Super-Prime Lies and Big Trout | The Spots within the Spots

by | Sep 12, 2017 | 30 comments

We talk a lot about big wild brown trout. The search for these extraordinary fish is what keeps us going. It’s part of the Troutbitten culture. And the inch marks of Whiskey (20+) and Namer (24+) are ingrained here. To some of us big fish are everything, but to all of us they are something very special for sure. And targeting super-prime lies is one way to catch these big trout consistently.

I recently wrote about locating and fishing rivers where big trout live. But that’s not nearly enough. To catch the big trout in your rivers, you have to know their specific address and go right through the front door. In every river there are places that harbor larger fish. But the real secrets are inside those places. This is where the true talent and skill of a big-fish angler emerges.

Catching big trophy trout doesn’t require anything more than a good drift or a strip with the right fly. Average or slightly above average skill is needed for the presentation, and it’s really not that tough. But the unusual skill, the unique challenge, is to fish long enough, to fish hard enough and be thoughtful enough to find the spots within the spots. And that . . . is not easy.

Could be. Should be. Reality

It’s natural to assume that big fish could be anywhere in the river. I’ve seen the idea in print and heard it in conversation too many times. While there’s a kernel of truth to the concept, the idea is misleading. Big trout could be anywhere, but they’re usually not.

It’s also natural to figure that big fish reside near structure. And they do. But there’s more to it. Good anglers quickly learn the concept of prime lies — areas that provide both excellent cover and feeding opportunities generally have the largest trout residents on the premises. But there’s a level beyond that. The spots within the spots are super-prime lies. These are places that hold big trout (almost) all the time. They are as reliable as anything in fishing ever gets. Not a guarantee, of course, but there’s a good chance that a Whiskey will see your fly.

That big trout you’re after could be anywhere in the river, but he’s probably not. He’s more likely holding in a super-prime lie for most of the day, and even through the night. You could fish everywhere (fish all the water), but if you’re targeting big trout, then try finding smaller targets. Choose more narrowly defined pieces of river to focus on.

Good browns don’t always move to the tailouts or the shallows at night. Oftentimes, they are in the same prime-lies where they hold during the day.

How narrow is too narrow? How small is too small?

Instead of thinking about targeting a one-hundred yard section of water, think about finding the five foot bucket or the ten foot trench within those one-hundred yards. And instead of fishing the prime lie beside a pile of submerged spruce trunks, find the best corner of swirling current among those sticky branches.

Zoom in. Get specific. Because, within every good spot, there’s a best spot. And when you find it, you can really dial things in. The best fish will be there day after day.

But how and where?

Finding super-prime lies takes time, and it’s folly to try and accelerate that process. Exploration is an earned prerequisite and a reward in itself, so trying to bypass experience is missing the mark. (It’s also bad fishing Karma.) In the end, the river has a way of dealing with pretenders.

So go fish these places often, and fish them hard. Which places?

Mentally catalog the locations that give up fish, especially bigger ones. Try to dial in one seam within a great spot. Present identical casts to the same prime lie until you understand it. The flies at the end of your line are your probe, your tool for discovery and an extension of your own curiosity. Cast to the same spot and learn. Eventually, you’ll find the super-prime lie if there is one.

Fish dry flies to understand the surface currents, but especially fish nymphs and streamers to learn about the bottom, because that’s where the big trout are holding. Learn the area well enough to understand where the rocks and snags are.

To find the super-prime lie within a good spot, just keep fishing it. Return and fish the places that give up better trout. Try to find the best piece of water within a small area. And then believe what the fish tell you.

Low water is an excellent time to learn more about your favorite big fish spot. By wading through, you’ll discover the small buckets, skinny ledges and minor drop offs. These are the places where big trout hold.

Often, these spots are invisible, even in low water, but you’ll find super-prime lies by fishing thoughtfully and repeatedly wherever you’ve caught larger trout. Such places should peak your interest, then you go back to learn the secrets.

Photo by Pat Burke

What lies beneath

Many of these small areas hold multiple large fish. I know places where 18-inch fish hang out with Whiskeys in the same tight spot. Standard fly fisher’s wisdom tells us that only one meathead dominates the area. Big trout are supposed to want a space all for themselves, but that’s not always true. And sometimes multiple big trout just want their noses in the same sweet spot of water.

