Not all rivers hold big trout. Maybe you already knew that, but it took a long time for me to grasp this reality, and I’m still trying to make peace with it. People exaggerate, and fishermen just flat-out lie. So after too many conversations with parking lot experts, I was left believing that my home waters held some two-foot fish and a bunch of Whiskeys (a Troutbitten term for a brown trout over twenty inches). I used to be happy enough catching a bunch of trout, but the more I fished, explored and learned every cold-water pocket within a hundred-mile radius of my home, the more I began to question just what I was doing wrong. Why wasn’t I finding these legendary trout? And why weren’t my friends catching them either?
There’s a simple answer, of course. And it goes like this: you can only catch what’s in the river.
Some, most of the waters in our area have precious few specimens beyond the high-teens mark. And if you catch a 19 incher, well there’s your trophy. And trying to push past that measurement around here will lead you into madness.
Really, there’s a trophy in every river and every brook. By my definition, the largest class of trout existing in a river system is the trophy. So, because an 11 inch brook trout from a PA state forest tributary is just as rare as the 26 inch leviathan from the Yellowstone River, shouldn’t they both be considered trophies? Aren’t they both just as special? Sure they are. But have you ever felt the weight and strength in the muscles of a truly HUGE wild brown trout? They are majestic, and it’s no wonder fly fishermen become captivated in the pursuit of such extraordinary creatures.
These days, most trophy hunters cast large streamers, usually articulated, often tied behind heavy leaders and sink tips and jerk-stripped to elicit a predatory response from the trout. But when this “big bait catches big fish” philosophy gets pushed too far and into the wrong waters, it ends up in wasted time and spooked fish. I know, because I’ve done it. I fished the modern streamer methods around here for a full year with very little to show for it. I eventually learned something important: more reasonable patterns (e.g., the actual size of a sculpin) presented as available food instead of a fleeing intruder catch more fish — and larger fish — in these waters. Maybe it’s the same for your waters. The only way to find out is to fish a lot — and that’s a good thing.
In truth, I also jerk-strip big articulated streamers whenever I can. Because it’s fun, and because sometimes it works (although my flies top out at 4”). It’s just not my go-to method for streamer fishing. The best brown trout are moody, picky, temperamental beasts that present a new challenge every day. And it’s hard to keep up with what they want — I’m thankful for that.
I guess we are in the golden age of streamer fishing now, and it’s exciting to see what flies and tactics the best fishermen are coming up with. I think it’s important to keep pushing the boundaries and exploring. I understand the concept of bite windows and prime times for baitfish availability, but I have to believe that more is possible in the streamer game — that something big is missing from our knowledge base — that something can be developed and discovered that truly changes the game. It’s just more fun to believe in these possibilities and keep trying to fill in the gaps.
There’s also a time to stop casting hopeless streamers at hopeless times. Tie on a nymph and target the prime lies. That’s probably how most Troutbitten Whiskeys have been caught. But sometimes, those fish were first located when they chased a streamer.
I’ve gone through a couple phases of trophy hunting, but I’m always careful to return to my roots before the obsession overtakes me. I don’t want to lose my enjoyment for the simple things on the water: the friendships, the forests, the mountains, the mysteries and the way thick, cool moss on limestone feels like a sofa cushion for a mid-stream lunch. Those are the good things that are available every time I put on my waders, even though the big fish usually aren’t.
While going in and out of these phases of trophy hunting for wild browns, I’ve learned that I was looking for big trout in the wrong places. I had to seek out new rivers. And sometimes, I simply had to find new places on my old rivers. Point is, I learned that trophy hunters need a target. It’s not enough to go to the same places and fish the same ways as you always have. You have to learn where the big fish are, go there, and put on your patience pants — because Whiskeys don’t come easily.
As in all fishing (and most of life, I suppose) there’s a lot of luck involved in trophy hunting. I think all you really need is a decent presentation with a reasonable fly, and after that it’s up to the fish. The talent of a good trophy hunter is not in the way he casts the line or drifts the flies (average skill will suffice) — it’s in his persistence. The dedication to fight through the slow times, day after day, to travel, to walk miles of unproductive water, and the desire to plan trips around one fish instead of many is what makes a consistently successful trophy hunter. And that consistency is what’s impressive.
