Where to Find Big Trout | Part Three: The Special Buckets

by | Nov 20, 2019 | 26 comments

** This is Part Three of the Where to Find Big Trout series on Troutbitten. This all reads a lot better if you first go through Part One. Find it HERE.  **

— — — — — —

Some of the places where big trout hang out are easy to see. Once you know what a good spillout looks like, your eyes tend to rest right on the sweet spot, where the rippled water softens, and you visualize the dip in the riverbed below. Likewise, structure with good depth is as attractive to a river-worn angler as it is to a trout. And when the right flow accompanies that structure, we see it as a prime lie. So do the fish. However, one of my favorite places to consistently find big trout is virtually impossible to find by reading the water alone. I call them the special buckets.

Somewhere in your favorite stretch of a river there’s a depression at the bottom. It’s wide enough and long enough to hold a trout, nose to tail. It’s as deep as the trout is tall — or a bit deeper. The river flowing over this depression in the riverbed is fast enough to bring a continuing buffet of food. And the water comes with the right shade, ripple or depth to offer good protection. This is a special bucket.

A special bucket (without the sides) — Illustration by Dick Jones

What Reality?

While reading this big trout series, you’ll notice that my spots for locating the big ones are ultra-refined versions of prime lies — where trout have excellent cover and good flow with a current break. Basically, our favorite selectively-efficient fish (picky and lazy) likes a place where he can relax and pick off an easy meal once in a while. I believe in the tactic of bringing a big trout his next lunch. And I’ve had a lot of success by targeting these super-prime lies.

READ: Troutbitten | Super Prime Lies and Big Trout — The Spots Within the Spots

I believe I do catch the biggest trout in the river this way. But allow me to acknowledge another line of thinking . . .

I recently read through Kelly Galloup’s new book, Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout II. It’s a great read. And one thing stuck out to me. Over and over, Galloup refers to twenty inch trout as “cute” or mid-sized. Even the two-footers are not what he calls “big.” Essentially, Galloup is writing about chasing unicorns. And he has surely landed enough of them to earn his respected reputation.

So I mentioned this in Part One, but if you fish a place where Namers aren’t all that big and Whiskeys are common, then your world is different than mine. The Troutbitten tactics I work on are for creeks where wild Whiskeys are uncommon and rivers where a two-foot-long wild trout is a rarely seen benchmark. I think most trout waters are this way, really. And I fish with zero anglers who’ve caught a wild trout of thirty inches. I have some more thoughts on all that . . .

READ: Troutbitten | Thirty Inch Liars

For the record, the largest wild trout I ever caught was twenty-six inches long and fat. He took a #16 standard Adams during a sulfur hatch. It was glorious. I once hooked and lost a trout that approached thirty inches on a #8 stonefly. But the further away I get from that memory of a decade ago, the more I doubt myself of his true size.

Are there thirty inch trout in my rivers? Probably not. And my point is that I don’t fish for them — because the returns are too low on things that likely don’t exist. My big-fish game starts in the upper teens and tops out at the two foot mark. Anything after that is grandma’s gravy.

Now let’s get back to the bucket . . .

What Makes it Special?

Up and down a river, there are lots of dips and holes on the bottom. And trout love them. We catch fish in all these areas. Why? Because trout receive protection and rest by lying under the main current. The depression provides a break from the flow. And yet, the current overhead offers passing food to the trout. Plenty of protein also washes into the bucket itself and comes right to the trout’s nose. Get your fly to do either of those things, and you stand a good chance of landing fish in one of these depressions.

But while there are countless small holes and minor dips in the riverbed, the truly special buckets are rare. Like a good spillout, they are few and far between. A special bucket is deep enough to protect a large trout — but not too deep. It’s also long enough and wide enough for a top-tier fish. It’s a pothole. These buckets are short ditches or lanes in the river. Most are long-oval shaped and a foot deeper than the bordering riverbed. And Mother Nature simply does not line up all those conditions very often.

What forms such a depression anyway? Many things, no doubt. But for fifteen years I watched one from the beginning to the end. It was wildly-productive for a while, and then it was taken away. The whole thing started at the base of a tree . . .

The Story of the Root Wad

Fish the same places with good friends often enough, and you’ll have a name for every location on the river. Anglers and outdoorsmen are a creative lot with a propensity for claiming ownership over things.

