Make this the year to catch a fish so huge you’ll want to admire it for the rest of your life. We found the best lures and baits, the hot lakes and rivers, and the trophy hunter’s top strategies. After this, all you’ll need is a hammer and nail
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a mount of a memorable fish says a lot more. A mount will never look dull because the light was bad or be ruined by your buddy who cropped off the tail when he took the photo.
But if you’re willing to spend the money on a mount, you’d better make sure you caught a fish worth the price. For every gamefish there is a benchmark length or weight recognized by the angling community that designates a trophy deserving of the wall. In some cases, fish caught by certain methods or under certain conditions may also earn mount status.
Whether you’re willing to go on a quest for your trophy or want to catch it close to home, we’ve pinpointed the best locations for giant largemouths, smallmouths, stripers, walleyes, steelhead, and muskies, and learned the top tactics from six monster-hunting guides that will help you earn your wall-hanger.
Wall Size: Guides and bass pros agree that 5- and 6-pound smallmouths are respectable fish, and there are thousands of waters in North America that hold fish this size. But it takes the right mix of habitat, conditions, forage, and bass genetics to produce a jaw-dropping and mount-worthy 7-pounder. Don’t expect to bump into a fish that big in the local creek where you rail on 12-inch bass. Catching a 7-pounder requires dedication and often the willingness to trek to the right body of water.
Special Case: Seven pounds might be the goal of a conventional angler, but if you get the right conditions with the right feeding scenario and stick a 5-pounder on the fly, pat yourself on the back and get a replica made. It doesn’t happen often.
✖ Barrie, Ontario This city sits on the shore of Lake Simcoe, which is world-renowned for growing bass to the 8-pound mark, thanks to a wide variety of structure big fish crave and a healthy forage base.
✖ Celina, Tenn. Dale Hollow Reservoir gave up the 11-pound world-record smallmouth back in 1955. It was no fluke. Today, the 28,000-acre reservoir (which also stretches into Kentucky) remains famous for trophy bass.
✖ St. Clair Shores, Mich. Lake St. Clair has the perfect mix of prime spawning habitat and cool summer water temperatures that sustains a good number of 7-pounders.
The Guide: Frank Campbell
Home Waters: Operating on the eastern end of Lake Erie out of New York’s Buffalo Harbor, Campbell has been guiding clients to trophy smallmouths for 20 years. He also fishes in local and national tournaments. Though there always has been a good smallmouth fishery in Erie, in the last decade the number of true giants has been on the uptick, thanks largely to a reduction of pollution. Erie now ranks high among the best smallmouth waters in North America and even has an early trophy smallmouth season, with a bag limit of one fish measuring 20 inches or better.
Trophy Hunting: “If you want a 7-pound smallmouth, late April into early May is the time to catch it,” says Campbell. “The magic water temperature is 40 degrees.” That’s when he focuses on areas 30 to 50 feet deep with a soft bottom where there is slow current or none at all. Such places are classic smallmouth wintering haunts; while smaller bass begin to move shallow, the big fish stay hunkered in the depths longer. The trick is making the right presentation at the right speed.
Top Lure: “When the fish are still fairly lethargic in early spring, I have the best success dragging a tube,” Campbell says. “I’ll let out extra line and slowly drift or power over the areas where I know fish are holding.” His go-to plastic is Yum’s 4-inch F2 2ube in a dark green or brown tone.
Top Bait: If the fat females aren’t responding to a tube, Campbell will switch to an emerald shiner dip-netted on the morning of a trip. “I’ll run a 5- or 6-foot length of 6- or 8-pound mono to an Octopus hook and connect that to a three-way swivel. Then I’ll use a short length of 6-pound mono to connect the weight to the three-way.” Campbell drifts slowly along, letting the shiner rig tap the bottom.
Wall Size: The walleye hunter who’s more interested in filling wall space than stomachs wants that tail to stretch past 30 inches. Such a fish is going to weigh between 9 and 15 pounds, and it takes a specific habitat to rear one. You’re not likely to stumble across a big walleye in small water. Find a large, deep lake with a serious supply of hefty forage like trout and perch.
Special Case: A cult of flyfishermen chase walleyes in spring, when they come shallow to spawn. If you have the opportunity to put a 5-plus-pounder on your wall with a Woolly Bugger in its mouth, do so–you may not get another chance.
✖ Victoria Beach, Manitoba Huge Lake Winnipeg boasts a strong number of trophy “greenbacks” that feast on plentiful baitfish.
✖ Green Bay, Wis. The 7 miles of Fox River running from De Pere Dam to Green Bay are a haven for big walleyes during the spring spawn. Once they leave the river, fish for them over the vast Green Bay reefs.
✖ Port Clinton, Ohio With large populations of perch, gobies, and shiners, Lake Erie’s west end has long been a top trophy destination.
