Flies That Catch Big Trout, The Truth Might Surprise You

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Alaska Rainbow Photo by Louis Cahill

Alaska Rainbow Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

I have definite ideas about how to catch big trout. Apparently they are all wrong.

Like every other guy or gal with a fly rod, I have some pretty strong opinions about the kind of flies that catch big fish. These opinions are based on years of experience and experimentation. I have theories about the behavior of big predatory trout and they influence my tying and my fishing. These ideas are proven out by countless hours on the water. At least that’s what I thought.

Regular G&G readers will know that I am a confirmed streamer junkie. I make no apologies for it. I love fishing streamers and I believe wholeheartedly that big flies catch big fish. Here’s the problem: without knowing it, for the last eight or ten years I’ve been proving myself wrong.

I am not a fish counter. I’m not a trophy hunter. I like catching big fish but I do not possess a single mount or even a catch-and-release painting. Not surprisingly, I don’t even have a lot of photos of myself with fish. Most of the fish I catch, if they are photographed, are in someone else’s hands. The truth is that I am just fundamentally more interested in the next fish than I am the last fish.

What I do, on very rare occasions, is keep a fly. Once in a while I’ll catch a fish that’s special. It’s always a big fish but there’s usually something extra that makes it special. The color or fins, or maybe where I caught it or who I was with. It happened the other day in Alaska. I was fishing with my good buddy Bruce Chard and guide Jeff Forsee on the Kanektok river at Alaska West. On literally the last cast of the day I hooked and landed a rainbow in the ten- to twelve-pound range. A beautiful and perfect Alaska rainbow.

It was a great fish by any standard but particularly special because I caught it with Bruce. There is no one in the world I enjoy fishing with more than Bruce and we have fished together more days than I can remember, but all in the salt. This was the the first and only day we have trout fished together. It is also the first and, very likely, the only day I will ever catch the fish of the day with Bruce on the boat.

We are not competitive with each other in any way, but it was a moment that did not pass without notice, so I clipped off the fly and stuck it in my camera case. When I got home I took the flesh fly, that Jeff had tied, out of the case and tossed it on the mantle next to a fly I used to catch a forty-two inch steelhead last year on the Dean River in BC.

I looked at the two flies and it made me think. I scrounged around for a couple of other flies I had kept. This habit is so trivial that I don’t even keep them in the same place. One has been in the headliner of my car for at least five years. Looking at this handful of flies I realized that a lot of what I thought I knew was wrong.

I’m going to be very honest with you. I don’t know what I think about this. I still have great faith in the streamer patterns I’ve developed over the years and they produce a lot of quality fish for me on a consistent basis but there was not a one of them in this collection. Not one! In fact the four flies in my hand totally surprised me. Without exception they were small, natural and traditional. I realize that this is in no way a scientific sampling or or even a thoughtful conclusion. It’s more of a forensic discovery. Rationally I’m struggling with it, but I can’t argue with the proof in my hand.

So rather than draw a conclusion or cook up a theory, I’m just going to share with you the facts. Over the last, I’m not exactly sure how many years, I have chosen to keep these four flies, with which I caught these four fish. You tell me what it means.

Fish #1 Alaska Rainbow around 10 lbs
Caught on a fairly simple marabou flesh fly tied by my guide Jeff Forsee


Fish #2 male rainbow 27 inches
Caught on a #14 Hairs Ear Soft Hackle tied by me


Fish #3 Dean River Steelhead 42 inches
Caught on a black Marabou Tube Fly tied by Justin Berry


Fish #4 exceptional male brown trout 26 inches
Caught on (of all things) an olive Woolly Bugger size 10 tied by me


So there you have it. Four nice fish caught on four modest flies, none of them containing more than three materials, none of them taking more than a few minutes to tie. For all of our innovation and creation it seems that natural traditional flies are definitely holding their own.

Leave a comment and let me know what you make of this.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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14 thoughts on “Flies That Catch Big Trout, The Truth Might Surprise You

  1. my first thought is flies used by tenkara fishers in Japan…one fly, #12 or 14…seem to work “just fine” for whatever size fish caught… yes, bigger is not often better… not to mention big browns often hitting a small / #16 dropper fly… will be fun to hear from others…thoughtful post

  2. This is a very compelling post. Could it be the difference between feeding takes (flesh fly; nymph, wooly bugger; black leech?) elicited by imitations of natural food items v. territorial (non-feeding) strikes elicited by large, over-sized, and sometimes gaudy streamer patterns?

    I have a small handful of patterns *large spinners and terrestrials) that are rarely taken by small, immature trout.

    This type of observation and discussion is why this may be the most intriguing pastime of all time.

  3. I have recently.decided to limit.My tying to.a few natural.patterns that produce for.me. I always catch fish on Prince nymphs of various sizes and color variation, and hares ears, again in different color.and sizes. I adjust the size and color for the conditions. This simplifies tying time and materials. Maybe you are that good. You can catch big fish on anything.

  4. I have a fly fishing friend…fishes a ton more than I do. Catches good numbers and some dandy fish. He has reduced his trout fishing world to 5 patterns tied in different sizes and colors. I don’t remember them all but prince nymph and woolly bugger are 2. Cant recall the drys. His opinion… based on his years of experience.. presentation is more important than pattern. Sure works for him…

  5. A well written and informative post! Thank you for sharing your observations with us and thank you for your weekly articles. They as well provide information and entertainment for all who enthusiasticlly persue Tommy Trout,,,:-)

  6. It depends how often one fishes which flies & when…
    I tied up a huge fly & dibbled it a lot – got more trout + my best ever wild brown that season – ignored what was hatching + jus fished it. Made a long rod with extended butt for the purpose – all boat fishing obviously.

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