Targeting Big Browns
Use Appropriate Gear: A medium-heavy rod with a good backbone is ideal for casting larger flies and handling big trout. A quality reel with a smooth drag system is also important to handle the strong runs of a big brown trout. I typically fish a 7 or 8-weight rod with a higher-quality disc drag system. Regarding lines I fish a floating line unless I'm attempting to get deep. I have a 7 weight Douglas Sky G and a 8-weight Scott Sector Fly Rod with a Cheeky Spray reel that I've really enjoyed. It casts extremely well and the reel has a superb drag. Because my casts can often be short night casts I prefer weight forward line. Sometimes I will even over line the rod and go with and 8 weight float.
Here is an article where you can learn all about fly lines.
Stealth and Approach: Approach your fishing spot with care. Big brown trout are wary and can be easily spooked. Move slowly, keep a low profile, and avoid casting shadows on the water. Wear natural color clothing and or clothing that will blend in with an upward view. For example, if you are looking up you're going to see a combination of grasses, shrubs, trees and sky. A florescent yellow jacket looks great in photos but you'll spook fish.
Understand the Habitat: Big brown trout often reside in deep, slow-moving pools in rivers or in the deeper parts of a lake during the day. Look for structures like fallen trees, rock formations, or undercut banks where they might be hiding. During the night hours, you’ll often find that large brown trout will cruise the shallows around the deeper holes hunting for baitfish, other trout, mice, and more.
Time Your Fishing Right: Brown trout are often most active during low light conditions, such as early morning, late evening, and at night. They are also known to feed more aggressively during overcast or rainy days. Understanding these time frames will help you focus your fly fishing on specific areas for short periods of time. Keep in mind that you are hunting for trophy trout and you aren’t going to be fishing for a 10-hour day picking apart 8 miles of river. Instead, you are focusing on key spots within a short window of 2-3 hours most likely. You are looking for prime times that big browns are feeding. Cooler temperatures are often key.
Let's talk about night fishing because it is in my opinion the best time of day for targeting large browns. Seriously, you need to try fishing at night. Large trout are known for sitting in a prime lye or hole all day and then traveling at night to feed when they are safe from predators and can easily take larger prey. They are often quite habitual and will repeat again the next day. This is good to know because when you discover a high-quality brown that you want to target it is often easy to know the pattern and target it regularly.
Choose the Right Flies: Flies, large worm patterns, baitfish, or crayfish can be effective. When it comes to flies, try using streamers that mimic small fish, or slightly larger food sources. Fishing large, nymphs, streamers, and woolly buggers can be good choices. However, don’t discount small flies as there have been plenty of monster brown trout caught on small fly patterns. The differentiator that I use is whether I’ve seen the fish or not. When I’m prospecting and feel that there is a large trout in the area I use larger flies. When I’ve seen the trout then I’ll try matching what I’m finding as a food source. If that is size 20 midges then that is what I’m aiming to use.
Fish During Ideal Weather Conditions: Besides low light conditions, consider the barometric pressure. Some anglers find that trout bite more when the pressure is dropping, just before a storm. Colder temperatures in the summer months are often better too. In the colder winter months, I pretty much hang up the gear on targeting big trout as I haven’t quite cracked that code yet. Besides, it is so cold that I would rather focus on tying flies or fishing specific sunny daytime hatches.
Seasonal Strategies: Understanding the seasonal patterns of trout is something to strive for. In spring and fall, big trout are often more active and feed more aggressively as they prepare for spawning or coming out of winter. You’ll often hear that fish are putting on the winter feed bag and that isn’t an overstatement.
Understand the Behavior: Brown trout can be territorial and aggressive, especially during spawning season (fall). They might strike flies not just for feeding but also out of aggression. This is where I’ve found that articulated flies and flies with stinger hooks can really make a difference in your propensity to hook a fish.
Understand Trout Habitat: Big trout often prefer deep, slow-moving pools in rivers or large, deep areas of lakes. They like spots with plenty of cover like overhanging trees, undercut banks, rock formations, or submerged logs. When browns get larger they start to act like full-on predator fish. Ambushing and the avoidance of overhead predators like birds is a primary function for them.
Look for Food Sources: Big trout need ample food. Look for areas with abundant natural prey like insect hatches, minnows, or crayfish. In rivers, areas just downstream of fast water (riffles) can be productive as food gets washed down.
Night Fishing Tactics for Brown Trout
Go Slow with Your Retrieval: Fish are less active and more cautious at night. Slow down your retrieval to give fish more time to locate and strike with accuracy.
Here is a podcast I recorded about why you should start night fishing.
