- Fish Reports
- Nature Unleashed: Flyfishing for Reds Under Birds
- August Fly Fishing
- Flyfishing with the Gauntts
- Summer Reds on the Sand
- Reds on the Sand and Under Birds
- Redfish on Top
- Barefoot for Big Trout
- Three Days on the Sand
- Three Fantastic Days
- Three Days in the Wind
- Autumn Fly Fishing on the Lower Laguna
- Reds with Rick
- July Reds
- For Sale
- Fish Reports
- Nature Unleashed: Flyfishing for Reds Under Birds
- August Fly Fishing
- Flyfishing with the Gauntts
- Summer Reds on the Sand
- Reds on the Sand and Under Birds
- Redfish on Top
- Barefoot for Big Trout
- Three Days on the Sand
- Three Fantastic Days
- Three Days in the Wind
- Autumn Fly Fishing on the Lower Laguna
- Reds with Rick
- July Reds
- For Sale
The Master Guide To Catching Big Trout
Edward R. Hewitt once pointed out that as a fly fisher matures, he eventually grows weary of catching the most and the biggest fish, and finally turns to the most difficult ones. “It’s the damned difficulty that makes the fun,” said James Dodson’s mentor St. Cecil when he first introduced Dodson to fly fishing. Some of us never get around to embracing the ultimate angling challenges for fear of failure, but even as a teenager, I was more intrigued by the challenge than the attainment: I preferred bridge to spades, pistols to rifles, and fly rods to their coarser cousins. After not seeing my ninth grade algebra teacher for 35 years, I ran into Mr. Jones in my home town of Mercedes, Texas. He walked up to me, shaking his finger; and I winced, thinking he was going to say that I had been a pain in the ass, or did not rise to my potential in his class, both of which were absolutely true. But instead of that, he said, “Scott...you are one of only two students that I taught in 40 years of teaching that always wanted to solve the most difficult problems first.” I didn’t remember that part, but upon reflection, I knew he was right. I’ve always been that way. Perhaps that is why I am entranced by giant speckled trout, because any fly fisher who regularly goes after trophy specks will tell you that they are the toughest gamefish to be found anywhere. “Tougher than permit,” asserts Nick Curcione. “Psycho!” exclaims Fred Arbona. But these master anglers also smile when they speak of her difficulty. Indeed, if this fish were a disreputable lady, the passion that she would generate in a few would be more than enough to protect her from the contempt of the many.
The Spotted Seatrout, or cynoscion nebulosis (i.e. "starry nebulae") is a member of the croaker family,
and like its cousins -- the red drum, the black drum, and the croaker -- “speckled” trout range from the upper Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Before they reach the spawning age of two years, and a length of about 16 inches, trout feed almost exclusively on shrimp and, while feeding, will attack just about anything shrimp-like that you toss in their direction. Indeed, small topwater and subsurface flies will draw as many as a half dozen slashing strikes on a single retrieve through a school of feeding trout.
Once they mature, they begin to spawn about once a week from late spring until late summer. As they grown in size, they break free of the schools, anad become an altogether different animal that roams the shallow flats in search of larger prey. Big trout are solitary creatures, and are usually so spread out on the flats that you can easily go all day without seeing the first one.
Most of the largest trout are female, with the males rarely growing beyond 20 inches in size. A six year-old male will average 19 inches in length, while a six-year-old female will average 26 inches. These large “sow trout” tend to feed only two hours out of every 24-hour cycle, and when they do feed, they usually gorge themselves on large baitfish such as mullet, pinfish, or pigfish. In fact, it is not uncommon to find a trophy trout choking, if not already dead, with a large mullet hanging from its mouth.
Three discouraging assumptions emerge from the aforegoing “facts”: 1) You can’t find big trout when you want to, 2) They aren’t often hungry, and 3) If they are hungry, they are not interested in something as small as a fly. Over time, however, a dedicated fly fisher discovers that these assumptions are not invariably true.
