Tips for Catching Big Brown Trout
A quick review of my Instagram posts lets you know that I mostly catch brown trout.
I noticed this fact again the other day when I was snapping a quick picture of my buddy, Spencer Higa, with a chunky rainbow. It was a bit of an anomaly for us to actually catch anything other than brown trout so this rainbow stood out.
It’s not that I’m super duper skilled at catching browns. It’s just that, as I mentioned, most of the rivers we fish are predominantly brown trout waters. Salmo trutta as a species has adapted exceptionally well to the majority of our small and medium sized streams here in Utah. Browns are here to stay.
Do I sometimes want to catch other species? Of course, and sometimes I do. But for the most part, I don’t have a problem with the local brown trout situation. We have some of the best small water fishing for relatively big browns (20″-30″) in the entire world.
Even when I’m not home I still look for super salmo trutta. My international fly fishing trips have also mostly involved chasing big browns. I highly recommend it.
For me brown trout are a challenge. Catch rate studies show them to be 5 to 6 times more difficult to catch than rainbow trout in areas with similar sized populations of each. Compared to most other trout, they are generally more wary, more likely to feed at night and, in the day time especially, they tend to be more particular about exactly what they will eat.
I’m a sucker for the challenge.
I also hunt chukars.
Combine the degree of difficulty with their appearance, a long gnarly flattened snout and toothy smile, and a penchant for carnivorousness and it’s actually pretty easy to start obsessing about big browns. I know a lot of anglers who have succumbed. If you’re not careful (like if you keep reading) you too may fall into the salmo trutta trap.
So, I’m at the point where I can admit it. I’m not just a run-of-the-mill trout bum. I’m a brown trout bum. And I don’t plan to go into salmo trutta rehab any time soon. Chasing truly large browns is worth every frustrating minute spent doing it. Luckily, I have learned a few things over years spent wading brown trout water.
Fish Where Big Browns Live, Duh
This is a stupid phrase. I even kinda hate writing it, but it is true: To catch a big brown you have to fish where big browns live.
Following this logic, I could just say go to New Zealand or Iceland, visit certain Arkansas tailwaters, go to the Great Lakes tributaries in the fall, or go to this or that river in Argentina or Chile. If I did just say that it would be true, those are the shortcuts. They are in some ways less satisfying though. Stamping your passport for a grip n grin is not what this article is about. I want to help you find big browns (a recognizably relative term) near you.
So let’s start by looking a little harder at some of the brown trout fisheries with which you’re familiar.
The biggest of brown trout in any particular water have taken advantage of environmental conditions that allow them to grow bigger than average size. This sometimes means they live in a particular river or lake with tons of food. However, the flip side of this is that in almost every ordinary stream, river or lake a few fish get much bigger than the others. These are usually opportunistic carnivores that figure out how to eat almost everything around them. They just keep on growing. A small reservoir near me holds some really large browns but actually has an average fish size of maybe 8 inches or so. A few fish in this particular spot have figured out that cannibalism is where it’s at and they get up to 10 pounds or more.
So, even outside of those truly special places in the world, really big browns are possible.
Start by looking for the anomalies. Because of their territorial nature and caloric needs, the biggest browns will almost always hang out alone in a place with access to a good food source. Only in the most fertile waters or at spawning time will you find really big browns together, and then it’s usually with just a few others. So you’re usually looking for just one fish. This fish is the boss.
Because they aren’t common, you have to identify what it is about certain waters and certain parts of waters that may create a good home. Pick a stream, river or lake and then subdivide that water into the very most likely big brown spots.
Yes, you can get lucky if you put in enough time blind casting a streamer. Plenty of Instaheros do it. But if you want to catch really big browns on a semi-regular basis advanced scouting and spotting them first is more efficient. Find high vantage points where you can see down into the water without spooking fish and just watch. Unless I’m streamer fishing in likely water at the right time of year (lake run fish in the fall), I almost never catch really big browns without spotting them first.
To spot fish you not only have to spend the time you also have to read water well. Big browns will nearly always occupy the very best spots in any given stream. They will be near cover and a great place to eat.
I spotted this bruiser for my fishing buddy, Bryan Eldredge, in a deep pocket behind a boulder just off the main current. Had we not seen it first, catching it would have been highly unlikely.
Some other brown trout bums I know will spend days or weeks scouting out likely brown trout water in hopes of getting a glimpse, and consequently the upper hand, on a big brown.
Fish For Big Browns at the Right Time
I’ve caught plenty of decent browns in the middle of the day, but almost all of the truly big browns I’ve caught have been caught in the early morning, evening or at night.
Now I just told you to spot them first. Then I’m telling you to fish at night?
If you’re committed to catching really big browns, you will probably have to turn your pursuit into a multi-day endeavor. Spot em when light is good. Sure, go ahead and try to catch them in the day. If you can’t, come back in low light or at night and fish hard with streamers or poppers or even mice.
Like I mentioned, browns are highly territorial. They will often be in the same location or almost the same location where you spotted them in the day. Notice I said almost the same locations. It’s common for browns to move at night. They usually don’t go far and they usually move from deep protected holding water to shallower areas to feed. So, if you spot a big brown down deep in a pool in the daytime, you may find your fish in the shallow edges or the tailout of the pool at night.
Know Your Bugs
Many, if not most, truly big browns are caught on streamers. This is the nature of big browns. At sizes above 20″ or so most browns become primarily piscivorous (fish eaters).
If you’re going to catch big browns regularly you must fish streamers at least some of the time. Big articulated streamers and conehead bunny streamers are often the best for the biggest browns, although I love, love, love Clouser minnows as well.
Artist and big fish angler extraordinaire, Tim Johnson, got this beefy brown to eat a streamer mid-day.
Even though streamers are generally considered the go-to flies for big browns, you can still catch some really incredible fish on nymphs and even dry flies. You do have to fish these at the right times and in the right way.
Start with nymphs. Even the biggest fish will eat a nymph if it’s presented well. This can sometimes mean you have to drift it straight into the fish’s face. Almost any fish will open up and suck down a nymph if you make it easy enough.
I annoyed this brown with a Higa’s SOS nymph until it finally opened up and ate.
If you want to catch large browns on dry flies pay close attention to your local hatches. Big hatches of big bugs will get big fish excited. Every year some of the biggest fish in the rivers I fish are caught on green drakes, brown drakes, stoneflies, craneflies and October caddis. The occasional heavy emergence of large terrestrial insects like cicadas and grasshoppers can also bring up a few big fish. These are all big bugs, and when they hatch in big enough numbers, it’s enough to fulfill the caloric needs of really big fish.
Stephen Eldredge caught this 27″ beauty on a big terrestrial dry fly in the middle of the day.
Mark your calendar for the big hatches of big bugs. I have the date ranges for my local hatches of green drakes, salmon flies, golden stones and brown drakes burned into my brain because I know these are big enough meals to bring up some really big fish.
Here’s an old video, but a good one to illustrate this point. This fish isn’t huge but, Spencer Higa and Bryan Eldredge, show what kind of brown trout fishing you can expect when big bugs are hatching.
Not every big brown is caught with streamers. Know your hatches and you can enjoy some great dry fly fishing for really big fish as well.
Your Search For Salmo Trutta Grande
Big browns are really pretty simple beasts, but they can be frustrating and elusive for sure. It takes a special sort of angler to be a brown trout bum. The challenge is yours. I’m confident that if you spend time researching, even more time watching, and throw the right stuff, sooner or later, salmo trutta grande in hand will become your reality.