What does it take to catch a big trout?

by | Jun 10, 2020 | 26 comments

For many years, I believed that it takes nothing special to catch a big trout. I argued with friends about this over beers, during baseball games, on drives to the river and through text messages at 1:00 am. My contention was always that big trout don’t require anything extraordinary to seal the deal. They need a quality drift, a good presentation, and if they are hungry they will eat it. I frequently pushed back against the notion that big wild trout were caught only with exceptional skill.

So for all who’ve heard me make this argument, I’d like to offer this revision: I still believe that large trout don’t need more than a good presentation. But what is GOOD may actually be pretty special. Meaning, it’s rare to find the skill level necessary to consistently get good drifts and put them over trout (large or small).

Some guys are good at tight line nymphing but have no dry fly game. Some girls can plant a streamer in the bullseye but can’t dead drift a damn thing. Big trout can be anywhere. And they might eat anything. So we need precision casting and an ability to feed s-curves into the tippet leash of a Rusty Spinner. We also need the facility to tuck cast a #16 beadhead into the two-foot froth and get a ten-foot drift before it plunges over the lip. The best big trout anglers are good at all of this.

And how good should the presentation be? Top notch. And how rare is that? I think it’s an uncommon skill. But remember, I didn’t think that before. And that was the crux of my dispute with friends. When I argued that it didn’t take anything special to catch big trout, my friends and I were really disagreeing on what was an average skill level.

But what about those big trout? Are they looking for anything different than what the mid-sized, garden variety fish are looking for?

Just a minute . . .

Which Trout?

Let’s quickly define what we’re talking about here. Some readers get a little bent out of shape when I bring this up, but I’m saying it again. Because quality counts.

When I talk about targeting big trout, I only consider wild fish — not club fish, stocked trout or anything else besides river trout that aren’t being fed from the bank or being fed fingerling trout stocked by a fish commission. There are a lot of artificial setups out there. And such a thing changes the conversation, because trout in a club environment or trout from a stocked strain are a different thing altogether. Their habits are dissimilar from wild trout. Their expectations are unnatural.

Are they fun to catch? Absolutely!

Does it take a lot of skill to put one of those big trout in the net? Maybe. And maybe not. When there’s a setup, it’s hard to say.

READ: Troutbitten | Catching big fish does not make you a stud . . . necessarily

Photo by Bill Dell

There is No Super Drift

There’s no extra-special drift required to sell a big trout. Get a great drift. That’s enough.

On a nymph, the presentation should be a one-seam drift in the strike zone, long enough for a trout to see it and close enough to the trout to make it worth his time. Honestly, how can that be improved? It can’t, really. Get it perfect, and if a twelve-inch trout is in the pocket and hungry, he eats. If a two-foot trout is in the pocket and hungry, he eats. There is nothing extra — nothing more — no magic trick beyond a quality presentation necessary to fool a big wild trout.

Same with dry flies. Just show them a dead drift in one seam. Make it excellent and you’ve got a shot. Don’t line the trout. Shoot ahead of your target, etc. Hungry trout eat, whether big or small.

Streamers are a bit of a different story. Many different presentations are successful on the river, so every avid steamer angler has a few in-house tricks that he swears turns big trout on. That’s fair. But as I float down a river, covering miles of water and targeting every watery log, boulder and undercut, there is no way to predict what will come charging out to eat the long fly. Good streamer presentations fool both large and average sized trout. But bad ones don’t.

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Big Trout

So is it all luck?

Yeah, it kind of is. But I’ve written my thoughts on this before. It takes persistence, knowledge of the river and good fish-fighting skills. Above all else it takes having big fish in the area. You can’t hook a big trout if the river doesn’t hold one.

But if it does — if big wild trout are around and your technique is solid, you stand a good chance of catching a big wild trout.

Ever think that fishing a mouse fly at night might really be froggin’? Just saying.

