The following article is meant to serve as an introduction to the species, facts, life history, angling resources, and general information about brook trout. The article could be an ebook if compiled into a single document; however, I felt providing it for free as a web article was beneficial. This article is written primarily for those new to brook trout angling, though there is likely some information that may benefit seasoned anglers as well.
The article is separated into several sections or chapters. The links below will jump to each section of the article where you can use the “TOP” links at the end of each section to return to the index.
- Brook Trout Facts and History
- Brook Trout Life History
- Where to find Brook Trout
- Angling for Brook Trout
- Equipment for brook trout fishing
- Considerations when fishing for brook trout
- Conservation Issues
Brook Trout Facts and History
Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is the only native stream-dwelling salmonid (salmon or trout) in much of the Eastern United States and is a charr, not a trout. They are the state fish of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Brook trout are known by many names from Canada to Georgia, including speckled trout (or specks), spruce trout, brookies, hemlock trout, and square tails. Salvelinus fontinalis roughly translates to “little salmon living in springs” where “Salvelinus” is the same root of the German “saibling” meaning “little salmon,” and “fontinalis” meaning “living in springs” (Romero, 2002).
Brook trout are members of an ancient order of ray-finned fishes whose beginnings can be traced back to more than 100 million years ago in the Oligocene Epoch. It is theorized that all trout, salmon, charrs, whitefishes, and ciscos had a common ancestor, and charrs (brook trout, arctic char, dolly varden, lake trout, and bull trout) branched off from this common ancestor prior to Salmo (brown trout and salmon) and Oncorhynchus (rainbow trout and cutthroat trout) (Karas & Babb, 2015, p. 41). While scientists have attempted to classify different subspecies of brook trout, to date, there has been no consensus. Similarly, many believe several “strains” of brook trout exist, though typically scientists only recognize two possible strains, the northern and southern strains.
While in today’s environment, a warming climate threatens to displace brook trout, it was likely a glaciation event that brought the rise of the species. It is theorized that sometime during the Oligocene Epoch some 100 million years ago, early glaciers likely caused the common ancestor of trout and charr to separate. Charr became better suited to cold environments allowing them to occupy new watersheds uncovered by receding glaciers. This evolutionary event likely plays an important role in brook trout’s preference for the coldest waters today.
This ability to adapt to a changing environment and to persist in harsh environments may ultimately help brook trout weather the current climate change challenges. According to Ward (2016), “For example, a few populations have thus far been able to tolerate warmer temperatures, while others have gone extinct due to warming waters.” Current work in genetics may help identify the genes responsible for the species’ response to increased temperatures.
Regardless of the species’ ability to adapt to warming temperatures, as a whole, brook trout prefer cold, clean water. This preference, along with several external pressures such as human development, competition from introduced nonnative trout species, and changing temperatures, means that today, brook trout are mostly found in small headwater streams with significant forest cover. However, there are many places across the northeast where groundwater upwellings create Coldwater environments at lower elevations and where tree canopy cover is less important. Streams with natural springs like Big Spring in Newville, Pennsylvania, and tailwater environments like the Swift river in Massachusetts are examples of larger, Coldwater streams that support brook trout in lower elevations.
Brook Trout Life History
Brook trout have several unique life histories, including anadromous (migrating between freshwater and saltwater) called “Salters,” potamodromous (migrating within freshwater) called “Coasters,” and fluvial (found in rivers). Salters spawn in freshwater tributaries and then migrate to the ocean, where they grow into adults before returning to freshwater tributaries to spawn. The original world record brook trout was a salter caught in Carman’s river on Long Island by Daniel Webster in 1827. Coasters are primarily found in the great lakes, specifically Lake Superior. According to the National Park Service (2022),
“Historically, Lake Superior supported fishable coaster populations. However, unregulated fishing decimated coaster stock. Wide-scale logging and the construction of hydro-electric dams have also contributed to reduced coaster populations. By the mid-1990s, Isle Royale was one of only a handful of tiny pocket coaster populations that still existed. Today, coasters are still a rare sight, but can be seen at the island – the protection provided by the intact habitat, remote location, and park conservation regulations create a sanctuary for the elusive fish.”(National Park Service, 2022)
Stream-dwelling brook trout and pond-dwelling brook trout are the most common form of brook trout found throughout most of the Eastern United States. In pond environments, brook trout typically spawn in spring upwellings and inlets. In stream environments, brook trout spawn in gravely riffles with moderate flow. Spawning (regardless of life history) occurs in the fall between early October and mid-November.
Brook trout reach sexual maturity at an early age. Most scientific literature states that brook trout are capable of reproduction by the second year of life. This has led to them being classified as invasive in areas where they have been introduced like in the Western United States. Their ability to reproduce at an early age makes eradication difficult as catching age 0 brook trout through mechanical methods like electrofishing is extremely difficult. This makes the use of piscicides like rotenone as one of the most effective methods of removal.
Recent research has shown the importance of large streams for stream-dwelling brook trout (Mulhollem, 2020). Dr. Shannon White’s research involved tracking brook trout by inserting small passive ID transponders and using receivers to track where the fish moved to and from. The research showed that brook trout traveled from small tributary streams down into larger rivers after spawning, likely to avoid harsh winter conditions and for the more plentiful resources found in the large rivers (White et al., 2020).
While brook trout are one of the most colorful freshwater fish in North America, the fish take on an even more dramatic appearance before spawning in the fall. Even the shape of their heads changes in the fall, with the male’s lower jaw protruding beyond their upper jaw. Their red bellies get even redder, the contrast in their fins gets stronger, and they tend to darken overall.
Brook trout’s appearance can change with the season and their environment. In infertile lakes with sandy bottoms, brook trout can be very dull in appearance.
While in beaver ponds or streams with tannins, brook trout can be very dark in overall color.
Brook trout will consume a wide variety of food and are quite adaptable to the food base in their environment. At young ages, they prey on small aquatic insects and terrestrial insects. In small infertile mountain streams, brook trout are highly opportunistic and will eat almost anything they can fit in their mouths. Results from pumping the stomachs of brook trout in high-gradient streams have shown that they will eat hemlock needles, small twigs, and even rocks. In fertile lakes and groundwater streams with lush aquatic vegetation, brook trout gorge themselves on aquatic crustaceans like scuds and sowbugs.
