Catching Big Fish Does Not Make You a Stud . . . Necessarily

by | Apr 18, 2018 | 34 comments

Go ahead. Look back through the Troutbitten archives and you’ll find a bunch of photos featuring big, beautiful trout. Some are stocked, most are wild, some were difficult to catch, and others were easy. All of them were a fun time. Chasing the biggest wild browns is part of our culture. It’s a challenge, and it’s a motivator — something that pulls us back to the rivers time and again.

I have friends who are big fish hunters to their core. Nothing else satisfies them. For me, I guess chasing big trout is a phase that I roll in and out of as the years pass. And although I don’t choose to target big trout on every trip, I always enjoy catching them. Who wouldn’t?

Hooking the big ones is part of the allure of fishing itself, no matter the species or the tactics used. What fisherman doesn’t get excited about the biggest fish of the day? It’s fun. And it’s inherent in our human nature to see bigger as better. But is it? Better what? Better fish? Better fisherman?

Is bigger better? Is it always?

There have been some recent dust-ups online about big trout pictures that appeared on the cover of a magazine or in the social media feeds of industry anglers. These arguments and dramas always come down to two things: How was the trout  caught (was the angler unethical?) And how legitimate is the fish itself.

I tune out when people start complaining about social media, though. Braggin’ ‘bout yer catch is not a 21st century technological creation.

Uncle Joe walked into the corner pub in April of 1978 with a fresh Polaroid and a half-true tale accompanying the over-sized fish in his photo. And after a few rounds with his buddies at the bar, the legitimacy of his big brown trout was roundly questioned. Uncle Joe was a snagger, afterall.

Granted, though, a head shot of the twenty-six inch trout that you name “Godzillasaurus Tex” and post to your @eyeflyfish4bigs Instagram account easily reaches hundreds (thousands?) more eyes than Uncle Joe’s Polaroid ever did. So there’s that. And it is different.

I think the more important questions are these: Should we be gawking and fawning over every big trout we see? And what does a big fish in the hands of an angler really say about that person? Does catching a big trout automatically make you a stud? Nope.

Photo by Austin Dando

Who Cares?

There’s one reason people get bent out of shape about big fish pictures, whether online or fronting a magazine cover. And it comes down to authenticity.

You fish hard. You’ve worked for years to dial in your big trout game, and it really bugs you when somebody else takes the easy way out — because it’s cheap. What’s the easy way out? Club fish, farm fish and big stockies that are passed off as something else.

Chasing big wild trout has been your game for a decade. You’ve caught more than a few, because you spent years doing the research, exploring, learning new tactics and fishing hard. So by now you realize a few things about big trout that new guys don’t. And if you’re being honest, you know it can be pretty easy to find a large trout and take its picture (sometimes).

Then one day, you realize that a lot of pictures in those magazines and online feeds are not authentic. And it’s like finding out that professional wrestling is actually fake. Wait, what?

Is it special?

Every big fish is special if it makes someone smile. If it brings two or more people together in friendship, that’s valuable. That’s special. And if it serves as a reward for learning, then yeah it’s special.

But this comes back to authenticity. A trout might provide a special moment, but is it authentic? How rare is it? I think those are fair questions.

I know the easy answer: Who cares. Right? Why should we give a shit about another guy’s fish. Just mind your own business, and quit judging or wondering about the origins or the authenticity or the rarity of anyone else’s trout. But that’s not really fair, and here’s why.

Every shared picture tells a story. Pictures shared are an invitation for others to look and wonder. Some pictures come with a caption or a story, but often, it’s what the author leaves out that creates these questions in the first place. So sharing a picture online, or submitting it to a magazine for publication, must come with an understanding that others will judge the photo. The viewers will consider the fish. They will look at it and wonder. That’s the point of the whole thing anyway, isn’t it?

So, back to the question? What does make a big trout special?

I argue that it’s the rarity of the trout — scarcity makes it special. That’s why we look and why we care, because we don’t see big trout every day.

However, a twelve-inch wild brook trout from Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier is more rare than a two-foot brown from one of the state’s tailwaters, simply because there are fewer of them available to be caught. But foot-long trout don’t draw attention the way two-foot Namers do. And that’s fair again, because it’s human nature to see bigger as better.

So big browns are the major prize for many fly fishers. They’re a gorgeous fish, and the best ones can be tough to catch. But are all big browns created equal? Hell no. And perhaps a more important question remains: Does it take unusual or excellent angling skill to catch them?

Photo by Bill Dell

Wild v Stocked

I wrote about this extensively in a previous article. I argue that there’s a natural hierarchy of trout in Pennsylvania (and elsewhere, too).

