How To Target Trophy Trout All Season Long
We all aspire to catch large overwintered resident fish from our reservoirs, and during the season the law of averages dictates, that on occasion we will do just that.
But have you ever stopped to wonder why you were successful on a given day and can you really increase your chances? The short answer is “Yes”, but it is not an exact science, there is no foolproof method or fly pattern, each individual reservoir will have its own unique ecosystem and methods will vary depending on the conditions and the time of year.
However, I personally feel that the principles when targeting resident fish remain the same, no matter what reservoir you fish and by simply applying a logical approach to your angling you can become noticeably more successful.
Please understand that I place grown on fish in 2 categories, under 4lb and over 4lb… those under 4lb often have not been in the reservoir 12 months – and despite popular belief, they are only well mended early or late season stock-fish and are really not that much more educated than a recent stockie, they just fight significantly harder. (They are not overwintered despite what the majority of anglers believe)
However those over 4lb have generally been in the reservoir at least a year, they have really wised up and are what I term “educated fish”. They have been feeding naturally for a long time over the course of a season and understand what their food looks like and how their food behaves… it’s not bright orange and pulled at 100mph!! They are in my opinion a much more challenging and worthy quarry and require more thought.
For me identifying an area of the reservoir with a plentiful food source is the most important factor, resident fish must feed in order to maintain or increase their weight. Find a large food source and the resident fish are never far away, on most reservoirs it’s a natural food source; buzzer, shrimps, fry, etc. but on some waters dare I say it pellets i.e. Hanningfield in the 1980’s and 1990’s. (Also currently Clywedog in Wales)
Contrary to popular belief resident fish do not often get preoccupied with one food source, they are simply not programmed that way. If the presentation and depth are right, then they will take. Just look at the stomach or throat contents of the average 4lb rainbow, it will contain a multitude of foods, and it would make little difference if you were fishing a cruncher, pheasant tail, diawl back or hopper, presented correctly at the right depth you get a positive take.
Conversely, stockies can be caught anywhere on the reservoir, even in areas with little food, they do not always go downwind, upwind or even stay in the area stocked, they are affected by angling pressure, boat pressure, predator pressure, wind, sun etc. and it usually takes at least 4 or 5 days before they settle down and start to feed naturally.
The depth you present your fly at is the second most important factor when targeting any trout, fish do not want to expend energy moving up and down in the water column for individual nymphs etc. they like to hold at the depth the food is concentrated, so using less energy for the greatest reward.
But as a general rule, the larger fish tend to hold deeper in the water that recent stockies (especially big browns). The only exception is when you are using the silhouette of a pattern to pull up fish from deep to your fly, for example when fishing a floating fry.
There are very few patterns needed to consistently catch big fish all season long and I would happily stick with just 7 patterns for any English reservoir:
All patterns are natural colours and do not use bright fluorescent materials, which I find are most attractive to stockies, and feel often puts off the larger resident fish. (A very small fluro tag or head is acceptable especially as a top dropper pattern)
I personally feel that over the course of a season fry patterns consistently produce the bigger fish, as you can add movement to your fly, plus larger flies cause a disturbance the fish feel down their lateral line which allows you to induce a take, plus fry is an important part of the resident trout’s diet.
The only exception on most reservoirs would be buzzer time from May – June when nymphs will also produce large fish consistently. Since the killer shrimp in Grafham, the Trout’s feeding habits have changed and crunchers and hare’s ears consistently produce resident fish from June onwards.
I feel that I can usually induce a take from a buzzer or corixa feeding fish with a Hummungus or Snake booby, yet can’t replicate that interest with buzzer or crunchers on fry feeding trout, throw in the benefit that fry patterns allow for larger and stronger hooks, give a bigger silhouette at depth (where big fish hold) and it adds to the convincing argument that fry patterns consistently put more really big fish (over 4 lb) on the bank over the course of a season.
