Mud Hole Browns

Mud Hole Browns

Don't ignore the dark water for big trout

  • By: Chad Mason
Swift and rocky waters were the reason I took up fly-fishing. I spent my childhood lollygagging in johnboats on deep, silent rivers and when I began fly-fishing I was fully captivated by the shallow tumbling of clear mountain streams, where water breaks its customary silence. For me there is no finer place to fish than a riffle-unless you want to catch a big brown trout, that is.

In my Midwestern home waters, we find big browns not in a picturesque Madison River type of riffle but in dark green pools where the silt from a hundred surrounding farms waits to be purged by the next gully washer. Though the surface of these pools is flat and transparent, like the glass of a new window lying on sawhorses, you cannot see the bottom. To wade anywhere near these depths can feel like a futile trek through quicksand, as the seemingly bottomless goo inhales your wading boots. Great swirls of mud billow behind the wading angler and disperse lazily from one's casting position like a plume of airborne pollution on a stale, quiet day.

This seems so wrong. Have these trout lost their self-respect? What's next? Will they grow whiskers and start eating read more »corn pellets? Why are these beautiful trout skulking in virtually stagnant water void of boulders or gravel or beds of watercress pulsating beneath dappled sunlight?

It's all about food-eating it, and not becoming it. In order to grow large in the first place, a trout must avoid death at the end of a heron's beak and deep water is the place to be.

More important, depth provides a trout with the widest view of its surroundings. Although it may seem that a deep trout wouldn't see us as well as one near the surface, the opposite is actually true. A trout feeding mere inches below the surface probably cannot see you unless you come very close. If it spooks, it probably saw your line or your rod tip, but it almost certainly did not see you. A trout's view of the outside world is related to depth as a cone, with the apex beginning at the trout's eyes: The deeper the trout, the wider the cone where it hits the surface.

Wooly Bugger
HOOK: Daichi 2220, sizes 4 to 8
THREAD: Danville 3/0 monochord, black
CLAWS: Marabou, same length as body (olive or rusty orange).
ANTENNAE: Peacock herl or rubber leg material, over the tail.
BODY: Rayon chenille, color to match tail (medium for size 8; large for sizes 4 and 6).
LEGS: Large, webby saddle hackle over the body.
Tying Tip: Tie in the "leg" hackle by the tip, wind it forward to form even segments, and finish with several turns at the front to form an ample collar.
Besides heading to deep water for safety as they grow larger, big browns must also change their diet from insects to include more meaty organisms. This is not rocket science: NFL linemen do not live on rice cakes. Although a foot-long brownie can maintain its weight with all-day snacking on size 18 caddisflies, larger browns must derive sustenance from baitfish, crayfish, leeches, aquatic worms and other organisms with high caloric value. Insects, if they figure in a big brown's diet at all, will be of a decidedly hefty variety-dragonfly nymphs, Hexagenia mayflies or grasshoppers, for example.

So, how to pry those big safety-conscious browns from the dark muddy depths? Let's examine some tactics, tools and patterns to use when targeting mud holes.

Deep Tactics

Fishing mud holes is more like fishing a pond than fishing a stream. We are not imitating a helpless, drifting insect; we are imitating a capable, animated creature going about its business.

Approach pools from downstream, staying in the shadows as much as possible. Wear drab clothing and move slowly. The largest trout will most likely be near the upper end of the pool, at the prime feeding location where the main current first empties into the languid depths of the pool.

Make long, straight casts. You are not looking for a classic drag-free drift. Cast a little bit above where we want to fish, and simply let the fly sink, and don't worry whether it drags a little bit. If the subtleties of current put a bit of a bow in our line while the fly sinks, that's OK.

Plumbing Tools

Lines: Sinking-tip lines are useful for fishing patterns that demand a brisk retrieve, such as minnow patterns, because strike detection is a tactile matter on fast retrieves. But for patterns that must be retrieved slowly, a floating line with a long monofilament or fluorocarbon leader is better, as it allows the use of an indicator to detect subtle strikes visually.

I probably use the floater-mono setup most of the time, but I do carry a spool with a sink-tip in my vest, if for no other reason than to comfort my own insecurities.

Leaders: I don't recommend anything smaller than 4X. These days, you can buy high-quality 4X tippet material that tests at least 8- or 10-pounds. With floating lines I use a 9- or 10-foot tapered leader (including tippet). With sinking-tip lines I simply use a three-foot section of tippet material.

