We all want to catch a large WILD trout. These are the fish that we have interactions with that keep us coming back for years to come. Whether we’ve hooked into one and landed it or lost it at the net or have seen the angler across the river from you release a hog back into the water, these are the fish that “most” of us are after on a consistent basis.
The point in my blog post is to help you figure out when you should target these fish and what you should use, however every river will be different. By no means do I consider myself a pro on catching large trout. I’ve landed and guided many 18 - 20” trout into the net in Maine, and we’ve lost some that “I swear” are bigger. I know that Maine ponds and lakes hold some large trout, but for all intensive purposes, this post will be about targeting large trout in Maine rivers.
The first question that should go through your mind is trying to figure out what the biomass is (or what the largest current food supply is). Knowing what food sources are abundant around the current time of season is very important. For instance, fishing dry fly caddis in northern Maine in April is not going to yield you any takers. Come back in June, now we’re talking a different story. Understanding the food sources and when they’re abundant takes experience, and you need to spend a lot of time (or talk to a trustworthy source) about what food sources are currently in high demand. These food sources that I list are in no particular order, but they are the ones that I see the most of on the rivers that I frequent.
In Maine, we have several different species of baitfish, but the one that I am the most familiar with are smelts. The smelts spawn right after ice-out and move from lakes into the rivers to do this. Generally, when water temps hit around 40º F is when you can expect them. In some rivers, you can fish smelt patterns anywhere from 1 ½” to 5” long. Some rivers an active smelt imitation works well (think strip, strip, strip, pause then repeat), and in others, a dead drift smelt pattern can do the trick. If rivers are pretty high, I like to fish a sink tip line to keep these patterns down. With low water temps, the fish won’t move a lot so getting your fly down to them is important.
I’ve come to discover some rivers that have a large dam at the headwaters often have smelt that are chopped up in the turbine. This means that dead smelt are just floating down the river, and big fish love to gorge on them. Marabou black ghosts patterns work well for me, but I’ve been doing some fishing with articulated white streamers in recent spring seasons and those have gotten the attention of really large brook trout. In the fall, trout are aggressive due to their own spawning habits and also are looking to fatten up for the winter. Wood Special and Mickey Finn streamers are two fall patterns that I go to in the fall.
If you’ve ever done some river camping in Maine and been on dish duty down by the water, your headlamp would most likely show you crayfish anywhere from 2 inches to 5 inches in link. Heck, some of them look like mini lobsters! I’ve seen crayfish in every single river that I’ve fished in this state. Brook trout love to eat them (as well as many other species) and they’ll attack larger crayfish several times to get them to fit in the mouth. If you’ve ever seen a crayfish flee, they shoot themselves backwards like a squid, so most trout will take them tail first in an ambush attempt. Patterns like woolly buggers (olive and brown) work well in various sizes. I love the Meat Whistler pattern because it’s a jig hook that rides up. Crayfish are on the bottom and they don’t really move up the water column. It’s so important to keep your fly on the bottom of the river. Fishing crayfish patterns late May through July 4th can be very productive, and in some rivers they’re great all summer and fall, also.
If you flip rocks over and you see a ton of small mayfly nymphs, throw a pattern like a pheasant tail nymph on. If you’re seeing many green caddis, throw on a green sparkle maggot pattern. If you’re seeing large stonefly nymphs in abundance, throw on a Pat’s Rubber Legs or your favorite stonefly nymph pattern. The point is that when you’re seeing a large number of the same nymph in the water, there’s a decent chance that fish are keying on that bug. However, there are times (and we’ve all been there) when these bugs are everywhere and the fish won’t even sniff your imitation. I could write pages on nymph fishing (and I do have a planned blog post on nymph fishing for beginners), but the biggest takeaway here is that large fish will just sit on the bottom and let the nymphs come to them. The big trout pick the prime lies and get the first pickings in their feeding lanes most of the time.