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Exactly one month ago, I told my Troutbitten friends that I was getting out of the big-fish race car again — that I would get back to where I once belonged (McCartney) and just go fishing instead of looking for the next big one. Why? Well, it’s exhausting. As I mentioned, there aren’t many truly large wild trout in this region, so without a good bit of traveling, there’s not a lot of success. And, when “good” and “successful” fishing starts to be defined only by how big the fish are, I start to get a little twitchy. I simply needed a break from the year-and-a-half that I had mostly dedicated to trophy hunting.
Sometimes you can’t find what you’re looking for until you turn your back. Last Sunday, I finally got lucky . . .
I piled my gear into Burke’s truck at 5:00 am. The coffee went quicker than the snowy drive, but with the conversation on big wild trout, time always seems to fly by. Burke is easily the best big-fish-fisherman I know. His commitment to the trophy hunting pursuit is teetering on manic obsession — and he knows this. To Burke, that’s the only way to do it. His consistency for pulling big fish is startling. I love being around people with an uninhibited passion for whatever it is they do.
We met up with our good friend and fellow big trout nut, Chase Howard, for a long float in the Cadillac (Chase’s skiff), anxious to see if we’d be dodging icebergs in the flow, or if we could even keep the frozen stuff out of our guides long enough to shoot casts of feathers and fur to the banks.
As anticipated, the morning was slow and piercingly cold. And sometime before noon I had to exit the boat to run a few laps on the bank just to get the blood flowing through my feet again. (Burke and I later discussed what the alarm signals of true frostbite are. At what point is long term damage sustained? Is it okay to get past the painful tingling and into the literal numbness of your toes? Because we’ve all done this many, many times). This time, I felt my toes pretty quickly after a good run, and we cast off into the river’s current once again.
Chase hooked into something big that wouldn’t even consider moving off the bottom before it tragically threw the hook. And a little while later Burke landed one of the biggest brown trout I’ve seen in years. Those fish, along with drive-bys from a few more, reminded us to keep our heads in the game.
I’ve been working on some different retrieves with some off-the-wall patterns, and I’ve been trying to consciously stick with one retrieve for a few minutes before switching to another. I’ve noticed that if I allow myself to randomly strip and mix things up, I quickly fall back into the same routines and the same retrieves. Maybe that’s okay. But when things are slow, I like to have something to focus on. So, I know exactly what I was doing when the moment came. It’s what I think of as a Strip Double-Jerk & Pause. (Hey, all good things need a name). The fish hit on the pause . . .
We all knew that the quick, deep bend of the rod signaled a significant fish.
“Oh yeah. Here we go!” Chase yelled from the stern.
The fish swam downstream, staying close to the bottom, and when her large side caught the current, my rod thumped and the reel gave up line. I wound in the excess and then felt a small loop double-wrapped around the butt section of my rod. Bad news. With the rod tip high, I tried to calmly and quickly work the loop free and somehow keep the line tight to the fish. Just then, Pat (on the oars) pushed us forward to gain ground on the fish, and she started swimming upstream. The combination of those two actions put me in a terrible position with no way to pick up slack as I worked the loops free — more bad new. I leaned back with the rod as far as I could and yelled to Burke,
“ROW BACK NOW!”
Burke dug in hard with the oars, and the skiff surged upstream again, critically picking up the developing slack in the line as I finally untangled the last loop and got the fish on the reel. Disaster averted, the fish swam starboard, and I pulled up hard enough that we all got our first look at what was hooked.
“That’s a goooood fish,” Burke laughed.
It surged a few more times and finally surrendered to the top. So I swung the rod around to deliver the beast to the side of the boat where Chase netted it like a p-r-o-fessional. A few whoops and hollers later, and we were anchored up on the side of the river, ready for a picture and the release.
I usually remain calm in pressure situations, but all my adrenaline is released afterward. As we set up and took pictures, I stumbled around, slipped on the ice in the boat, was visibly shaking . . . and couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot.
Experiencing these moments with good friends is what makes them even more enjoyable. It’s the camaraderie, the teamwork, and the shared craziness that makes moments like these as powerful and lasting as they are.
Lots of fist bumps and whiskey drinking later, it hit home for me that I’d finally get to name another fish. When we met and started fishing with Grobe a few years ago, he brought along the tradition of naming all wild fish over two feet. But it’s been a while since I eclipsed the mark. Naming fish may seem like a silly tradition, but it’s our tradition. This is Troutbitten.
And this is Jercules.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N