Big trout are on the lookout for non-escaping prey. Yes, even the largest trout in a river would rather snatch an easy meal that won’t run away from them. Big trout are lazy — let’s call it efficient — and they avoid chasing down their dinner whenever possible. What the heck is non-escaping prey? What flies match these protein forms, and how do you fish them? I asked Landon Mayer for the answers.
Landon is a guide and popular fly fishing author from Colorado. I’ve read his work for years, and while listening to his latest podcast with Roger Maves of Ask About Fly Fishing, I heard Landon say something at the 18:40 mark that really caught my attention. Talking about his Mayer’s Mini-Leech, Landon said this:
“One of my favorite techniques is to find large trout around structure. In the past, I used to deliver a streamer and retrieve back. We noticed that a lot of fish would chase the streamer, but they wouldn’t commit. So we started using nymph rigs and delivering those leeches, whether with a dead drift or with twitches around structure points or undercut banks. And because it has the same movements of a streamer but it doesn’t escape the comfort zone, more large trout are willing to come over and feed.”
Damn, that’s perfect. In fifty seconds, Landon nicely packaged up and delivered something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Most of my big trout come on nymphs. I have a few special flies that have proven themselves as big fish producers over the years. Do they all have something in common? Are they all what Landon describes as non-escaping prey?
Mayer first introduced his non-escaping prey theory in the 2006 book, How to Catch the Biggest Trout of Your Life. The idea is intriguing. I fish nymphs to big fish in a similar way, and even the way I like to fish streamers fits into Landon’s theory.
It got me thinking, so I called Landon to ask a few questions …
Tell me more about non-escaping prey
Landon told me that non-escaping prey is food that can’t swim or fly away. Trout like the easy meal, and large trout, in particular, key in on food forms that stay put, making an easy target.
Think about how fast most baitfish dart around. It takes major energy exertion from a large trout to give chase, and they may miss the meal, ending up with an empty mouth anyway.
So large trout are on the lookout for non-escaping food sources.
What makes the Mini-Leech so special?
I asked Landon, aren’t most nymphs non-escaping? What makes the mini-leech special. Or rather, what makes a good non-escaping fly?
Landon said sure, lots of nymphs are non-escaping, but most big trout won’t grab a pheasant tail nearly as often as they’ll jump on a leech. Size matters.
He believes there are three elements that make a good non-escaping meal for large trout: movement, abundance and size.
The best non-escaping prey are large enough to grab the attention of big trout and entice them to eat.
They also have motion that trout key on, but it’s a motion without enough propulsion to dart away when attacked. Mayer’s Mini-Leech fits the bill perfectly. It’s 1.5 inches long, it pulses and undulates in the water, but trout don’t have to run it down. Leeches can’t swim away quickly to avoid an attack (they probably aren’t even aware of an incoming trout). Trout know this, and trout target leeches.
Landon told me his local rivers are full of leeches. They’re common and plentiful. And that’s important. The best non-escaping food forms are found in the river all year long. With such abundance, trout are used to seeing them and are on the lookout.
What does that do to the predator theory?
These days, everyone wants to say that big trout are predators, that to catch the real hogs we need to turn on a trout’s predatory instinct. They say you need big flies for big fish, because at a certain size range (around 18”) trout convert into predators.
I asked Landon what his non-escaping prey idea does to that predator theory.
Mayer said the predatory theory is valid, and it still applies to his non-escaping prey idea.
Obviously, big trout will chase down and attack a streamer, but the conditions have to be right. (That’s for sure.) Lighting, water level and clarity, time of day, season, etc., all of it must be just right to get a good streamer bite. Instead of waiting around for the stars to align, Landon likes to put the Mini-Leech into those big trout spots, giving them a non-escaping, easy meal.
Mayer believes that the best big-fish flies represent a food form that is abundant enough, just large enough, and has the right motion to turn on a large trout’s predatory instinct.
How about other patterns?
Landon said there’s something about the squirming, pulsing nature of the micro pine squirrel of his Mini-Leech that draws fish in. But remember, it’s not a full-blown Slumpbuster either. A Slumpbuster can look too much like a baitfish that might swim away.
Likewise, the legs of some stonefly patterns, or the jiggle of a Squirmy Wormie may have the right motion. But are they abundant enough?
That’s the real challenge — to find the best non-escaping food source in your own rivers. The availability of some of those food forms are seasonal, or they’re best during high water events. But the most deadly patterns will be found in the water year-round.
I’d start with Mayer’s Mini-Leech in your own rivers. Then look at stoneflies, worms, and perhaps … crayfish?
The Troutbitten spin
For years, my best big-trout flies have been very small crayfish. I tie them in a few sizes, and they range from 1-2 inches. Burke does well with small buggers.
Any good idea will attract some creative variations, right? So I’ll put my spin on Landon’s non-escaping prey theory.
I fish the small crayfish as Landon describes, mostly nymphed, with some occasional twitches and very slight movement — and it can be deadly. It’s my go-to tactic when I know there are big trout in the area.
But crayfish move quickly, don’t they? Yes … when they’re healthy …
Many of my favorite rivers are absolutely packed with crayfish. (The best way to see this is to check some side-water on a dark summer night. If they’re abundant in your river, you’ll find crayfish in a wide range of sizes all over the place.)
With a large population of any organism, there’s bound to be a lot of die-off. So trout should be very familiar with what a dying or injured crayfish looks like. Healthy crayfish hug the bottom, and if they’re in the water column, they move quickly. The way I fish small crayfish puts the fly somewhere off the bottom and mostly dead drifting. It looks injured. It’s tied from pine squirrel and rubber legs, so it has a ton of that pulsing motion that Landon believes is so important.
Trout may also mistake my small crayfish pattern for a stonefly. Who knows what trout really see? Either way, both of those food forms are in the water year-round. Stoneflies mature in two to four years, so there’s always a range of sizes in the river (see Dave Whitlock’s Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods).
Likewise, I often fish my sculpin patterns the same way, slightly off the bottom with only a bit of motion. Again, healthy sculpins hug the bottom of the river. So perhaps the way I fish the sculpin signals a dying or injured sculpin — a non-escaping prey — and trout pounce on it.
To be fair, I catch more large fish on smaller patterns like the crayfish, Squirmies and small Buggers than my 3-inch sculpin.
I have confidence in these flies as non-escaping food forms because I’ve used them. I’ve dialed them in, and I have success stories that I can tell you. I’ve rarely fished leeches, other than the standard, larger patterns.
In conversations with other PA anglers I’ve gotten varied opinions on the abundance of leeches around here. For what it’s worth, my friend Chase recently helped with a river cleanup on the Delaware river. They dredged up a bunch of tires from the river, and Chase said that leeches were everywhere.
I’m putting some Mini-Leeches in the nymph box.
If the non-escaping prey theory interests you, then pick up Landon’s book, How to Catch the Biggest Trout of Your Life.
And Landon Mayer’s Mini-Leech is detailed in his book 101 Trout Tips, complete with tying instructions.
Thanks for the conversation, Landon Mayer.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N