I like to compare nymphs to potato chips. Humans love to just sit on the couch and eat a big bag of small chips. We don’t sit on the couch and eat 10 cheeseburgers in a day. Well, the fish are the same way. Sometimes they want a few burgers, but most of the time they want to pig out on small bugs just floating into their mouth. If you get to know what nymphs are in your river, just take a look at what you see for dry flies and this eliminates half of the battle. For instance, some rivers have very few stoneflies, if any, and others have very few mayflies. However, the one bug that seems to be the most common is caddis. They are in most rivers and can be found in the air or under rocks most times of the day. Fish the caddis life cycle in the months of May, June and July, and you’ll entice some big fish.
Getting a large trout to take a dry fly is the ultimate. Seeing the take, and knowing that you got that fish to travel a long way out of their comfort by fooling them is an extremely satisfying feeling. While you have a better chance of doing this on some of our ponds that have Green Drake hatches in late June/early July, there are several times when you get opportunities on Maine rivers to make those big fish move for your dry fly imitation.
The Hendrickson hatch is the first big mayfly hatch of the season, and those big fish that have just moved up into the rivers are tired of smelt and eggs, so they’re onto different food sources. Hendrickson mayflies usually start hatching in the northern part of the state right around Memorial Day weekend. I have different variations of high riding Hendrickson patterns and some lower riding dry Hendrickson patterns because the bigger trout can be really picky. This is always the first shot that I know that I have to land a big brookie on a dry fly each season.
The other very notable event is when the first big stonefly adults begin to shuck their skins and gain their wings. You can fish every day from late June to mid July and maybe hit these hatches once or twice, but when you do it creates one of those “you should’ve been here” type days. Watching trout come up from the bottom and slam your giant, foam stonefly pattern can be just awesome. I remember casting a large stimulator dry fly into a pool and a 17 inch brookie took the dry fly on the first case before it even hit the water! Although I don’t have that on camera, I have that etched into my brain and that’s just fine with me. I know where I’ll start first next season when stonefly hatches come around.
I won’t write much about another big dry fly opportunity each year, but terrestrials (ants, hoppers, beetles, etc) can make some big trout leave their comfort zone. The interesting thing about these bugs is that you often can’t see them with the tannic waters that we have, but they’re all over the place. Make sure you tie a nice parachute post so that when you fish these patterns (often smaller than size 16) you can actually see them!
I wouldn’t call this a big secret or anything, but when low light periods (or even pitch black) come around the big fish start to move a lot. They aren’t worried about predators and they know that they can sneak up on unsuspecting creatures like mice, small birds or big leeches. On a floating line, chuck on a good mouse pattern or a big black leech pattern (think striper flies) and you’ll be amazed at the takes that you will get. I’ve had some really fun days just sleeping during the midday heat, having an early dinner, fishing a hatch until dark, and then staying on the water until 11 p.m. or later fishing mouse patterns. We’ve all fished until we couldn’t see, so why not adapt to staying out just a bit longer and exploring your curiosity about night fishing? I love to sit around the campfire and have a cold one as much as the next guy, but hooking into a big trout when the fishing has been slow all day takes the cake for me sometimes!
Some keys to night fishing are having a headlamp, but not using it when you’re in the water. I like to go to “red light mode” just to make sure my line isn’t all coiled up or in a tree. Knowing your water and your surroundings really well helps you stay comfortable and confident while you’re out there fishing. I had a night last summer where I was fishing a mouse pattern and kept getting strikes, but no takers. I was aggressively swinging it across the current. I switched it up a little and just let it dead drift with the occasional twitch, and that did the trick. I landed a nice 18” brookie on a Morrish Mouse pattern that I’d tied up for an occasion like that. The coolest part of that night was my buddy flashing his headlamp on the rocks and seeing two sets of mouse eyes peering back at him!
So if you’re looking to land the biggest trout of your life in a river in Maine follow some of the tips above and give them a try. A lot of it seems like (and it is) common sense, but sometimes we try to get too technical. Plan your outings so that you’re taking advantage of the best times to try to locate these big fish. Don’t plan your trip for August when you know that most of the time these big fish will show early in the season. But if August is your best opportunity, be prepared to grab your headlamp and tie a big fly on the end of your line.
You have to fish with the mentality that the biggest trout of your life is coming to you on the next cast. Believe in your abilities, have confidence in yourself and learn from your experiences. That’s what fly fishing is all about!
Aaron Broaddus is a passionate fly fisherman and a Maine guide.