The Guide: Brian Brosdahl
Home Waters: You might have seen Brian “Bro” Brosdahl fishing on several TV shows. Or you might just know him by his reputation for guiding clients to 30-plus-inch walleyes on Leech Lake. Leech reaches depths of 150 feet, giving big walleyes a cold place to ride out hot summers. Vast weedbeds also offer tremendous cover and feeding areas, and an abundance of tullibees keeps Leech ‘eyes well fed.
Trophy Hunting: “Big walleyes really put the feed bag on in fall, especially at night,” says Brosdahl. “Full-moon periods always seem to produce the heaviest fish.” Early in the night, Brosdahl targets breaks and shelves in the 14- to 20-foot range. As the night wears on, he’ll work shallower, as the walleyes tend to creep up the edges of weedy flats when the moon gets higher in the sky.
Top Lure: Brosdahl puts the most stock in trolling, and the first lure he’ll send out is a 61⁄4-inch Rapala Flat Rap in Purpledescent, which he runs 4 to 6 feet deep. The lure’s metallic back, and the contrast it creates with the white belly, really “calls in the big fish,” he says. Brosdahl keeps one running in deep water and the other right over the edge of the flat.
Top Bait: Brosdahl often slow-trolls 5- to 8-inch golden shiners, which appeal to big walleyes and are active on the hook. Brosdahl starts in the 20-foot-depth range and trolls toward the edge of the flat, working an S pattern up and back down the slope.
Wall Size: In the world of muskie fishing, 50 inches has long been the length that qualifies a fish as a true trophy. Even some of the most dedicated muskie anglers spend years on the water before landing a 50, if they ever land one at all. Whereas small muskies can be less finicky and more predictable, a 50-incher–which can be 12 to 20 years old–may eat once every other day during a 10-minute feeding window. Be there at the right time with the right lure or strike out.
Special Case: Some anglers opt to have a replica of their first fish made, regardless of size, because muskies are so difficult to catch. With this species, it’s as good a reason as any to make room over the fireplace (or wherever you think is appropriate). If you happen to catch a hybrid tiger muskie, any fish weighing 20 pounds or better will turn some heads.
✖ Montreal, Quebec The section of the St. Lawrence River that cuts through this Canadian metropolis is notorious for huge muskies that can top 60 inches. A variety of structure creates the perfect habitat.
✖ Tower, Minn. Muskie stockings in Lake Vermilion began in 1984. In the years since, the large amount of baitfish in this lake has allowed the beasts to thrive.
✖ Warren, Pa. The upper Allegheny River may not have the same rep for big muskies as other waters, but it quietly gives up its share of trophies every year. A good population of trout fattens them up.
The Guide: Bruce Shumway
Home Waters: Bruce Shumway has been a guide in Hayward, Wis., since 1978, and has led clients to more than 50 fish taping 50 inches and up. Shumway fishes all the lakes around Hayward, but if he has to peg a favorite, it’s the Chippewa Flowage, known locally as the “Big Chip.” This massive impoundment features a vast network of lakes, bays, islands, and creeks. According to Shumway, the larger the body of water, the bigger the muskies it produces.
Trophy Hunting: “You’re going to catch the largest fish late in the year,” Shumway says. “From about Halloween to the middle of November, they’re going to be eating a lot before winter sets in.” Shumway likes water temperatures in the high 30s to low 40s, and notes that earlier in fall the fish will hold closer to shore in shallow water, then gradually drop deeper as the water cools. “Once the fish drop off to water 18 to 30 feet deep, I hit areas where hard bottom meets soft.”
Top Lure: Shumway’s first artificial choice for enticing a bite from a giant muskie is a 12-inch Bull Dawg soft plastic. These heavy curly-tailed baits will mimic a variety of forage, though Shumway starts with blue and silver to match the ciscoes that spawn in fall. “Let the bait sink a little, then slowly work it back with twitches and pauses,” he says. “The trick is watching your line for subtle movements. Hits don’t feel like much. But because of the thick plastic on those lures, a good hookset is important.”
Top Bait: Once the water dips below 55 degrees, your shot at a 50-plus-incher increases significantly with live bait, Shumway says. That’s why he keeps a 15- to 24-inch live sucker on his Fuzzy’s E-Z Duzzit Clip-N-Go rig behind the boat while he’s working lures. The hooks pull free of the bait when you strike and embed in the muskie’s mouth, reducing the chance of gut-hooking the fish.
Wall Size: A 20-pound steelie earns bragging rights, but finding and hooking a fish this size isn’t the biggest challenge. The difficult part is landing a ticked-off 20-pound steelie in a shallow river. If you can avoid getting spooled by literally running after the fish, and keep the brute clear of snags, and maintain pressure when it turns on a dime and runs the other way, and actually put that hunk of chrome in the net, then you have positively earned the right to splurge on a mount.
