Tactics to Catch Big Trout

A lot of people want to catch big trout but they get stuck using small fish tactics. If you want to catch big ones, don’t fish dry flies. Big trout don’t get that way by feeding on the surface. Most fish won’t grow beyond 16 inches on a diet that consists solely of bugs.  Trout that feed on crayfish and baitfish put on pounds at a far greater rate than insect feeders. These predators will eat fish that are up to one-third their own size. To target 24-inch trout, don’t be afraid to consider eight-inch streamers. Show them something substantial so that the potential protein is worth the energy they have to expend.

Where to Find Big Trout

Scott Cook of Fly and Field Outfitters in Bend, spends three seasons of the year chasing big trout in Oregon’s high desert. He doesn’t spend much time focusing on smaller trout. “Big fish get big because they’re smart and lazy,” he says. “To catch them, you need to use a slower retrieve so they don’t have to work as hard to take your fly.”  In general, Cook fishes the deeper water. Look for transition zones, changes in depth, rocky points, weedbeds, and submerged timber. In such places, you’ll find the biggest trout, waiting to ambush their meal.

When prospecting trophy trout water, experiment with different depths. On the first exploratory cast, let the fly hit the water, count to two and start the retrieve. On subsequent casts, count to 10, 15, or 20 to allow the fly to sink to various depths. That
way, you can cover everything from the first two inches of water, down to about 10 feet.

Big-bellied trout get that way by eating big meals and conserving their energy. That means avoiding the sting of the steel as much as possible. That jaded outlook means you’re not likely to catch Mr. Big on a pattern he’s seen over and over. That’s why, in a guide’s box, you’ll find the go-to flies they turn to when they need to boat a big one.  Instead of tying on another Pheasant Tail, show them something different. If you want theedge next time you search stillwaters for trophy trout, read on.

Flies for Big Fish

You’ve heard that big flies catch big fish. It’s true, most of the time. Bigger flies also discourage smaller trout. The first five flies in the big trout box fall into the ‘big fly, big fish’ category.

Articulated Leech

Some people are afraid to use the A-Leech in trout waters. It looks like a steelhead fly, not a trout pattern. And it is a steelhead fly. One of the best. And what are steelhead, but big rainbow trout? Fish it unweighted early in the season, deep and slow. Later, when the water warms, fish it with lead wrapped at the head, or with lead eyes to give it an up and down swimming action. Smaller fish will turn away, but you’ll have to pry it from the jaws of some of the bigger fish in the lake.

Magnum Rabbit Strip Matuka

Here’s a great chub imitation. Cast from shore late in the evening and retrieve the fly with long, erratic strips and frequent pauses. Change directions often to spark the strike.  If you locate a school of chubs, fish your imitation on the edge of the group.

Clouser Minnow

Use this one when you’re fishing deeper water, after the temperatures have begun to rise in the spring. The lead eyes make it dive headfirst like a minnow seeking shelter on the bottom.

Saltwater Deceiver

Tied in olive and white, the Deceiver is a good imitation of chubs and panfish fry. Keep a selection of these in different colors to match baitfish in the waters you fish. In the shallows, use a floating line and cast along weedbeds, to drop-offs, and shoreline brush or sunken stumps. In deeper water, use a slow sinking line to reach submerged rainbows.  Employ a strip-strip-pause or a continuous retrieve that imitates a panicked baitfish. Then stop and let the fly rest. Most strikes will come on the pause.

Near Nuff Crayfish

Crayfish make their homes under rocks and sunken logs. Scavengers, they feed on dead fish and other decaying material. When frightened, they jet backwards at astonishing speed. Their greatest predators are fish. Big fish. To imitate them you need to fish your pattern on, or close to the bottom. Fish the fly very slowly, crawling it over the bottom, but giving quick, panicked strips every minute or two, like the natural moves when it seeks to escape.

When Small Flies Catch Big Trout

After minnows, leeches and crayfish, the meals that pack the most protein are snails and freshwater shrimp. Trout also rely on chironomids and, in many waters, water boatmen.  Sometimes these tiny morsels are the only meals that will turn a trout’s head.


As important as chironomids are to trout, most fishermen overlook them. Big trout specialists don’t. In most waters, a floating line is the best choice. Tie on a 12-foot or longer leader and position the strike indicator to suspend the fly about one or more feet above the vegetation. Cast and let the line drift with the wind, keeping the line straight, paying close attention to the indicator. Wave action on the water will make your imitation appear to wiggle.  When you retrieve, bring the fly in with a slow hand twist or one-inch strips.

Crane Bugger

The great thing about a pattern like this is that it can imitate so many different trout foods. Use 12-inch strips to imitate baitfish. Swim it to suggest a leech. Use two-inch strips with intermittent pauses to imitate damselfly nymphs. To imitate a dragonfly nymph, try a series of three-inch pulls, punctuated by 12-inch ‘kill’ strips. Use a crawling retrieve to suggest a snail. Fish the Crane Bugger weighted or unweighted on a floating or slow-sinking line.

Water Boatman

This is one of those patterns that you should have on hand in case you need it. It’s a great fly to use in tandem with a scud. Corixidae is a flying beetle that spends part of its life in the water. Late summer and early fall will give you your best opportunities at fishing the Water Boatman. A Krystal Flash wingcase is suggestive of the natural’s air supply. Swept-back rubber legs provide the motion that makes this pattern a winner.


Scuds, when present, are second only to chironomids in importance to trout. Wherever these crustaceans are found, you’ll find trout with full bellies. Usually creatures of the shallows, scuds can be found in deep water as well. Like chironomids, trout eat scuds when they find them. Fish scud patterns on or near the bottom. Try a hand-twist or a slow, erratic short-stripping retrieve.


There are hundreds of snail species in Northwest lakes, but there just aren’t that many snail patterns available to the angler. Some effective patterns include the Woolly Worm, the Renegade (fished deep), Sparkle Snail, Tom Thumb and Cutter’s Snail. Instead of fishing this one weighted, let the line take it down. If you’re fishing slow, you’re probably going too fast. Tie the snail on a dropper behind a heavy beaded scud or a chrome chironomid and use an indicator or fish it by itself on a full sinking line. The biggest of the big need to pack on major calories with every bite. That doesn’t mean you always need big flies to catch big fish. Sometimes you’ll hook the biggest fish on a tiny chironomid or a snail pattern. If the big fish and your fly are in the same place at the same time, you’ll see your strike indicator submerge. Set the hook! Big fish don’t come easy. Trout that will tip the scales to double digits are few and far between. But they are there. And they have to eat. Article and photos by Gary Lewis.