Hunting for big Brown Trout using dry flies on the White River

More and more these days I hear about the use of gigantic articulated streamer flies being used to catch big brown trout and I have seen the photographs that show it’s certainly a successful method of catching big fish.  However, these huge flies are going to require a heavy weight rod and anyone who has swung 7, 8 or 9 weight rods around their head will know it can get rather tiring after only a short time.

Being the person I am and having a distinct preference for lightweight rods and dry flies, I have set myself a challenge of catching a 26 inch brown (or bigger) on a 5 weight rod using a dry fly.  A rod that size loaded with the correct line is capable of casting up to a size 6 dry fly which equates to a small mouse pattern or a very large hopper, so I feel sure we can still offer a tasty morsel.

Another prerequisite of mine is that the fishing is performed during the hours of daylight, something of a problem if one is to believe that the BIG browns only hunt at night.

Most early reading that I have done on Brown Trout led me to believe that big ones are reclusive, feed only from dusk to dawn and prefer deeper water.  So something of a challenge if I want to catch one during daylight and using a surface fly!

Well surprisingly I recently found that some worldwide research shows that Brown Trout may actually change their feeding habits through the year to the point where they will favor the daytime fly fisher.

Here is an extract from an article entitled “Seasonal Activity and Feeding Pattern of Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) in a Dartmoor Stream in Relation to Availability of Food – by I Chaston”

In laboratory tests, brown trout were most active between dusk and dawn from spring to autumn, but the percentage of the total activity that occurred during daylight was higher in the summer than in the other two seasons. Analysis of the variation in the weight of stomach contents during 24hrs in the three seasons showed a higher peak in weight at noon in summer than in the other seasons. The difference was related to an increased consumption of material of terrestrial origin, which other work showed to be most available to the fish between 09.00 and 12.00. No relationship was found between the times of maximum occurrence of benthic and emergent items in the stream and of their consumption by trout. The increase in daytime activity during the summer was also evidently related to increased consumption of terrestrial material.

Alright so it seems that Brown Trout do favor feeding during the middle part of the day in the summer months, particularly for terrestrial “material”.

Studies have also shown that Brown Trout change their feeding habits as they increase in size.  Young Brown Trout of less than 12 inches will feed primarily on insects drifting freely in the stream currents and become particularly active during aquatic insect hatches.  Once they grow beyond 12 inches, Brown Trout will shift their diet to larger prey and become more of an “ambush” predator; waiting for the food to come to them.  Diet for these large fish will often include crayfish, other fish including trout, salamanders, frogs, small mammals and birds, although they will often return to feed on large aquatic insects when the conditions are favorable; during a large stonefly hatch for example.

Most authorities report that once Brown Trout reach a certain size they will begin to feed on anything they can get in their mouths!  Have you seen the size of a 20 inch Brown Trout’s mouth?  So finding something sizable is probably the reason they hunt the shoreline.

Here is another interesting extract from an article called “Feeding habits and diet of Brown Trout (Salmo-trutta fario) in the upper streams of Kashmir Valley – by Nusrat Rasool”

The presence of the terrestrial ants in the gut contents revealed that the brown trout had a greater tendency to eat larger prey from wherever available. Merz (2002) in another study found bird feathers, mammalian hair and terrestrial ants in the stomachs of steel head trout. These findings indicate that the brown trout like steel head trout eats everything that is smaller than the trout itself and looks alive.

Did you catch that?  Eats anything that is smaller than itself! 

Also the mention of “mammalian” hair makes me think of that amazing movie “Once in a Blue Moon” by Carl McNeil.  If you aren’t familiar with this cult classic then check out a preview here:

Where does this leave us?  Well to be honest most of us might already consider carrying the terrestrial box during the summer months and leaving it at home during the cold days of winter.  Although I would suggest that these studies show a particular importance of casting large terrestrial patterns throughout the summer months if you want to catch BIG fish and maybe even during distracting aquatic insect hatches when the smaller fish are active.  It is also worth remembering that the trout often have a residual memory of eating large terrestrials and I have often heard reports of them continuing to take those kind of flies many weeks after the insect activity has ceased; the Green River Cicada hatch is a good example.  So don’t leave that box of terrestrials behind too soon!

My fishing buddy asked me the other day if I thought a big Brown Trout would come up from the depths to a big fly if it were cast mid stream.  I commented that I thought it unlikely because the trout would consider it too much effort to rise from the deep.  As I commented earlier, big trout become more of an ambush predator and will place themselves in situations where an instant attack will reap a reward.  Therefore during the period of terrestrial activity (summer months) I expect to find big trout in very shallow water during the day, most probably within a foot or so of the bank and often in less than one foot of water.  Placing themselves in these conditions is extremely hazardous to the fish, although most likely there is going to be good bottom structure to camouflage the fish’s profile and provide some protection.  

