Winter Brown Trout Symposium
December 06, 2011
When it rolls at night, out there on the end of a tight line, mind and heart enter into a race. It sat in an area of slow current two feet deep, where big trout can never be found during the day in water this low. Now the fly reel is deep into its backing and making urgent noise. Better calm down. This could take a while.
Most brown-trout enthusiasts know all about the nocturnal tendencies of big brown trout. "They didn't get this big by being stupid." How many times have we all heard that one? How to get around this great road hog of a cliché to the path of enlightenment? Alas, for all its coarse sentiment, it rings true. Big browns learn to avoid being caught by feeding at night in many environments worldwide. Tracking studies, however, indicate that feeding at night appears to be a seasonal proclivity in the North and a year-round aspect of big brown behavior to the south.
Then again, how many northern brown-trout commandos are out on maneuvers during the night in January? Brrr. For one thing, the season is closed on many of the big trout venues up north. Where anadromous fish run (steelhead, salmon, and browns), the rivers generally remain open to fishing, though Wisconsin closes those rivers from sunset to dawn. But big Great Lakes browns are in the rivers and, while not necessarily nocturnal in winter, they do come out to play at night in the right conditions.
In the South, night is absolutely the best time to target giant browns in winter — for that matter, all year. Browns are less spooky at night, moving out of heavy cover into areas easily approached and easily fished. Perhaps the most overlooked winter destinations for northern trout enthusiasts with cabin fever are the tailrace fisheries down south.
Tailrace Browns at Night
Months after he admitted to catching a 28-pound brown somewhere in the night, I finally managed to convince Matt Wilder to discuss his approach and tactics for night browns during winter in the tailrace fisheries of Tennessee and Arkansas. It was like pulling teeth from a rabid dog. "These are hard-won secrets," he said. We definitely have a system going on here. We're fly-fishing, and the whole thing boils down to flash, bunny, and wobble."
Big browns are carnivores, and they are not swimming around in tailraces below dams looking for mayflies. Wilder imitates dace and chubs with flashabou, and mimics sculpins with bunny strips and realistic patterns he ties himself. He asserts that browns are more active in winter than in summer or fall, when warm temperatures or decaying vegetation steal oxygen from the water. So, at times, he makes his flies wobble like crankbaits with "action discs," which are small, cup-shaped circles of plastic with holes in the center for a leader to pass through. He uses both weighted and unweighted flies, depending on the depth and strength of current in the area being fished.
"I use 8- or 9-weight lines and rods, primarily because I'm fishing big flies for big fish," Wilder says. "Most fly fishermen might look at what we're doing and choose a 6-weight, but that wears you out. Heavy rods throw and present big flies much easier. These flies aren't huge, just 2 to 5 inches long, but sometimes weighted as much as 1/8 ounce, if the current is strong enough to hold it up."
"I use a floating flyline," he adds. "Most of the lies trout use at night are less than 4 feet deep. Even a 30-pound brown can be in 2 feet of water. And they're looking up, silhouetting these flies against the surface, so you want to keep it up there, keep it moving, and stay in touch with it. They can suck it in and spit it so fast you would never know it happened, if you have any slack in the line. I use fluorocarbon leaders, but they're not leader-shy. I use 8- to 10-pound tippets on the smaller flies, and up to 12-pound test tippets with larger flies. How I work the fly changes from night to night. You have to vary your retrieves. Some nights a very fast retrieve works; on other nights they want it really slow, and you have to use a weighted fly to slow it down.
"It doesn't seem to be related to water temperature or season but has more to do with dissolved oxygen content. In fall, the rivers have less dissolved oxygen, with all the leaves and rotting vegetation. But, during postspawn, they put on the feedbag, even though the water may be only 45°F. Big browns can be very aggressive in cold water."
The action head makes a fly swim side to side when retrieved at a quick pace. "With action heads, I strip the fly in the same way I would with a bunny fly, and it makes the fly work more like a subtle crankbait. It's deadly at night, the wobble giving off vibration and promoting flash. It makes a big difference with a flash fly. Action heads make the flashabou move and, even on dark nights, it gives it the opportunity to catch whatever available light exists and give off a flicker here and there, helping browns find it. Also, at night, they're not afraid to come in real close in pursuit of that fly.
"A bunny strip fly gives off enough movement on its own. You only need the swimming head, really, with flashabou versions. That's the only material in the fly — flashabou — unless I add lead barbell eyes for weight. The approach is the opposite of what most fly fishermen do. I'm stripping the fly in or otherwise staying in touch with it at all times — never dead-drifting. I let it pause from time to time, but I'm mostly stripping it in from the time it hits the water, staying in touch with it, making it look alive. These things work particularly well at night."