You can’t find them when you want to. Locating trophy speckled trout is a large part of the battle, for their movements are as arcane as any fish to be found. If you fish often enough, you may eventually find yourself standing among dozens of trout from five to eight pounds, and you might think that they gather like this every day. Like Parcifal, who was told that the Grail Castle was simply “down the road and across the bridge,” you might think that the big ones will be easy to find next time. But also like Parcifal, who spent half his life trying to find his back, you will wonder how you could have been so foolish.
Big trout usually show up when I’m least expecting them. Take, for instance August of 1999. I had just met Fred Arbona, founder of Climax and author of Mayflies: The Anger and the Trout, who was staying on the Arroyo and fishing the LLM. Kathy and I had just opened Kingfisher Inn, the first year-round fly fishing lodge on the Texas coast, and I was cutting my teeth as a fly fishing guide.
Fred and I quickly discovered that we held similar sentiments about fly fishing on the Lower Laguna Madre, believing that it was somehow different, and more precious, than other places we’d fished. And so, three days later, we went out fishing together for the first time, along with two of his buddies from Prescott, Arizona. Even though Fred had fished the upper part of the estuary for over 15 years, he hadn’t explored the central LLM, where I did most of my fishing. So, I offered to show him some of my favorite places.
I took Fred and his friends to a small, out-of-the-way lagoon. I parked some distance away from the mouth of the lagoon, and led the men overland through the marsh and the mangroves. Having caught ten redfish there on my fly rod just two days before, I fully expected to be greeted by the sight of bronze-colored tails and backs. I was looking forward to the guys’ reaction to this. But the reds that often lined the shoreline of the moon-shaped lagoon were nowhere to be seen.
Still, we waded out into the shallow water and began to blind cast. The wind was dead calm, and
the surface remained unbroken, except for an occasional leaping mullet. Just before I was ready to call it quits and move on, I saw something that made my heart race -- the black tip of a tail 75 yards away, near the center of the lagoon.
“Fred,” I yelled. “Do you see that tail?”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “There’s several more over here.”
I moved slowly toward the center of the lagoon, and began to notice several large black tails breaking the surface film.
Just at that moment, Fred shouted. His rod was bent, and a big fish was erupting at the end of his line.
About the same time time, I saw a big tail break the surface and then disappear about 50 feet away. I cast my Mother’s Day shrimp pattern toward the tail, and the trout hit it almost immediately. I fought the 27-inch fish for about 10 minutes before landing her. Meanwhile Fred and his friend Sam had three more hookups before the tails simply disappeared.
As for finding the big ones on a regular basis, most of the experienced fly fishers I know usually find big trout in two general locales: around the spoil islands that line the Intracoastal Waterway, and on the east side of the Laguna Madre -- near the west shore of Padre Island. Both venues provide excellent sight-casting opportunities, because the water is even shallower than the average depth of the Bay.
During the spring and early summer, the big trout -- heavy with roe and weighing considerably more than they do the rest of the year -- tend to congregate along the banks of the spoil islands where they spawn about once a week from June until early August. There a stealthy fly fisher can often spot the backs of these big trout breaking the surface in ankle- to calf-deep water. Since stalking these fish on foot can be difficult due to heavy siltation around some of the spoil islands, kayaks can be immensely valuable: They provide a stealthy, low-profile approach, as well as a way to avoid sinking up to your knees in mud.
To give you some idea of what kind of action a fly fisher can encounter during the spring and summer, I went out by myself last July after I had taken several clients into an area that was literally filled with giant trout.By the time I arrived at 9:00, the wind had already come up, so the topwater action was over. However, the sky was cloudless, and so the conditions were perfect for seeing
cruising trout with my polarized sunglasses. I headed to a spot that local fly fishers call the Trout Bar, and walked the edge of a spoil bank hoping to see a few big trout. Instead of a few, however, there dozens of trout from four to nine pounds leaving the bar for deeper water. Before it was over, I’d presented to over 20 big trout, gotten three strikes, and landed none. I went back in and told Kathy, who was working on a manuscript, that she had to go back out with me the next morning. I didn’t have to twist her arm. So we returned to the same spot at daybreak, only to find that almost all of the big trout had left the area. Wading slowly and watching for the subtle signs of tails, Kathy finally spotted the black tip of a tail, and cast her VIP. A few minutes later, she landed, weighed and released a trout that turned out to be an IGFA women’s 12-lb.-class-tippet world record. Such opportunities occur almost daily, but few anglers are experienced enough to catch these fish.