Articulated and Stinger Hooks: Seeing at night is harder than during the day for us. That is the same for trout. Although they have receptors to aid them in finding prey and attaching it is still less effective at night. What you’ll run into are lots of bumps on your fly. I’m not sure if they are looking to injure and attack or plainly missing. Either way, having articulated flies and especially flies with stinger hooks has greatly improved my night fishing. Those trailing hooks easily account for 70% of my hookups and often hookups are on secondary or tertiary strikes, which brings me to my next point.
Keep Stripping: When I night fish I tend to sing a song likened to Dory in the movie Nemo. On her adventure, Dory would sing the line “Just keep swimming” over and over to where it was commercial. I instead sing “Just keep stripping” as my reminder mantra so I can avoid the trout set and get a good hookup. The second thing I do is employ the tarpon stripping method where I tuck my rod and strip in with two hands. This keeps me stripping and it keeps me from lifting and trout setting on that first strike. Once I feel that bump it is the continual stripping that brings in the second and or eventual buried hook set that I’m looking for. At that point, it’s all about controlling the fish.
Heavy Leaders: I mentioned controlling the fish and earlier I mentioned having appropriate gear which I alluded to heavier rods with reels that have a nice drag. In addition to that I fish shorter leaders that are strong. I rarely fish lighter than 2x and the tippet is typically flourocarbon so I have the extra abrasion resistance. With the extra strong leader and tippet setups I can feel extremely comfortable in yarding a fish in. Either stripping them in or cranking them in on the reel so I can get them into the net fast.
Control the Fish: Controlling fish at night is different than during the day. During the day you are fishing a little lighter tippet and you want to get the fish onto the reel, control where it is going, and keep it out of trouble. This is done by your ability to see and determine what is going on. However, at night you are flying blind but you have the advantage of heavy leader and tippet. Therefore, these are the steps I take. One I apply constant pressure and I do it with more force than normal. Two, I invert my rod to keep the fish in the water and from doing an acrobatics or gator rolls, which will quickly cause a fish to come unbuttoned. Lastly, I strip them in as fast as possible and aim to get them in a net head first.
Netting and a Deep Dish Net: Here is a podcast where we talk about netting fish and its interesting to watch how many people screw this up. I think it is a combination of little practice and a bit of nerves. Think of it this way. Fish do not swim backwards so net head first and when netting the net stays relatively static and isn’t stabbing for the fish. Instead the angler is lifting the head out of the water and the net is slipping into position fro the fish to go in.
In addition to the method is the type of net. Don’t head out for big brown trout under-gunned when it comes to a net. You need a larger, long-handle net with a deep dish net bag. Otherwise, you are asking for disaster. Small nets can be a hindrance and netting is most commonly the point of error when it comes to losing fish so set yourself up for success. My go to is my Rising deep dish net. I use it as a walking stick at night too which really can be helpful.
Listen to this episode on more tips regarding netting.
Focus on Shallow Waters: Fish often move into shallower waters to feed at night, so focus your efforts there. This is particularly true for trout, bass, muskie, and some other predator species. When it comes to big browns, find the deep holes and fish the shallow aspects above and below. Don’t forget to fish the edges as well that is often where they are sitting so walking right up to the water can be a big mistake.
Pay Attention to the Moon Phase: Some anglers find that fishing is better during certain phases of the moon, especially around a full moon when there is more natural light at night. I have a propensity to not fish after a full moon because it always seems to be poor fishing. I believe that on the several waxing moon phases up to a full moon, the fish are eating heavily and then it is nothing but full and content bellies for a few days.
Keep It Simple: Night fishing can be more challenging, so try to keep your gear and tactics simple to avoid complications in the dark. I typically put on my waders, have a single tippet spool to add tippet if needed, and a fly pouch that has several streamers and a few mice in it. The only differentiation is if I know I’m headed out to fish caddis during a hatch or going to fish Chornobyl Ants during warm late summer nights when hoppers are common. My rod is always pre-rigged and I’m ready to go when I get there. Last of all I have a headlamp but it is rarely on unless I’m leaving. During the walk to the fishing hole, I keep it in red or off completely. It’s amazing how quickly your eyes adjust to the darkness.
Consult Local Knowledge: Talk to local anglers, visit local bait and tackle shops, fly shops, and or attend various group meetings. You will be surprised by what you hear and how you can use that information to your advantage. My favorite is going to a local shop and seeing photographs and asking a few questions. I start out with a few simple comments and often where it was caught comes up naturally, then if I’m not sure of the spot I ask a few clarifying questions. Surprisingly most shops are so excited they just blurt it out. With that little information, I know that a target is in a hole or run close by. Now I head out and start prospecting.