Deja Vu- What You Can Learn From Taking A Photo

by | Jan 23, 2016 | 0 comments

** This post is from contributing author, Pat Burke. **

With the advances in camera equipment and the rise of social media as a way of sharing photos, photography is becoming a larger part of the fly fishing experience.  It is a simple way to convey your experiences on the water with other fisherman sharing your passion as well as demonstrating to your non-fishing friends and family in a vivid, understandable way why the time on the water is so important and special to you.  As my close friends and I have taken pictures of notable fish over the years, we identified an interesting pattern – occasionally we are catching some of the same brown trout twice.

January 2015

January 2015

Early March 2015_2

March 2015

While this doesn’t seem like that big of a stretch since we are fishing some of the same sections on various rivers, it isn’t something you really think about when you hook and land a good fish.  Maybe the fish took different flies the second time, fought better, or even grew an inch or two, but it just feels like a different fish every time.  Somehow the experience with a notable fish leaves you with a uniqueness, or maybe just a hope,  that forces you to believe that each fish landed is a new fish.    As we’ve taken more pictures and collaborated through a private online forum, we’ve realized that some of these fish were indeed repeat offenders.

At first it can be a bit disheartening.  The last thing you want to hear when you net a significant brown trout is that your buddy just caught the fish a few short months ago.  It takes away some of the excitement and awe knowing these elusive creatures were fooled more than once.  That is really only a passing thought, though.  In a way, it is interesting to catch these fish again because it provides valuable data points and gives you a whole new perspective on brown trout.  In this article, I’ll go into some interesting pieces of information that we’ve learned through catching some of the same fish multiple times.

Full disclosure — I’m not a fisheries biologist and I don’t claim to be one.  These are simply observations made by a group of friends who spend lots of time on the water.

Brown Trout Maintain A Tight Home Range

We’ve all been there before.  You and a few close friends are stripping streamers from a boat and a massive torpedo of a brown trout chases down your streamer right at the boat. The excitement, and your split second reaction, gets the best of you, and you strip set too hard, or maybe you even lift up and rip the fly out of the water entirely.   You sneak a quick look at your buddies who shake there heads and give you a disapproving stare.  Then you are instantly demoted to the oars while one of your buddies takes over for you.  There is no reason to waste a position in the boat on a guy who can’t seal the deal.   Before you get too down on your ill fortune, realize you learned a valuable piece of information in the whole sequence of events.  A large brown trout has shown itself and given away it’s home territory.

I’ve read a great deal of literature discussing the differences between the home range of rainbow trout and brown trout.  Most of the reading I’ve done indicates that rainbow trout are highly migratory, while brown trout often have a small home range.  My experience confirms this theory for brown trout.  Each of the fish shown throughout this article, displaying the same fish caught at different times, were taken within fifteen feet of each other.  In fact, some of the fish were caught multiple times in the same exact pocket three years apart!   This also isn’t a phenomena on only one piece of water.  These pictures cover a wide range of rivers across Pennsylvania.

Early March 2015

March 2015

Late April 2015

April 2015

It wasn’t until we started comparing pictures of fish, while focusing on the fish’s spot patterns and keeping in mind the location they were caught, that we began realizing we were finding some of the same fish again living in the exact same spot.

August 2014

Photo by Matt Grobe, August 2014

August 2015

August 2015

This really is a valuable piece of information to keep in the back of your head when you mess up an opportunity with a good fish.  Every time I’ve spotted a big brown, I’ve gone back at a later time and I’ve occasionally been able to pick that fish up.  As much as I like throwing large streamers, if a big brown trout shows itself, I’ll mentally catalog that spot and I will go back with nymphs on another day and thoroughly work that spot over with various high confidence nymphs to try to entice the fish.

Catch and Release Works – Photographing a Fish When Done Carefully Does Not Harm a Fish

Out of all the discoveries we’ve made by identifying that we’re catching some of the same fish twice, nothing has been as encouraging as the proof that a lightly handled fish for a photo does not damage or kill the fish.  There has been a lot of emphasis over the last few years on the Keep Em Wet campaign advocating for not taking the fish out of water for photographs.  Let me start by saying this is a completely warranted discussion that I think is beneficial and is helping raise awareness for the damage that can occur to a fish when it is improperly handled.  Having said that, I’m also of the school of thought that a grip and grin photo is perfectly harmless when done correctly.  A prior Gink and Gasoline article did a great job of going through the most important considerations when holding a fish for a photo.   I highly recommend following all of these tips to decrease the odds of damaging the fish during the photos.

8 Tips On Photographing Fish Without Harming Them

In the past, a trophy fish would often be harvested to get a mount.  Now many anglers are satisfied with a few quick photos of these trophies to serve as a memory of a great fish.   I enjoy taking pictures of a memorable fish and it is encouraging to know that the fish I’m releasing are surviving.  Believe it or not, the Troutbitten crew has caught the fish below five times over the last three years.

Winter 2013

Winter 2013

Summer 2015

Photo by Domenick Swentosky, Summer 2015


Photo by Troy Dunn, December 2015

Brown Trout  Growth Can Max Out

For most of my years fishing, I had the naive belief that trout will continue to grow indefinitely.  My thoughts were that as long as the fish continues to eat enough to support growth, that they will continue to gain length every year.  After catching numerous fish twice over the years and comparing the photos, it became apparent that brown trout may not grow as fast as I expected, and in many cases max out altogether.

The growth rate can be hard to quantify without catching a fish at smaller sizes and photographing and measuring the fish.  We usually don’t photograph a fish until it reaches the upper teens.  By that point, in some streams, that fish is maxed out and at the upper end of the size range.  Take, for instance, the trout discussed above that we caught five times.  In the three year span that we caught that fish, he grew from 19 to 21 inches.  That is a long time to only grow two inches on a river known for having a large biomass.

Same goes with the fish below.  The two pictures were taken a little less than a year apart, and the fish gained weight but did not grow lengthwise.  The river where this fish was caught has a large forage base and it is hard to fathom that it didn’t add any length in an entire year.


Photo by Matt Grobe, July 2013

April 2014

April 2014

Out of the items discussed above, none are as exciting as the pattern we’ve experienced with catching the same fish out of the same location.  This should give you tremendous confidence to go back and fish a spot another day when you move or lose a big brown trout.  Odds are that fish is living there, and he will be in the exact same place next time you are on the water.


Photo by Jared Staskiel, October 2015


Photo by Jared Staskiel, December 2015

Pat Burke

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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