Slap! Your streamer hits the water as you begin to strip your fly; once, twice, then whack! A monster trout body engulfs your streamer in a violent takedown. Your line gets tight as you set the hook. All the hair stands up on the back of your neck knowing you have just hooked what could be a trophy trout. There is nothing really like the feeling of catching a trophy trout. For most anglers, this moment and the fish will be engrained in your memory forever. So how do you find and land a trophy trout?
Below are tactics and techniques on how to target trophy trout from my own fishing experiences and personal research. This information does not only pertain to Colorado as these techniques can be used throughout the world.
How to Locate Trophy Trout:
Everyone has dreamed of catching a trophy trout. This is something that does not come easy and requires hard work, dedication, and lots of patience. There are a lot of variables we need to examine in order to complete this mission, so let’s dive in!
First, it is important to know the body of water you are going to fish. A good way to start is by studying maps of rivers you are interested in. Google Earth is a great resource, and I often use it to find spots on the river I want to target and fish. Keep private land in mind and don’t break laws for a fish, it’s not worth it!
I would then ask myself a few questions; Can this river support a large trout? Is it deep enough? Is it wide enough? What is the quality and quantity of food within the river?
Understanding the River Systems:
There are two main types of river systems, tailwaters and freestone rivers. They both have different and unique qualities. Tailwaters are dam regulated rivers and provide a relatively consistent water temperature throughout the year. The water levels, however, can change dramatically and often so this is something to be aware of and keep track of. Because of the consistent water temperatures and water release from the dams, there is a large amount of food for the fish. Hatches are more consistent and different food sources get released into the river from the lake above the dam. This usually results in a very healthy population, both in size and number, of trout in this type of river. Because of the consistent water temperature, tailwaters are great for winter fishing.
Freestone rivers are created by runoff, creeks, and lakes that feed them. These rivers can be a great place to target large trout with streamers and deep nymph rigs which we will get into later. Freestone rivers are often more likely to freeze up in the winter and are affected more by runoff and rain.
Water to Target for Trophy Trout:
Trophy trout typically like to lurk in the shadows. From my personal experience, I have found that trophy trout like to hide in the deepest holes in the river. They want protection, oxygen, and easy access to food. Big trout can be very lazy for the most part, unless they are moving around and hunting. These are the key times to target big trout which include nighttime and/or dawn and dusk when the seasons are changing, and if water levels are changing.
It is common to see larger fish moving in the river and being aggressive during their spawning periods, however, it is wrong to target fish when they are actively spawning. Stay off Redds and do not fish to spawning fish!
When you get to the river, don’t just start fishing, scan the water and focus on points where you find large shelves or drop-offs that lead to a deep slow moving tail out. As Kelly Galloup puts it “cast less, stalk more.” You will find most trophy trout toward the bottom of the water column. Generally, they will sit within six inches from the bottom and typically will not look down to eat a fly. It is important to get right in from of them or slightly above them to trigger an eat. They will often sit in the tail outs of runs to feed as the water column narrows and it is less work for them to acquire food. Large boulders in deep pools also provide great structure for large trout to hide, think deep!
Three Approaches for Effectively Fishing for Trophy Trout:
There a many approaches to targeting and hunting a trophy trout. The three that I find most effective are throwing streamers from a boat, sight fishing with a euro nymphing rig, and running very deep nymph rigs. With that said, let’s look into these tactics in more detail.
Streamer Fishing Techniques:
Streamers are a great way to find large, aggressive fish. As I said before, large trout can be very lazy. Even though your streamer could be in the feeding zone, the fish will probably not move for your streamer. It takes dedication sometimes with this approach. It is important to continue trying day in and day out with this method. My friends and I will often float a certain stretch of water every day for weeks on end in order to get a large fish to move on a streamer. The way to increase your odds is to target the key feeding times for big trout as I discussed previously.
There are many ways to throw streamers; most people would generally target the bank and strip it in a variety of speeds and stripping methods. I find that this is a great technique when looking for quantity. It is fun to see a lot of fish chase and attack your fly, but the best way I have found to target large trout with a streamer is to throw where most people wouldn’t. Remember how I talked about big trout wanting to hide in the deepest, darkest places? Those deep spots are in the center of the river, or where there are large transition points. Dirt lines from runoff, slow deep tail-outs, shelfs, etc. I usually use a full sink line and, more often than not, add weight above my fly and try to put my streamer in the deepest channels of the river. I am always trying to find depth with this approach. After I cast, I let the fly sink and count a few seconds before starting my retrieve. Again this may vary with the location I land my fly. I then focus on a slow and low retrieve to tease those big fish. Most of the time I cannot see my streamer and I use a strip set when I feel a strike. This can be a very monotonous approach, but it has proven to be very effective. Again, this method is not how you are going to find numbers, but you are far more likely to move a large fish. One of the biggest things with streamers is to constantly change size, color, articulation, and your retrieve. Don’t get stuck on one pattern and one retrieval style!
