Identify the overwintered trout
I put reservoir trout in two categories. Fish under 4 lb will have been in the reservoir for less than 12 months and despite popular belief they are at best only well-mended, hard-fighting, early- or late-season fish that are no more difficult to catch than a fresh stockie.
Overwintered trout weigh more than 4 lb and have been in the reservoir for at least a year. These fish have wised up and are what I call “educated”. They have been feeding naturally over the course of a season and understand what their food looks like and how it behaves,
ie it’s not bright orange and pulled at 100 mph. They are, in my opinion, a much more challenging fish to catch.
Find their food
Overwintered fish will almost always be found where there is a large food source. The trick is to find it. On most reservoirs it will be buzzers, shrimps, corixa and fry and the best places to search are near structures. Target weedbeds, pontoons, anchored sailing boats, towers, inlets, streams, marker buoys and drop-offs.
However, contrary to popular belief overwintered fish don’t often get preoccupied with one food source – they are not programmed that way. Look at the stomach or throat contents of
a 4 lb-plus rainbow and it will often contain a multitude of foods. It would make little difference if you were fishing a Cruncher, Pheasant-tail, Diawl Bach or Hopper, so long as it was presented correctly at the right depth. This opportunist feeding also explains why anglers catch on a variety of different patterns when targeting the same fish in the same area.
Conversely, stockies can be caught anywhere on a reservoir. They haven’t yet learned how to find the major food groups and can be caught in areas with little food.
Weedbeds and deeper water
Reservoir water levels greatly affect where resident fish will be found. Weedbeds die as water levels drop over the course of a season and those that remain are often out of reach of the bank angler at the beginning of the following season when the reservoir is full again. Yet it is here that resident fish will often be feeding. Because the shallows at the start of the season are often devoid of food, instead target areas that are naturally deeper close to the bank
that didn’t dry out at the end of the previous season.
From June onwards the water warms significantly and new weedbeds (those that died over winter or when the water levels dropped) become established. They are home to shrimp, pin-fry, corixa … and resident trout.
Many anglers find these fish difficult to catch. The water is usually shallow and clear and fish are highly visible. You will often see good trout cruising over the weedbeds only feet from the bank, confidently taking food in their path. There is a temptation to rush to the water’s edge and frantically cast at every fish you see, especially if they’re big. But remember, the angler is also visible to the trout. Numerous casts, weighted flies, and an animated angler only do one thing – spook the fish and push them out of reach.
Patience and a stealthy approach are vital. At Grafham Water the shrimp-feeders cruise only five yards from the bank, but once they see your silhouette they will veer out to around 20 yards. If you sit, remain still and only cast once every 30 seconds or so, the fish will remain confident and close.
The same rules apply for corixa- and fry-feeding trout. Make few casts, keep low and remain patient. If I see a large fish working the bank, I may creep in front of it in a wide (20-30 yard) arc and simply wait until it comes into range. Casts must be within your capabilities (don’t push for distance, you’ll hit the water hard and the leader will not turn over correctly) and, importantly, don’t cast too close to the fish – let it come to your flies. This may require a change of attitude – it took me many hours of spooking fish before I finally accepted that patience is a virtue I need to possess.
Occasionally, you will get the opportunity to cast at two or more fish rising or cruising in close proximity to one another. Consider this a golden opportunity. One trout will consider the other to be competition and often attack the fly aggressively.
A classic rod and clear copolymer
Tackle is subjective, but I prefer a 9 ft 6 in or 10 ft rod, rated AFTM 5, 6 or 7. Good-quality, clear, co-polymer leader material is essential. It’s thin, strong and does not sink as fast as luorocarbon. It will not pull your flies down into the weed in shallow water. However, it must be degreased to remove its shine. I prefer Rio Powerflex 8.2 lb.
Three methods to try
Washing line: When fishing in shallow, clear water, your flies must remain high and display the correct silhouette. Any droppers you fish can easily snag weed (hence why I fish with a maximum of two flies). By making fewer casts to avoid spooking fish you are inevitably more likely to fish with a desirable static or slow retrieve.
My initial line of attack is always a 12 ft-15 ft leader of 8 lb co-polymer with a realistic Mylar Floating Fry on the point and a size 12-14 red holographic Nemo Cruncher on the dropper. The dropper is just 2 ft from the point fly because in shallow water trout will have a very small window of vision. In flat calms, fish are often attracted by the Floating Fry, but will then take the subsurface Cruncher. When there is a ripple or wave, they will take both patterns equally. Really big fish of 5 lb and more usually only take the fry imitation.
In a flat calm I sometimes swap the Floating Fry for a Suspender Minkie. Its mink wing imparts a small amount of movement, which is often all that’s needed to turn swirls into positive takes (a Suspender Minkie can also be given a sharp strip to create a disturbance that can attract the fish to your cast).
Sinking line: A Humungous Booby (or Snake Booby) fished deep and slow on a fast-sinking line, Di-5 or 7, is undoubtedly a very effective method of catching big trout throughout the season. It ticks all the boxes: correct profile, enticing movement, correct colour, disturbance and depth. It has the perfect presentation. Your sinking line is hard on the bottom and your fly is popped up, ensuring there is no silhouette of the fly-line to spook fish. Use a slow retrieve and an occasional pause for four or five seconds, so that you make fewer casts and therefore cause less disturbance. A slight tweak I occasionally make when the fish are fixated on fry is to fish a Floating Fry popped up off the bottom. Fish it statically with the odd 2 in-3 in sharp pull every 30 seconds. When fishing Boobies or Floating Fry I prefer to use a Rapala knot, as it allows the fly to move freely and naturally.
Nymph fishing: Whether I’m fishing with an indicator or straight-line nymphing I always place my brightest nymph on the top dropper (pearl or red rib/back or fluorescent red head). This attracts fish to my flies because it catches sunlight. It will attract stockies, but it will also attract resident fish to the more natural patterns beneath it. I think this doubles your chances because any big fish that can be tempted to rise from the deeper water to investigate your top dropper must swim by the more natural-looking flies on your cast twice (on the way up and down).
When fishing nymphs and Buzzers most anglers feel it is best to have a light (5 mph-9 mph) left-to-right wind, which will allow your team of flies to swing gently around in an arc. I accept that this is a very effective method but in my experience it only tends to catch fish up to 4 lb.
Guiding over the years revealed to me that while I would catch more trout using the straight-line nymphing method, the novices I was assisting would consistently catch much bigger and better-quality fish. This was no fluke – it happened too often. Two seasons ago, one of my rods had a brownie over 7 lb and a 6 lb rainbow in the same day, having never cast a fly before. He was fishing downwind, under a bung, just off the bottom and with no retrieve whatsoever.
My theory is that by fishing across the wind, the flies are moving too fast and look unnatural to educated fish.So for some fish, movement wins hands down but for quality fish, static is king.
Which is why I now favour a flat calm when fishing nymphs and Buzzers and I love the bung because it consistently puts really big fish in the bass bag. It gives me perfect depth control and the option of fishing ultra-slow or statically.
I have since taken this theory a step further and often fish directly into a light wind, allowing my flies to drift back “dead-drift” with no drag. Or I’ll fish straight down the wind, again attempting to keep them totally static. The results have been very encouraging over the last few seasons.