Brook trout are also piscivorous and often eat smaller fish, even of their own species. Based on years of fishing experience, brook trout tend to chase down sculpins and red belly dace. In lake and pond environments where their diet consists of fish and plentiful midge larvae, brook trout can grow quite large. The current world record brook trout was caught in the Nipigon river in Canada by Dr. Cook in 1915 and reportedly weighed 14lbs 8oz.
Large brook trout are still common in parts of Maine, Ontario, Labrador, and Nova Scotia. Generally, larger brook trout are found in lakes and large rivers in colder climates. The rivers that flow north into the Hudson bay are home to some of the largest brook trout in their native range, and the Nipigon river in Canada still produces some truly large brook trout.
Where to find brook trout
While according to Trout Unlimited (2006), “Intact stream populations of brook trout (where wild brook trout occupy 90-100% of their historical habitat) exist in only 5% of subwatersheds,” brook trout are still widely distributed from the Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, and Labrador, all the way to Georgia in the United States (Figure 1).
In the United States, brook trout have been greatly reduced from their native range. Most intact subwatersheds are found in Maine, the northern tip of New Hampshire, Vermont, and northern New York. Limited intact subwatersheds are found in north-central Pennsylvania and along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and West Virginia. According to Trout Unlimited (2006), “Today, 1% of the state’s historical subwatersheds remain intact, while 9% are reduced.” And “In 39% of subwatersheds, brook trout are greatly reduced and typically occupy only small, headwater streams. Brook trout have vanished from 34% of historical brook trout subwatersheds. A significant portion of the state (17%) lacks any data on the presence of brook trout.”
In Maine, brook trout are found in large rivers like the Rapid River, numerous ponds and lakes, with some of the largest specimens coming from the state’s more than 1,200 lakes and ponds (Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 2019). According to New Hampshire Fish and Game Department (n.d.), “In particular, historic self-sustaining, wild populations that once occupied larger river systems and lakes and ponds have been significantly reduced.” Over 180 lakes and ponds are managed for brook trout in Vermont (Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, 2020). While according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, only 3% of the waters within the Saranac Lakes Wild forest region of Adirondack Park that historically once held brook trout still hold brook trout, the state still boasts almost 300 lakes and ponds (New York Department of Environmental Conservation, n.d.).
Throughout North America, from Maine to Georgia, the most common habitat to find brook trout is small to medium size, heavily forested, high-gradient headwater streams. Most brook trout in these environments average between 4 and 10 inches in size, though fish reaching 12 inches and occasionally as large as 15 to 16 inches in length can be found.
Where brook trout overlap with nonnative brown and rainbow trout, stream gradient plays an important role in maintaining separation between the species. Higher gradient streams tend to deter brown trout from encroaching on brook trout, though this is not always the case, especially in Pennsylvania, where brown trout have been introduced since the late 1800s and are found throughout the Commonwealth. It can be extremely challenging to find allopatric (a single species of trout without other trout species present) brook trout populations in Pennsylvania. One of the best places to focus when searching for allopatric brook trout is above large impoundments like water supply reservoirs, though even in these locations, you may still find wild brown trout.
Within the United States, each state has some general areas which are the best to focus on brook trout angling. The following list isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of where to find brook trout in each state. Many states have resources linked below that will help you find more specific information, and as mentioned above, finding your own brook trout stream is part of the allure of brook trout fishing.
In Maine, the most popular areas are northern Maine north of Interstate 95 like the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, in southeast Maine around Rangeley Lake and the Rapid River, Moosehead Lake, and the Kennebec Valley as well as numerous smaller ponds throughout the state. Visit Maine IFW’s brook trout site to find a list of Heritage Brook trout ponds. https://www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/fisheries/wild-brook-trout.html
New Hampshire has incredible brook trout angling in the White Mountain National Forest, the Androscoggin and its tributaries, and the upper Connecticut River. See New Hampshire Fish and Game’s website for more information: https://www.wildlife.state.nh.us/fishing/profiles/brook-trout.html.
In Vermont, according to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, “the White, Cold, Mill, Mettawee, Deerfield and Ottauquechee rivers, though nearly every small, cold stream throughout the state supports a healthy population.” https://vtfishandwildlife.com/fish/fishing-opportunities/sportfish-of-vermont/brook-trout Like many states in the east, nonnative trout like brown and rainbow trout are often found with brook trout, or sometimes in place of brook trout. One of Vermont’s most famous rivers, the Battenkill, is no exception. Similarly, the White River is known for hosting multiple species of trout in addition to brook trout. Most other streams within Vermont are similar to many other places in the east in that the upper headwater sections are dominated by brook trout, with the lower reaches containing a mixture of species.
Massachusetts has pond and stream fishing for brook trout with a mixture of wild and stocked fish. The Swift River is one of the most notable brook trout streams in Massachusetts, however, they’re not the only species present in the river. See the Mass wildlife website for a list of brook trout waters: https://www.mass.gov/service-details/best-bets-for-trophy-trout
Connecticut also has numerous wild trout streams that host a mixture of trout species with the Farmington River being the most notable. Brook trout can be found in tributaries to the Salmon River along with brown trout. Generally, brook trout can be found throughout numerous smaller creeks (brooks) throughout Connecticut. See Connecticut’s department of energy and environmental protection’s brook trout site: https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Fishing/Freshwater/Freshwater-Fishes-of-Connecticut/Brook-Trout
Rhode Island does have wild native brook trout. There was (is?) an organization called Protect Rhode Island Brook Trout, which is active on Facebook that has advocated for more protections for the state’s wild brook trout. The Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture lists numerous watersheds throughout the state as supporting brook trout. Little information is available on the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management website about brook trout.
