Catching big brown trout on the surface is much easier than it sounds.
[by Keith Oxby]
So often these days, I hear about anglers using gigantic articulated streamer flies, heavy rods, and sinking lines to catch big brown trout. While those patterns are effective, they aren’t much fun to cast.
I’m a big fan of fly fishing’s visual attributes and prefer to catch big browns on 4- or 5-weight rods with dry flies—whether it be a size 6 mouse pattern or a large hopper, it’s still a tasty morsel to a hungry fish.
But most of my early reading about brown trout led me to believe the big ones are reclusive, feed only from dusk to dawn, and prefer deeper water. Something of a challenge if anyone wants to tempt one to the surface during daylight hours.
But my experience simply doesn’t support that premise, and seeing a cast unfurl or the drift of a dry fly prompting the snout of large trout to the surface is something to be witnessed—not hidden in darkness.
I’ve pored over research from around the world that says large brown trout might actually change their feeding habits through the year to favor daytime, dry fly fishing, even in the middle of the day, particularly for large, vulnerable, terrestrial food items.
I also found studies suggesting brown trout change their feeding habits as they increase in size. Young brown trout less than 12 inches long feed primarily on insects drifting freely in the current and become particularly active during aquatic insect hatches. Once browns grow beyond 12 inches, they shift their diet to larger prey and become ambush predators, waiting for food rather than chasing it.
In fact, most reports said once brown trout reach a certain size they begin feeding on anything they can fit into their mouths, such as crayfish, other trout, salamanders, and frogs. I can only
hypothesize that the instinct to find something sizable is probably the reason many big brown trout hunt along shallow shorelines. What better place to test these theories than on the banks of my local stream, Arkansas’s White River, where brown trout commonly move into shallow water, in broad daylight.
What I’ve discovered over the years is how important it is to cast large patterns close to the bank if you want to catch big browns on a dry fly—even during ‘distracting’ aquatic insect emergences when I’d normally be trying to match the hatch.
Big trout place themselves in situations where an instant
attack reaps a reward, but the angler that can approach with
caution and offer a meal that’s tough to resist can reap the benefits. Therefore, during the summer to late fall periods of terrestrial activity, expect to find big trout in very shallow water during the day; most probably within a few feet of the bank and often in less than 12 inches of water.
Browns situating themselves in shallow water are in greater danger of predators and will seek good bottom structure to camouflage their profile and provide some protection. Look for fish around broken bottom structure like rocks, gullies, submerged trees and cut banks. Suspended weed or moss beds are also great holding places.
Experience has taught me that fish holding in shallow water are sensitive to their surroundings and difficult to approach. It’s okay to shuttle between runs in a boat, but anchor or beach the boat and move toward fish-holding areas on foot because you’re less likely to disturb the water or create vibrations that spook fish. Wade on shore if possible or close to the bank to avoid any major water disturbances.
Big brown trout holding in shallow water are familiar with a finite area around them and know the escape routes. Stealth is a must, especially during late-season, low-flow conditions, so approach from downstream, outside a fish’s comfort zone. It will also allow you to move in from the fish’s blind side, where you can make much shorter casts than if you were to approach from another angle. (continued on Page 2)