Fight Me

I’ve argued about this for years. And I know that my thoughts go against conventional wisdom. Honestly, I think it’s part of the angler lore that many enjoy. You want to think that you did something really special to catch a Namer. But I tend to think you just got a good cast in front of a great fish that was hungry.

If you have other thoughts about all of this, drop a line in the comments section below. It’s interesting to hear what big fish anglers from all different regions think about why big trout eat.

Fish hard, friends.


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. I tend to agree with good presentations and a bit of luck. I think the best big fish guys probably put themselves in front of big fish very often and fish hard. Put enough hours in finding the best rivers, sections and prime lies and you’re probably gonna find a few good ones eventually. I think ambition and dedication is the key factor for a lot of big fish guys. They create their own “luck”.

    • Spot on.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Just last week I was catching wild brook trout in the 6″-10″ range from a pool. Then, on the same drift in the same pool on the same day with the same fly I hooked into the King of the Pool. I’d love to tell you how big he was, but he got under the bank before I could bring him to the net, and he broke me off — something no 6-10 inch trout could have pulled off. I wasn’t hunting big fish. I didn’t do anything differently, but luck (lots of fishing on the same stream, practice, practice and more practice) put the fly in front of him at the right time on the right day. The special sauce in catching big trout is showing up and working on your fishing. (Oh, and make sure you wear that lucky hat!)

  3. Totally agree. And agree whole heartedly about mousing is really frogging at night. I’ve only ever seen one mouse literally in the water, ever. And this is coming from a degenerate angler who averages 226 days on water per year since 2016 in south central PA and North Central MD. Not that it matter one bit, but just saying. Great article Dom as per usual.

    • Agree 100% with your observation. Those big kicking legs must scream, “Eat me!” to any large, nocturnal brown trout. Big brown have a lot more in common with largemouth bass than some would think. Surprised that this truth gets little attention in the “mousing” articles/blogs. One has to wonder why the myth persists.

  4. I think, overall, this is about right Domenick. There is one special case where I think exceptional skill just makes some big trout consistently catchable by the best of the best…

    That is in the next level ability of anglers like Paul Procter (and, he won’t thank me for mentioning his name, but my colleague at the Wild Trout Trust, Gareth Pedley too) to spot signs of a specimen rising fish.

    I don’t mean spot the rises (or anything as obvious as that).

    I mean the tiny, subtle interruption to the normal current surface pattern as a fish moves up and down on its station. To mere mortal eyes (like mine) these surface patterns look little more obvious than the kind of rainbow slick you get from gasoline floating on a puddle.

    I can just about see them once Gareth or Paul has pointed them out – but they can pick them up out of the corner of their eye while walking along the river.

    Have a look at Paul Procter’s facebook or instagram feed. He is catching those wild fish from rivers that aren’t really renowned for specimen trout in the wider fly fishing community. It’s also worth noting that Paul P has a habit of out-spotting the guides when bonefish fishing too.

    • This is a superb point. Dry fly guys who work at catching large, wild browns don’t go out casting at every splashy, mid stream rise they see. Water displacement is a dead give away. I would also add, that in highly pressured, big fish systems like the Upper Delaware, those who hunt for heads look in some very unexpected places.

    • I’m lucky enough to be able to fish every day,and on a section of water where I know are 30″+ trout,26″ my max so far,and endless 20″ and every one caught on normal presentations,,but can’t tell you how many 99% presentations are totally ignored..you are correct,sir,just keep doing it right!!

      • Richard
        Endless 20″ trout. Can we assume you died and went to heaven but just don’t know it.

        • How, when or where do I have to die to join? 😉

  5. I agree with both you and Mr. Weaver above. Skill is needed. And a collection of prime stretches known to hold big ones where one can apply that skill ups the odds. I’ll toss in persistence too – the people who catch more than the occasional “lucky” one are generally those who remain doggedly persistent and dedicated to the cause. BUT, they often sacrifice time that could have been spent truly fishing a stream in that single-focused pursuit – the pursuit that finds them froggin’ at 2am and sleeping through the hatches in daylight.