New York hosts close to 300 ponds that support brook trout and numerous other smaller streams across the state as well. The Adirondacks is one of the most popular and well known areas of New York for brook trout angling with some large (by today’s standards) brook trout found deep within the park. The Catskills region is another popular area for brook trout fishing in New York. Brook trout are also found throughout numerous smaller streams all the way to Western New York. See the NY DEC brook trout pages for more information: https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/101371.html
Pennsylvania still maintains brook trout throughout the northern tier of the state and down along the Appalachian ridgelines. Many of Pennsylvania’s streams also contain other species of trout, primarily wild brown trout. Smaller, high-gradient streams may contain allopatric populations of brook trout. While there are no notable brook trout streams remaining in Pennsylvania, the Allegheny National Forest, Potter County, and Tioga counties host numerous high quality wild brook trout streams. See the PFBC mapping tool for brook trout locations: https://pfbc.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=65a89f6592234019bdc5f095eaf5c6ac
Maryland is home to one of the most significant brook trout refuges south of the Adirondacks. The Upper Savage River boasts over 100 miles of connected streams that flow into the Savage River Reservoir in the western part of the state. Above the reservoir, brook trout are the only species you’ll encounter, except for some stocked rainbow trout in a confined section of the main river before the lake. Maryland also has a small population of brook trout in the headwaters of the Gunpowder river, and in the Catoctin Mountains in eastern Maryland. See the Maryland DNR Brook Trout fishing page for some good information: https://dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/pages/brook-trout/maryland.aspx
West Virginia recently created five brook trout preserves along the eastern edge of the state containing some 130 miles of native brook trout preserves. Red Creek, Otter Creek, Tea Creek, and the Middle Fork of the Williams River are all unstocked, brook trout catch-and-release waters created to protect wild native brook trout. Outside of these special management areas, West Virginia hosts multiple smaller, lesser-known brook trout streams. These are often in the headwaters of larger trout streams. https://wvdnr.gov/brook-trout/
One of the most famous regions in the east is the Shenandoah mountains in Virginia. Additionally, the Blue Ridge mountains on the western edge of the state are home to numerous brook trout streams. Virginia has several notable brook trout streams. The Virginia DWR lists several streams on its website: Crooked Creek, Little Stoney Creek, Rapidan River, Rose River, Hughes River, Jeremy’s Run, Laurel Fork, and Dry River. https://dwr.virginia.gov/wildlife/fish/brook-trout/
North Carolina’s brook trout populations are concentrated in the extreme western edge of the state. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is on the western border with Tennessee and contains numerous wild native brook trout streams. See the National Park Service website for more information on GSMNP: https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/nature/fish.htm. See the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission website for tips and places to fish including an interactive map: https://www.ncwildlife.org/Learning/Species/Fish/Brook-Trout#5210575-overview
Tennessee is the mirror image of North Carolina in terms of brook trout presence. Tennessee’s brook trout are mainly found in eastern Tennessee and in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Brook trout are primarily found at elevations greater than 3,000 feet due to the southern location and average temperatures at lower elevations. See the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency website for more information (scroll down about halfway on the page): https://www.tn.gov/twra/fishing/trout-information-stockings.html
South Carolina is similar to North Carolina in that brook trout are only found at the extreme western edge of the state on its border with Georgia. South Carolina’s brook trout are only found in a small area and at high elevations. Little is publicized about South Carolina’s brook trout, and for a good reason. With so few populations, they likely can’t handle significant angling pressure. See the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources website: https://www.dnr.sc.gov/fish/species/brooktrout.html. Also see the EBTJV range map above to understand the general area of brook trout in South Carolina.
Georgia is the southernmost state in the eastern brook trout’s native range. Brook trout only exist in the very northern extremes of Georgia and are very limited in distribution. As with South Carolina, very little is publicized about the state’s wild native brook trout populations. In fact, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources website barely mentions brook trout. The state does manage brook trout by way of length restrictions which favor brook trout; however, similar to Pennsylvania, the state doesn’t apply any angling regulation to brook trout specifically. This is likely because the state stocks brook trout, and it would be impossible to implement catch & release regulations on the species as they would apply to stocked trout as well.
Numerous resources exist today to help you find brook trout. Most state fisheries management agencies have online mapping resources (linked above), biological reports, and angler surveys to help you find the best streams to fish to target brook trout. Even where specific stream names aren’t provided, the use of topographic maps and some basic knowledge of the types of environments the fish thrive in can help you find brook trout in your area.
Another great way to find brook trout in your area is to join an online fishing forum or social media group. Many states have forums dedicated to angling and many Facebook groups that focus on angling. Don’t expect people to spoon-feed your information with GPS coordinates and a hand-drawn map. Consider brook trout angling an adventure where you’re making a decision about whether a stream holds brook trout or not, and go out and find out for yourself.
Brook Trout Angling
Fishing for native brook trout in their native range is one of the most enjoyable forms of angling in North America. Since the fish are currently relegated to remote mountain streams, the scenery found when exploring for brook trout can be unparalleled. When searching for brook trout streams, the adventure of getting to the stream can be as much of an experience as actually catching a brook trout.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of brook trout fishing in the East is bluelining. This involves using topographic maps along with as much information as possible about the stream’s health and then bushwhacking into the stream to find out if it has brook trout or not. Bluelining is an adventure in and of itself and is a great excuse to wander deep into the wilderness. Just be sure to use good backcountry common sense, get a physical waterproof map of the area, research for trails and know your plan before embarking into the woods. Be prepared for weather, pack a first-aid kit and learn and know how to administer first-aid to yourself. Finally, consider purchasing a satellite communicator like a Garmin In-Reach or similar device that allows you to send and receive SOS messages from deep within the backcountry.
In addition to setting out to find brook trout on your own, or using the online resources mentioned above, there are also guides and outfitters who specialize in brook trout angling. Unfortunately, most of the commercial angling outfitters who specialize in brook trout are found outside of the United States. Maine still has several outfitters who specialize in brook trout, and throughout the more southern states, a handful of guides specialize in the species. Canada has most of the big outfitters though, and some offer trip-of-a-lifetime style adventures involving trains, float planes, canoes and remote basecamps. A simple web search for brook trout guides will turn up numerous outfitters to choose from.