Time & Place
The area you fish is inexplicably linked to an abundant food source, and as fry, shrimps, corixa etc. can usually be found near “structure ” I consider such areas excellent resident fish-holding areas on all reservoirs i.e. weed beds, pontoons, anchored sailing boats, towers, inlets, streams, market buoys, drop-offs etc…
Consistently throughout the season the best time to fish is first and last light, you perhaps have a 1 hour golden window of opportunity at the extremes of the day, when resident fish will feed confidently as they leave the safety of the depths to search for food in the shallows – although during buzzer time in May anytime can be very productive dependent upon when the hatch occurs.
Speed of Retrieve
Although a fast roly-poly will work when fishing a Booby or Hummungus I estimate that 80% of the grown on fish I catch come to patterns fished with a very slow figure of 8 retrieve or static, with literally 1 or perhaps 2 sharp pulls halfway back to induce any following fish into the take.
Stockies undoubtedly prefer movement and a faster retrieve when fishing any patterns from dries to lures! – They love to chase.
For me the change of angle is equally important as the speed of retrieve, again it induces the take from following fish, hence the reason you often get takes at the end of your retrieve as you lift off – even when fishing nymphs you must capitalise on every opportunity and induce the take with a simple “hang and drop back”
Hang & Drop Back
You must induce the take (make the fish to take the flies)… so lower your rod back 3 – 4 “slowly (the drop back) all the while looking for any movement of the line.
You will see any take before you feel it (often you don’t feel it)… if in doubt – Strike! If you feel any resistance – Strike (HARD)
Use the leader and braided loop as an indicator… if you see any movement STRIKE HARD.. (Do not just lift into the fish or you will miss it. The rod will absorb the take and you won’t set the hook, the fish will be on for 3-4 seconds then off.
A number of distinct methods really stand out for me when targeting resident fish:
From June onwards the water warms up significantly and weed beds (that died out over winter or when the water levels dropped) become established, these are home to shrimp, pin fry and corixa. Resident trout soon switch onto this abundant food source and move in-to the area but are often viewed as difficult to catch by anglers.
In this shallow clear water any fish are highly viable to the angler (and vice versa), you can often see good fish cruising just over weed beds literally feet from the bank, confidently taking any food in their path. There is a temptation to rush to the water’s edge and frantically cast at every fish you see, especially as it’s often a larger than normal fish. Numerous casts, weighted flies, and an animated angler only do one thing, they spook the fish and simply push them out of reach. Patience and a stealthy approach is key to success.
Through experience, I discovered that the “shrimp feeders” at Grafham cruise literally along the bank, in the shallow clear water you can see them swimming towards you, 5 yards off the bank. However, once they see the silhouette or frantic casting of an angler they veer out to around 20 yards, a safe distance in many cases. I found that by sitting down and remaining still, casting once every 30 seconds or so the fish will remain confident, and will continue to swim along the bank so casts of 5 – 10ft are all that’s needed.
Exactly the same rules apply when targeting Corixa and Fry Feeders – you need to make very few casts, keep low and remain patient. Occasionally If I see a large fish working the bank, I will creep in a wide arc 20 – 30 yards or so in front of it and simply wait until it comes into range before making my cast – guerrilla angling!
The Correct Tackle
The correct tackle is also essential; I prefer a 9ft 6 – 10ft rod in AFTM 5-7 and a high-quality clear copolymer as leader material. It’s thin, strong and does not sink as fast as fluorocarbon so does not pull your flies into the weed. It must, however, be degreased to take and shine off the line. My preference is Fulling Mill Masterclass Copolymer in 7.99lb.
All flies must be tied on hooks that are strong (Fulling Mill Comp Heavyweight 31530 in sizes 10 – 16) they don’t bend out under the pressure or strain of a decent fish.
As I mentioned earlier trout are not programmed to eat just 1 food source – hence the reason when they are spooned they contain lots of different things, it’s not uncommon to find daddies, fry, corixa and snails all in the stomach of the same trout – they are opportunist feeders. It also explains why anglers catch on a variety of different patterns when targeting the same fish in the same area.