Super-prime spots are rare, but they are worth the time to find, because they always hold good fish. Sometimes the same big brown trout hangs out in one pocket for years, and if you’re lucky you’ll catch him a few times and watch him grow. When he expires, another larger brown trout will take his place.


In my waters, there’s rarely more than one super-prime spot in a one-hundred yard stretch, and they are much rarer than that. On one of my favorite rivers, I can think of only about ten such spots in an eight-mile stretch. That’s not to say there aren’t more. I just haven’t found them yet. But I’ll keep searching, because tracking these down is a welcome challenge to a big-fish-fisherman.

Photo by Pat Burke

Once upon a time

There’s a two-hundred yard stretch of alternating pocket water and riffles that rolls along through a stand of hemlocks, bordered by deep, wide pools on either end.

There are many good zones within the area, and within those zones are some prime lies that most experienced fishermen certainly focus on.

I fished the area for three years, until one day I caught two upper-teens fish and a Whiskeys from the same small spot. Naturally, I started focusing on that specific area every time I went back. I did well there at times, but I knew I was missing something.

Last year, I saw all of it during the low water of a drought. I wasn’t even fishing, just exploring to see what I could learn about this section of river, and its secrets were revealed. The river was open and exposed by low water. I waded through the sweet spot and found a trench about ten feet long, two feet wide, and maybe a foot deep. Bingo! That trench makes up the super-prime lie. And now, if I can get the right fly with the right drift down into the ditch, I often catch a very large trout.

Nothing lasts forever

The best spots sometimes go dead. My all-time favorite sweet spot just doesn’t produce anymore. The super-prime lie was a small bucket in the riverbed, and it’s still there, but the big fish are gone. Somehow, in some way, the currents changed. Or some unseen condition that I cannot sense changed as the years have passed, because rivers grow and live and develop. And thank God for that.

Fish hard, friends.


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky



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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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  1. Good job terrific advise; for most it takes a lifetime to learn these facts….if we ever do

  2. Great essay, especially the last section. Heraclitus would have approved.

    • I love that thought; “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

  3. And, maybe this is right place to say it: this is without a doubt the best fly fishing blog on the web. You’re doing fantastic work, Dom.

    • I learn something here every time I read this blog. Fantastic advice and information here. Thank you Domenick.

  4. Such a great post. So true that miles of water can have only a few prime spots. There were several rivers that came to mind when you mentioned that. I thought of one spot in general I’ve fished for years. I can never get a cast I feel is proper and by the time I do I think the big fish has already seen my game and either ignored my fly or figured something is not right and now is more eager to stay hunkered down. I find my best chances to find the good spot be prepared and ready to catch the fish on my first or second cast. That’s all the chances I’m gonna get. If I fail at that I might get another chance several hours later but usually it takes 24hrs or so until the fish let’s me get another shot.

  5. OK I’ll show my ignorance: what is a Whiskey? 20+ but why is it called Whiskey?

    • Yeah, through the pages of Troutbitten I’ve used the term Whiskey a lot. The Troutbitten guys have had a tradition for a long time: some of us carry a flask of whiskey and celebrate with any fish over 20 inches. Namers are any fish over 24 inches — we give them a name, like Jercules or Honey Bunny. Lol. I’m sure it seems dumb, but hey, it’s our kind of dumb.

      • Not dumb at all. And some of us crack the flask at any fish. Therefore, in one sense, they are all whiskeys! Thanks for the insight, especially looking when the water is down.

  6. I just found this place and have to say….you not only write like Hemingway, but your content is awesome! Well done my friend

  7. Hello. Most of the prime spots on my fav river were gone after hurricane irene. After, there were new holes and pockets all over that river for the trout to play in. It was sad to see some of my most productive holes gone. Keep posting and I will keep reading.

