As fall begins to transition into winter, one of the best times of year to target large brown trout is upon us. The post-spawn is one of the most productive for the largest fish of the year, as they find their last meals before winter sets in. In the west and northern climates, the winters are long and hard, and after the spawn, fish are in a rush to eat as much as they can before food gets scarce. This time of year isn’t a numbers game. There is a major fall-off in the activity of smaller fish when water temps are in the low 40’s and 30’s. Bigger (20”+ inch) fish seem to deal with the cold water much better and will come to large streamers aggressively.
Most of the flies I fish this time of year are 4 to 8 inches. I use the 4 to 6 inch flies in rivers where casts are 35’ or shorter. Typically when fishing a short line, the area you are trying to cover is smaller so I match that area to the size of fly. In larger rivers where casts are 35’ and longer I prefer 6 to 8 inch flies. I tend to stop around 8 inch flies because I feel you reach a point of diminishing returns. Fish seem more comfortable eating 6 to 8 inch meals. That is not a rule by any means just an observation. 8 inch flies tend to be a sweet spot for brown trout 22 inches and larger on big rivers. I’ve seen dozens of fish over 26 inches caught on 8 inch streamers since we began fishing them in the early 2000’s in Michigan and in 2008 in Arkansas.
The mindset when throwing an 8 inch fly must be different for the angler too. Do not expect to move many fish. On great days, you may move two dozen large browns; but many days it may be one, two or none. That’s the game and it makes each contact with a big fish special. This is not an easy thing to do, which is what makes it more enjoyable.
One of the most important things in big fly streamer fishing is understanding that big fish use big spots. The old adage of making the big river small does not always work. Big fish have a tendency to use larger runs and pools. Most of the trout over 26 inches I have seen caught, in daylight, on streamers have come from 3 to 6 feet of water. Big fish also prefer a slower pace of current, so I look for a deep, slow pool that will hold large fish; I refer to it as its home. From its home, I will look to where the pace of current is accelerated, in or adjacent to, the deep water. This can be the head of the pool, the tailout, a mid-pool rock or tree, or a gravel shelf, just faster than the water around it. Most times large fish will stay close to the safety of the deep water and will have quick access back to their home.
Larger fish have a tendency to follow flies longer before committing to eat the fly; this is one reason to keep the boat farther from the bank. Another is that it allows you to use long casts to cover large areas of water. A 60 foot cast that is perpendicular to the current can cover a vast amount of water with the correct presentation strategy. I start my fly as close to the bank as possible on a long cast and make a strip to the first drop off on the bank then pause the fly. The duration of the pause has more to do with the pace of current and depth off the first edge. I use the pause to allow the line to fall and get deeper, dragging my fly with it. I then work the fly into the main seam and pause the fly there. I continue the retrieve with pauses mixed in after aggressive strips. In my experience brown trout trigger on the pause and by mixing more pauses into the retrieve you are providing more opportunities to trigger that bite. Look for mid river structure or ambush points and stall the fly as close to those spots as possible.
Big fly gear is a bit different too. I leave the 6- and 7-weights behind and load up an 8- and a 9-weight Sage IGNITER. For lines, I carry 250, 300 and 350 grain InTouch Striper 30’ Sink Tips. Typically I run the 250 and 300 grains lines as I like the lightest tip I can use (personal preference). I carry the 350 grain for the 9-weight in windy conditions; it is the safest and easiest way to deliver a big fly especially with an upstream wind. Most clients find the 300 easier on the 8wt and 350 on the 9wt as it will load the rod without carrying as much line.
When tying large flies, keep in mind that long casts with weighted flies are difficult unless balanced correctly. Meaning the weight and the amount of material will balance in a way that will allow for a natural cast, not a slingshot feeling. It will be easier on your arm and allow for more comfortable casting all day. Baitfish patterns have always produced the best for me in standard brown trout colors: Brown/Yellow, Olive/White, Chartreuse/White, Brown/Ginger, White, Olive and Black. In winter in the Midwest, black can be tough to beat.
Look for post-spawn fish to be in slower water than typical. In the Midwest, we find fish in sand-and-wood mixed areas after the spawn, as fish retreat to slow water to recover. In addition, our slow water has plenty of forage. I notice many large, post-spawn fish come for back eddys also. It seems they will use slower water than any other time of year in the post-spawn and winter. Eventually the water temps will fall low enough that all of the fish will find their way into the deepest and slowest pools in the river, where they tend to stay until the first rising water in the spring. Long casts with big flies can be the ticket all winter through the deep pools.
It can be a grind, but for the anglers who are willing to deal with the cold, wind and hard work, it can pay off with the fish of a lifetime. The best season is just starting for the diehard streamer fishermen.