Where to find big trout | Part One: Big, Bigger, Biggest

by | Sep 4, 2019 | 21 comments

Let’s define big.

Any trout measuring in the mid-teens is a respectable fish. I think that’s fair. And anything eighteen inches or over is “big.” Trout that have grown to over twenty inches are what we call a Whiskey, and twenty-four-inch wild trout are Namers — following Troutbitten tradition, you have the rights to name that fish. Is that silly? Sure it is, but catching a trout just to put it back seems kinda odd to some people too, doesn’t it?

Now, if eighteen-inch trout are so common in your home stream that you don’t consider them big, then God bless you and let’s be friends. But around here, the markers mentioned above define our classifications for wild trout. Think of them as big, bigger and biggest.

Let’s address what wild means too, right from the beginning. This Troutbitten series is about the hunt for wild fish — not club fish, private water setups or stocked trout. That’s not to say there’s no value in catching those other trout — they simply are what they are. And I’ve dug deep into the discussion of artificial trout before. Basically, if your buddy is producing one big fish after another, be skeptical. If it’s easy — if it’s predictable or repeatable — there’s a setup. Always. Like anything else in this world, if it seems too good to be true . . . it is.

READ: Troutbitten | Why Wild Trout Matter

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

Okay, so we’ve defined the terms for this big trout series. We know what big is, and we’re going after wild trout. Why does that matter? Because these places and tactics I’ll cover for catching big trout are tailored to the wild ones. Club fish are different — they expect to be fed from the banks and can easily be stimulated into feeding by tossing dry dog food in the water. (Yes, that’s true.) And most stocked trout, no matter how young they are stocked — still come from a gene strain that prioritizes aggressive feeding and quick growth. So any idea that holdovers eventually become just like wild trout is naive. They don’t. They feed more easily, and they grow faster. Wild trout, on the other hand, follow the laws of nature. And no fisherman has ever understood those laws with any degree of certainty.

Why then, would I write these articles?

That’s a fair question.

I’ve had this series in mind for a while, and I think it’s time to write it down. I’ve merged in and out of the big-trout-hunting game for years. And I keep veering south of the lane because I don’t like what prioritizing large trout does to me. So I enjoy it for a while. And then I deliberately change my goals. But I keep circling back around. Because the search for Hog Johnson is fun. It’s inspiring, enjoyable, addictive and motivating. No one, and I mean no one, looks at a two-foot wild brown trout and says . . . “meh.” A top tier wild trout is impressive. These trout are at the end of a life cycle. Their teeth are big and sharp. They’re wise and battle scarred. Most of them are a decade old or more. They’re the biggest of the bigs. And doesn’t every sport strive for the best?

I know some of the most skilled and dedicated big trout hunters in the game. We’ve shared ideas and flies. I’ve witnessed and participated in their success. It’s a fun time. And the biggest keys are persistence and analysis. The drive to make something happen instead of just lucking into a fortuitous fish is what makes the fishy guys so fishy. It’s not the fly. It’s not the line, the rod or the reel — God no, it’s certainly not the gear. And in the last thirty-some years of trout fishing I’ve learned that if you choose your target and understand the river, you can put big trout in the net on a regular basis. Sure, you may have to adjust your other goals or even give them up completely. Should you? That’s up to you.

Photo by Matt Grobe

Some rivers hold big trout, and some don’t

It’s a fact. And no amount of wishing will change this. You can’t make your home stream hold Whiskeys. Around here, when someone tells me they caught a two-foot wild trout from my home water, I know they’re either lying, they’re inexperienced, or they were fishing the private water section we call the Stink Farm. Because real trout just don’t grow that big on my home stream. I know the regulars, and we’ve collectively put in hundreds of thousands of hours — enough to know the truth. For some reason, this water grows a ton of wild trout, but very few large ones.

So the first step toward catching big trout is fishing the right river. In truth, most watersheds do hold big trout. And some of the ideas in this series will help you find them. Time on the water is the best teacher. And ninety percent of what you hear about most rivers is probably bullshit. Explore and learn these places for yourself. Try to forget the rumors. Discover the truth.

Catch a bunch . . .

The best way to catch a big trout is to catch a bunch of trout, and one of them will be big. This is a tried and true Troutbitten philosophy. And when I get a little too deep into the hunt for big trout, when the action is slow and my soul is wearing thin, I bring myself back to this mantra. Learn to catch a bunch of fish. That’s the measure of a good angler, and it’s usually more fun anyway. When your skills are refined enough to fool a bunch of wild trout, then you won’t blow your chance when you finally do locate some of the places we’ll talk about in this series.

Caution, please

Catching big trout does not make you a stud.

And if you do catch a good one, taking its picture is never more important than the health of the fish.

This summer, I landed some top tier trout in the lower regions of what’s commonly considered trout water on one of my favorite northern county rivers. These were gorgeous fish, landed in water with temps hovering in the mid-sixties. But on such big rivers, the only good place to take a picture of these trout was near the banks. Trouble was, the side water was considerably warmer than the middle, cold, oxygen-rich runs. So I released these Whiskeys without even considering a picture.

Just get ‘em back in the water, so someone else can catch them next time. Above all, the resource — the trout — must come first. A lot of this takes self-discipline and wisdom, so make sure you have some.

READ: Troutbitten | How to Hold a Trout

I’ve held off on this series for a long time, because I don’t want to feed a growing culture that seems to idolize anglers who catch big trout. But this series is an effort to break through that foolishness, to show that it doesn’t take exceptional technique or skill to catch big trout. It takes an understanding of where they are and what they eat. It requires some forethought. And above all, it takes persistence to catch big trout consistently.


So come on . . . where are they?