Special Case: If you hit the river on a nasty, frigid February day instead of a pleasant fall afternoon, any steelie you fight with numb hands, play around ice floes, and land in water that would cause instant hypothermia is replica-worthy.
✖ Baldwin, Mich. A stay in this town puts you close to the Pere Marquette and Manistee Rivers. Michigan’s Manistee-strain fish are revered for their brutal fights.
✖ Pulaski, N.Y. Tons of trophy steelhead push up the Salmon River from Lake Ontario in fall along with runs of spawning salmon. The fish fatten up on salmon roe, then winter over in the stretch of river below the dam.
✖ Painesville, Ohio Ohio gets its steel from Michigan, so the Buckeye State also has aggressive Manistee-strain fish. They’ll stack up in the Grand River, which is large compared with most Ohio streams and can be floated or waded.
The Guide: Rick Sabol
Home Waters: Sabol has been fishing the famed Deschutes River in Oregon his entire life, and in 2004 he opened his own outfitter business, Deschutes Steelheader Co. Throughout his guiding career, he has netted many 20-plus-pound Deschutes chromers for clients, and watched even more hook fish the same size that, as he puts it, “we never got to see.” Most Deschutes steelhead that break the 20-pound barrier are known as B-run fish–those that stay in the ocean longer, grow bigger, and migrate upriver later than A-run fish. While salmon and trout roe are popular steelhead baits throughout the country, natural bait cannot be used on the lower Deschutes, so Sabol has had to hone his skills with flies and artificial lures.
Trophy Hunting: “B-run steelhead start showing up in September and keep coming in through mid November,” Sabol says. “They’re just taking a breather in the Deschutes before moving back into the Columbia River and on to Idaho.” Large steelhead don’t behave any differently than smaller fish in terms of feeding habits or preferred holding water, so catching a 20-pounder is a game of persistence and quick thinking. “Steelhead of all sizes are going to hold in areas of moderate current between fast runs,” he says. “Hooking one means picking through smaller fish and being consistent with your presentation. Once you connect, you’ve got to do your best to stay parallel with the fish and run down the bank. Then you just hope the fish doesn’t take you somewhere it’s impossible to follow.”
Top Fly: According to Sabol, it’s hard to go wrong on the Deschutes with a size 4 Muddler Minnow. And make it purple. “Our steelhead respond very well to purple,” he says. “Plus, I can present a Muddler several different ways.” Steelhead are very light sensitive and are most apt to feed on the surface early or late in the day. At these times, Sabol uses a 14-foot leader and floating line to skate a Muddler across the surface or just below the film. When the sun is high and the river is lit up, he’ll switch to a sink-tip and 3-foot leader, and swing the Muddler deep. In both presentations, simply cast downstream at a 45-degree angle, keep your line tight, and let the fly ride with the current. To handle those B-run giants, Sabol recommends a 7- or 8-weight outfit.
Top Lure: On superbright days when steelhead are tough to get on flies, Sabol ties on a 3⁄8-ounce Vibrax spinner in blue and chrome. Similar to his fly technique, Sabol casts downstream at a 45-degree angle and lets the lure whip around in the current. “If you can present a spinner just deep enough that the fish don’t need to look directly toward the surface, they’ll hit on the sunniest days.”
Wall Size: Most anglers stricken with bass fever agree they can die happy having caught at least one fish weighing 10 pounds or more. For the most part, genetics and a good forage base play the most vital roles in growing bass this size. There are certainly many big lakes in North America that produce 10-plus-pounders frequently. Yet, what also makes this trophy so appealing is that, unlike any other of these six species, there is the possibility your 10-pounder is lurking in a small farm pond right up the street, having spent years outmuscling smaller fish to become top dog.
Special Case: A big late-night largemouth is a memorable trophy. One reliable tactic: Take a buzzbait to the lake in the middle of the night. Cast. Retrieve. Listen for the lure’s gurgle to be interrupted by a bass crushing it on the surface in the pitch dark. If that bass weighs 5 pounds or more, you’ve got one heck of a nighttime catch.
✖ Guntersville, Ala. The largest man-made impoundment in Alabama, Lake Guntersville is rife with aquatic vegetation, shallow flats, and creeks that provide excellent spawning habitat for trophy bucketmouths.
✖ Oak View, Calif. Every year, California stocks Lake Casitas with thousands of pounds of trout. It is this high-protein, high-fat forage that lets Casitas bass reach epic weights.
✖ Mazatlan, Mexico Mazatlan is where you’d land before driving north to El Salto–a lake in the Mexican sierra loaded with double-digit largemouths that dine on jumbo tilapia.