During the non-spawning months, the big trout spread out into the other areas of the Bay, but they can be more easily seen and stalked on the eastern side of the lower Laguna Madre, where there is a virtual absence of bottom vegetation. Here you will find the shallowest and clearest waters in the Bay where you can often see a big trout coming from a hundred yards away when the sun is high. While fishing on the white sand one winter day in the mid-1980s, lower Laguna angler Tom Kilgore caught and released 10 trout, each of which averaged over seven pounds!
The sight casting opportunities on the eastern side of the lower Laguna Madre are what Fred Arbona terms “classic.” Recently, I fished with Fred on the east side at the end of his annual three-month retreat to the Laguna Madre. We waded northward with the prevailing southeasterly wind, about 50 yards apart, and saw nothing for the first 20 minutes. Then I heard Fred exclaim in a loud whisper, “A big trout and a red!” He cast to the trout, but did not hook up. Then he said, “She’s headed your way!” Minutes later, I saw her coming. Looking like a greenish-black log on the sandy bottom, she turned and followed my tiny “Mother’s Day” shrimp pattern when it landed a foot ahead of her. She hit it twice, and each time I pulled the fly out of her mouth. Then she turned and slowly swam downwind. I realized that she had never seen me, and that I still had a chance. Keeping her in sight, I followed her as quietly as I could, casting whenever I thought I had come within range. Finally I managed to cast the fly ahead of her and off to the side. She suddenly wheeled around attacked the tiny intruder. From 75 feet away, I saw her jaws flare as she ingested the fly, and then she was on! Minutes later, Fred and I photographed and released a fat 26-27-inch trout, celebrating the catch with boyish shouts and -- of course -- requisite high-fives.
Trout that are roaming the east side are surprisingly willing to take a fly, but it is extremely challenging to present the fly well in conditions where the trout can see us from such a long way off. When Nick Curcione was fishing with me recently, he took one step in the direction of a giant trout that swam into view, and she promptly turned away. Clearly, she had seen him. While the trout's reaction was par for the course, Nick exclaimed, "This is the most difficult sight casting I've ever encountered." I shared his sentiment, but there are times when the trout are moving and feeding that they will swim right up to you. You just have to be there for it.
They aren’t often hungry. Large speckled trout may not be hungry when they’re digesting a big mullet, but they can still be enticed to hit a fly. Recently, Bud Rowland surprised me by saying, “I can get a big trout to eat almost any time.” In support of his bold contention, he had recently caught a 10-lb-11-oz. trout that had a foot-long mullet lodged in its gullet. What made that fish eat? Was it responding from lingering hunger, or a reflex action more akin to aggression? The latter, more likely.
Of course, hunger may determine whether a trout keeps attacking your fly again and again. When a big trout hits, she may give up after a halfhearted slash at the fly, or she may pursue your fly relentlessly, hitting it again and again even after feeling the prick of the hook. Last summer, I cast to a surface-feeding trout with my “VIP” fly, and she proceeded to hit it explosively four times on my first retrieve. I was on my knees by the time she missed it for the fourth time only 10 feet away from me. Without getting up, I made short casts all around me until she hit the fly one last time; and five minutes later, I landed a very tenacious, if not very hungry, 28-inch trout.
If they are hungry, they are not interested in something as small as a fly. Even though big trout are wary and often hard to catch, they aren’t as selective as you might think, and they’re not too proud to take tiny flies. While a big mullet may be the meal of choice, big trout are, to some extent, opportunistic predators, and will often attack whatever crosses their paths. With the right presentation, big trout can be provoked into striking even the smallest flies. This is probably why the flies that work for one fly fisher often bear little resemblance to the preferred patterns of another equally successful fly fisher.