There are certain parts of a river that harbor big fish. Season after season, the biggest trout are there.

Many of the legends surrounding big trout in this sport are pure myth.

— The biggest trout feed only at night — not true.

— To catch a big trout you need big flies — that’s a lie.

— Trout over eighteen inches become predators, feasting only on baitfish — simply not true.

— Big Hank, the Legendary Brown Trout lives under that old log. — this one might be true.

In all my years on the water, I’ve believed each of these standards at one time or another. I think we all have. But eventually, the reality of things stares you down. And when forced into it, you ask new questions and find new answers. I did that.

And now, I go to certain water types and river structures to target big trout. Every watershed that harbors the big ones has a few of these locations. It’s up to you to find them and fish them well.

In the next article, I’ll cover what just might be my favorite place to find big trout: the spillouts . . .

Fish hard, friends.

This is Part One of a Troutbitten series on finding big trout..

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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. Favorite line, “ninety percent of what you hear about most rivers is probably bullshit. ” Heh, heh.

    • And my favorite line is – “I don’t want to feed a growing culture that seems to idolize anglers who catch big trout.” Amen Dom!

  2. Love this post! November 1st is quickly approaching Dom. The idea of hooking one large wild brown makes me incredibly excited, even at the risk of not catching!

    • Fully agree with article, definitely nothing is more important than your own discovery about rivers and trouts.

    • I get a lot of guys who say the same. I feel that way on many days myself. Looking forward to our trip, Jon.



  3. Fantastic start to a fascinating topic!

    “It takes an understanding of WHERE they ARE and WHAT they EAT.”
    Trying hard not to be an annoying a-hole here, but . . .
    (Just extremely excited about this series)

    Can we assume that you will also cover,”WHEN” they’re most catchable – those river, weather, and light conditions and times of year when they are most active and more likely to be caught?

    And what about the “WHY” feeding v. territorial/reflexive strikes?

    Any chance that you will include “patterning” – a la bass fishing?

    Can’t wait for the next installment.

    • Hi Rick,

      Ha! That’s not being an a-hole. Good questions. And I appreciate the interest.

      Many of your questions are addressed (at least partly) in the articles linked above. Under the heading “Read More About Big Trout.” If you read through those articles, you’ll get a good idea of my thoughts and philosophies regarding when, why and other things.

      My idea for this multi-part series is to directly cover a few particular areas WHERE I find larger trout. I’ll probably not complicate the topic with patterns or talk of seasons and other things in this series. Down the line, I plan to expand the whole thing. The next mini-series would likely be WHAT they eat. But I don’t know yet. Eventually, the whole thing will read like chapters in a book.

      Thanks again for reading.



  4. Never thought about Trout fishing as much till I discovered Trout bitten Absolutely some of the best reading I’ve enjoyed for years , can’t wait on part ll !

    • THANKS Tim. That’s a wonderful compliment.

  5. “Above all, the resource –the trout– must come first”. Thumbs up to that statement. I graduated into the “barbless only” crowd a while back. How about you Dom?

    • Three thumbs up! Fly fishing is no place for Barb-barians!
      Going barbless is a win(trout)-win(fly)-win(human tissue)-win(clothing/gear)-win(time)
      decision. Losing the very occasional fish is no excuse given the advantages – especially to the trout.
      The big streamer craze has produced more mangled jaws than I care to count.

      • Yeah, I think going barbless is especially important on streamers.

    • I go barbless for my own sake first. And it helps the trout too. I don’t feel the need to buy manufactured barbless though. I just pinch down the micro barbs on modern hooks.

  6. This is a great article. Most guys who say they are consistently landing 20″ wild trout either never measure trout, don’t know how to read a tape measure, or are stretching the truth. I have caught hundreds of honest 20″ trout but it has taken me sixty years to do that. I have been fortunate to have spent three years of summers fishing Montana waters (over 1000 days) Some waters just don’t support big fish and if they do they aren’t going to be easy to catch. You need either great, consistent, aquatic insects in the ecosystem or you are throwing big streamers during optimum times.

  7. I fish all over north Georgia, chattaga S.C. now home water is Cumberland in ky. ,it’s a big river with alot of fish, 15 to 18 inch slot and only one of each species over that ,brook are protected. But alot of them. Do you think there’s a length of time that some of these will behave more like wild fish? I’ve been out west fly fishing on business trips but now 65+ more on budget, I enjoy reading your articles. THANKS!

    • Hi Glenn,

      Frankly, no. They will never be all that wild. And I’ll probably be blasted by some people for saying that.

      People tend to defend what they have and what they know. So many guys will assert that holdover trout are just like wild ones. But having fished over both wild and stocked fish a LOT in my lifetime (PA has both), I can say that stocked trout behavior is different, even when they are clearly holdovers.

      Now, is it like fishing for a different species? Absolutely not. But they are a little more gullible, a little less cautious.

      And these are not just my thoughts. Anyone interested in this stuff will enjoy reading An Entirely Synthetic Fish, by Anders Halverson.

      Find it here:


      Stocked fish are genetically different. They feed aggressively and grow unnaturally fast.

      It is what it is.



      • Dom, my friend, I agree with you in regard to most stocked vs. wild fish, but I believe the Tulpehocken is at times an exception. And there are probably other streams like it. The fish there can be maddeningly selective, and as hard to hook as any wild Delaware brown. Not always, but especially some of the holdovers there are not in any way gullible.

  8. I think everything I’ve read so far is exactly true,because I have had exactly same experiences,including 2 giant browns that had to be released before pictures due to health concerns. Incidentally,both caught on small san juans,looking forward to fine tuning 50 years of experience,never too old to learn


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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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