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Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
Trophy class brown trout are often heralded as the Holy Grail of trout fishing. Why do big browns hold such an esteemed place in the hearts of trout anglers? I think the answer is two fold.
First, brown trout are apex predators that have impressive growth potential. Browns of 10 pounds are common at lakes throughout the west and lunkers in the 20 pound range fall to anglers every year. Secondly, while big browns may be fairly numerous they are extremely challenging to catch and this undoubtedly accounts for a large measure of their allure.
So how does an angler go about hooking browns and more specifically big mature browns? The first requirement is patience. When I go after rainbows, brookies and mackinaw I seldom get blanked. With browns it’s a different story, for every quality brown I hook I’m conscious of the fact that there will be days or even weeks of monotonous trolling, without so much as a tap even though I’m doing everything right.
Trolling for big browns is a game of basics that is more akin to hunting than fishing. To hook a quality brown, you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time using the right tactics.
Large browns consistently seek out large forage items. This is one factor that distinguishes them from most other species of trout and accounts for the large sizes they attain. Most of the mature browns that I’ve cleaned have either had large baitfish or crawfish in their stomachs.
While feeding on large prey gives browns a growth advantage, it also makes them all the more difficult to catch. If a fish subsists on a diet of small items it has to spend a good deal of time feeding to stay nourished. Fish such as big browns that prefer to gulp down large meals only give anglers a narrow window of opportunity, since they only feed once every day or two.
Since the goal of the brown trout enthusiast is to show the browns an offering when they are actively hunting for prey it is critical to understand when and where they feed so you can position yourself in the dinning room at mealtime. Browns have the reputation for biting best during the late fall, winter and early spring months. Obviously, browns feed just as much in the summer as they do the rest of the year, yet it is during the cool months that they are most accessible to anglers.
Browns are comfortable in water that is 60 degrees or less. In the cool months when surface temperatures are in the 40’s and 50’s browns will generally be found residing in the top 20 feet of the water column. At such times they show a strong tendency to feed in close proximity to the shoreline. All this translates to the fact that when the surface temperature is cool, anglers can beat the shoreline with top lined offerings, confident in the knowledge that browns will almost certainly see their lures.
So far we’ve established that browns are most vulnerable to anglers during the cool water months when the surface temperature is below 60 degrees. We’ve also pinned down the fact that when possible, the hook jawed beauties we dream about prefer to feed in shoreline areas that feature ample structure. Our next task is to determine the best time of the day for stalking browns.
The best time to have a close encounter with Mr. Brown is during the first and last hour of daylight and on overcast stormy days when shallow areas are locked in a prolonged period of twilight. Mature browns know they have a feeding advantage during low light periods. At these times they can cruise along unseen until the final moments before they pounce.
With a grasp on the when and where, the next question to answer is how, as in how do I get one of those big babies to hit? Big browns earn their living eating other fish, so trolling with large minnow plugs is the key to drawing consistent strikes.
To be a successful brown trout troller you don’t need to have a huge selection of minnow plugs, but those that you choose have to be high quality baits that run true at both high and low speeds. For decades Rapala minnow plugs were the one and only choice available to trout anglers. These days Rapala floaters and Rapala Husky Jerks continue to be highly effective baits, yet lures from other manufactures have joined them in the limelight.
When I’m after the big boys I don’t fool around with small plugs. A peek at my brown trout plug assortment reveals Rapala floaters in both the No. 13 and No. 18 sizes. The No. 13 is 5.25 inches long while the No. 18 is 7 inches in length.
In terms of colors I try to match what big browns feed on most of the time. Big browns eat a lot of small rainbow trout and they also have a sweet tooth for kokanee salmon wherever the two species coexist. This being the case I carry floaters in the rainbow finish and black over silver.
In addition to Rapalas, I employ both Yo-Zuri and River2Sea plugs. My favorite Yo-Zuris are the floating shallow diving F8 Crystal Minnow. This plug is 5.25 inches long. I also like the floating deep diver R540 Crystal Minnow, which is also 5.25 inches long. As with the Rapalas, I prefer these plugs in the rainbow trout and silver over black finishes.