The Secret of Secrets
I asked my friend and fellow guide, Skipper Ray, who is a well-known trout angler on the lower Laguna, “What is the secret to getting big trout to take your fly?” In his usual laconic style, Skipper
replied, “See the fish before she sees you” -- as if this should be the most obvious thing in the world. But it isn’t always the first thing that fly fishers consider. Nor is it easy to accomplish once you’ve embraced it as your first order of business.
Before you can see a big trout before she sees you, you must first realize that trout have an uncanny ability to sense your presence. A fly fisher, believing that a trout has not seen him, will often express surprise when the fish flees so quickly and decisively from his first presentation. He will typically attribute the fish’s behavior to a lack of hunger, or he will blame the fly. Actually, a trout’s hypersensitivity usually stems from having already sensed the fisherman’s presence. Indeed, more often than not, the fish is already in a state of arousal before the fly fisher ever makes his first cast. This explains why big trout are prompt to reject all but the most unobtrusive presentations. Sparse Gray Hackle once asserted, “The real expert is always willing to credit the fish with the inordinate wariness which it always manifests, and he is willing to take the trouble to stalk as he should.” Based on this assessment, it’s up to us -- not the fish or the fly -- to turn our failures into successes.
It is often true that you will get one shot at a big trout before she "turns off," and rejects your subsequent presentations. I recently guided Jim Stephenson from Austin, Texas. We were planing down the Intracoastal, when I spotted a big trout with its back and tail out of the water on a grassy flat adjacent to the channel, so I came off plane, and putted over to the edge of the flat. I said to Jim,
"You have one shot, and it has to be perfect. Good luck."
Thanking me for turning up the pressure, Jim slipped quietly into the water armed with a weedless topwater. A few minutes later, he dropped the fly six inches beyond the trout's head, and stripped it. I groaned, knowing that the trout would refuse this unnatural approach. Sure enough, she sank slowly out of sight. She came back up shortly thereafter, and stayed within 25 feet of Jim for the next few minutes. But I knew that it was over. After presenting again and again to the disinterested trout, Jim learned just how exacting giant trout can be.
Cold water fly fishers know that stream trout will eventually get used to your presence, and resume feeding after a few minutes. Big specks will reward you similarly if you give them time to adjust to your intrusion, and will on some occasions, forget that your first presentation was off the mark. Taking time to enjoy the beauty of what’s around you, to give thanks for the day, or to replace a knotted tippet, can make all the difference between terminally offending your hosts, and giving them a chance to forgive and forget.
Guidelines to help you to achieve maximum stealth
Maintain a low profile. The fly fisher can make himself even less noticeable by crouching and kneeling in the water. For myself, I don’t hesitate to drop to my knees in shallow water whenever I spot a big trout nearby. Wet shorts and muddy knees are a small price to pay for the catch of the year, or of a lifetime.
A low profile is also ideally paired with an intentionally non-aggressive stance. For instance, Tom Kilgore refrains from even looking at a big trout that he has spotted, having discovered that big trout do not react as much to a person who is “just going about his business.” Tom also keeps his arms to his side as he casts to visible big trout -- again in order to minimize the appearance of aggression.
Kayaks are becoming a highly effective way to lower the angler's profile. Kathy and I often strap our kayaks to our skiff, and carry them to areas where big trout can be found. In a foot of water, you can ride “side saddle” by putting both of your legs off on one side, and then scoot along with your feet on the bottom. You will be surprised by how close you can get to feeding trout and redfishthis way. Of course, it takes a while before you get used to coordinating your fly rod, paddle, line, and anchor, but it only takes a trip or two to get it all together.
Wear clothes that blend in. You would do well to “dress down” for the encounter with a big trout. I usually wear Aqua Design shirts after discovering that I can get a lot closer to the fish than when I wear brighter, or monochromatic clothes. Other manufacturers seem to be following the new trend toward aquatic camouflage, so it’s no longer difficult to equip yourself with clothing that matches your environment.