Pond fishing in Maine and New York is a completely different ballgame. Both ME IFW and NY DEC have resources available on their websites to help you find a pond. Maine’s website: https://www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/fisheries/wild-brook-trout.html and NY DEC’s site: https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/101371.html. NY DEC’s online Adirondack brook trout fishing resources are outstanding. Additionally, physical, waterproof maps of the Adirondacks are available from National Geographic. Many of the ponds in both states will require a long carry with a lightweight pack canoe, though many of these ponds also have boats that have been stashed in the woods. However, never assume that a boat will be there, or if one is, that it’s seaworthy.
Pond fishing for brook trout requires a different approach than stream or river fishing. Some of the techniques are covered in the following sections under equipment. Broadly, angling for brook trout in ponds requires either fly fishing or spin fishing. With fly gear, you will either cast dry flies to rising fish, or use sinking lines and either streamers or midge imitations and slowly retrieve the flies up through the water column. With spin gear, you will be trolling or casting toward shore and then retrieving back to the boat. One of the most popular (and effective) methods of pond fishing for brook trout is trolling using a Lake Clear Wobbler trailed with either a live nightcrawler or a Wooley bugger and then trailed again with a small fly like a hare’s ear or pheasant tail.
Small and medium stream fishing is the most common approach to brook trout angling in much of the northeast. Regardless of equipment type, the approach and techniques should be the same. Wild native brook trout are skittish fish. They’ve had to evolve in harsh conditions and deal with multiple native and introduced predators. While they’re rarely picky about what they eat, they are very cautious about when they eat or if they eat at all. Any disruption to their environment may cause them to dart for cover. Shadows, vibrations, splashes in their pool, or anything else out of the ordinary will put every fish in the pool into a panic. The single most important detail to consider when angling for brook trout is to be as stealthy as possible.
It’s not uncommon for brook trout anglers to crawl on their hands and knees to get into position to make a cast. How you approach the pool may make the difference between catching a brook trout or not. Generally the approach to the pool should be from downstream, or partially downstream. Never approach a pool from the head, and try to avoid approaching from the midpoint of the pool. Even when approaching from downstream you may spook the fish holding in the tailout when you make your first cast.
Pressured brook trout often only allow you one cast per pool, and typically you’ll only land one fish per pool regardless of how many fish are present in the pool. The commotion caused by hooking a fish and the hooked fish’s struggle is usually enough to send the rest of the fish in the pool into hiding. This is one of the reasons that most of the fish you catch will be smaller fish. Larger fish will generally maintain the best position within the pool. They tend to orient themselves closer to cover but in an effective feeding lane. When you place a cast into a pool, the first fish to your fly or lure is usually the most aggressive, most desperate, and likely lowest-status individual in the pool. These tend to be the smaller individuals who have had to become less picky about taking any perceived food source.
Overcoming what I’ve coined the “brookie effect” which is what I described above, is an extremely difficult challenge. The only effective approach to overcoming this obstacle is to use larger lures, often imitating sculpin or dace, and to approach a pool as stealthily as possible to position yourself so you can drive the lure as deep into the pool, as fast as possible. I tend to heavily weight my streamers to try to get them to the bottom as fast as possible, and then jig the streamer near cover while trying to avoid spooking the other fish in the pool.
Obviously, the above is a trend, and there are exceptions to the rule. If a larger, higher-status individual has gone too long without food, or if you present an irresistible option to the fish, larger individuals will take flies from the surface. The image below of a stream in Pennsylvania is a good example of the challenges encountered when approaching a brook trout pool. An approach from where I’m standing when I took the photo is likely to spook many of the fish in the lower part of the pool. When brook trout see other brook trout quickly darting through the pool past them to evade a predator, it causes the other fish in the pool to become spooked. What isn’t visible in the photo below is that the head of the pool is wide open with no cover on the bank. An approach from that angle would likely result in the pool being spooked quickly. To make matters worse, there is a large overhanging branch covering much of the pool. Also out of view on the left is a large tree that had fallen across the stream, causing the pool to back up. When I fished that pool, I approached from directly downstream and cast as far up into the pool near the triangular rock as possible with a heavily weighted muddler minnow.
The image below of another stream in central Pennsylvania is another great example of the difficulty of approaching a brook trout pool. There are several issues with this particular plunge pool. A downstream approach is out of the question as the fallen trees block access to the pool. Directly below where I’m standing in the image seems possible, but the approach is wide open and from above. While it’s somewhat difficult to see, one of the best parts of the pool from a fish perspective is the deeper water nearest to where the photo was taken but out of the white water. The best location in the pool, however, is the dark area under the large rock overhang on the far side of the pool. Approaching the pool from the side where the photo was taken would surely spook the fish holding in the deeper water under the tree branches, which would likely cause all of the fish in the pool to spook. In this case, the best approach to the pool is from upstream using the whitewater as cover, and jigging a streamer on the far side of the pool in the dark area beneath the large rock.
That technique produced the fish below, which is a respectable-sized brook trout for this stream.
Access to streams plays an important role in approach as well. Where access roads run along the ridgetops typical of places like Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and areas of Pennsylvania, you may need to hike down into the headwaters. Where you are forced to approach the stream from the top-down, stay as far away from the stream while hiking down into the stream as possible and either stop to fish individual pools, or fish your way back up to where you started. In these situations, I like to fish the stream down using streamers focusing on plunge pools and then fish a dry-dropper rig on my way back out. By the time you turn around at the bottom of the stream and start working your way back out, the fish have typically calmed down from your descent fishing.
Where access is from the bottom of the stream, fish the stream up and then back down again using a different fly, lure, or technique. Again, the most important consideration when angling for wild native brook trout is to avoid being detected by the fish. The upstream approach helps solve this problem by using riffles and tailouts between pools to conceal your presence. That said, trying to stay out of the stream as much as possible is important. A spooked brook trout may shoot up through fast water from one pool to the next and spook the fish in that pool. Remember that brook trout are acutely aware of their surroundings, and another brook trout darting for cover is a signal to the other fish that there may be a threat present.
