The White River in Arkansas is big water, and as far as I’m concerned, there are only two ways to fish it. Either you go for numbers, or you swing big in hopes of pulling out one of the massive browns that make the White famous. Veteran guide Pete Cobb agrees, and the last time we fished the White together, he couldn’t have been happier to have an angler willing to rip 41⁄2-inch Rattlin’ Rogue stickbaits all day. The other boats in our group bounced small jigs and little hard baits just like Cobb’s usual clients. We got outfished by a long shot, no doubt, but of the eight browns we hooked, the smallest measured 18 inches and the biggest, 23. Still peanuts by White standards, but only one other boat broke the 20-inch mark that day.
When it comes to brown trout, I always want the biggest and baddest in the river, and I’ve carried the same 4- to 6-inch stickbaits that are practically standard issue on the White everywhere since my first visit years ago. What I’ve learned is that you don’t need big water to throw big baits successfully. If you can condition yourself to forgo small fish and rethink your strategy, beefy stickbaits can produce fat browns on streams and rivers of any size, especially in fall, when these fish go on a feeding binge.
That 5-foot ultralight rod and reel spooled with 4-pound-test you use to toss Rooster Tails needs to stay in the garage if you want to play the stickbait game. When a brown plows a 4-plus-inch lure, nothing about the hit is subtle, which is why I use a 7-foot, fast-action spinning rod and spool my reel with 8-pound fluorocarbon. That first blow—combined with your set—is the most likely cause of a break-off, so make sure your outfit can handle it. The added rod length is also essential on smaller streams, as you may have to high-stick over a riffle, boulder, or seam separating you and the target zone.
Knowing your home water intimately makes building a lure arsenal easier, and a great way to acquire that intel is to explore in summer and log the depths of runs and holes where you’d expect to find a big brown later in fall, when (hopefully) the water is running a little higher. A brown is likely to move on a stickbait during retrieve No. 1. It’s critical that you choose a lure you know will dive to middepth within a given hole without digging into the bottom during those first few hard jerks. If a twitch instantly hangs the bait in the rocks or weeds, there’s a good chance you’ll disrupt the spot enough while trying to free it that any trout holding there will spook. This is especially true in pocket water.
I take a mix of stickbaits that dive from 3 to 8 feet with varied pattern and sound features to match different water conditions. For example, in stained or dirty water, I find that a rattling bait is key. In lear water, I like a dull pattern with minimal flash that makes no sound. Fished with the rod tip high and imparting softer twitches, a 3-foot diver will perform in a foot of water or less. I reserve the deep divers for those far-between dark holes below wing dams and in back eddies where I expect a monster of the highest caliber to live.
Just as it does when you’re dunking a 12-inch live sucker for flatheads, or chucking trout-size swimbaits for huge bass, success with heavy browns on big stickbaits largely revolves around location and maneuverability. Trying to cover every piece of a mile-long stretch of river is quite often a waste of time and energy, at least on foot. You want to drop that king-size meal in water that you feel is high-percentage. If nothing happens, boogie to the next spot you feel good about. Sometimes that means taking a long walk, but it can also entail a drive. I’ve hiked to a spot, made 10 casts, then hopped in the truck and driven 2 miles upstream before wetting a line again. And therein lies the beauty of the stickbait approach: You can make a long day out of it, working as many likely spots as you can, or hit one or two spots for 30 minutes. With cloudy skies and good water conditions, I’m all about the full-day hunt, but if I can’t swing it, I’ve caught just as many nice browns hitting some close, easy-access spots for a while at sunup or sundown. Those fish might have seen 10,000 in-line spinners and mealworms, but they don’t see many Rogues.
Having a willingness to fail may be the most important criterion for stickbaiting browns. Not every outing is going to produce, nor is every single fish you catch going to be worthy of the wall. It’s a matter of patience and fortitude, and it’s easy to get excited about trying it once. When that first shot turns up zip, however, many anglers go right back to the spinner box. If the challenge gets you fired up, now is the time to give it a try, and I’d recommend spending the entire fall season throwing nothing but large stickbaits. It will undoubtedly test your mettle, but you can go confident in knowing that a big brown that might have been more interested in stoneflies than chubs in spring is less likely to pass on a swimming strip steak as the nights get cooler and cooler. And all it takes is that one mega hit to ruin you— in a good way— for life.
GEAR TIP: The Dark Side
Black plugs create better silhouettes in low light, and there is no shortage of them made for night ops in salty settings. Such is not the case in freshwater, so I go D.I.Y. to make my favorite stickbaits ready to battle brown trout after dark. I remove the rear belly treble and replace the tail treble with a single Siwash hook to reduce snags. I also add a bit of dark bucktail to the Siwash for extra wiggle. For body coloring, a Sharpie or black spray paint does the trick. Hard jerks can be effective, but I tend to reel slowly, allowing the bait to kick gently just sub-surface as the tail dances away.—J.C.