Go slow, and then go slower. Big trout are difficult to spot, especially on a dark, grassy bottom. Unless we stop and study the water carefully, we will spook most of the fish before we see them. It’s good to remember that the fish are almost always on the move, and that we don’t have to “catch up” with them or to create opportunities that aren’t there: We just have to wait for the fish to appear. By wading very slowly, and remaining stationery for long periods of time, we will see more trout approaching us, giving us excellent opportunities for making effective presentations.
Blind cast only when you can’t see anything. Many fly fishers cast continuously, hoping to strike
it rich by accident. Unfortunately, by doing so they “line” the water between themselves and the farthest reach of their cast, creating a dead space all around them. It’s better to hold off on casting until you see something swirl or break the surface. If nothing appears, then make short casts all around you, taking care to leave some undisturbed water within easy reach, so you’ll be able to cast to a fish that suddenly shows herself.
Take breaks to study the water. Careful observation will teach you to recognize the subtle indications of a big trout’s movements, but it’s hard to study the water with sufficient concentration if you are moving and casting. So stop frequently and look at the water very carefully. Learning to see the “lifeless” tip of a trout’s tail above the surface, or the snakelike movement of its dorsal fin amid a school of mullet, will make the difference between catching big trout and never seeing them.
Once you spot a trout tail, you need to be ready to cast to it immediately. The trout will soon be on her way, and you’ll lose sight of her until she resurfaces again, if ever. To remain poised for action, Kathy and I use the “Strip’n Aid” whenever we fish the flats. It’s a casting “basket” that amounts to only a black plastic platform with large upright teeth on it. Everyone I know who has used one for any length of time swears by its effectiveness. Equipped with this simple innovation, or a standard stripping basket for that matter, you can stand poised to make an 70-foot cast, or to flip your fly a few feet in front of you. By keeping your fly line coiled on the Strip’n Aid, and then using a very stealthy approach, you can take time to study the water, and yet remain ready for a quick presentation.
Another technique is to use the Heron Haul, a highly effective way to use a water haul to minimize your false casts. To use this method, you first cast out the amount of line that you can comfortably pick on your back cast. (Many fly fishers mark this spot on their fly line so they'll know when they've retrieved enough line to cast again. Referred to as "telemark," it can keep you from trying to aerialize too much line before you're ready.)
Then, you lift the line, and lay it as straight as possible on the water behind you, and hold your rod over your shoulder so that the tip of the rod points backward and downward so that there is no slack between the rod and line. Strip a bit of line off the reel and put it in your teeth, so you can free your hand from holding the line. Walking forward, you drag the line behind you. When you spot a fish, you quickly take the line from your teeth, and haul downward as you make your forward cast. It's important to start your forward cast slowly, so your powerstroke is in the 2:00-10:00 arch. This will allow the rod to load properly, and it will keep the line from zipping dangerously past your head
on the forward cast.
By having extra line on a stripping basket, you can aerialize more line with a single forward false cast. In fact, once you become adept at this method, you can actually shoot line out of your casting basket on your first forward cast, effectively eliminating false casting altogether. Most of the time, however, you’ll need one false cast to reposition your line after the water haul, so you can shoot more line at that time.
The Heron Haul achieves the goal of minimizing body movement and false casting. It’s the best big trout stalking tool that I have in my repertory. However, it’s not always possible to use it. If you have a strong tail wind, the wind will blow the line toward you, thus ruining your slackless forward cast. Also, if there’s a lot of floating grass, you may not be able to drag your fly without fouling it. Using a weedless topwater fly helps, but there are some days when you just can’t afford to drag the fly behind you.
Flies and Tactics for Trophy Trout
Presentation is just about everything when it comes to catching trophy speckled trout, but presentation is not just a matter of casting well. It begins with how the fly fisher presents himself on the flats. Most fishermen move too quickly and noisily, thus failing to merge seamlessly with the trout’s environment. To be successful at stalking giant specks, you have to move so slowly that you have a chance of seeing the trout before she senses you -- the aquatic equivalent of “still hunting” for deer. I regularly encourage fly fishers to refrain from blaming the fly or the fish until they subtract out all other factors, especially their own intrusive behaviors. Indeed, we would do well to remember another statement by Ed Hewitt, in which he said, “Your fly is all right; the trouble is on the other end of the rod.”