When fishing in shallow clear water your flies must remain high and they must display the correct silhouette, and remember that any droppers you fish can easily get caught on weed (hence the reason I fish 2 flies maximum). Fewer casts means the fish do not get spooked so easily, this in-turn requires a slow or static retrieve. Casts must be within your capabilities (you don’t want to be pushing for distance and hitting the water hard, or the cast not turning over) you want to be stealthy; let the fish come to your flies, it does require a change of attitude for most of us, and it took me many hours of spooking fish before I finally accepted that patience is a virtue I need to possess.
Unless I am nymph fishing then I prefer a generic pattern (red holo nemo) with specific target points and triggers rather than an exact imitation. I do not want my fly to be identical to the other 1,000’s of naturals in the water, but it do want it to be very similar and natural-looking, it’s a fine line for your pattern to stand out slightly and pull the fish to your cast rather than spook them with too much bling. I prefer a thin holo rib or occasionally a fluro head (but never both).
My initial line of attack is always a 12 – 15ft leader of 8lb copolymer with a Mylar floating fry on the point and a small size 12 – 14 red holo nemo cruncher on the dropper just 2 -3ft from the point fly, remember that any trout will have a very small angle of vision in such shallow water. In flat calms fish are often pulled to the Mylar fry and then take the cruncher subsurface, when it’s a little windier they will take both patterns equally. (Really big fish 5lb + usually only take the fry imitation)
On some occasions (flat calms) I prefer fishing a suspender minkie on the point, basically because the mink tail imparts a small amount of movement into the pattern. Often it’s all that’s needed to turn swirls into positive takes (a suspender minkie can also be given a sharp strip to create a “pop” again this disturbance can pull the fish to your cast)
Occasionally you will get the opportunity to cast at 2 or more rising fish in close proximity of each other – consider this a golden chance, and one not to be missed! Trout will consider the other fish competition for the fly/food source and often attack to fly aggressively the result a more positive take.
Playing a Fish
As you are fishing in shallow water the runs will be spectacular, runs of 20 – 30 yards are an everyday occurrence and your drag must be set correctly you do not want the reel to overrun and tangle or the drag to be too stiff so the hook simply pulls out or leader snaps, it’s a very fine balance and you won’t get many second chances. Remember any fish hooked in shallow water’s first instinct is to run to safety – this equates to deep water some distance away or a weed bed.
Always keep your rod high and as much fly line off the water as possible this causes drag and resistance and can easily pull the small hooks out or straighten them watch your fly-line and backing so they don’t tangle around any weed, or round your feet. A fit 3lb rainbow can take a full line in 6 or 7 seconds so you literally have little time to think about what’s happening.
Targeting these fish from a boat is much more difficult, especially in a 19ft large white lump of fibreglass as on Anglian Waters. Longer 25yard casts are needed as the boat pushes the fish away from you. I prefer to either anchor up and fish directly along the weed bed or ledge or drift the banks, not repeating the drift as the boat will undoubtedly spook the fish in clear, shallow water.
A Snake or Hummungus booby fished deep and slow on a fast sinking line such as a Di-5 or 7 is undoubtedly a very effective method all season, it’s a method that simply ticks all the boxes, correct profile, enticing movement, correct colour scheme, disturbance to pull the fish to your cast, perfect presentation as your sinking line is hard on the bottom with your fly popped up ensuring there is no silhouette from the fly line to spook fish, the pattern is most effective with a slow retrieve and an occasional pause for 4 or 5 seconds, so you make fewer casts and cause little disturbance.
A fast sinking line also generates more line speed so it’s easy to turn over a big bulky pattern.
A slight tweak to the method I occasionally make when the fish are hard on the fry, is to fish a floating fry popped up off the bottom, static with the odd 2 -3 inch sharp pull every 20 – 40 seconds.
When fishing boobies or floating fry I prefer to use a “Rapala” knot as it allows the fly to move freely and naturally.