The season and the weather play an important role in how you approach angling for brook trout. In the spring, fish may be in transit from downstream positions to headwater streams once the snow has melted. Consider fishing lower in a stream system. Ice-out on lakes and ponds is one of the best times of the year to target Stillwater brook trout. The fish have spent winter under the ice with less food and in frigid temperatures. They’ve likely lost weight and are ready to start regaining weight.
Depending on the weather and stream temperatures, fish may be highly active or somewhat lethargic. On cold days, or after several days of cold weather, and with stream temperatures in the low 40s to 50s, use a slower presentation. If fly fishing, use smaller flies, and try to keep the fly in the strike zone as long as possible. If using terminal tackle, slow your retrieve, add pauses to the retrieve, and as with fly fishing, try to keep the lure in the strike zone as long as possible.
Spring tends to have variable weather, which influences how the fish will react. Pay close attention to the weather leading up to the day you plan to go fishing. Depending on your region, early spring may still result in random snow events. When this happens followed by a few days of warm weather, consider that the warming temperatures will melt the snow which flows into the stream. This might mean that while the air temperatures are warm, the stream temperatures are colder than when it snowed. Consider a buffer of a day or two after a snow melt before going out.
Later in spring we tend to see more days of rain which leads to high water events. In my experience, brook trout don’t respond well to high water events. At least with regard to angling success. Whereas brown trout tend to let down their guard in high water, and it’s a perfect time to target trophy brown trout with a streamer, brook trout tend to go into hiding during high water events. There are exceptions to this, though, and focusing on the soft edges of pools can sometimes be productive during high water events.
Another phenomenon that occurs in spring is lake turnover. Whether this happens on your lake or pond is determined by the temperature stratification of the lake. Basically, cold water sinks, and warm water rises. Over the winter, the (relatively) warmer water is on the bottom of the lake, and the surface is frozen. As the ice melts, the cold water sinks to the bottom of the lake, and the (relatively) warmer water rises to the surface. When this happens, the rising water tends to carry a lot of detritus from the lower levels of the lake to the surface. You may see this when looking into the lake as it may appear cloudy or filled with debris.
The temperature stratification also means different levels of dissolved oxygen. Cold water retains oxygen better than warm water. However, when water sits deep within a lake for an extended period of time with no contact with the surface, the water loses oxygen. In the spring during a turnover, the relatively warmer water that rises to the surface may have low dissolved oxygen. This can stress the fish out and reduce their likelihood to feed. Lake turnover is complex and I recommend reading more about it specifically. The good news is that turnover events tend to be fairly short lived. So if you encounter a turnover, simply wait a few days. The other good news is that once the event has passed and the fish settle into a more comfortable upper water column water temperature, they tend to feed extremely well.
More about lake turnover: https://www.cleanlakesalliance.org/lake-turnover/#:~:text=What%20is%20lake%20turnover%3F,lake%20from%20mixing%20and%20aerating.
Fishing for brook trout in the summer, depending on location, is one of the best times of year to target brook trout. In the early part of the season, once air temperatures become consistently warmer, being deep in the woods in the Northeast is typically very comfortable. Water temperatures remain low, so there is no threat to the fish in the early part of summer. The fish have settled into a rhythm of feeding, and this is the time of year that they put on the most weight.
The transition time between spring and summer can also bring significant rainfall. As mentioned earlier, in my experience, brook trout don’t respond well to abrupt increases in flow and turbid water. However, one tip to fishing during this time of year is to target high elevation first order streams. These small streams rarely get “blown out” by heavy rains. In these small first-order streams, brook trout tend to be a little less wary about increased flow, and the streams rarely get discolored from the rains.
In the northern parts of the United States, prolific insect hatches start in the early part of summer. In Maine and other parts of New England that support pond-dwelling brook trout, these hatches can be a fantastic time of year to target rising fish. Often large insects like Hexagenia mayflies bring large brook trout to the surface of ponds to feed. This hatch tends to happen late in the evening and may extend well after sunset.
Early summer is an excellent time to fish for brook trout in backcountry ponds. With ultralight canoes and lightweight camping gear, trips to remote ponds to fish for brook trout with dry flies while camping in a remote setting is an experience unlike any other. The Adirondacks and Maine are the best locations in the United States for this kind of experience. Just be aware that biting insects like black flies and mosquitos start to be prevalent in large numbers this time of year as well, so be sure to pack the bug spray.
In streams throughout the southern states, as summer progresses, the importance of monitoring water temperatures starts to come into play. In high elevations through the mid Atlantic region, this may not become much of an issue. However, it’s always a good idea to check the water temperature first and never fish for brook trout if it exceeds 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once stream temperatures in larger rivers starts to approach 20° Celsius/68° Fahrenheit, brook trout start to leave the larger streams in search of cooler temperatures in tributaries, or the mouths of tributaries. Brook trout have been observed via radio telemetry studies to travel 10 to 15km/6.2 – 9.3 miles in search of cooler temperatures. Often the fish will move from their winter holds in large rivers to the exact spot they used to ride out the summer heat the previous year.
In the southernmost states, summertime temperatures may exceed the safe range for brook trout angling. While the temperature on the day you’re fishing might be borderline or ok, consider that the thermal impact on brook trout is cumulative. This means that several days of warm temperatures that exceed the species’ thermal tolerance build up and cause harm to the fish. If a stream exceeds 70 degrees for five or six days in a row, and then on the sixth or seventh day drops to 67 degrees, you should still avoid fishing for brook trout. The fish need time to recover from the stress caused by trying to survive when the water temperature exceeds their tolerance limit.
Even in mountain streams with groundwater input that stays consistently cold (typically around 55 degrees), consider that any brook trout that congregate around these thermal refuges are primarily focused on surviving and may not be interested in feeding. Targeting brook trout in a thermal refuge like spring seeps or other coldwater inputs puts the fish at greater risk of delayed mortality. Similarly, in ponds with thermal upwellings, historic angling recommendations suggested that anglers could target brook trout in ponds around these spring upwellings. This is bad advice, in my opinion. If the lake temperature exceeds 70 degrees and you hook a fish hugging a spring seep, you have to fight the fish through the 70-degree water, which exhausts the fish. Targeting brook trout in any thermal refuge of any type, in any environment, is strongly discouraged.
