said, I’m not a strong proponent of the slow strip during prime streamer time, which are the warming months of April and May in the Midwest. In some cases, you have to get a fish on the verge of hysteria to follow a big streamer. Sometimes that means running it by them at a pace that’s slow enough for them to catch, yet fast enough to make them nearly swim out of their scales trying to get it. As we “match the hatch” with surface feeding trout, we can do nearly the same with streamers at times. Identify what big trout are likely to be feeding on based on the river and habitat and then duplicate the fly, motion and speed of retrieval to best match the natural. Large trout eat fish and they’re used to chasing them down…….give ’em what they want and what they’re familiar with.
The Secret to Coaxing a Big Fish
As with so much else in life, success in hooking and landing big trout is fundamentally a matte of putting in your time. Few anglers I know can pick up a big-fly rig and cast it effortlessly and accurately if they have not devoted hours of time and sustained effort to this type of fly fishing. Even those who have fished this way have to get re-accustomed to the whole feel of this game. “A bit rusty, eh?” is a common phrase early spring from friends and fellow anglers I may be on the water with. We all throw some wayward casts early in the season. But once “dialed in”, although not always poetry in motion, it is rather magical to watch and only then can one turn the tables on large trout, when WE become the predator.
Streamer fishing for big trout is definitely not for everyone. You first have to accept the givens of this approach.
1 – You’re not going to catch a lot of fish and may get only a few good shots at them.
2 – Hooked doesn’t mean landed. I lost one of the nicest brown trout that I’ve ever seen, let alone hooked on a streamer, right at the net after negotiating numerous obstacles like stumps, boulders, an entire log jam and a tricky turn in the river. Friend Adam was ready with the net……and I lost him. As much as we “willed” that fish another 10 inches closer to the rim of the net, it didn’t happen.
3 – You will get tired. Your arm may feel like Jell-O at the end of a full day of tossing around rag dolls.
4 – You will lose flies, some very elaborate that may have taken you or another person quite a while to tie.
5 – You can experience glory and agony with the same fish in a matter of seconds….some of which you will remember forever