It sounds obvious but your tackle must be correctly balanced and up to the task. Ensure you have a good quality leader material, and hooks that won’t bend out under pressure, you can’t afford to take any shortcuts.
Correct Thought Process
I also feel that as an angler it’s important that you think ahead when fishing near structure time is of the essence and decisions need to be instantaneous or even pre emptied. Look at the obstructions, consider where the fish will run and decide exactly how you should play it, i.e. pile on the side strain, or hook and hold. If it runs into open water, great let it go and play it at distance, the last thing you really want is a fit strong fish near a weed bed or pontoon.
We all enjoy fishing with friends and the banter, but in all honesty, it’s not always practical when targeting resident fish, often these fish are easily spooked from shadows on the water, sudden movement or the splash of a fly line. The more flies they see the less chance you have of them taking, they soon become aware of anglers and simply move off to deeper water. With reservoirs opening for longer there is also simply not the head of grown on fish we became used to in the 1990’s. So more anglers in one area equates to less resident fish per angler.
Reservoir water levels have a huge impact on where the resident fish will hold, a drop in water levels over the course of the summer and back end means that weed beds die off. Those that remain are often out of reach for the bank angler at the beginning of the following season if the water authority has pumped in over the winter period. This has been very apparent at Grafham over the last 4 years. Resident fish stay on the remaining weed beds and food holding areas at the start of the following season and are out of range of the bank angler, the shallows are devoid of food, weed beds etc. and resident fish until it warms up again at the end of April and the buzzer start to hatch. Stockies will, however, run the banks and are easily caught.
In short for resident fish try and find areas that didn’t dry out at the end of the season.
Whether fishing the bung or straight line nymphing I always place my brightest nymph pattern on the top dropper i.e. Pearl rib/back or Fluorescent red head. This will attract and pull the fish to you flies as it catches the sunlight better, obviously, it will attract stockies but it will also attract resident fish to the more natural patterns further down the cast, it doubles your chances as any fish investigating your pattern from depth must swim by the other natural flies on your cast twice (on the way up and down).
When fishing nymphs/buzzers most anglers believe the unwritten rule that ‘it’s best to have a light 5 – 9 mph left to right wind’ as it allows you to cast out and let your team of flies swing gently round in an arc. I fully accept it’s a very effective method but in my experience it only tends to regularly catch fish up to 4lb.
Guiding on Rutland and Grafham over the years has taught me a lot, while I would often straight-line nymphs as mentioned above and catch very well in terms of numbers it became increasingly noticeable that the novices I was assisting would consistently catch the much bigger and better quality fish. At first, I thought it a fluke, but it became too regular of an occurrence over a number of seasons. (i.e. 2 years ago Fincham had 2 browns over 7lb and a 6lb rainbow in the same day on Rutland having never cast a fly before… I had 20 fish the same day with not one over 4lb 4oz)
The common theme I soon realised was that the novice would always be fishing static, and around 3 – 4 ft. off bottom usually under the bung, often they would literally just flick the flies out straight down the wind and leave them there with no retrieve etc.
My theory is that by fishing across the wind my flies (although moving slowly) are actually often moving too fast and look unnatural to educated fish, so they simply don’t take. Conversely stockies and well-mended fish love that slight movement and change of direction as it induces the take, numbers of fish I win hands down, but in terms of quality, I lose.
I now actually prefer a flat calm when fishing nymphs, and love the bung because it does consistently put really big fish in the bag, it allows you perfect depth control and the option of fishing ultra-slow or static which I’m convinced educated fish prefer over even a slight movement.
I fully accept the bung is a despicable method and frowned upon by many, no different from watching a float… but I now feel that sometimes we must forget our prejudices especially if we want to be consistently successful.
I have since taken this theory a step further when fishing buzzers under the bung and often fish directly into a light wind, so allowing my flies to drift dead drift, with no drag, or straight down the wind again attempting to keep them totally static, results have been very encouraging over last season.