Unless you see a specific fish to target, begin with short casts and gradually increase the distance, extending each cast a few feet farther and at varying degrees to the right and left so you systematically cover the area without lining a fish. Try to false cast parallel or over the shore to avoid casting shadows, and don’t be afraid to work with a less-than-perfect presentation. One of my beliefs is every cast is a good cast, so each time the fly lands, fish it.
Continue until you reach a manageable distance of 40 feet or less, depending on the conditions. By varying your cast at different lengths and angles from the same positions, you’ll be able to cover the most likely holding spots before repositioning.
When it’s time to move upstream, move stealthily. Don’t cast while walking, and try to maintain slow forward motion to keep any concentric pressure rings from reaching a fish. Point your toes as you move forward and step down gently and be sure one foot is planted firmly before moving the next. Move upstream about 10 feet or until you feel you’re in a new area. If you need a real-life example of how to stalk fish, watch a great blue heron!
Something that is in your favor when targeting fish in shallow water is their small angle of vision, or Snell’s window. I don’t necessarily crouch while wading to hide my silhouette when I’m on the same level as the fish, but if you’re on a high bank, you’re much more visible, so it may pay to crouch whenever possible.
Once you’re set in a new position, repeat the same casting routine as earlier, beginning with a short length of line and casting progressively farther. Keep the rod tip down after the fly lands to help eliminate slack. If you want to add motion, try to manipulate the fly with the line instead of with the rod tip so you can remain in direct contact with the fly and not unintentionally throw additional slack into your line, making it tough to set the hook.
Be prepared for a strike on every cast, often without warning. Remember, the fish you’re targeting are ambush predators, and most commonly you won’t realize they’re there until one hits the fly.
Once you reach the end of a run, take a break for an hour or more, walk around, and approach from downstream and run through the area again, especially if you spooked fish on your way upstream. Experience has shown me that large fish sometimes return to an area they like to hunt, so you may get a second chance at a special fish.
I believe it’s the sudden arrival of something in the fish’s feeding zone that excites the fish to take. The big brown trout you’re targeting are “opportunistic” feeders not focused on a particular hatch; so base your fly choice on stream surroundings and current terrestrial activity.
Heavily wooded banks dictate the choice of grasshoppers or crickets, which are often available well into late fall. Live hoppers tend to sit stationary when they land on the water, offering up a small struggling kick now and then, so emulate this with your artificial. Don’t fret too much about getting a dead drift. Let your fly land and give it a little action after a few seconds.
Although mice are generally nocturnal, I like to use floating mouse patterns along undercut banks. These flies make substantially more commotion when they hit the water, but don’t fret. That’s exactly how mice often enter the water—with a decided splash. I call it the plop presentation. Mice are reasonable swimmers, so begin with a slow, steady retrieve and an occasional, light twitch. If you think the fish will react to something with more action, steadily “chug” the pattern across the water with six-inch line strips.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. If you think seeing a big brown trout attack a splashing mouse pattern is exciting, give bass poppers a try sometime. Most have a terrestrial silhouette and are easy to influence with a few strips of line, though in my experience, less turbulence is better than more, and the impact should be sufficient to get the fish’s attention. If there is no initial reaction, give the fly a distinct twitch and then stop; don’t overdo it.
If you are lucky enough to see a large fish feeding randomly, it is difficult to decide where to place your fly. My recommendation is carefully watch the rhythm and position of the fish’s feeding, have line ready to cast and then place the fly exactly where the fish last broke the surface.
Allow the fish to consume the fly, don’t set the hook until its mouth closes over the fly, and then pause for a fraction of a second before lifting the rod tip. In some cases, you may pause long enough to feel the line go taut, at which point the fish usually turns and sets the hook for you.
Lastly, don’t get distracted by rising fish in the current. One of the most important things about catching big brown trout on a dry fly is simply knowing the food they want—most often, it’s not the aquatic insect hatches farther out in the flow. Stick with the program and work inshore areas and eventually it will happen.
Keith Oxby is a casting instructor and guide in Kimberling City, Missouri (www.ozarkenglishman.com).