** 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. **
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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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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Enjoy the day.
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