River2Sea is a well known lure manufacturer in bass fishing circles, but trout anglers seldom employ their products. When I’m looking for a certified monster brown I reach for my collection of River2Sea V-Joint Minnows. These suspending plugs come in 3 sizes and feature a unique three section body that gives them a very seductive swimming action. I use the 6.5 inch 160SU model, which is the largest plug in the V-Joint series. It dives to 8 feet. The V-Joint Minnow boasts a broader body than most other minnow baits and really looks like a substantial meal. Once again my favorite finish is rainbow trout.
The plugs I’ve discussed are my favorites and I have confidence in them. Having confidence in your baits is critical when targeting big browns, since patience is such an important component to success.
I always use Pro-Cure Super Gels in either rainbow trout, herring or sardine scent on minnow plugs to block the scent of my hands and make the baits smell real. You can make your baits taste real by adding a thin herring, shad or sardine fillet to the plug’s belly.
To accomplish this, fillet a baitfish and then slice the fillet into quarter inch strips. Attach one of these strips along the underside of the minnow plug with the flesh side facing out using fine elastic thread. This is a little known trick that can really pay dividends when dealing with pressured fish. The presence of real meat seems to trigger harder strikes, better hookups and fewer lost trout.
Before we take a look at the strategy for using plugs let’s take a moment to consider rods and reels. Graphite rods have been in vogue among freshwater anglers for a couple decades, yet this is the worst type of rod for brown trout trolling.
Instead you want a fiberglass rod. Fiberglass rods have a soft action that doesn’t react quickly when subjected to the sudden shock of a striking fish. Once a trout is hooked, a fiberglass rod does a better job of cushioning a big trout’s headshaking fight and this means you’ll land more of the fish you hook. My all time favorite trolling rod for browns is a 7 foot Lamiglas XCF 705. This rod is rated for 10 to 20 pound line.
Your rod needs to be teamed with a level wind reel featuring a smooth drag that can handle around 300 yards of 8 pound test line. 8 pound test line has long been the standard line of serious brown trout trollers. You need a lot of line capacity, since the closest you want your lure to the boat is about 200 feet back and 300 or 350 feet back is even better.
For many anglers the most consistent approach to hooking large browns is trolling shoreline structure during the cold water months with minnow plugs. The majority of anglers like to troll quickly, but there are some successful anglers out there that experience good results while trolling slowly.
When we talk of trolling quickly for average size rainbows we are talking about speed of 2 to 3 miles per hour. Fast trolling for big browns refers to pulling lures at 3 to 5 miles per hour.
I’m convinced that a speedy presentation results in more strikes because it forces the trout to react quickly. I don’t want a big brown following my plug and analyzing its movements. I want the plug to burst on the scene, giving the impression that it is panicked and on the run.
A brown trout confronted with such an opportunity has to either react and capitalize on it instantly or let an easy meal escape. Most of the time I troll with my rod in a holder, but at times when my plug is passing near a prime piece of real estate, I’ll pick the rod up and work it with staccato pumps. This causes the plug to hesitate and surge, making it even more attractive to any lurking browns.
Even when the lures are far behind the boat it is still advisable not to drive the boat over prime holding structure whenever possible. Instead of crossing holding areas, swing the boat out around them and then cut the boat back toward the shoreline. This way you can steer the plugs through the honey hole without disturbing it with the boat. One of my favorite structural features to troll is a submerged shelf adjacent to a flat simply because I can troll such locations with very little chance of spooking fish with the boat.
At first I drive the boat offshore of the shelf. When my plugs reach the beginning of the shelf I swing the boat up onto the flat and the plugs swim right over the transition zone. Once I think the plugs are up over the flat I quickly swing back out over deep water, once again putting the plugs on top of the transition zone. With experience, you’ll get very adept at using long lines, combined with aggressive boat maneuvering to keep your plugs in virgin water that has not been exposed directly to the boat.
As a final note on targeting browns, you’ll probably keep your first two or three hard won trophies. As you get more effective and refine your approach, consider taking a picture of the big boys you catch and releasing them to fight and spawn again. A big brown has already beaten the odds by reaching a large size and relatively old age. Such a trout deserves our respect and that means releasing them after the battle.
This issue’s How To article is an expert from my new book, The Trout Fishing Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide For The Conventional Tackle Angler. The 166 page book retails for $16.95. For more information or to order a copy give me a call at (530) 320-0368-Cal Kellogg.
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