You've heard of the man, and you've heard of his mutual fund. From 1977 to 1990, Peter Lynch guided Fidelity Magellan to legendary status. He smashed the market averages, generating nearly 30% annual returns for his shareholders. Anyone dropping $10,000 into Magellan back then would have seen it grow into some $300,000 in 13 short years.

We're all looking for the next Magellan. But with a dizzying array of mutual funds out there, it's impossible to know where to look. Or is it?

Great funds in the making
If we wanted to identify an up-and-coming fund, what would we look for?

Let's start at the top, where we'll want to see a confident manager who has a track record of success, assembles the portfolio using a sound and time-tested strategy, and has plenty of his or her own money in the fund.

We also fervently favor funds with reasonable expense ratios. Shannon Zimmerman, analyst of Motley Fool Champion Funds, tells us that few statistics relate more strongly to future performance than this one. Extra costs simply represent extra ground that the fund manager has to make up each year just to stay even with his benchmark and rivals.

Finally, the fund will need a reasonable-sized asset base, one that gives the manager enough flexibility to build meaningful positions (and exit them) without fear of moving stock prices in the wrong direction -- that is, up when buying and down when selling.

One thing's for sure: Magellan itself can't be the next Magellan. It has morphed into a giant that counts Nokia and Johnson & Johnson among its top holdings.

Fidelity Magellan Major Holdings

Stock

Market Cap

Corning

$32 billion

Nokia

$82 billion

Schlumberger

$78 billion

Johnson & Johnson

$190 billion

AIG (NYSE:AIG)

$185 billion

Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC)

$119 billion

Peabody Energy (NYSE:BTU)

$12 billion



These are solid companies, without a doubt, but these large caps don't have the same chance at outsized gains as their smaller brethren do. Below are just three of the market's 10 best stocks over the past 10 years. The important point is they all started the decade with market caps considerably less than $1 billion.

Company

Recent
Market Cap

Return, Dec. 1996
to Dec. 2006

Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD)

$30.2 billion

1,982%

Network Appliances (NASDAQ:NTAP)

$14.7 billion

1,511%

SanDisk (NASDAQ:SNDK)

$8.5 billion

1,286%

Biogen Idec (NASDAQ:BIIB)

$17.3 billion

1,266%

Historical price data provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Up and coming
There's a lot more to finding the next Magellan than all that, of course. We admit that Lynch combined intelligence, common sense, and even a knack for playing hunches in a way that's hard to match.

Shannon has shown a knack of his own for identifying potential fund winners. His official recommendations are beating the market and relevant benchmarks 28% to 18% since the service began. He also highlights potential champions in his "Up & Coming" feature. Some of these may turn into official recommendations in the future, but bear watching for the time being.

The January issue, for example, highlighted a new fund with a manager who helped his previous fund put up some terrific performance numbers -- a 450% total return over an eight-year period.

And the winner is ...
The next Magellan is out there, right now, with huge gains ahead of it. But it's not an index fund, and it's not even Magellan itself (which has turned into a bloated giant that resembles an index tracker). Not for nothing did Fidelity recently shuffle the management deck at Magellan, which -- in an effort to staunch the inflow tide -- is currently closed to new money.

Instead, the next great mutual fund is being led by a smart manager who doesn't have to overcome outrageous fees or contend with an outsized asset base that undermines his stock-picking strategy.

You can read more of Shannon's thoughts on great mutual funds and see all of his recommendations (smaller, nimbler funds among them) right now by signing up for a 30-day free trial. There's no obligation to subscribe.

This article was originally published on Jan. 20, 2006. It has been updated.

Rex Moore will write for food ... preferably doughnuts. Of the companies mentioned in this article, he owns shares of Johnson & Johnson, an Income Investor choice. Biogen is a Stock Advisor pick. Here's the Fool'sdisclosure policy.