As summer wears on and starts to transition to fall, a lack of rain can create a situation where it is best to leave the fish alone completely. As nighttime temperatures drop, the water temperature may be less risky, but the lack of water can expose the fish to more natural predation. As water levels decrease, brook trout become far warier. This can make catching them on any tackle more challenging. It’s likely that predators like raccoons, birds of prey, foxes, coyotes, and even snakes recognize the low water as an opportunity to prey on brook trout. As the fish are acutely aware of their surroundings, this increase in predator traffic may lead to the fish being even more skittish.
Similarly to the mixed bag of weather and rainfall in the spring, summer can be hit or miss as the season progresses, but the effects are opposite as spring. Consider placing the species’ well-being above your desire to pursue them. If conditions mean a greater risk of accidental mortality from angling, consider targeting other species during the hottest and driest times of the season.
As summer turns to fall in late August and September before the leaves change in the mid-Atlantic region, the weather once again plays an important role in brook trout angling. There are years when the drought of summer extends well into the fall. In these years, just as with summer, use your best judgment based on water temperature and flows to determine whether you’ll put the fish at greater risk by fishing for them.
Fall is when fish start to move around in the system again. Typically this time of year the movements are smaller and driven primarily by spawning. Unlike the long migrations in late spring and early summer when stream temperatures rise, migration in the fall is typically to find suitable spawning habitat.
As fall progresses, temperatures start to fall, and the overnight lows result in cooler water temperatures throughout most of the day. The cooler temperatures alleviate some of the threat of causing harm to the fish by fishing, though water levels can still be an issue. Fall causes the fish to start changing as well.
Brook trout experience physiological changes as spawning time approach. Males’ bottom jaws start to grow and, in larger specimens, form a kype (knob on the tip of the lower jaw). Their outward appearance becomes even more vibrant than they are during other periods of the year. Their focus shifts as well, and if you observe brook trout before the fall spawn, you’ll often see more aggression between males.
This is one of the most exciting times of year to fish for brook trout. Their colors can be stunning, and before they become too preoccupied with spawning activities, are generally eating well to put on weight and energy for spawning and surviving the winter ahead. The cooler temperatures, especially after a hot, dry summer, often cause the fish to feed all day in the fall. Especially on rainy or overcast days.
Ultimately, just before the fish spawn, you’ll see males and females paired up in pools and females working on building redds. Males will outnumber females at spawning sites. The exact time of year spawning takes place varies depending on latitude and temperature. In ponds, females will find spring upwellings, groundwater inputs, or stream inlets and will gravitate toward those areas prior to spawning. In streams, some fish will travel miles upstream to reach spawning sites. Brook trout spawn in shallow riffles or areas with groundwater upwellings with oxygen-rich water.
As the fish become more preoccupied with spawning, they often become less apt to eat. While they may strike a lure out of aggression, they’re generally uninterested in eating. If you see brook trout actively working on building a redd and chasing each other around, please leave them alone. You can still fish the heads of pools in faster water if you have to fish during the spawn, as not every fish in the stream will be spawning.
Immediately after spawning, the second migration of the year will occur. Similar to the migration from mainstem rivers to reach cooler tributaries in the late spring/early summer time, brook trout will move long distances after spawning to reach winter holds in larger rivers. Many tributaries in the east experience extreme temperatures and anchor ice. This hostile environment makes it difficult for the fish to forage and may even result in death. Some individuals in the population have evolved to take advantage of the milder conditions in larger rivers and will swim down the tributaries they spawned in to reach large pools in larger rivers. As with the study mentioned earlier, several brook trout were found to return to the same pool they had used the previous winter.
Targeting brook trout in these larger rivers during the winter months may not be the most effective place or time to target brook trout. The number of fish that move downstream in the winter and inhabit larger rivers varies greatly. In any given system, there may only be a few dozen to several dozen brook trout that inhabit the larger rivers. This means targeting them may be a futile task. In all of the studies I’ve read documenting brook trout movement, the average seems to be roughly 20% of the population moves, and there seems to be no correlation between movement rate and fish size. Meaning it’s not just the biggest brook trout that move long distances.
Winter can be one of the most beautiful times of year to fish for brook trout. Being on a mountain stream after a fresh snow creates surreal landscapes. Depending on the water temperature, winter can be a productive time to fish for brook trout as well.
Once stream temperatures reach frigid temperatures, around 1.1° Celsius/34° Fahrenheit, brook trout will often seek shelter under rocks or logs and will not eat. I’ve watched brook trout poke their heads out from under rocks to look at a streamer and then slide right back under the rock.
In mild water temperatures around 38° Fahrenheit/3.3° Celsius however, brook trout can be quite active. One of the most important things to note about cold weather/water temperature brook trout angling is that they tend to stay in slower, deeper water. You will very rarely encounter brook trout holding in a riffle in the middle of winter. Target deep pools and slow your retrieve down with long pauses to allow the fish to catch up and take your fly/lure.
One of my favorite flies in the winter is a small san juan worm. I tie these flies with added lead wire on the hook shank so they can be fished without added splitshot. Brook trout seem to love these flies and you can suspend them in deep pools for long periods of time, which makes them easy to fish.
In winter, if air temperatures are below freezing, consider keeping the fish in the water while you unhook them. The photo above was a relatively warm day despite the snow in the background, so there was no harm in holding the fish out of the water briefly to snap a photo. At low temperatures, around 20° Fahrenheit/-6.6° Celsius, the frigid air can cause damage to their gills.
Surgical gloves are a great idea in winter. Once your hands are wet in the winter, they will get colder faster, so wearing nitrile or latex gloves under wool or synthetic gloves can be a great way to keep your hands warm. Wearing nitrile or latex gloves also helps protect the fish. Try to avoid handling fish while wearing wool gloves! The wool will remove the slime coat on the fish which can make them more susceptible to disease. It’s also not a great idea to get your gloves wet.
I touched on brook trout movement based on the season in the previous section. Here I will condense this to focus on where to target brook trout in a stream system depending on season and conditions.