  8. Catching that “fish of a lifetime” is part luck and part skill IMHO. I’ve been fly fishing for nearly 2 decades and have yet to land him! However, what I have learned through the years is reflected in this post. Before making a first cast on a new water or unfamiliar stretch, I search for, what I call, the sweet spot…..the most likely holding area for trout. Having spent a lot of time studying trout behaviors, I feel I have become quite adept in reading water and my results bear this out. A few weeks ago, I was fishing a remote section of my home water, the South Holston in east TN, when I spotted a rise that appeared to be from a large fish. I had already caught several in the same area but this fish seemed special. I went back to the same spot last weekend and again spotted him while studying the area from afar. Although I was unable to lay eyes directly on him, the huge wave of water he pushed out in front of him gave the appearance of a submerged Volkswagen. I have to believe this wild brown is in the 25-30″ range. Needless to say, I wanted my shot at him. Although I cannot speak from experience, I believe MANY stars have to align perfectly to net the “fish of a lifetime.” I firmly believe you have to be perfectly positioned, make a perfect presentation with the right fly, and…… only get ONE shot! This is a tall order for anyone. Needless to say, I went away empty handed. I could tell you how he is located tight to the bank under a low hanging tree in slack water with faster currents between us and while that would all be true, the bottom line is I lack the requisite skills to net him. So, in this particular case, I was indeed lucky to find such a rare fish but don’t have the skills to seal the deal. So, while we all dream of one day winning the lottery, as fly fishermen, we can all dream of landing such a fish…

  9. Hello! I’m new to Troutbitten. Always a good read and I look forward to seeing it pop-up on my Email. I certainly understand about super prime lies. I live in Northern CA and one of my home waters is the Lower Yuba River. In the winter of 2016 we had record rain fall with flows exceeding 30,000 cfs that totally changed the river landscape and blew out the prime lies from years of sweat equity to discover. Present day I’m back out on the water and rediscovering new lies. You’re article is correct in that it’s a continuous journey with an ever changing landscape. Many “Thanks ” for sharing your knowledge…, your writing is a pleasure to read.

    • Thank you, Ty. We also have gotten a ton of rain. On one of my favorite rivers, I walked down the path and waited to see the island as my landmark for where to start fishing. It was gone! Whole island, just washed away. Yea, that’ll change things.

  10. New to the blog for a few months. Good stuff from winter fishing to mono rigs, and now super prime lies! Thanks and have a great season ahead. I’m just down the road from you in Virginia; only a few spring creeks down here but quite a few freestones. I also get to fish out in NM, CO and MT as a side to work and these tips are very relevant. Keep up the great work. Your blog is one of the best on the web!

  11. Domenick,

    Thanks, for all the great articles. I have been following your blog for approximately one year and look forward to reading them. I especially enjoyed reading how to prepare for winter fishing since it provided several great ideas for Christmas presents for my son (37) who is just getting involved in fly fishing.

  12. Any chance you can describe the following features of a prime lie?
    Current? Depth? Structure? Pressure? Other?
    Thanks D

    • Hey Rick,

      So here’s a smart ass answer:

      Variable. Variable. Variable. Variable. Variable.


      Truly, that’s kind of the way it is. I’ve found prime spots in various currents, depths, structures, etc. It just depends on the river and your own trout. Lots of times, it’s a five foot trench, a little deeper than the rest. Sometimes, it’s a small depression next to a brushy bank. Sometimes it’s a wide bucket at the bottom of a good run. I guess what a lot of those have in common is an area that’s a little deeper than the rest. But not too deep …

      There are other articles here with similar ideas. Look through the Fifty Tips section. I’m not at my desktop right now to find the specific articles, but they are there.

      Email me if you like.

      Cheers, Rick.


  13. ‘In the end , the river has a way of dealing with pretenders’ so so true.

    • Ha! I’m thinking about putting that one on a tee shirt. No joke.

  14. Great blog! I’m always talking about the spot within the spot within the spot. so in non fisherman terms: the access site where you park/then that 30 foot bend in the river that makes a nice hole (it’s probably got a common name to the locals) and then in that hole there’s a 4 foot by 3 foot spot.

    That’s why I don’t mind sharing with other anglers where I caught that nice fish…I can name the run or hole. But there’s no name for the spot within the spot within the spot. I’ve learned about it from fishing my home river for two decades.


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