Finding big fish isn’t easy and catching them is even harder. I’ve fished a good deal over the last 34 years or so and I’ve very seldom caught a really big fish, and by “big fish” I mean a fish that is at least half as large as the species will potentially grow. I have caught a few though and have learned a great deal of theory on big fish. Maybe my best excuse for not catching them is simply the fact that I’m not targeting them – I’m more of an explorer, always just moving through to see new water. If I wanted to seek big fish though, I might follow these general guidelines:
Note: These are not without exceptions – just a set of generalities – starting points from which to seek big fish.
- Big fish like big water. It took me many years of experimentation to latch onto this simple truth. I like to fish all waters so I end up spending quite a lot of time on small streams so when I do encounter big fish, they’re typically big creek chubs (8″+). But I know that the largest yellow perch I’ve ever seen came from the great lakes as did the largest smallmouth, largest brown trout, largest burbot, largest drum and largest rainbow trout. These lakes are as large as freshwater lakes get and they produce, generally, the largest fish. Other major sources for huge (even bigger) fish though are the nation’s major rivers – the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, etc. The real giants here are catfishes – the blues and flatheads which exceed 120 lbs. Divers in several states tell stories of much, much larger specimens who’ve never seen the light of day.
- If big water isn’t convenient, fish the deepest holes. This is really in reference to flowing water. Not a lot of elaboration needed here but especially in low-water situations, the big fish will be in the deepest holes. A recurring pattern is for these deep-water behemoths to move to the head of the pool (a shallower but optimal feeding location) as evening approaches or after dark. Last year I fished the deepest pool of a tiny stream easily overlooked alongside a busy highway in Pittsburgh for minnows. I was using a pole (no reel) and 6 lb. line, taking one tiny chub after another. Minutes after darkness fell, I felt a tap and then the rod bent double for just a second before the line snapped. Not the first time a mystery monster has done that to me while minnow fishing.
- Big fish eat other big fish. It’s a pattern ichthyologists would describe in terms of bioenergetics: big fish need their efforts to be worthwhile. Big fish can’t be lunging to the surface in pursuit of mayflies weighing less than a gram (usually). There are a wide array of potentially big freshwater fishes but they mostly eat other fish. The biggest bluegills and shellcrackers are know to eat minnows and baby shad. Big largemouth bass are known to prey on freshly stocked rainbow trout. Pike will try to eat other pike as large as themselves occasionally. Flathead catfish are far more aggressive predators than commonly believed and baits might include drum, goldfish or other catfish weighing over a pound.
A couple of more quick tips learned through experience (sometimes bitter):
- Fish for big fish after dark.
- If you catch a little fish and you’re near deeper water, toss the little fish into the deep hole instead of unhooking.
Maybe I’ll start following my own advice in the season ahead and actually land some of the big fish I like to talk about so much. Sometimes though, it’s just nice to know that I’ve seen the flank or felt the tug of a huge fish that eluded me – and I know he’s still swimming out there!
The “big fish” pictured could probably all be used as bait for real big fish.