The Guide: James Caldemeyer
Home Waters: When Caldemeyer isn’t on the road fishing the FLW tour, he’s on Lake Fork in Texas. A guide since 2004, Caldemeyer has led clients to more than 50 bass that hit or broke the 10-pound mark. It’s not surprising, considering Lake Fork has been well groomed to produce lunker largemouths. The Florida-strain bass introduced in the 1980s have a genetic makeup that allows them to get beefy, and the strict enforcement of a no-kill rule placed on bass 16 to 24 inches has helped them flourish. Lake Fork also supports multiple shad species and has a wide and expansive array of hawg-hiding hydrilla beds and standing timber.
Trophy Hunting: “I’ve always been a big fan of early spring for really big bass,” says Caldemeyer. “It also helps that the females will be at their peak weight during the prespawn.” In late February and into March, Caldemeyer goes on the hunt when the water temperature reaches the mid 50s. He’ll often find the big girls in water between 2 and 8 feet deep, nestled down in the hydrilla. The grass flats are a prespawn staging area, and a shallow, weedy spot close to a dropoff or deeper channel edge is ideal.
Top Lure: Before bass make beds, Caldemeyer is stuck on one lure color: red. “Females crave crawfish during the prespawn,” he says. “They need the iodine in their diet because it helps with egg development.” Caldemeyer relies on a 3⁄4-ounce red Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap to mimic the mineral-rich crustacean. “I’ll just work this bait over the top of the grass, and the bass will rise up to eat it. Ripping the Trap off the grass works well, too. When it gets hung, jerk hard. The bass will strike as it pulls free.”
Top Bait: Caldemeyer is strictly a user of artificials, but if you want to tempt a Lake Fork trophy on live bait, he says a water dog is the way to go. These 4- to 8-inch salamanders are available in bait shops around Lake Fork and should be hooked through the top jaw and out of one nostril. (Check your local regulations before using water dogs as bait.) Naturally, the bigger the dog, the more enticing it will be to big largemouths. The salamanders are most frequently fished weightless under a float, Caldemeyer notes. Toss one over the hydrilla during the prespawn–big females hate water dogs because they raid beds–and hang on.
Wall Size: Whether you’re after a landlocked freshwater striper or one cruising along a salty shoreline, the fish anglers covet is that first 40-pounder. Stripers are a slow-growing species, so a fish that size can be 20 years old or older. In that time it almost certainly has encountered plenty of hooks. If you fool a 40, you’ve duped one wise fish.
Special Case: You should score a replica if you can score a 25-plus-pounder on the fly in fresh- or saltwater. If you’re into surf casting, your first beach bass weighing 30 pounds or more should also be considered for the wall.
✖ Cumming, Ga. With nearly 40,000 acres of water and ample bait, Lake Lanier is a prime hunting ground for heavy stripers.
✖ Rogers, Ark. In 1999, angler Holt Holyfield stuck a 57-pound state-record striper in Beaver Lake. With a strong shad population and plenty of deep, cool summering spots, Beaver still gives up 40-pounders every season.
✖ Seaside Park, N.J. The Jersey coast has experienced epic spring runs of giant stripers in the past few years, thanks to tighter restrictions on menhaden fishing, which is prime forage for trophies.
The Guide: Lance Sasser
Home Waters: Sasser has been a guide on Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland and Cumberland River for 21 years, and his rods have come to know the strain of many 40-plus-pound stripers. Given Lake Cumberland’s deep, cold water that keeps big bass thriving during the hottest summers, abundant shad and herring, and easy access to the Cumberland River for spawning, this is one of the best inland watersheds for trophy stripers in the U.S.
Trophy Hunting: “You can catch one in Lake Cumberland, but a 40-pound fish will be easier to find from mid May to mid June in the river,” Sasser says. “That time of year, the fish in the lake are moving upstream to spawn.” These egg-laden females seek out shallow areas less than 10 feet deep, and gravitate to the many logs and snarls along the Cumberland’s banks. Find a spot like this at the mouth of a feeder creek and make sure you’re there at first or last light.
Top Bait: “Nothing gets a predator to react like a struggling baitfish. Gizzard shad are docile on a hook. That’s why I prefer 14- to 18-inch skipjack herring. They go crazy.” Sasser uses a sabiki rig to collect bait, then runs a 7/0 Octopus hook through the herring’s top jaw and hangs it 10 feet behind a planer board on a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader with no weight. He’ll slow-troll through the shallows, running the bait close to structure.
Top Lure: “My favorite, bar none, is a 7-inch Cotton Cordell Red Fin,” Sasser says. “That bait mimics a gizzard shad or skipjack better than any others I’ve ever used.” He likes a Red Fin in chrome and black, and will pitch one in the shallows and around current-breaking structure. “When you retrieve slowly, the lure makes a perfect V wake across the surface that big fish seem to like.”