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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
T R O U T B I T T E N