The rootwad was a mid-sized tangle of roots that was lodged into the rocky river bottom, with the broken trunk of the attached tree stuck solidly into the undercut bank. No doubt this happened during a major flood, but it looked like an angry giant had ripped a tree from the earth and broken it in half before walking over to shove it in the river — just to make things interesting.

We all fished the rootwad. It was as close to a guarantee for a good fish as you might get in this game — which is to say, a high teens fish or better came out of there about forty percent of the time.

I fished it for a season or so. And one time, when the water was low enough to wade close, I snagged my fly near the bottom. So I waded over for a recovery. Step, step, step . . . dip! Suddenly, I was a foot deeper and up to my thighs. After plucking the fly from the bottom, I explored the depression that had formed directly next to the rootwad. It was four feet long and only twelve inches wide. A large immovable rock sat at the base of the bucket to form the backside of the pothole. Water flowing around the roots had carved out a lane next to the wood.

Later that summer, I walked to the rootwad again without a rod in hand, just to explore it in the lowest water conditions. I banked those two explorations in memory, and afterward I experienced even better success at the rootwad for years to come.

The roots sat for a decade or more — unmoving. And the bucket grew no deeper. It was the perfect setup for a large trout, and more often than not, I encountered one there.

A few years ago, Smith told me that the rootwad had washed out. So I went to see for myself. Indeed, the roots and the half-tree was gone, but the special bucket remained.

For a few seasons, the rootwad bucket was still a guarantee, even without the broken tree. And then it started to fill in. A second tree fell about twenty yards upstream, and the resulting back eddy near the bucket filled it in with sand and rocks. Not long after, the rootwad bucket was gone.

I still fish the spot. And it’s a deep enough depression to hold trout, but not deep enough for the big ones. When I realized this, I felt some sadness. But I also took satisfaction for having put in the years and miles to witness the full progression of such a place.

And, the Others

All of my favorite big fish river sections have these special buckets. As I sit here now, I can think of a couple dozen locations, half of which we have names for.

In truth, they’re hard to find and are often impossible to see from the surface. Bringing a weighted fly through them is the only way to recognize anything unusual in the first place.

I’ve discovered most buckets while tight line nymphing or using a crossover technique with streamers. While riding through the strike zone, I might notice the speed of my sighter or indy change. Or perhaps the heavy fly for the crossover falls in a bit. It requires attention, awareness and curiosity, along with some mental cataloging of familiar waters.

Paying close attention while wading helps too. Set out to learn your favorite river, inch by inch — especially the productive stretches. And when you catch a big trout, wade through the spot if you can. Learn what lies beneath. There may be a good depression down there, one that’s set up perfectly for big fish.

Most special buckets remain for years. In fact, the majority that I’ve discovered are still there — unlike the rootwad.

Build a mental map of these places. Then mark them with a large trout icon in your head. Keep going back, because the next Namer might be sitting there.

Fish hard, friends.


** This is Part One of a Troutbitten series on finding big trout. Here is the full series . . . **

Part One — Big, Bigger, Biggest
Part Two — The Spillouts
Part Three — The Special Buckets
Part Four — The Permanent Structure


** Donate ** If you enjoy this article, please consider a donation. Your support is what keeps this Troutbitten project funded. Scroll below to find the Donate Button. And thank you.


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. Some buckets must be better than others. Which variable(s) make for the buckets that so good you would never give them up – not even to your son! Current speed? Proximity to the bank, deeper water, cover? Water clarity?
    Maybe your son.

    • Hi Rick,

      Honestly, I feel like I did cover what makes a bucket “special” in the article. Again, it’s not just any bucket. There are lots of those in some rivers, but theses ones are the best:

      “It’s wide enough and long enough to hold a trout, nose to tail. It’s as deep as the trout is tall — or a bit deeper. The river flowing over this depression in the riverbed is fast enough to bring a continuing buffet of food. And the water comes with the right shade, ripple or depth to offer good protection. This is a special bucket.”

      So I can’t really say it’s the ones next to cover, because it isn’t always. It’s not about just a certain current speed or anything else, either. It needs all of those elements to be a special bucket.

      I will mention that the bucket shouldn’t be too much deeper than the rest of the riverbed. But it does need to be deep enough hold a big fish.

      Happy hunting.


  2. Read your “Thirty Inch Liar” article in Hatch magazine and you touched on one aspect of catching large, wild brown trout that I hope you can expand on some day.