Rods: I like a 9-foot, 5- or 6-weight rod for fishing mud holes, and I choose a rod with good power in the butt section but a relatively soft, sensitive tip. Favorites include the Temple Fork Professional series, Redington's CPS and St. Croix's Legend Ultra.

Hole Patterns

In the Midwest, where much of the country's mud-hole habitat is found, big browns feed heavily on crayfish during summer. Painstakingly specific crayfish patterns abound, but I've had my best luck with the simple, venerable Woolly Bugger.

Pheasant Leech
HOOK: Daichi 2220, size 6
THREAD: Big-Fly Thread, black
TAIL: Tip of pheasant marabou feather, same length as body.
RIB: Tag end of thread, wrapped over the dubbed body in segments after dubbing.
WEIGHT: Lead wire or substitute, same thickness as hook shank, wound over front two-thirds of shank and secured with several wraps of thread.
BODY: Pheasant marabou fibers, stripped from another feather, spun onto tying thread and dubbed.
Tying Tip: After finishing the fly, rough the body slightly with an old toothbrush or your fingernails.
However, few people tie or fish the Woolly Bugger with crayfish in mind. In order to maximize this pattern's effectiveness for mud-hole browns, don't tie it or fish it like a traditional streamer. That is, don't weight the hook shank with lead wire, and don't fish it with uniform strips of line, as if it were a minnow darting through mid-depths.

Although crayfish are nocturnal creatures of shallow, rocky water, I've found large trout almost always happy to devour crayfish patterns in deep, mud-bottomed pools, even at high noon. Perhaps they become so accustomed to eating crayfish while prowling the shallows at night, they can't pass up the chance to eat one in their daytime lair.

As summer progresses, the size and color of crayfish changes. I may use a light-olive or pale-green pattern in size 8 during May and June, but I'll use olive or rust-colored patterns in sizes 6 or 4 during July and August. (Come September and October, I leave the big browns alone to spawn.)

The posture of a crayfish is tail-down, claws-up. By leaving your Woolly Bugger unweighted, you allow the pattern's marabou tail to float off the bottom (claws up). Pinch a size 4 split-shot on the tippet right against the hook eye to achieve the tail-down position.

Crayfish walk along the bottom with their legs while searching for food, and then dart quickly with powerful contractions of their tail muscles when frightened. Mix these movements together when retrieving your Woolly Bugger. Allow it to sink all the way to the bottom, carried by the split-shot, and let it rest for a few seconds. Then pull on the line almost painfully slowly for a few seconds, to crawl the fly along the bottom like a walking crayfish. Rest again. Then make two quick strips of about 12 to 15 inches. Then let the fly sink back to the bottom. Repeat this alternating sequence of rests, crawls and quick bursts of motion. The quick strips get a trout's attention, and the strike is most likely to occur while the pattern is resting or crawling.

Tie the Woolly Bugger in dark brown with a short tail, and you have a passable suggestion of a dragonfly nymph. This pattern should be fished with quick, inch-long jerks on the fly line near weeds, logs, floating debris or other places where dragonfly nymphs may prowl for mosquito larvae.

Another deadly pattern in the mud holes is a leech imitation. My favorite is constructed entirely from the soft marabou on the belly of a cock pheasant. As a hunter, I have this material available at all times. If you don't, and cannot find pheasant skins commercially, turkey or chicken marabou will suffice. Black works well, but the best color is grayish-brown.

Two retrieves are effective with leech patterns. One is a very slow swing. Cast the fly across-stream, and allow the very slight current to slowly swing the fly downstream as it sinks. A second method is to cast up-and-across, allow the fly to sink all the way to the bottom and crawl it very slowly across the floor of the pool.

Minnow patterns can also attract fish in mud holes, but are not as effective as they would be in shallow water at night. In daytime, browns lie in the mud holes primarily for safety, and usually need the coaxing that a slow-moving fly provides. If using a minnow imitation, fish it slower and closer to the bottom than usual. The best minnow pattern I've found is the standard Clouser Deep Minnow in olive-and-white.

Finally, don't overlook grasshopper patterns, particularly as evening approaches. The largest mud-hole brown I've ever seen-with a verified length of 27 inches-was caught on a big grasshopper pattern at dusk, near a steep bank.

Chad Mason lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with his wife, three lovely daughters and two recalcitrant bird dogs.