Who doesn’t love watching a fish eat your fly! This brings me to the use of a Euro Nymphing rod, as it easily allows me to put my flies in front of a trout I can see and target. Smaller tailwaters are great for this approach. I will often walk up and down the river in search of a large fish and I generally will cast very little until I find one. This can be very tricky as they see a lot of pressure. The keys are lighter tippet, smaller and less flashy patterns, and the use of a euro leader. After I locate a large fish, I will simply watch its actions before I make a cast. If you let yourself get too excited and try to put a cast in its face immediately, chances are you will spook the fish. I will wait till I see it feeding as you can often see the trout moving up and down and side to side. You will see its cotton white mouth open as it gorges itself on food. This is the time you make your approach. It is a calculated move as we are using a Euro nymphing setup. I position my body into discreet spot and make sure my casting motions will not spook the fish. I focus on landing the flies softly and above the fish by the correct distance so that my bugs will be at the right depth and in the feeding zone. This can often be very difficult as they can pick up on your shadow, and vibrations very quickly. I have gone as far as lying down and crawling into position to get a good cast. Sometimes you just have to focus on a good drift and fooling the fish into eating with multiple casts and determination. When all these things add up correctly, hang on for the ride!
Deep Nymphing Techniques:
Lastly, one of the most effective ways I have found to catch a large trout is nymphing very deep holes. I do this by extending my Leader to about 12 to 14 ft overall. I then use a 3 bug inline nymph rig with heavy tungsten bugs and often times very heavy split shots. Another great rig in deeper areas is a bounce rig with split shot or a very heavy fly at the bottom of the rig. There are a lot of downsides to this approach though, and one of the biggest is that you will often get caught up in rocks, sticks, and logs on the bottom. This is where a bounce rig may alleviate some of that. However, it is a part of this method you just have to accept as this is the area of the river I am trying to target. I will space each fly anywhere from 8 inches to almost 20 inches. If you aren’t getting results, increasing your distance from bug to bug can allow you to cover more of the water column at once instead of having all 3 bugs piled up toward the bottom. You are then locating where the feeding fish are! It is important when using this approach to have a larger indicator that can support the weight of this rig. The ultimate goal of this technique is to know that you are reaching the bottom of these deep holes, so if you’re seeing your flies tick bottom or OCCASIONALLY grabbing onto something you are doing it correctly. It can be difficult to cast this deep rig, and in which case, I use a water haul to save myself from tangles. With this rig, you can target big fish that are hiding in the deep. Shelves, tail outs and large riffles are all features to look for. Your weight will allow you to sink over the initial shelf of a hole very quickly putting your bugs into position. The length of your leader will allow you to reach depths at which larger fish will hide. Sometimes you have to work a hole for a good bit before moving on but give this a try and you will increase your chances of finding that beast of a trout.
It is important to have faith and confidence in all of these approaches as they have proven to work for myself and my colleges. A lot of patience is needed for all three of these approaches, but if you are willing to put in the work and time you will eventually be rewarded with the trout of a lifetime. As I said before, these monsters like to live in the shadows where they feel protected and out of sight. One of the trout’s largest predators are birds of prey such as Osprey and Eagles, so trout do all they can to stay where they can’t be seen and the biggest trout are pros at this. It all adds up to persistence and dedication. Take the time to try these techniques; it may be a slow process but have faith that the fish are there, and you will be rewarded!
I want to give a big thanks to my friends Stew Sciulli, Luke Edwards, Jim Mallos, Scotty Ferguson, Matt Weldon, and Mike Whitfield. These guys are always exploring new rivers and trying new tactics to chase big fish with me. They are all a big contribution to the methods I discussed. They have always been supportive and straight-up fishy gentlemen. Thank you! If you would like to book a trip or have any questions please feel free to reach out to me.
Article from Alec Lucas (@fish_a_day) who is a professional guide at Minturn Anglers in Minturn, Colorado. He guides on a variety of rivers in the area, both out of a boat as well as on foot. Colorado has a wide range of fly fishing options and has virtually everything you could look for in trout fishing. Shoot him an email to set up a guided trip at firstname.lastname@example.org or give Minturn Anglers a call.