Despite their dainty reputation and habit of sipping tiny insects off the water’s surface, trout, big trout in particular, are opportunistic killers that readily eat meat. A close inspection of their mouths show rows of sharp teeth that hook inward, clearly designed for taking large, live prey.
In fact, Chuck Kraft, who guided for both smallmouth bass and trout on waters throughout western Virginia for 22 years, realized the two fish had a lot more in common after he found crawfish in the bellies of some huge brown trout he caught. Instead of sticking with tiny flies that mimicked the insect life in the trout streams he frequented, Kraft instead 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—they worked in spring creeks, tailrace waters, freestone streams and everywhere else he targeted big brown and rainbow trout. 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. Crawfish, minnows, sculpins, madtoms, salamanders, frogs, you name it, it’s there for the taking,” said Kraft. “Every trout stream has various types of baitfish and nearly all of them have crawfish, so I focused on those two when I started working on flies.”
Crawfish and minnow patterns back in the 1980’s and earlier were little more than rudimentary concoctions of hair and feathers that vaguely resembled the things they were supposed to imitate. Mostly, they were designed and used exclusively for bass. Of course, hardcore smallmouth anglers who favor spinning tackle know that many of their favorite baits don’t resemble the very things they are supposed to imitate. Does a tube look like a crawfish? But in the hands of a skilled angler, something so unrealistic as a tube can be brought to life through technique. That life-like motion is what Kraft found to be most important in the flies he used for big brown trout.
“Those older crawfish patterns just kind rolled as they drifted with the current. They didn’t move anything like a real crawfish, so I added some weight to the lure to keep it upright and I used materials that moved like legs and claws,” he said. “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 crawfish pattern much like a jig-and-pig he calls a Claw-Dad, and a CK Baitfish, a three-inch minnow that has taken a variety of fish in both fresh and salt water. Both are deadly trout flies, even though most trout anglers might shun these flies for their size. The Claw-Dad comes in sizes from 1 ½ inches up to nearly three inches.
When he fishes a big, meaty pattern, he’ll either cast it across the current and allow it to sweep downstream or cast it straight downstream and simply allow it to hang in the current. He works his crawfish flies through deeper, slower holes, much like he would fish a jig-n-pig on spinning tackle. That’s often 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 it. But one thing’s for sure, big, meaty flies that imitate crawfish, minnows and other mouthfuls will catch some of the biggest trout in any water.