    “I sat on a fallen oak and ate lunch, I watched and felt the weather pattern change. . . . The shifting weather gave me a new reason to believe, . . . .”

    After the “where” (prime lie) series, any chance of doing something on the “when”? There must be certain weather/water/light conditions that either favor or hinder the aggressive feeding activity of the largest fish in the system? There must be some common threads that trigger the “vibe” like the one you got on that fateful day.

    • I appreciate the interest, Rick.

      I’ve considered such articles, but to this point, you won’t find them here. I am constantly trying to correlate weather and barometer, light, etc., with trout on the feed. But besides generalities that everyone already knows, I can’t offer much.

      Low light, higher water better than low, but not muddy, etc.: These are things that are obvious. Beyond that, many things such as barometer are just too sketchy and inconsistent for me to give advice on. I see SOME trends, maybe, but not nearly enough to write a fair article around them.

      My best advice is to keep fishing hard, cover water and try to make excellent presentations to the great spots. Then fish even harder.

      Lastly, in that Liars article, my reference to changing weather patterns wasn’t anything super specific. But anytime the weather shifts, it really does give me a new reason to keep fishing, because that kind of thing does often make a difference. Again, the barometer guys have theories on this. I believe that they believe themselves, but I do not.



      • Have you noticed any correlation with big trout and full and new moon periods?

        • Hi Rick,

          Honesty, no correlation at all. I tracked everything like that for a few years. And I was fishing 5 days a week for 6 years. In the end, I found no predictable pattern. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, I just never found it. In short, I think there are many, many other factors that are more important for creating a good trout bite: things like water conditions and insect activity being just a couple.

          I get that question about night fishing a lot. And the whole new moon (dark moon) thing is another myth in the mythology of night fishing, as I see it. I do fine on moonlit nights, as long as the moonlight is not right in there faces.

          Again, these are just my own observations in my own waters. Your results may vary.



          In short

          • Thanks for the thorough responses.

  3. Great article! A few years ago Delaware guide John Miller showed me a stretch of the West Branch that had a number of these buckets. The river had a little stain that day, so the buckets looked LIGHTER than the surrounding bottom, with the cloudy water reflecting more light and showing the slight color more. Once he pointed them out they were easy to see. And we caught fish. He had me go dry dropper. I’d never thought about buckets, and would have just passed that stretch over.

    • Nice. That’s the stuff.

  4. Dom, first thanks for your insights and great articles! I have been fishing a certain stretch of river since last spring, every week taking notes finding those cool little spots and it has been paying off. This past Tuesday I was fishing my favorite stretch and fishing the spot in the spot using a streamer when hooked my biggest brown to date. I had him up almost close enough to net, but bumbling around with the net and trying to get phone in position for a quick photo and you quessed a quick release! I still managed to do pretty good for the morning. Its amazing what you see in the river if you let it show you.
    Thanks again, Mike.

    • Right on. And time on the water is everything.

      On the way in to a place I guide often, I see deer crossing at the same places. They are fairly predictable. Same things with trout and the big fish locations . . .


    • I know how THAT feels. At least you got to see the trout.

  5. Luckily the Truckee has lots of big trout,was fortunate to have 2 over 25″ but my main concern with these big fish is 100% survival. With these fish over 20 and using 5X 5 minute fights are the norm. Is there dangers of lactic acid buildup? What generated these concerns is last week saw a beautiful 20 trout laying dead on bottom of pool. Was able to net it and fed the neighbor,but other then some stupid picture antics couldn’t understand why fish would die

  6. I love this series. I haven’t seen many big fish but when I have they’ve also been coming out from under huge rocks. I have this theory that once fish grow to a certain size they almost act like cave dwellers only leaving the sanctuary of the cave for short time to feed then they come back.

  7. I am always amazed how small or shallow a hole a large fish can hold in. On some stream/river systems where there are fish (trout, fallfish, etc.) spawning the redds dug by these fish become prime lies for resident fish well beyond the spawning season. I really liked your comment about wading into potential areas to confirm their depth and configuration. On my home rivers/streams I make an effort to verify apparent prime lies by wading into them after thoroughly fishing those locations to collect intel. Sometimes I wade into these areas to kick out fish to confirm there is a “fish” holding in that apparent spot. Once confirmed I make a mental note of that observation for future reference. I love wood in the water where it deflects or redirects flows creating the depressions and providing overhead cover. The problem at times with these prime lies can be getting an effective dead-drift through them. With Brookies and Rainbows presentations often do not have to be perfect, but with larger Browns presentations typically have to be. It is all part of the game and the never ending challenge of fly-fishing streams/rivers. Good stuff.