The Hierarchy is this: Wild, stocked-as-fingerling, holdover, stocked adult, club fish. Before you get pissed off about this, please read the full article, because I think it’s hard to fairly put those fish classes in any other order.

READ: Troutbitten | Wild vs Stocked — The Hierarchy of Trout in Pennsylvania

Stocked trout are an easier quarry. And in Pennsylvania, unfortunately, stocked fish can be anywhere. The state still stocks over Class A wild trout populations wherever it sees fit, and private clubs dump buckets of big trout into rivers all over the state. I do not think any of that should be legal, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Why does wild or stocked matter? Because wild trout are authentic. They’re the real thing. They were born in the stream and have survived in the wild. But stocked trout are a synthetic product, made by people. They are genetically selected to feed aggressively and grow quickly. They’re conditioned as fry to feed from above. And they learn that a guy with a bucket walking the bank above is not something to be cautious of — it’s feeding time!

Bottom line, the longer a trout stays in a hatchery, in an artificial environment, the less authentic it is, because its behaviors are less . . . wild. Holdover trout and fish stocked as fingerlings may eventually adopt the behaviors of their wild cousins, but they never lose the instinct to feed aggressively. And they are never wild. There’s an authentic disconnect.

Go where the big fish live

I’ve focused mainly on the question of authenticity here. And I’ve argue that wild trout are more special than stocked or club trout. But that’s only half of my point.

I think it’s also fair to consider the skills necessary to catch big trout. Again, should we really be fawning over every large trout? No, because many of those trout aren’t authentic. Likewise, should we fawn over the skills of the angler holding a big trout? Probably not.

Can I be honest here? It does not take exceptional skill to fool large trout. It takes average skill, or a slightly above average presentation. A large trout may be fooled with a streamer, nymph, wet or dry.

Oh, okay then. Every time? Any time? Hell no. But that can be said about any size of fish, right? The presentation must be solid, and if you find the trout in a feeding mood, then it’s fish on. And every good big-fish-fisherman that I know admits this (to a point).

Photo by Bill Dell

No, the real skill for a big trout hunter is persistence. I know a few excellent anglers who target big trout, and I have tremendous respect for their skills. But what I respect most is their dedication, their long hours spent searching marginal water, the miles traveled to return to the same spots and the same fish, over and over again. That’s where the hard work is.

There’s also a talent for fighting big fish. Because without the right techniques and strategy, you’re screwed. I argue that it often takes more skill to land a large trout than to fool them in the first place.

So does catching big fish make you a stud? Not necessarily. But chasing them for a decade and producing one large wild trout after another probably does. Consistently catching big trout is impressive — if those trout are authentic.

What’s your point?

Plenty of big fish are shared innocently enough, with no motive other than to say, “Damn, look at this one.” And we should rob nothing from that experience or mindset.

What I’m pushing back against is some notion that catching big fish (necessarily) means the angler has done something unique, or difficult — because not all big fish are a true prize. And I’m pushing harder against idolizing some angler just because he catches a big fish — because not all big fish are tough to catch.

Finally (and here’s why any of this stuff matters) I’m pushing hardest against using unethical tactics to catch and photograph large fish. The motivation to get that big-trout picture at any cost is dangerous. It does harm to the fish, to the fishery and to our sport itself.

So be wary of big trout in pictures. Many are caught from private clubs that stock and/or feed fish every day. Many of the large trout are state-stocked fingerlings, genetically selected to grow fast and feed aggressively. And dammit, some are from Uncle Joe’s fish pond, where you pay $10 to get through the gate.

What’s the real value of those fish?

Not everything is as it seems, that’s all.


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. Totally buy it. It’s great to catch a monster because it’s fun. When you are more excited about showing off the big fish than you are about fighting it, then things have gotten weird. Trout are beautiful creatures big and small. Its the game, not the score. Thanks for putting it down in words so well!

    • Cheers.

  2. If you fish long and hard enough you’ll get your share of big ones.

    I’d argue the number one way to get at big fish is to go where most people won’t. And all that clambering is studly.

  3. Once again Dom is asking good questions. Fishing comes with nuanced tiers of difficulty and specialization sometimes self imposed. Problems and confusion arise when we conflate size and numbers with success without taking into account the circumstances. Do I enjoy a 5 minute fight with a private water 24 inch brown which would never grow that large in the stream’s natural setting. Heck yes! Does it involve the same difficulty and time and effort of finding and enticing a big wild brown? In most cases no.

