Stalking the Wild Brown Trout

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

The rod was nearly yanked from my hands as a dark shadow tore out of the shallows and attached itself to my lure. When you’re 11 years old, this can be a life-changing experience. I fought the big brown into the shallows, where dad scooped the fish from the water and flipped it onto the bank. I remember grabbing and lifting it, feeling the solid muscle that was a fish nearly as long as my forearm. It was my first trophy brown trout and my introduction to a fish that has long been a legend in angling culture.

Whereas brook trout are known for requiring the cleanest, coldest water, and rainbows are known as the kid-friendly choice of many fish and wildlife stocking programs, brown trout are considered by many fisherman to be the most challenging fish to catch in our Northeastern rivers. A native of Europe, browns were imported to Vermont and New Hampshire in the nineteenth century. Fisherman writers from Izaak Walton to Norman Maclean have extolled their virtues.

For one thing, they can reach tremendous size; browns living in lakes can tip the scales at over 30 pounds and be 40 inches long. In streams and rivers, they don’t reach that size, but they generally dwarf our native brook trout. They are beautiful fish that come in a variety of colors. The back and sides have a brownish hue that contains shades of white, black, red, and green. The underbelly can vary from a bright yellow, to white, to a pale, almost mottled red. Their sides are covered in large black and red spots – some approximately the size of the pupil of an eye.

In their juvenile stage, brown trout can sometimes be confused with landlocked salmon; one way to tell them apart is that the long upper jaw bone of the brown trout extends at least to the posterior edge of the eye. In salmon, the upper jaw bone only reaches to the rear edge of the pupil. The tail is tell-tale: salmon tails are forked as opposed to the brown’s squarish tail.

Brown trout share a characteristic with the brook trout by spawning in the autumn when the waters begin to cool. (Rainbow trout spawn in spring.) This usually occurs in late October and November but can happen as late as early December in warmer waters. Lake-dwelling trout migrate to tributary streams to spawn. On a hard gravel bottom, in clear running water, female brown trout build a saucer-shaped redd, or nest, and deposit between 200 and 2,000 eggs. The eggs are fertilized and then covered with gravel; they’ll hatch the following spring.

A brown trout’s diet is highly varied and changes as the fish ages and grows in size. Mayflies, caddis, and other smaller waterborne insects all are on the menu for young browns. As they grow, the trout still feed on insects, but they add small minnows and dace. When they grow to their maximum size of around 20 inches or so, browns have almost anything on the menu, from insects to small fish to frogs to crayfish. They prey on smaller trout, bullheads, sculpins, and darters. They have even been known to eat terrestrial prey, including mice that fall in the water.

Brown trout are hardy fish. They can tolerate water that is too warm or slow for other species of trout, which is why they are stocked in larger, slower stretches of rivers. They can live to at least 9 years, and the spend most of their lives in a very small home range, often not much larger than a football field. Observations of stream-dwelling brown trout in one University of Pennsylvania study revealed that many trout spend their entire summers feeding in an area the size of a living room rug.

While brown trout are stocked regularly all over New England, there are naturalized populations in many local lakes and rivers. This presents a dilemma to fisheries managers, as stocked trout can cause trouble for native fish. There are also local watersheds where browns out-compete native brook trout, a concern for wildlife purists. Still, to many anglers, this beautiful, cunning fish is as good as it gets.

It’s been more than a decade since I caught that first big brown, yet I can remember that moment as clearly as if it were yesterday. The way he thrashed in the net, the wide yellow belly and thick black spots, his hooked jaws glinting in the afternoon sun. I have caught many large brown trout since that day, yet that fish was the spark that set my angling desire aflame – a flame that causes me to return to the rivers and streams every spring and fall, hoping to land another wild brown trout.

Willis “Kubie” Brown is an avid fisherman, hunter, and writer who lives in Central Vermont.

 
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