Of course, it’s always true that the right fly can improve our chances. But what makes it “right”? You will find that the LLM fly fishers who regularly fish for trophy trout swear by flies that are highly idiosyncratic and wildly diverse in size, color and appearance. Adhering to the big fly theory, Tom Kilgore's favorite pattern is a hugh red and pink and white deceiver that he calls his “thousand dollar pattern,” because it once caugth a tournament-winning trout. Skipper Ray prefers to use large red and white Seaducers. Meanwhile, Bud Rowland has caught several world record trout on a small fly he calls the "numero uno," which it tied on size 4 to size 8 hooks. I, too, prefer small flies, and tie my Mother's Day Shrimp pattern on hooks no larger than size 4.
In making sense of this apparent contradiction, it is likely that big flies work because they imitate
the kind of food that large trout usually eat, and that small flies work because it is far easier to present a smaller fly without offending the fish. Since big trout are merciless in rejecting poor presentations, a smaller fly may represent more of an advantage than a drawback. But regardless of the fly one chooses, a big trout will eat a fly only when certain conditions are right. And the most important condition of all -- our invisibility -- is so obvious that most of us overlook its importance.
Use topwater flies early and subsurface patterns later in the day. Large trout readily take both topwater and subsurface flies of various descriptions, but in the early morning, most fly fishers opt for topwater flies. Some fly fishers prefer large, tightly stacked deer hair flies like Larry Haines' Mae West pattern, while I prefer smaller poppers like my own VIP, which is comprised of a mixture of a closed-cell foam and deer hair. Skipper Ray throws a hefty deer hair mullet almost as large as some of my more memorable catches, or a smaller and lighter Wilson’s Grass Shrimp pattern that casts more easily and lands lightly. During the spring spawning season from March until June, big topwater flies will often provoke a territorial response even if the trout are not very hungry. Later in the season, however, when hunger and opportunism overshadow the territorial aggression of the spawning urge, smaller and quieter flies seem to work better.
As a rule, topwaters are used early in the morning when sight casting is limited, and the noise and surface disturbance created by the fly can serve to attract trout from many feet away. Topwaters are used later in the day, as well, in areas so full of floating grass that a weedless topwater fly is the only reasonable choice. In these challenging conditions, your fly has to be virtually amphibious, that is, capable of being dragged across floating grass into openings without picking up grass on the way.
Under low-light conditions, I tend to make short casts with a VIP in all directions, leaving most of the water within reach untouched. While I'm stripping, I will study the untouched water for signs of cruising or tailing fish. Meanwhile, I will greatly vary the speed of my retrieve. Unlike redfish that prefer a moving target, speckled trout behave more like largemouth bass, and will hit a topwater fly after it’s been stationery for some time. So it’s good to let it sit for several seconds in between strips, and then just give the fly a twitch. These are the moments when the big ones often strike.
There does not seem to be any consistent logic behind the subsurface fly patterns used by the Laguna Madre fly fishers. Since big trout often feed on big mullet, many of the subsurface patterns -- such as Kilgore’s “$1000 pattern” and Skipper Ray’s red and white Seaducer -- probably imitate baitfish more than anything else. But big trout are opportunistic feeders, and will eat shrimp, too. For that reason, many of the smaller subsurface patterns that have evolved in the last few years resemble shrimp more than baitfish. Larry Haines’ Crystal Shrimp is one of the most popular patterns for redfish and trout in this area. Bud Rowland’s numero uno resembles a small shrimp or crab. Personally, I prefer an impressionistic shrimp design very similar to Haines’ shrimp, with bead-chain eyes to control the sink rate. (See photos.)
When it comes to subsurface patterns, design is probably much less important than the sink rate of the fly. Indeed, Kilgore says that sink rate is the most important variable in designing a big trout subsurface fly, and because of this he often uses lead wire to sink his flies more quickly.
