At first, we all just want to catch fish, period. We spend our fishing time working through the basic stuff in an effort to just get bit and then hang on and hope our paltry skills and equipment will help us win the ensuing battle. Before too long, if we’re a decent observer, we get to catchin’ more often than not. At some point we get consistent enough that average fish no longer satisfies the itch, We want to catch big fish.
After a considerable chunk of our life is spent angling and our fish count has long since been forgotten, some folks eventually get to where they want to catch big fish, how they want to catch them. A good example of this is, say a 200 pound tarpon on the fly rod. Yes it’s a noble concept, but let’s face it, most of us never get over being happy about catching a big’un, regardless of exactly how we accomplish that.
So, that takes us back to catching big ones. I want to catch big ones. So, most likely, do you. The problem for me is that, over a decade of guiding other anglers or filming fishing shows, I’ve gotten to be very good at consistency. That’s a problem. It’s a problem because, to be consistent, you have to focus on the fat part of the population curve and you have to do so in areas fish congregate en masse and you have to employ mainstream techniques, not tricks. Sure, if you fish enough while doing all of that, you’ll catch a few big ones, but by and large, big fish specialists do it differently.
The first thing that needs to be adjusted is our mindset. No matter how you slice it, truly big fish are a tiny percentage of the population. Besides that, they likely got big by being smarter than the average fish and they almost always have different places they haunt. Big fish don’t act like little fish. You have to be mentally strong enough to spend a lot of time not catching and possibly facing the proverbial skunk to really develop an understanding of where big fish live and how to get them to bite.
Big fish test your tackle. By that I mean the obvious part of successfully hooking, fighting and landing one, but also the fact that your tackle details should be more in order overall. Quality everything comes into play when you’re fishing for giants and since you’re fishing for relatively few bites, even a small percentage gain by having your tackle properly prepared will matter. I once lost a trophy pike because it went out a hole in the net of all the stupid things; I’d netted a bunch of average fish in that crappy net with no problem, but sure enough my huge river dwelling pike came unhooked as he was netted, found the hole and escaped . Not just your line and hooks, rather all your gear should be in order to avoid heartbreak.
I mentioned that the biggest fish in any system have different haunts than their smaller family members and this is the biggest key to getting a big bite. After all, you can’t catch big fish if you’re not fishing around them. What constitutes the kind of places big’uns live? Well, that depends on the species, but there are a few generalities. First, they almost always have deep water near by. Deep is relative, so it might be safer to say they always have escape-to-deep-water routes within a fin stroke or two. Second, they are often loaners or possibly hanging out with similar specimens. Third, they can have a different diet because they can physically eat a wider variety of items and because their size allows them to roam wherever their food is found without as much fear of becoming food themselves. On a lake I guide on, the average walleyes eat shad, but the giants eat 8-10” stocker trout. Obviously this affects both where and how we fish them.
There is one specific tool and skill set that I know boat fishing reservoir anglers can work on that will help with both locations and forage; the use of your SONAR and GPS in combination. Why? Because big fish often live on subtle spots other anglers miss and even more often they live offshore. If I’m seriously trophy hunting, I spend a high percentage of my time studying my Lowrance SONAR and/or StructureScan 3D imaging, always looking for subtle changes in bottom content, isolated cover and any good cover located on good structure. The structure provides depth change and the cover puts the fish at ease. The StructureScan helps me comb large flat areas looking for subtle things which I’ll mark on the GPS and then come back and fish later. Traditional down-viewing SONAR is strong when really looking at bottom content or looking for suspended fish.
Suspended fish are, in my opinion, the last frontier for most anglers. It’s where we’re learning over time that a bunch of the biggest bass, walleyes, reservoir-dwelling trout, wipers and others spend their retirement years. Think about it; they have immediate access to deep water, very little competition from their smaller brethren and a diverse range of prey that can be investigated on a whim. Most importantly, very few anglers even attempt to address suspended fish outside of the common fall feeding frenzy. We all get suckered into fishing bank oriented fish because they are a much easier puzzle to solve. When I target suspended fish with any real chance at success, the Lowrance units get my undivided attention. One quick tip on that; learn about your unit’s grey-scale/colorline, sensitivity and ping/scroll speed. Those items will help you a bunch!
Want to catch a true giant? Me too and judging by my volunteer time with fisheries biologists sampling fisheries, there are always bigger fish than those we catch, regardless of where I’ve sampled. Focus on the mindset, tackle and locations using ALL your tools – you’ll need them and a little luck as well, but the reward will stick with you forever! The Fishful Thinker moto is “Fish Big” for a reason.