Here is a question I am asked a lot "When is it time to leave and when is it time to stay?"
As with most fishing, the FINDING part of the exercise is the most critical. It is often said that most anglers can catch them when they are dropped off in the right area, but finding the right area is the key. Having said that, once located, what is it that makes us stay or go from an area we feel is holding fish? Since it is big trout time, let's focus our answer on trout in excess of 7-pounds.
As is always the case, you need to locate the proper bottom structure and baitfish. This is always important but never more so than the winter months. Add suitable water temperatures for the time you are fishing and you are off to a good start. Mud is the key this time of year, find mud with scattered grass, shell, rock or subtle bottom changes and you will find the warmer water. Where you find this you will also find the bait, and where we find food, we will find trout.
From previous writings from both me and many other trophy trout hunters across our state, we know how we should approach the area, the speed by which we wade or drift, the lure selections, and the patience with which we should carry out all of these procedures. There are endless methods and thoughts regarding which is the most productive. It is all easy to work with when strikes are being received and fish are being caught. However, what about the area that holds everything you know to be right but nothing is happening? Are the fish not feeding or have they just not yet found this area?
I have a certain mindset this time of year that keeps my judgment from being clouded during the slow times when chasing big trout. Slow times are inevitable. Trout of the proportions I am looking for represent only a fraction of the trout population. They live in areas where food, proper structure and suitable water temperatures make their lives easier.
The pursuit of trophy trout is not about a hard day's work; actually, it's more like "the easier the better," in my book. What I am saying is, once you have located ALL of the necessities that big trout require, you are in the right place. Sometime during the day, someone will eat something. It may happen exactly when and where you expect or it might come at a time and place that is quite unexpected.
I am a stickler for believing in your area. My advantage here is that on just about any of the big trout areas I frequent this time of year I have had some extraordinary results at one time or another. Also, I have the luxury of matching the conditions with my fishing efforts. When the conditions are right, I stay most of the time.
My guiding chores at times have built bad habits, habits that can result in leaving an area that holds the potential for a big day, simply because the ego says to go get some bites. If we let ourselves get into this mode of operation, misses will become more frequent and frustration sets in. Many times as a younger tournament fisherman I left fish that might have won for the face-saving 'something to weigh' alternative. Hero or zero is my strategy now days. Although I must say, it is certainly easier said than done.
OK so we're staying; now the work starts and the mind control games begin. Let's talk about we're going to fish this spot.
I try to NEVER put my body where I think the fish are holding. If I believe the trout are shallow, I want to approach from the deeper edges. The opposite would be true if I felt inclined to believe that the fish had staged out deep. Never do I feel comfortable getting too close to my targeted sweet spots within an area. I will actually fish and walk way around these areas when I believe the fish to be there. Too many times I have worked an area for an hour or so, and then moved back into the original area that I felt the fish were in, only to kick a slick or actually see the fish easing off. You must learn from these occurrences and train yourself to never penetrate your strike zones.
You might decide to leave and come back later; however there is no guarantee another angler might move in. Worse, in your absence other boats may run through the area blowing your bite for the rest of the day. If you are not there to witness it you will never understand what happened.
Staying is sometimes protecting. Traylor Island and our springtime trout run are a good example of this. I have two trout that the boys and I have been trying to catch for two seasons now that are usually in this one given area. The bait is thick, water clear and the structure ideal. Many times, one of the boys or myself has made the long cast and hooked a nice trout or big red only to have the two big fish follow them off the flat and slowly disappear into the depths so close by. This is a perfect example of the fish being there but us not being able to trick them into feeding yet.
If I did not have the local knowledge of KNOWING these fish are in this area I would probably be quick to leave despite all the signs pointing to this being a perfect area. The night gig does not work either, I have tried many times. Oh, they are still there, my airboat connections on this end see them on a regular basis.
When big fish are not feeding, they are typically not moving either. I know this from my sight-casting education with large trout. One that is sitting motionless in a pothole is not nearly as likely to hit my offering as is one that is cruising and weaving from one pothole to the next. When water conditions will not let us see the lack of movement, we have to surmise that the lack of bites is from general inactivity; and inactivity should lead you to a slower, more patient, dissection of your area.
On my best days, I find myself tuned in and making repeated, deliberate casts into my area. When strikes come scattered and infrequent you can bet the fish are scattered and not moving much at all. I use the following illustration when trying to explain to my anglers what I believe is going on. -- Let's say your chosen area is about the size of a basketball court. Most of us have an idea of the dimensions of a basketball court. Stand outside the perimeter about 15 yards and imagine there are a dozen trout randomly scattered within the confines of the court. Blindfold yourself. Now begin casting and see how many tries it takes for you to get the lure close enough for the fish to see it and react to it if it so pleases. Now put the trout in motion and see if your odds are increased. It is reasonable to believe that the movement of the fish would increase your chances.
Try standing at center court and blind casting. Is your bait falling into your designated area or are you casting beyond the fish? Also, remember that you had to walk through fish to get to center court. One spooks, they all could spook, not a chance you should be willing to take in my opinion. It only stands to reason that you would want to keep your lure where the fish are and yourself far enough away to not alert them as to your presence.
Now let us say after half a day of fishing with little to no action your mind is wanting you to make a move. That move should not be in the boat; it should be to the closest deep-water refuge the trout have adjacent to their preferred feeding grounds. If your area was chosen based on true knowledge of trout habits, you are going to need a deep access.
When it gets calm and clear and high-pressure sets in, your fish are going to seek deeper, darker water. I have proven this factor many times in my long career as a guide. This is where the stealth approach that you set forth to begin the day pays off. Limited and quiet movement throughout the first half allows
the deep and dark pattern to develop. Fish that move in and move out on their own accord are much more likely to cooperate than those that have been alerted to our presence. A slower more thorough probing of the deeper water with your lure of choice will be required for this operation, but the results, especially later in the day, can be profound.
If you know me at all, you know I have had some big catches in the toughest of times. This is not due to me being any better of an angler than anyone else is, it is my mind overpowering the instincts to move. My belief in the area that I have
chosen to spend my day also plays a major role in my commitment to the area. My dad always told me that the longer I sat in the deer blind without seeing a buck the better my odds were getting. Granted I was set up on a scrape line and feeding areas as well as bedding areas were all nearby.
Your lure choices and color patterns will be solely up to you. I believe one should work lures he or she has the most confidence in and lures actions that fit the area. I am simplistic when it comes to my lure choices. It is easy to get too much stuff; this can lead to way too much indecision on the angler's part in a situation where simply fishing what you fish best will work best.
In some areas, rocks or scattered clump shell over the mud bottom requires the use of a suspending lure or topwater; it simply stays fishing longer for you. Other bottom structures afford us the luxury and ease of delivering a soft plastic offering bounced off the bottom. No matter what you throw or when you choose to throw it, there is a bit in your box that will work.
In answer to the oft asked question- "Should we stay should we go?"- I cast a firm vote for staying. Good things come to those who are smart enough to wait.