  6. I agree, but all general rules are subject to exceptions. See the June 3 report on Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher website of a first time fly fisher hooking and landing a 31” Brown.

  7. I have caught a lot of big wild trout and if I had one thing to add to a good drift it would be to have enough weight to get the fly down to the big trout’s level.

  8. I agree with you Dom,
    Because if I don’t, my optimism to catch a namer is decimated. Like Gary Player said, “I believe the harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

    But, I was just telling a friend of mine, last week, the largest brown I ever caught was the one a couple weeks ago the night before I fished with you. My daughter’s first brown, was an 18 incher when she was 14 years old. She did set the perfect drift over a nice trout. It took me much longer to get a brown the size of the first she caught. Go figure?

    Thank you again,

  9. Agree one hundred percent. And co-sign the notion that there’s an awful lot packed into simply “getting a good drift”, like equipment, time, repetition, multiple visits over multiple seasons, weather, light, fatigue, stubbornness and on and on… and

  10. Practice, practice, practice. The more I fish the better I get.

    One thing that gets overlooked — observation. I never rig up until I get to the river or stream because a) walking through the woods with a long stick with string on it and pointy things on the string is a pain and b) how do I know what fly to use until I spend a few minutes looking at what is (or isn’t) going on?

    Plus I like sitting and watching. It’s peaceful.

  11. Another great article. Love the fact they always make me think about angles maybe not thought about before. Definitely anglers with good skills and the right equipment have better odds at a namer. I translate the luck theory into the “lucky” guy is really the guy that knows how to continually put himself in situations to be lucky. Every good cast puts you one more cast closer to catchin a big one. Oh yea,,,,and if there’s a big one where you’re fishin. Just like deer huntin….every minute in the stand puts you one minute closer to seein the big one.

  12. As Dizzy Dean once said, “practice does not make perfect- perfect practice does” .
    At 63 years old and only 3 1/2 years of euro nymphing, I catch a lot more trout than I ever have thanks to reading Troutbitten articles. I have been fortunate enough to catch one 20+ “, as well as quite a few 16-17”. Never stop learning! Thanks Dom!
    Keep perfect practicing boys and girls!

  13. Not sure if you mean, catch a (single) big trout single or catch big trout
    (routinely). Catching multiple large (18″ +) wild trout per season takes special skills that are both physical and mental. Catching multiple large wild trout is never accidental or easy. However it does not make anyone a stud because that type of thinking is the antithesis of the pursuit.

  14. To give you a NZ perspective from a transplanted Pennsylvanian, after mostly sight fishing here for ten years, probably more big trout(24+) are not caught because the angler has them spooked before he/she even casts. Especially with browns, most of the time you are going to get one cast. Rainbows are a bit more forgiving. Pretty much you need to get your best drift the first time, your odds go down the more casts you make especially with the same fly. Surprised at how large a trout will take a properly drifted #16 or #18 fly. Enjoy your articles immensely.

    • Hi Dan,
      I’ve got to agree after fishing nz with a very good guide.

      Seeing the fish makes a huge difference to understanding why the top anglers routinely catch big fish.
      Not only do u have to make the cast without spooking the fish, but there is another level I witnessed with the guide.
      The First cast having to be the best cast is paramount.
      After the first presentation, the fish is wary and probably of getting that fish goes down substantially.
      Maybe it took me 4 casts to get the perfect presentation and drift. Way too many, and I consider myself decent. Maybe not 18ft leader decent but still.
      Maybe that resulted in a hookup of one fish to 2 ultimately spooked not by bad casts but just repeated casts.

      The guide was able to step into the same position after I messed up and make the perfect cast first time.
      Perfect length, perfect drift and most notably for me, he was able to read the different current speeds and adjust before delivery of the first cast.

      He was able to throw an upstream mend and get perfect drift line on his first cast.
      Whereas my first cast was on a perfect line with the trout, but It resulted in drag.
      Second cast I adjusted for current but was short and off line.
      Third cast I got closer but the fish spooked

      Guide steps in and gets first cast perfect.