As a primer for the following topic, it is important to understand the anatomy of a watershed and the nomenclature for different streams within a watershed. The following graphic illustrates which streams are classified as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th order.
Understanding the anatomy of a watershed is important to the discussion surrounding where and when brook trout can be found throughout a watershed. Starting at the “top” of a watershed where groundwater emerges, or where runoff collects into the first little, minature streams are called 1st order tributaries. As the first order streams flow down the slopes they encounter other 1st order streams originating from nearby hollows and valleys and combine to form 2nd order streams. Similarly, as the 2nd order streams continue down their slopes, they encounter other 2nd order streams, and join to form 3rd order streams. The 3rd order streams then join to form 4th order streams.
Brook trout are often relegated to 1st order streams in more southern latitudes due to increasing global temperatures, or the presence of nonnative trout, or both. These environments are where the fish spawn in the fall, and in some cases, remain. However, as you move north, brook trout more frequently push downstream into 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th order systems. Brook trout don’t chose to live in 1st order streams because they prefer those environments. They’ve been forced to survive there because of the impacts we’ve had on the downstream environments. In northern areas like Canada and Maine, brook trout persist in large rivers and massive lakes. The species also lives in the ocean which is the largest body of water we have.
Even in southern latitudes where downstream temperatures reach lethal temperatures in the summer, brook trout often uses larger rivers during the winter went he temperatures are suitable. In addition to seasonal use of large rivers, brook trout may be found in large rivers that have thermal upwellings and tributaries nearby that support brook trout year-round. Don’t write off larger streams and rivers for brook trout simply because they get too warm in the summer.
Brook trout seem to have a proclivity for high-gradient streams. These are often up in the 1st and 2nd order streams, however, in places that support brook trout in larger rivers year-round, brook trout are often found just below turbulent water. The world record brook trout was caught below falls (that no longer exist due to dams) on the Nipigon river in Canada.
As mentioned multiple times throughout this post, brook trout also like stillwater like those found in beaver ponds. The combination of high elevation and beaver ponds is likely to result in brook trout as long as the water is clean. Generally, however, south of New England, brook trout are mostly found in high elevation 1st and 2nd order streams.
Equipment for brook trout fishing
The type of equipment you’ll use for brook trout depends on the type of water you intend to target them in. Fishing in lakes from a small pack canoe will require different rods and lures than fishing a remote Appalachian freestone stream choked with mountain laurel. The lures (flies, spinners, live bait, or small spoons) will vary depending on the size of the fish you’re targeting, and the forage in the body of water. Broadly, unless you’re fishing for trophy brook trout in Canada, you’ll want to use lightweight gear.
A general note about all of the following: I am not providing links of any kind to any products here. I don’t use affiliate links anywhere on this site, and I don’t want to provide web links to products that may become discontinued. The information below is a basic guide to the types of gear that is useful for brook trout fishing.
Spinning Rods & Reels
Spinning rod and reel setups will vary depending on the type of water you’re fishing (as mentioned above), however, in general a light or ultralight spinning rod works well. For small freestone stream fishing, an ultralight rod of about 5 feet in length is ideal. I personally use a Shakespeare ugly stick with a Pleuger President (small) reel. In ponds, a stiffer rod helps as you’ll be trolling either spoons or wobblers trailed by flies or live bait and the stiffer rod prevents the rod from doubling over while trolling.
Line for spinning rod setups is likely one of the most important pieces of your setup. I use Trout SOS in 2lb as the primary line on my ultralight spinning rod setup. The idea here is to use as light a line as possible (again, for small freestone streams) to avoid spooking fish. Mono works well as you’ll be navigating a lot of small rocks and snags, and fluro tends to get scuffed up quicker which negates the usefulness of an ultra-clear line.
For spinners and spoons, I prefer to use single hook spoons more than anything else.
The spoon above is one of my favorites. These can be found on Amazon for cheap prices. The hooks are decent, however, I’ve started changing out the hooks for higher quality and slightly smaller hooks. I do pinch the barb down on any of the hooks I use to make unhooking the fish easier. The tail on the spoon above isn’t necessary, though they aren’t difficult to add yourself. These spoons tend to ride hook point up, which helps with snags in smaller streams, and brook trout love them.
I also use small Rooster Tails in various colors (I don’t believe the color matters), and I tend to break one or two of the hooks of the treble hooks to reduce the chances of mangling the fish while removing the hooks. I have read claims that keeping all of the hooks on a treble and even using a hook size larger than you think helps prevent brook trout from swallowing the hook. I believe there is truth to this; however, if you get all 3 of the hooks embedded in the fish’s mouth, removing them all becomes a chore, and you end up having the fish out of the water for far too long.
In larger rivers like those found in Maine, a stiffer spinning rod (where permitted) will be required. Medium action rods of about 7 feet in length with a medium spinning reel will work well in those environments. You’ll also likely upsize your lures in larger rivers to 1-3 inch long spoons, spinners, or soft plastic baitfish imitations. Again, pinch your barbs and consider removing a hook point or two on treble hooks.
In ponds, one of the most popular techniques is to use Lake Clear Wobblers trailed by either live bait (nightcrawlers are preferred) or flies. Rig the wobblers by running your mainline to a clip swivel at the front of the spoon, then use a lighter tippet about 12 to 18 inches long off another clip swivel at the tail of the spoon to either a bait holder hook in size 8 or long shank hooks between 10 and 6 for nightcrawlers, or tie on a streamer like a black wooley bugger. You can also drop a smaller fly off the bend of the hook shank on the wooley bugger to a hares ear or small phesant tail nymph about 8-10 inches behind the wooley bugger. Again, use lighter tippet off the back of the spoon so that if the flies snag you only break off the flies instead of the expensive spoons.
Spoons also work well in lakes and ponds, and again, I prefer to use a single hook with the barb pinched. While larger spoons may work well, I’ve found that smaller spoons like the one in the photo above work well in larger lakes and ponds. Colors may play a bigger role in your success in lakes and ponds. Be sure to have a selection of colors and sizes. Typically, copper, gold, and silver are the best, though chartreuse, black and white may also work. Use the old method of bright colors on bright days and dark colors on dark or overcast days to start and change things up if you don’t have success right away.