  8. Hi Richard,

    I think it’s great that you’re asking those kinds of questions.

    In short (and I offer this advice only because you asked), I think a five minute fight for a twenty inch trout is unnecessarily long. You can easily cut that average time in half. And I land most larger trout in about a minute. I promise that’s the truth. Playing big trout takes some practice to build confidence, but if you learn and understand a few key principles, it’s not very tough at all.

    I have a series about fighting big fish:


    In general, fight them hard and fight them upstream or across. Don’t fight them downstream except as a last resort. And either the fish is pulling, or you are pulling. Never any rest.

    Learn the breaking strength of your 5X tippet. Anchor that fly hook into a tree limb before you go fishing. Then stand back and pull with constant pressure. You will likely be amazed how much pressure you can put on a trout with 5X and a rod with decent backbone in the butt. You will probably have a hard time breaking that line with constant pressure. But eventually it will snap. Now you know your breaking strength. And that’s how much you can boss a trout around before the line breaks. In fact, I’d argue that’s also how much you SHOULD boss a trout around so you land him quickly. Five minutes is too long.

    That said, plenty of trout fought for five minutes have been released just fine, I’m certain. But the point is, it’s just not necessary. And if you are personally concerned about this, just aim to cut your time in half (or more).

    As as side note, if you are around big fish and plan to land them, I’m glad you’re fishing 5X. Fishing 7X is borderline irresponsible. It takes an angler with excellent fish-fighting skills to land an extra large trout on 7X in a reasonable time. And when I hear guys bragging about 7X and long fights it makes me cringe a bit. Again, long fights just aren’t necessary.


    • Thanks so much,I see these guys on tv and fish is in like you said,2,3 minutes. So main thing is no resting,Guilty!!! Next big fish is gonna get the treatment!! And regarding the original article on dips,was in knee deep water,standing in such a dip,and right at my feet big fish,using me as current break

      • Cool. Thanks for not getting pissed at my advice. Ha.

        Actually, I might turn that one an article . . .



  9. GREAT READ yes those buckets are truly magnets for larger trout. Here in my part of pa. I fish a couple of streams here that have wild browns. The low water we had this fall made it possible for me to take closer inspection of those lies. The average angler I know never even knows these are there.. lol etc. Alone look for them.. I spin fish artificials and have great success in those special buckets. That. Fly guys walk by lol. Great read. And yes Gallup’s def chasing unicorns

  10. With regards to night fishing, are they still in these buckets? Or do they move out to the banks and shallow waters?

    • Hi Emmett. Good question. This sounds like a lame answer, but . . . it depends. Some nights they move into the shallows. But if you don’t find them in the shallow stuff, go right into the special buckets.



  11. Domenick,
    You mention rigs a lot as do other You tubers but when you say you quickly change your rig I’m not quite sure what that means. Is it just the tippet section? Is it the entire leader? It would be nice if you did a video on this.
    I put this suggestion in the comments section because I don’t see where I can email you.

    Thanks ,

    • Hi Kenn. Thanks for your question.

      Couple things:

      First, you can find my email at the end of every article, in the signature. Also, find the Author page in the Menu. Or find the form at the bottom of the guided trips page — both of those have contact forms.

      Second, I understand your question. I feel like I actually have made a video that covers your topic. Check this out:


      Within that video I address how I change full leaders or just sections of leaders.

      Sometimes, we just change the fly. To me, that’s not a rig change. I think rigging means tying knots and setting things up differently.

      Thanks again for the question. It helps me think about how and what to communicate next.


  12. I have a similar rootwad spot , but the tree’s still standing and alive, and the roots stick out above and below water into the current from an eroding bank. The depression begins upstream of the wad about 3 feet, and continues underneath it for a foot or two. Wading out to recover a fly I had that same experience — whoa! This sucker’s deep! What’s fun about my rootwad is that it takes a sort of kamikaze drift to get to where big fish (for my creek, anyway) hold. I keep the drift going a second or two after my better judgment tells me “pull out!” And bingo, a strike. Thanks for the article.


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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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