You might think that fishing in less than 18 inches of water would make the sink rate of a fly irrelevant to its effectiveness. Certainly, in less than six or eight inches of water, an unweighted fly works fine. But big trout move quickly and erratically when they are foraging; and so, in deeper water, it is important to use a fly that sinks fast enough to get directly in front of the trout before she swims under the fly, or changes direction. While one might think that casting so close to the fish would send it packing, experience will show you that this tactic often provokes an immediate strike. This may seem strange, considering how finicky a big trout can seem at times, but we must remember that shrimp and baitfish often jump out of the water to evade capture. Big trout are probably used to having bait drop into their sight window by accident.
Learn where to put the fly. As for presenting the fly to visible fish, I try to cast the topwater fly about a foot in front of the trout’s head. Big trout are reflex strikers whenever something is “in their face.” While they may spook from the intrusion, they will just as likely attack the fly without hesitation -- or return to inspect the fly after a brief reaction -- especially if the fly enters the sight window without making a loud noise. If you cast farther away from the fish -- in an attempt to keep from spooking her -- she might come over and take the fly, but often she’ll just follow the fly without ever striking it.
It almost never works to cast a topwater -- or subsurface fly, for that matter -- beyond a big trout and hope that she will hit the fly as it crosses her path. These predators are used to having to work for their meals, and don’t take well to the sight of a tiny baitfish hastening to its death. Try to present the fly on your side of the fish, so that as you begin to strip, the fly will appear to flee from the trout. If you misjudge the distance and cast beyond the fish’s path, leave the fly where it is until you can reposition it. She’ll swim under the line and you’ll get another chance.
Use topwaters over “potholes.” Trout tend to lie up in open areas called potholes. These are naturally-occurring, or prop-cut openings in a grass-covered bottom that tend to be a bit deeper and lighter than the surrounding area. While you can easily spot a pothole with polarized sunglasses from some distance away, it is often hard to see a trout lying up in one, even if you’re only a few feet away. So it’s a good practice to imagine that each pothole harbors a big trout, and to put your topwater fly smack over the middle of it. Subsurface patterns work well over potholes, too, and are usually superior as the day progresses.
Use subsurface patterns that undulate. I am a big proponent for legging and tailing material that moves while the fly is at rest. Some situations call for letting your fly sink passively and just sit on the bottom, and it’s important for the fly to continue to look alive. Skipper Ray relies on a piece of rabbit strip behind a red and white Seaducer to impart this lifelike movement. For myself, I use Dupont Lumaflex, packaged under such names as “Flex Floss,” on my VIP and Mother’s Day Fly. This material works so well to convey lifelike movement that I am sometimes rewarded by trout and reds picking it up off the bottom when it’s just sitting there. Bud Rowland -- who has probably caught more big trout on a fly rod than any person alive -- uses Flexi Legs on his subsurface “Numero Uno” fly, and swears by its effectiveness in provoking strikes even when the trout are not hungry.
Not only will a fly that moves at rest work better in general, but it can make make the difference between success and failure in the most difficult of scenarios: when a trout is “asleep.” A trophy speck often go into an unresponsive state between active feeding periods. Her tail may be even be slightly out of the water during these naps, but no matter how many times you rake your fly across her back, she won’t strike it. In fact, you can usually touch a sleeping trout with your rod tip before she will respond.
By giving their flies perpetual movement, both Skipper and Bud make it possible to catch big trout even when the fish are in this unresponsive state. Skipper says that he lets his rabbit strip Seaducer sink to where it rests just inches from the sleeping trout’s head. He leaves it there until he sees the trout move. At that moment, he twitches the fly and often draws a strike. Bud, on the other hand, will cast his “Numero Uno” fly and strip it slowly past the sleeping trout again and again, until the trout wakes up. This, too, often draws strikes in a situation where most fly fishers simply throw up their hands and move on.
Use a popper-dropper combo. Over the past five years, I have been developing what I consider to be the ideal popper and the ideal subsurface fly for trout, but I have only recently combined them into a two-fly system that is amazingly effective. While we’ve only recently begun using it, the initial results are impressive.