    Out with Dom on Spring Creek I hooked and landed a 24 inch sucker. For a minute I thought I had hit the big brown trout lottery. Was I disappointed? Not for the first minute when the unrevealed fish was fighting hard.
    Expectations can enhance or ruin an encounter which could be good on its own merits.

    Pulling a twelve incher out of a difficult pocket where you know there should be a fish can be very rewarding.
    Still, there is something very exciting about big fish and unknown outcomes. Manage those expectations and keep in mind the circumstances. Enjoy the journey!

    • In my circle, that fish is called a…”Jersey Brown”! We can say that. Why?
      We all hail from New Jersey.

      • Around here we call them “Housatonic Silver Trout.”

    • Nice

  4. In the book “Three Men in a Boat” published in 1889 by Jerome K. Jerome, the men end their adventure in a bar near the river. On the wall is an enormous trout and there are several pages dedicated to the history behind the fish and of all the men claiming to have caught it. In the end one of the men climbs on a chair to inspect the fish, accidentally knocks it down, and it smashes into bits of plaster of Paris. With all the claims of greatness, it was never a real fish to begin with. If you enjoy outdoor adventures, you should really read this book. The planning and adventures will be all to familiar to you.

  5. It’s the allure of large wild browns and bows of the West Branch of the Delaware that possesses me and is to blame for my 2+ hour trip there from North Jersey at least once a week when the river is wadable. Like Patrick Sullivan said, fish long and hard and the big ones will come. I guess it’s like gambling. We all want to hit the jackpot.

  6. This topic really seems to stick in your craw, Domenick. This is the second piece you’ve done on it (not exactly the same topic, but lots of overlap between them). I’m just guessing, but I think the bigger issue that’s eating at you is the “look at me” culture fueled by social media. I agree and I hate it (I don’t care about your effing avocado toast).

    In social media, a beginner thinks he can equal the accomplishments of experts in a photo, and he wants to brag about it. It doesn’t matter the type of activity or discipline, it happens in all of them (cooking, working out, music, etc, etc). The thing we can all chuckle about is that the neophyte cannot discern the subtleties that distinguish an expert from the beginner, so he thinks his accomplishment stacks up nicely. To him and his followers – it does. Ironically, the photo of him grinning with a pellet pig that’s meant to impress his fly-fishing idols not only does not do so, it actually “outs” him as a novice, an ignorant wannabe. Regardless, he’s happy. He’s blissfully unaware. So what do I care?

    That pellet pig and a beautiful, buttery brown coaxed from the opaque currents of Penns are vastly unequal, but if the novice is happy with his fish and no harm is done, why is it important to let him know that? For me, simply knowing that difference is enough. The novice’s misplaced confidence doesn’t cheat me from my hard-won fish, my memories. So, we disagree in that regard, but that’s cool. 🙂

    • Thanks, Tom.

      Really, I’ve written many articles around the topic of wild v stocked, and the importance of understanding and respecting the difference. But that’s probably about half of what this article addresses. Like most of the Commentary stuff, too, I think it asks a lot of questions of the reader. I’m fully aware that many anglers don’t agree with my opinions and that’s alright.

      I don’t think the look-at-me culture is a result of social media. As I wrote above, to me, that’s just an easy excuse for one of the traps that humans fall into. I think social media does tend to amplify the tendency, but it’s not the source.

      You argue that it doesn’t matter if anglers know what they are catching. You wrote: “. . . but if the novice is happy with his fish and no harm is done, why is it important to let him know that?”

      But with that I disagree. In fact I believe it so strongly that’s why I write these articles. And there are many experienced anglers who have still never really considered the differences. It’s not just beginners.

      In short, this is about expectations. When pictures or IG accounts that are full of big, artificial or unethically caught trout becomes the norm, then the unaware angler (beginner or experienced) comes to expect the same thing. And those expectations eventually drive more stocking over wild fish, more club feeding, more artificial setups, and perhaps more unethical behavior just to get the picture.

