I’ll get right to the point: Your best bet for catching trophy trout is with medium to small flies. More specifically, large nymphs or small streamers are the perfect size.
I’ve written about making the choice between going for big fish or for a bunch of fish, arguing that you can’t have both. I’ve also pushed the point on these Troutbitten pages that catching big fish does not require fishing big flies.
Talking with my buddy, Matt Grobe, the other day, he summed it up like this: Fishing large streamers is the most overrated thing out there for catching the big ones. Nice. And this is coming from a guy who fishes the heart of Montana, around Bozeman and beyond, all year round.
I live in the other fly fishing capitol of the U.S., in central Pennsylvania. And while most of my large trout are caught on smaller patterns, I’ve always figured maybe it’s just a PA thing. We don’t have as many XXL wild trout as the waters in Michigan, Montana and elsewhere. And while I’ve tried to force big streamers on our fish, my most consistent action comes from smaller flies. The more guides I talk with, the more dirty fishermen I get to know, like Grobe, the more I hear the same thing that I already believed — smaller patterns catch large trout. The caveat? You have to fish them really well.
I’ve pushed back on this before, and I’ll do it here again. Fishing big streamers is fun, but it’s not the most consistent way to haul in the river beasts. You can fool the largest trout in the river, more often, with a smaller pattern.
Don’t mistake my point. I know fishing big streamers is fun; I know that big patterns catch big fish; and I know that many guys simply enjoy slinging long, nasty, articulated bugs all day. That’s excellent. Keep doing it. I’m just saying that if someone offers to pay off my mortgage if I catch a big fish today, I know exactly what nymphs I’ll have at the end of my line.
What is small?
Most streamers are too big to be considered small. Even old school streamer patterns tied on #6-8 hooks are not small enough to fit in this class. But there’s some crossover at the tail end of the streamer group — a simple, small bugger is a great producer. Tie them on #10 or #12 hooks and start with a dead drift.
That leads me to this point: Bigger nymphs are a good idea. I don’t catch a lot of large trout on tiny nymphs. Sure I have, but in most cases, the tiny nymph was accompanied by something bigger too. I often trail tiny nymphs (#18 or #20) behind something larger — like that #12 Bugger.
So the medium to large sized nymph — not a “big” fly by most standards — is the sweet spot for size. Again, flies in the #10-12 range, sometimes #8, are my best producers for large trout. I tie most of these on 2X long hooks So, depending on tail length, the flies may be 1-2 inches long.
You have to be good at it, though
All of this is predicated on the idea that you know how to get a good dead drift. And if they won’t take a dead drifted fly, then you better know how to activate the fly with the right motion. What’s right? Well that depends, of course — everything in fishing always depends — but giving the fly subtle strips or using rod twitches mixed in with the dead drift is a great alternative. It’s what I think of a crossover technique — somewhere between streamer fishing and nymphing.
READ: Ask Landon Mayer: One key habit of big trout, and the flies to match
I’m not suggesting that big streamers don’t have their place. I carry a box of large, articulated patterns every time I’m on the water. It’s just not my go-to tactic for hooking the biggest fish in the river.
Smart anglers use big streamers to locate large fish, then they come back with nymphs to precisely target the holding lie and hook a monster. So when a good trout charges your streamer and refuses it, rest him for a while — ten minutes or maybe a couple days — and come back with nymphs to settle the score.
I’ve done this successfully a handful of times. Honestly, it’s one of those things that I wish worked a little more often, but it has produced enough to be a strategy I believe in. If nothing else, it’s fun to have a mission while walking to the water.
What about dries?
All of the above is about underwater flies — nymphs, streamers, wets. And if you want to target the biggest trout in the river, going underneath is undoubtedly your best option.
But bigger dries attract larger fish too. In my favorite big fish waters, I choose one or two sizes larger for my prospecting sizes. I like #12 Parachute Ants instead of the #14’s and #16’s that I regularly fish. Better yet, I like throwing a #10 or #8 PMX back into the dark, brushy shadows because the larger patterns seem to stir up bigger fish more often . . . unless there’s a hatch, then those rules are off the table.
The biggest trout I’ve ever caught, a 26 inch wild brown, took a #16 Adams. So yes, the wonderful thing about fishing is that anything can happen at any time. And I think we all love that.
But day in and day out, if I really want to target big trout, I fish underneath, and I don’t necessarily fish large streamers. Instead I fish large nymphs, buggers or similar flies, usually dead drifted, and sometimes with a crossover. And if I want to cover a lot of water, in search of large trout, I fish big streamers.
Just remember there’s a time and place for everything.
Enjoy the day
T R O U T B I T T E N
I used to fish a technical river in the southeast and while the name of the game was usually midges or mayflies 18 and smaller, a weighted golden stonefly or cranefly pattern could always pull some nice fish in heavier water.
So fish bigger flies but only sometimes and small flies will catch fish but not all the time. Sometimes fish streamers but use varying sizes then sometimes don’t use streamers at all just nymphs make them big but not all the time many times small nymphs will work just as well. haha Fly fishing is so many times both confusing and contradictory at the same time.
Way to make it more complicated, buddy.
Yeah, everything works sometimes.
Here’s a summary: fish #8-12 nymphs for bigger fish.
Great article, but only one technical inaccuracy*. Your take on relatively small flies for big fish jives with trophy trout-man, Landon Mayer. His micro-leech (1.5″) is just a close cousin to your larger nymphs. Your recommendations also fit his “abundant and helpless prey” profile to a tee.The really big articulated streamers are not getting eats – they are getting territorial attacks. That’s why the streamer guys count misses more than they count fish landed. Kelly Gallup explains this very clearly. Cover a lot of water, get lots of follows, lots of misses, and an occasional hook up. Domenick, can’t thank you enough for your brilliant writing. These are some of the most valuable and compelling articles available anywhere. Looking forward to the next 34 tips.
*The “fly fishing capitol of the East is located in New York’s Catskill Mountains. No offense but I meet a fair number of central PA fly guys and they all, to a man, agree that the Delaware/Beamoc systems edge out Spring Creek, Yellow Breeches, Penns Creek, or any of the others. Hey, nothing wrong with second place! Ha!
Hey Dom, I like fishing buggers too, but I’m normally using them as a single fly in #6 and #8. If I wanted to use a bugger in the crossover technique, us the small bugger as the bottom fly and a smaller nymph above it? Also, do you add a bead or a cone to your buggers?
Yes, I’d use the bugger on the point. I sometimes add beads or coneheads, and sometimes I fish them with shot. Different tactics for different things. I’d fish em both ways. You’ll see what the fish like best.
Thanks Dom, gona give that a try next time out. Just wish I didn’t live so far from wild fish haha! Pittsburgh area is about the worst possible part of PA one could live in to chase wild trout! There will definitely be a move in my future when I retire!
We call it trout purgatory down there.
Haha well put!!!