Not long ago, Kathy and I went out to fish for a couple of hours just before sunset. We took a spin out into the glassy east flats of the lower Laguna Madre. Mullet were boiling everywhere, and so we suspected that game fish were among them. As we planed over eight inches of water, redfish and trout suddenly scattered in all directions. I abruptly stopped the boat, and Kathy and I were in the water in minutes.
As we moved slowly away from the boat, it became clear that the ubiquitous sheepshead were the only game fish showing themselves in the dead calm conditions. So we resorted to casting blindly, hoping to connect with the big reds and trout that we knew were there. However, we spooked fish with almost every cast, and could not seem to get them to see our flies in the diminishing daylight.
After fishing fruitlessly for almost an hour, I recalled that I’d tied some VIP poppers with a trailing Mother’s Day Fly. So I tied on the combo and began blind casting as delicately as possible. Within a few minutes, a big trout bulged under the popper and came out of the water, hooked momentarily on the shrimp pattern. Kathy, who was nearby, heard the commotion, and wasted no time in asking, “Hey, do you have another one of those?” Fortunately for me, I did.
Within minutes she’d hooked a nice red on the rear fly. As I was cheering her success, a 24-inch trout noisily struck my popper. Anyone down here knows that you will miss about 80 percent of the trout that hit a topwater fly, so I wasn’t surprised when the fish wasn’t there when I went to set the hook. But suddenly, the fish lunged forward and ate the back fly as a consolation! Minutes later, I released the beautiful fish and took two reds over 24 inches on the dropper fly before the setting sun brought an end to our excitement.
Combining two flies in a tandem rig that casts without fouling is a daunting task, but the popper-dropper combination comprises a two-course meal that may easily double your hook-ups.
On the morning of the TIFT 2000 tournament, Jaime and I left Woody’s Hole just as a storm swept through area from the south. Intermittent lightning punctuated the twilight, revealing a dark sheet of rain that followed us up the Intercoastal Waterway.
“I think we’d better take cover,” Jaime said.
“I think it’s playing out, don’t you?” I replied. I just wanted to fish.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Jaime admitted, “but it’s not safe to be out here.”
I was adamant. “Just put me out here with the kayak. I’ll be okay.”
We stopped the boat at the entrance to the west bay, and untied the kayak. As I paddled away,
with my rain gear wrapped tightly around me, Jaime said with a laugh, “Man, you’re crazy! ” He was right, and it was the same carelessness that landed me on the back of a sting ray two years later.
But as he pulled away, and I paddled into the west bay, I just felt happy to be on my home waters. When the storm finally hit, it just pushed me a little faster in the direction I wanted to go. I floated with the wind, cooled by the light rain, and began to look for fish. After a hundred yards, I began to see singles cruising the shoreline. As I got closer, I could see that the first one was a trout, not a redfish. I spooked that fish, but then began to see more and more trout. Finally, I anchored the kayak and stood up in the 9-inch water. Huge trout were all around me, and it felt like a dream. It always does when you find yourself among them. As I took stock of the exposed backs and tails, I could see a trout that easily weighed ten pounds. Her back and tail were clearly above the surface; and as I watched her, she would turn slowly and cruise for a few feet and then stop again.
Foolishly, perhaps, I presented to two other fish as I made my way toward the biggest one. Two strikes and two misses later, I tied on a small VIP popper with a weed guard, and cast to within a foot of her head. My hands trembled, and my breath was audible and short. The fly landed soundlessly. I waited a moment and stripped it three inches. Like a huge snake, the trout swung around and attacked the fly with an aggression that was startling. The fly disappeared, and I stripped to set the hook. I felt her momentarily like the “bright shade of some immortal dream,” and then the fly came free as it usually does. I looked for the fish, but somehow she had disappeared in the bootie-deep water.
Minutes later, the tide turned, and the fish vanished like they’d never been there. I have often wondered, Why did they show up on that one day, and where did they all go? The biologists will tell you that they never travel more than a mile or two from where they hatch, so they’re always near the last place where you saw them, even though it is exceedingly hard to believe it.
The hard part about finding big trout is learning to see what we’ve overlooked, and learning to slow down long enough to let them reveal themselves. The hard part is doing our part.