      So I think it’s very important to educate our fellow anglers about these things, to teach that not all trout are created equal, and that not all big fish in pictures are what they might seem



  7. So you raise some interesting points about using authenticity as a replacement for something else. That something else is hard to put a finger on, but I agree it’s something that needs more fleshing out. As for authenticity being used as a measure stick of some sort, you list a number of factors. The provenance of the fish is a decent way to compare fish caught. You mention skill. You mention several ways to gauge skill.
    I feel like you are working towards some grand unified theory of fly fishing for trout. Why? I’m not sure, but keep working man. Keep working on it. Waiting for you to publish your book

    • Dom
      Good luck piecing together your Grand Unified theory of Legitimate Trophy Trout. As in physics, a GUT needs to be quantified. Here is my suggested formula for a GUTOLTT:

      Length(in.) X (*fly type/method) X (^birthright)
      X (#hook point) X (tippet size) X (hook size) X (**help) X (^^ethics)

      *Method values: 0(bead); 0.75(nymph weighted/split shot); 1(nymph unweighted);
      2(streamer, wet fly); 3(dry/dropper); 10(dry fly)

      ^Birthright value: 0(pellet fed stockie); 0.5(stockie; private water); 1(holdover);
      2(wild); native(2.5)

      #hook point: 0.5(multiple hooks); 0.75(barbed); 2(barbless)

      **Help: 0.5(guided; spotter; netted by someone else); 1.5(netted by angler); 2(no net)

      ^^Ethics: 0(foul hooked); 0.1(lined; flossed; lifted); mishandled in photo(0.5); 1.5(clean catch)

      Lets try it out!

      Big wild brown caught on #16 barbless dry fly with 6X tippet – unassisted
      24″ x 10 x 2 x 2 x 6 x 16 x 1.5 x 1.5 = 2017360 LTT pts.

      Big stockie, private water, #4 streamer/2X tippet, netted by guide; mishandled in photo
      24 “x 2 x 0.5 x 0.75 x 4 x 2 x 0.5 x 0.5 = 36 LTT pts.

      Not perfect but definitely more progress than Einstein ever made.

      • Rick and Gerardo,

        Ha. Good stuff.

        I’ll point out, though, I did not bring skill into this equation. I mentioned it above, yes. I mentioned it to say that it takes average skill. My arguments about the differences of trout in pictures are more based on wild, stocked, club fish, rarity and such things.

        In fact, I think bringing discussion of skill into this defeats the purpose of the article. Because, for me, I don’t think that it much matters. I know that many hold up pictures of large trout to say something about their skill level, but that’s largely what I’m arguing against.



        • Hey Dom. I actually think skill is the main point of your article. In your article, your using the word authenticity a lot and given examples of it it Substitute the word skill for Authenticity and you’re making a very strong case for skill being the measure of an angler. Ie. The reason wild trout rank higher than stocked trout is that they require more skill (on the whole) to catch. Which from the little I know about angling, that seems to be valued more among a particular set of anglers than the actually fish, I think. So when we see social media photos showing big fish, we are conditioned to assume the size of the fish equals the skill of the angler and knowing that’s simply not true creates cognitive dissonance which could rankle the more aware and self-aware.

          I really like your conceptual framework you’re using here. Explains a lot about how some anglers, that I really like, think about fishing.

          • Good stuff. I see the way your looking at it, but that isn’t my intended point. As I wrote above, I don’t believe it takes exceptional skill to fool a large trout. I think the skill involved is more about persistence than anything else.

            Many people DO associate big fish with great skill, but that’s exactly what I’m arguing against. I’m saying that a guy’s big fish might be the result of many circumstances that we could consider artificial or even unethical. So we probably should NOT be associate big trout with skill in the first place.



        • “I know that many hold up pictures of large trout to say something about their skill level”
          Sometimes less than average skill to luck into one or have a guide put you on that 22″ his clients have already caught multiple times.

          It takes much better than average skill (and persistence) to hook and land numbers of large trout on a consistent basis.

          • Rick,

            Good discussion.

            You wrote: “It takes much better than average skill (and persistence) to hook and land numbers of large trout on a consistent basis.”

            The landing part, yes I agree. The average angler does not fight fish very well.

            But with the rest of your premise, I disagree.

            First, I guess there’s a lot of wiggle room on what “average skill” is. So maybe we actually think the same thing. But I don’t think so.

            For example, there are places I can take my ten year old son, who is a below average angler, and he can get into large trout if those fish are in a feeding mood. This is the same reason many guides put their clients on large fish all the time — because the trout are there. And if the angler can get a decent presentation — often a drag free drift — then the trout will eat if he’s hungry.

            In short, I believe that most of us catch big trout because we fish over big trout. Basically, put the average angler over big trout, and he’ll catch them once in a while, given the assumption that he’s fishing the right tactics and fishing them well enough.

            In regards to CONSISTENTLY catching big trout, I believe my point holds. If the angler continues to catch big trout, it’s because he fishes big trout waters, not because he is an exceptional angler. But again, the exceptional part is the persistence. Even in big trout waters, it’s not like those big trout are just everywhere, and they are not usually hungry. So the persistence to constantly chase them, to keep fishing and fish frequently is the the most important part.