Why fish browns at night during winter? Won't they bite during the day? "We're crazy," Wilder admits. "But fishing at night in winter is the best — the absolute best. Nobody around. You see things under the lights you never see during the day — huge browns in shallow, easily approachable lies. Browns are nocturnal to begin with, especially the biggest specimens. Southern dams don't generate much at night, so the water is down and easy to wade. If you see any big fish during the day, chances are the area holds a lot more big browns you'll never see before sunset."
Location can be easy in many southern tailrace fisheries because it doesn't change with the seasons. "In southern rivers, browns spawn in November, December, and early January, depending on latitude. There is no bad time of year, if you're a night fishermen. The same holes tend to hold fish all year long, with the possible exception of the spawning period. Some fish migrate at that time, but not all. Many find all their seasonal habitat within a relatively small segment of stream.
At night, in rivers all over the world, big browns abandon deep water and heavy cover to feed on shallow flats with slow-to-moderate currents. During the day, these are what most anglers would call "nothing spots." No cover, no broken water overhead, no problems. Most of these areas are less than 4 feet deep, and big browns often reveal themselves, boiling the surface in pursuit of prey.
"The biggest brown I've caught doing this was 28 pounds," Wilder says. "I caught her last year. She had a 24-inch girth. Truth is, my partner and I were joking around. We're always tying new flies, and this night we were experimenting with a fly tied only with flashabou, calling it Spartacus. I started catching big fish with it right away, and it's only a 2-inch fly with a swimming head, which gives it the same swimming action as the dace in that river. The third fish I hooked just took off, fly line shredded the water and disappeared. I was way into the backing on the fly reel before it eventually tired. My fly-fishing buddies that researched it told me it's the biggest brown ever caught on a fly rod in North America, but I wouldn't know. I know this: I can't catch fish that size during the day.
"You should scout things out during the day to make certain you don't step in a big hole. Good to have a buddy and to have him nearby at all times, because it's dangerous wading at night. We use red bulbs in our headlamps because the red light doesn't seem to spook the fish."
Wilder is one of those rare and marvelous hybrids — one third fly, one third spinning, and one third casting gear. His motto: "Whatever it takes." And, interestingly enough, he was quick to point out that everything he's doing can be done as well if not better with spinning gear.
"A big bunny strip on a light jighead is deadly," Wilder says. "And certain lures — minnow-imitating crankbaits, especially — work particularly well. I try them at times, but fly fishing is too much fun when it's easy like this."
Up north things don't come so easy. The biggest browns come out of the Great Lakes and migrate much farther, in most instances, to reach spawning habitat. Because winters are so much more boreal, wintering habitat becomes much more specific, as well. In 31°F water, the right habitat becomes, in fact, crucial for survival. Perfect wintering habitat in a wild river is a dish-shaped pool where the river widens and the grade flattens, all of which serves to slow and moderate current. These pools are not very deep, as browns seem to prefer the sun on their backs. In absence of such habitat, they're more likely to stay in deep holes.
Northern browns are nocturnal, too — but less so in winter. The highest activity levels tend to take place late in the afternoon. But, for solitude, you can't beat fishing at night when the air is under 30°F, the ground is covered with snow, and you have to break through ice to wade out to the best spots. I promise those who try will discover massive, eternal loneliness.
As I loathe flycasting with a frozen line and icy guides, I tend to approach Great Lakes browns that run tributaries, with spinning tackle. An 8- to 9-foot steelhead rod with 6- to 8-pound monofilament is right for throwing minnowbaits, cranks, unweighted Senko-style plastics, and similar minnow-imitating presentations. Just as Wilder's fly selection ranges from 2 to 5 inches, so do my favorite minnowbaits, which include both floating and suspending versions. Small shad-style cranks work better, at times, where big browns are used to feeding on alewives or shad. And a bunny-strip jig can work wonders.
With lures, best to cast cross-stream, work the bait down to its running depth, and pause — letting the current sweep it along. Or cast at downstream angles and just hold on, letting the current sweep the lure across the river in an arc. Suspending baits work very well, pausing and drifting without rising.
But even the biggest browns may prefer very small items when the water is in the 30°F range. That's when I break out a 12- to 13-foot float rod and drift livebaits like waxworms and maggots, spawn bags, and small plastic worms on a 1/64- to 1/32-ounce jig. The Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle River Master is the most commonly available float (bobber) of the type required. It rides upright on a long stem with a pear-shaped body, making it easy to control. The float should be slowed to match currents near bottom, which are never moving as fast as the surface of the river.
Great Lakes browns that run streams to spawn — especially the new See-forellen strain from Europe — tend to winter over. The fish are less pressured than at any other time of year, and highly active compared to bass or even walleyes and pike. North or south, winter can be the best time to bag a giant brown in a river.