Three good examples of this feeding situation are streams I have fished regularly; the White River in Arkansas, the Henry’s Fork in Idaho and the Green River in Utah.  These streams hold some amazing fish and all the fish over 20 inches that I have caught on dry flies have been within a foot of the bank.

I tend to use 20 inches as measurement for “trophy” fish since a guide in Utah once said to me “so how many 20 inch fish do you expect to catch in a year”?

Experience has shown that fish in these conditions are very sensitive to their surroundings and are most difficult to approach either on foot or by boat.  They are probably working an area they are very familiar with and know all the escape routes.  In rivers where the flow extends to the edge of the stream (all rivers experience reduced flow at the edges), the fish is most likely to be found facing upstream (into the flow) so an approach from downstream is obviously beneficial.  However, in low flow streams, like tailwaters at low water, they could be facing in any direction so trying to approach from behind the fish becomes almost impossible.  This is also true in back eddy conditions similar to those I found on the Henry’s Fork where huge cruising trout in the shallows of “Bonefish Flats” are almost impossible to approach.  In this situation the most successful method is “patience”!  I have observed fly fishers stand for hours awaiting the arrival of those huge Rainbows that the Henry’s Fork is renowned for.

Stalking the banks of the White River has often revealed a holding spot that a big brown likes to frequent and I have practiced this patience technique.  Standing in the stream awaiting the fish’s return I have enjoyed some success although more often the fish will spot me and leave in a hurry.

I have tried a stealthy approach along the bank till I have a visual on the fish although then the cast most commonly spooks the fish.  So sight fishing in such conditions is very difficult.

Floating the bank from a “castable” distance is obviously in the fly fishers favor if one is lucky enough to either; own a boat, have a friend with one, or afford a guide.  Under these circumstances the boat handler needs to maintain the correct distance to allow accurate casts without encroaching on the fish’s “comfort zone”.  The caster needs to work every nook and cranny with the expectation of a fish on each cast so one is not surprised when the take comes.

Although I own a boat and do enjoy using it to reach new areas, I much prefer to fish on foot and I have found the best approach while wading is to work the area from a distance of approximately 25-30 feet parallel to the bank.  Even in low flow conditions it is preferable to begin your “stalk” from downstream and use a long enough leader to avoid overly slapping the water with your fly line.  My preference is a 3 or 4x leader of about 9-12 feet although if you can lay down a large fly without line slap then the shorter length is better.

Large flies are going to hit the water with impact and that is exactly what is required; don’t be concerned if that hopper lands with a decided splash, just so long as you don’t drive it hard into the water.  Once the fly has landed give it some action, but not straight away.  Using poppers for Bass taught me that “little is good” and the impact should have got the fish’s attention.  If there is no initial reaction, give the fly a distinct twitch; then stop, don’t overdo it.  After a couple of twitches I will reposition the fly 2-3 feet either side although my preference will always be right on the land/water margin.

Start by casting about 25 feet although I see no reason not to land the fly a few times on its way out to 25 so you cover the area closer to you.  Once you reach 25 feet, re-position the cast 10-15 degrees either side so you quarter that area.  If you don’t get a fish after covering 25 feet, extend your cast another 5 feet and repeat.  Continue until you reach a manageable distance of say, 40 feet.  Now is the time to move up on foot.  Do it stealthily!  Point your toes as you move forward and place the feet gently.  Be sure one foot is down firmly before moving the next.  Continue moving upstream for about 10 feet then repeat the casting so you extend into a new area.  In the video below you will see good stealth technique; slow forward motion and hardly any concentric circles to be detected by the fish.  If you want an example of how to stalk fish, watch a Great Blue Heron!

Always shorten up your cast and shoot line to the target area; don’t “line” the fish by over casting and don’t overdo the false casting.  Using foam flies should all but eliminate the need for false casting.

Keep your rod tip down once you have landed the fly so you can eliminate slack and use your line hand to “manipulate” the fly, don’t use the rod.

Once you have reached the end of your “beat” take a break for an hour or so then walk back downstream away from the water and run through the area again particularly if you spooked fish on your way upstream.  Experience has shown me that large fish will return to the area they like to hunt particularly if that area provides the protection they require; so you may get a second chance at them.

If you want to catch a big fish then you have to put the effort in and not get distracted by rising fish in the main flow.  Big fish know where to find the size of food they want and most often this not within the aquatic insect hatches further out in the flow.  So stick with the program and work the close inshore area because that’s where they reside and eventually it will happen.

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4 Responses to Hunting for big Brown Trout using dry flies on the White River

  1. Honorably discharged in '91 says:

    Wow! That was fun. I learned a lot.

  2. Glad you found it fun, the research certainly was!

  3. April Simpson says:

    Hi there Glen will add you as a friend so can you accept when he asks you .
    Thanks hope this finds you both well


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