      Maybe as Dominic says it doesn’t take anything special, but that level to get the first cast perfect to get the perfect drift is what separates the best.

      This was mainly sight fishing with dry or dry dropper, but I wanted to work on no indicator nymphing with basically a mono rig as well, so I got a few opportunities to test how far i needed to lead the fish to make sure the nymphs got to the right depth. Plenty of mistakes made but much learned.
      But the guide was first cast accurate.
      Very educational.
      Thanks Mike K.


      • Sean,
        I think you make a great point here. When sight fishing clear water like in a spring creek it takes exceptional skill to take a large trout. I know in our Cumberland valley spring creeks it can be very hard not to spook fish, but when fishing central PA limestone streams I’ve noticed the fish are a lot more forgiving on how close you can get. In our spring creeks a fish may spook at one false cast, but when on big central rivers I may be able to make a dozen drifts and still catch a nice one. So I believe water type is important to consider in the amount of skill to catch a big fish.

  15. the drift is or cast or wherever you choose to place it is a extension of my vision and my hands follow dropping the tip fast to get it down or to pause a strip it in i heard a fellow angler the other day comment to me once,, ive been watching you work these pockets and short fast drifts.. then watch you change up and twitch the countdown rapala in the next snag filled pocket with great success.. i was really flattered i jus do what i think i gotta do to get the right presentation..and big fish come you jus gotta spend the time on the water.. now if i were better at the important things in life id be a better person i guess but big trout hunting is a obsession and im happy with that, great read dom.

  16. The theme of your article–work your approach and technique as close to a natural drift as possible, read the water well with experience, and you will catch very large trout at least occasionally–is sound and what I’ve experienced. Big fish begin feeling less like luck and more like a reward for focus and dedication.
    The exception that I think of really is large browns, on specific large rivers, that feed more selectively than smaller fish. I once talked with a WV warden who was an avid fly fisherman and the Elk was his home water. He knew it well enough that guides would have him come lecture. His specialty (and passion, because I think it become single-minded) was spotting, stalking, and catching 24″-plus browns. He said that he scouted the river sections first, spotted the territory of a large rising brown, and then set out each evening for 3-4 individual fish in their stations. He would crawl into the river, and take 10-15 minutes to approach the station. Then he got 1, maybe 2 casts at each, then would move to the next one, sometimes a car ride. He noted over time that the would not rise to any of the traditional dries or anything hatching. He discovered they were feeding almost exclusively on midges, even in the midst of the other browns feeding on hatches of green drakes or other smaller flies. It’s counterintuitive. But he said he finally figured out these midges were really, really tiny. He began tying them on size 22-26 hooks, with no eyes, snelled. He said there is no way to see them on the water, and you are just looking for the little rise to set the hook, after a perfect cast.

    I came away respecting the big trout (who are smarter through experience, no question), the patience and focus this guy had, the dedication to the entomology and the approach. I also knew, that would never be me! Even if I felt like I had unlimited river time–and I never will feel that way–I will never, at any point in my life, need the goal of that large fish that badly. It isn’t enough to make me that patient, nor will I ever be bored of catching more trout in smaller sizes. I love to work a river patiently, to really get to know a home water, and I move more slowly than most companions. So when I hook a monster, fight her for 6-8 minutes on a straining tippet, and get her to my side, I tend to thank God for the gift, but also the randomness–I am like Forest Gump that way I guess–easily grateful and happy that I never know what I am gonna get….

  17. The thing I’ve learned over the years is you can’t catch big fish in a place that does not have big fish. You have to go where the big fish are. There are lots of waters that may look good but a big fish there might be 15″. If you want 20″+ trout you have to go to waters that produce 20″+ trout. Once you are there its a combination of luck and skill to catch the big one.

    • Back in my warm water days I remember Al Lindner of In-Fisherman magazine revealing his secret to consistently catching big fish: Fish big fish water – and fish it when it’s hot! The “hot” part can be tricky because chasing reports usually leaves you a day late and a dollar short


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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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