Back when the concept of catch-and-release wasn’t the religion it is today, Chuck Kraft and his friends would gladly take a fillet knife to some of the biggest trout they caught. Not only did those fish provide a wonderful camp meal, they also taught Kraft a valuable lesson about trout behavior and the tactics necessary to catch them. As he and his buddies knelt by the water’s edge and prepared their catch for the fire, they noticed hard lumps in the stomachs of many of the larger trout: crayfish.
“Nine out of 10 of the big browns we caught had crayfish in their bellies. I’m not talking little crayfish, either. Many of them were 3 or 4 inches long,” he says. “Naturally, that got the wheels turning in my head, so I started experimenting with some of my smallmouth flies that imitated crayfish and baitfish.”
Despite their dainty reputation and habit of sipping tiny insects from the water’s surface, trout—big trout in particular—are opportunistic killers that readily eat meat. A close inspection of their mouths shows rows of sharp teeth that hook inward, clearly designed for taking large, live prey.
Kraft, who guided for smallmouth bass and trout on waters throughout western Virginia for 22 years, was one of the few who realized the two fish had a lot more in common than many anglers think.
So instead of sticking with tiny flies that mimicked the insect life, he started experimenting with the same flies he used on the Shenandoah, James and New rivers, three of the country’s top smallmouth rivers. They worked--in spring creeks, tailrace waters, freestone streams and everywhere else he targeted big browns and rainbows. They worked in the East, on big Western rivers and even on trout waters in South America.
“If you look at all the aquatic life in a typical trout stream, you’ll find a whole lot more than just insects. Crayfish, minnows, sculpins, madtoms, salamanders, frogs—you name it, it’s there for the taking,” says Kraft. “Every trout stream has various types of baitfish and nearly all of them have crayfish, so I focused on those two when I started developing flies.”
As recently as the 1980s, most crayfish and minnow patterns were little more than rudimentary concoctions of hair and feathers. Few cut it for trout.
“Those older crayfish patterns just kind of rolled as they drifted with the current. They didn’t move anything like a real crayfish, so I added some weight to the lure to keep it upright, and I used materials that moved like legs and claws,” he says. “When I started working on a minnow pattern, I tried materials that don’t flare out when the fly stops, like marabou and other materials do. That scares more fish than it catches, especially older, larger fish that have been around the block a few times.”
Kraft eventually settled on a crayfish pattern much like a jig-and-pig, which he calls a Claw-Dad, and a CK Baitfish, a 3-inch minnow that has taken a variety of fish in both fresh- and saltwater. Both are deadly trout flies, even though most trout anglers might shun them for their size. He ties the Claw-Dad in sizes from 1½ to nearly 3 inches long.
Big trout will feed heavily on aquatic insects and they’ll readily sip size 20 midges off of the surface. But put the equivalent of a slab of prime rib in front of them and they’ll gladly skip the hors d’oeuvres. That’s why Kraft rarely uses insect patterns on trout streams with lots of big fish. And he often out-fishes his peers who are too stubborn to start with a big meat pattern.
“You can bet I’m going to put a big minnow pattern in front of a rising trout if I think it’s big enough to take a big fly,” Kraft says. “He may not eat it, but I’d bet you nine times out of 10 he will because it’s a big, easy meal, and no fish wants to pass up an easy meal.”
In other words, there’s no bad time to tie on a big fly. Kraft uses them in clear and dirty water, and he throws them virtually year-round.
As trout grow, their habits evolve, Kraft says. Although small fish readily chase a fast-moving fly, larger fish are much more lethargic and move slowly when they eat. They don’t move far, either. Too many of Kraft’s clients try to fish too fast or too shallow—or both.
“Sometimes big trout—I’m talking anything over 18 inches—will come up in the water column, like during a really strong hatch, but in deeper streams, they tend to feed close to the bottom most of the time. They also favor the security of deeper holes. They are a lot like big smallmouths,” he says. “You need to get your fly down in front of the fish and basically let it roll along the bottom or just move it slowly.”
Kraft admits that trout, like bass or any other fish, are fickle and don’t often behave the same from day to day. They may be willing to chase a fast-moving minnow pattern one day, but come back a day or two later and those same fish may be glued to the bottom. They won’t eat unless the food drifts into their mouths.
That’s exactly how Kraft caught his largest trout, a 27½-inch brown he estimated at 8 pounds. The monster came from a narrow weed-lined spring creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and was lurking in a chest-deep hole with undercut banks—a prime big-fish spot. Although terrestrial flies such as hoppers and even ants account for plenty of trout on this stream, those big fish just won’t come up and take a fly off the surface very often.
Kraft fishes crayfish patterns in much the same way that a spin fisherman would work a jig-and-pig combination for bass: with a slow, steady crawl across or near the bottom. Or, he pulls them a little faster to imitate a fleeing crayfish. “Watch how a crayfish swims when it’s trying to get away—it twitches as it moves and then will sink to the bottom really quick. That’s a great tactic as well,” he notes.
When Kraft fishes a minnow pattern, he’ll cast it across the current and let it sweep downstream or he’ll cast it straight downstream and simply let it hang in the current. Often that’s enough to entice a big trout to take a whack at the fly. Again, slower tends to work better on big trout, but you simply don’t know which tactic works best until you try them.
One thing’s for sure: Big, meaty flies that imitate crayfish, minnows and other mouthfuls will catch some of the biggest trout on any water.