            Thanks for the discussion.


          • I see your point and I agree – but only when it comes to formal or informal guiding. Extreme fisheries like the Salmon River are a bit of an exception.
            But wouldn’t you agree that skill and persistence are independent.
            A below average angler can fish hard but that doesn’t make him skilled.

          • Yes, I agree that skill and persistence are independent. I don’t think I’m conflating them. I talked about skill and I talked about persistence. Yes, two different things. Although yes, I’m sure that I’ve said somewhere here that persistence is a skill.

            I also don’t think that guiding has much to do with it either.

            So do you believe that large trout are more difficult to fool? It seems that you do, right?

            That’s what I think you and I don’t agree on. I do not think they are more difficult to fool, because I’ve seen too many large trout landed by just getting good presentation over them. It doesn’t take anything exceptional. Just takes a good drift and a hungry trout. I don’t think big trout are any more discriminating than a twelve inch trout — they are just less often hungry or willing to eat. I do believe they are more wary — easier to spook, less willing to feed in the open — but I also believe they eat flies that are just presented well, same as a twelve inch trout.

            That said, I’ll also point out that small trout of 8 inches or so are easier to fool, in my opinion. They are more eager eaters.

            But to reiterate what I posted above:

            In short, I believe that most of us catch big trout because we fish over big trout. Basically, put the average angler over big trout, and he’ll catch them once in a while, given the assumption that he’s fishing the right tactics and fishing them well enough.



          • I disagree on the guiding. Look at the Upper Delaware websites and you will see dozens of average to below average anglers holding big wild browns and rainbows. These same anglers would stand little chance if they had to do it on their own. On the other hand, once a big happy slab is located, I think they are better predators than the little guys and almost easier to get an eat from. So no, I don’t think the trophies are harder to fool but they are much more difficult to locate on highly pressured waters like the East and West Branches.

            So let me ask you this: Under which circumstances does catching a trophy trout become a serious, studly accomplishment?

          • Ha. None.

            Catching big trout does not make anyone a stud. But I do have a good deal of respect for guys who continually pursue and catch large wild browns in wild locations, with no setups. I’ve been through those phases, and I know that it takes work to catch them. Unusual skill? Probably not. Studly? Nope.

            I feel like I said all that in the article though.



  8. I remember looking at an Upper Delaware River guide shop website and seeing a photo of an older gentleman holding a huge slab brown from the West Branch. A friend of mine guided for the shop and the guy with the big brown happened to be his client the day he caught the pictured fish. My guide friend told me that when he netted the trout, the big brown was foul hooked (nymph) in a pectoral fin. He didn’t have the heart to tell the happy client.

    If photos of all the huge salmon, steelhead. and trout from the Salmon River that were foul hooked, lined, flossed, or lifted magically disappeared, there would be surprisingly few legit fish pics left.

    • So true.

  9. Professional Wrestling
    Avocado Toast
    Jersey Brown

    Love this article and the comments-

  10. great article as always. How do you tell a brown stocked as a fingerling and caught as a 10 incher from a 10″ native??? (excluding clipped fins???)

    • You can’t tell. Not reliably. And that’s part of the problem. When the state or a club stocks over wild trout, they take that experience away from the angler.

      Many times, though, it is quite easy to notice a stocked trout: nubby fins and tails, pale colors an such things. Other than that, it can be very hard to tell.

      • Is the blue color on the cheek a possible sign of a wild brown?

        • Hi Louie. A possible sign? Absolutely. But it’s a foolproof marker, or a reliable indicator of wild trout or no. Most have it. Some don’t.



  11. Question – When I caught a whiskey brown trout in 16″ ghost net, damn trout kept jump out the net, what should I do to keep trout at the bottom of the net? I know I did reel in pretty fast so I can release trout healthy. Any advise beside getting myself a Salmon Net, ha. Did I do something wrong?

  12. I would add one more class of fish that is most prized and that is native trout. Remember there are no such thing as native browns anywhere in North America and most rainbows aren’t native either.

    It’s the reason that for me cutthroat trout (which seem to be most susceptible to dubious presentations and big attractor patterns) are my favorite trout. So, it’s not really a question of skill at all for me.

    Unfortunately, most of those big browns and rainbows of Montana have displaced native trout altogether making them more rare and prized than a brown of any size.

    • This is a very fair point, Mark. I am so thankful for our wild brown trout that I probably don’t value our wild brookies like I should. Although imported, if those browns weren’t here in PA, we would have far fewer trout opportunities. The brookies here were forced into the headwaters by logging and industry. Climate change will likely make this worse.


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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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