Spinning gear is often the best choice for certain waters. Here in Pennsylvania, in the mountain beaver ponds and meadows, spinning gear is often a must due to the lack of casting room. Flooded forests with beaver pond complexes often have trees right up to and often in the pond, so there is rarely a open clearing on the stream bank to cast from. Additionally, in large beaver ponds, the deepest channels are often a good distance from dry land, and wading in beaver ponds is never a good idea. So you want to be able to reach far out into the pond from dry land, and spinning gear allows this far more easily than fly fishing.
Fly Rods & Reels
The size and weight of the fly rod setup you chose depends on the type of water you’ll be fishing. Small freestone streams in the mountains of Appalachia will require a different rod than a pond in Maine. Similarly, the line, leader setup, presentation, and flies will all change as well. It’s not uncommon to acquire a collection of different rods and reels for each situation, and collecting gear can be as addictive as fishing.
Small freestone streams can be fished with rods of about 6 feet to 8 feet in length, though I know folks who use long 10 foot euro-nymphing setups in small streams as well. I have tried using long rods and while it works, it’s usually a bit tricky to navigate the bush on your hike in or out with a 10 foot rod. This is where Tenkara rods (discussed below) come in handy.
I prefer to use a 7′-3″ fiberglass pack rod that breaks down into 5 sections for most of my mountain freestone fishing. I use a Scott F series, though there are many options out there from many different manufacturers. The pack rod configuration allows me to stow the rod tube in a backpack and carry the rod to the stream in my pack broken down and then assemble the rod on stream. For this setup, I use a simple click-n-pawl type reel since drag is unnecessary here. In my case, I chose a Ross Colorado LT in the 0-3wt size.
A great option for small stream fishing is the Redington Classic Trout in the 7′-6″ 2wt configuration with a Redington Zero reel. I used one of these rods extensively for years and have always been amazed at how strong they are. One thing to consider with any rod purchased for backcountry angling is that the rod will likely be pulled or pushed through rhododendron and saplings while walking along the stream. These remote streams often lack formal trails, and fishing will involve bushwhacking with the rod in hand. The rod should be strong enough to survive the abuse you’ll impart on it during these adventures.
On these small streams, the fly line is less important than in larger river settings. I often use a double taper floating fly line, and I’m not terribly concerned about the taper. You’ll often only have about the length of the rod worth of fly line and leader out at any given time, though there are obviously exceptions to that rule. As such, I prefer a shorter leader of about 7 feet in length. I buy Scientific Angler 7′-6″ tapered leaders in 5x and cut down the last foot or so, and then tie on a new section of 5x or a combination of 5x and 6x tippet on the end of the leader.
On larger rivers like those in Maine, a larger rod is obviously required. Typically, a standard 9′-5wt or 6wt rod is perfect for those rivers since they’re akin to larger rivers with other trout species. Depending on the type of fishing you’ll be doing, a standard floating line works well, though for streamers, an intermediate or full sink line might be needed. Reels may also become more important on larger rivers where the chance to encounter large brook trout is more likely. A reel with a good drag like Galvin Torques or Ross Evolutions are good choices here. In general, consider large river brook trout fishing just like large river fishing for any trout species.
In lakes and ponds, the fly rod you chose will depend on how you intend to fish. During certain times of the year in the Northeast, hatches on brook trout ponds may be prolific, and the opportunity to sight fish to rising trophy brook trout means that you’ll need a good 9′-5wt or 6wt rod with floating line in a taper that you’re comfortable fishing long distances. If you’re fishing from a low-slung canoe like a Hornbeck, or from a belly boat, a longer rod may come in handy here since you’re be relatively close to the water, and the more line you have out will become difficult to keep off the water on your back-cast. The new Orvis Blackout in the 9′-5″ 5wt configuration is a good option here as it gives a little extra length.
If you intend to troll with streamers on a fly rod, you might get away with a shorter, stiffer rod, and you’ll need an intermediate or full sink line. One consideration here is that if you’re packing in your gear over long distances, you might opt for an “all around” setup like what is described above so that you can fish either streamers subsurface or dries on top if the opportunity presents itself. Similarly, your leader configuration will change depending on how you’re fishing. Wet-lining with wet flies, streamers, or small nymphs will require an intermediate or full sink line and a relatively thin profile leader to get the flies down deep, while a standard floating poly leader or tapered monofilament leader will work best for dry flies. If fishing streamers, keep your leader short. A length of about 3 feet is all that is needed for streamer fishing as often full sink and intermediate lines can be bought in black or camo colors.
Tenkara is an interesting technique for brook trout fishing that any serious brookie fan should give a chance. I have a small “pocket ninja” tenkara rod from Tenkara Tanuki that I keep in the back of my vehicle at all times. The rod I have is 9 feet and is ultra-light at the tip. It also doesn’t have a traditional cork handle, so it’s extremely light and compact.
For those unaware, tenkara is a form of angling that is more closely aligned with traditional anlging in Japan. There is no reel on the rod, and the rods today telescope down into compact sizes making them ideal for quick impromptu jaunts into the bush. Tenkara rods have a “level line” (non-tapered) which is often a brightly colored monofilament, or braided line which attaches directly to the tip of the rod with a loop connection. At the end of the level line you attache a small section of flour (or mono) tippet, and then the fly.
There are a wide variety of tenkara flies (or tenkara kebari) which were developed in Japan. These flies are similar to dry flies, though the more closely resemble western soft hackles. The flies are cast and suspended in the water column by using a fine hold on the base of the tenkara rod. The process is much like tight-line or euro nymphing in that you are watching the brightly colored level line for any movement that indicates a fish has eaten the fly.
You can see the flies in the fly holder above. It’s important to note that while there are some tenkara “purists” who may insist that you need to use Kebari flies, the reality is that any fly, either dry, or wet can be used with a tenkara rod. When you’re alone in the bush, nobody will be there to judge you. Tenkara rods are very useful with traditional dry flies. The biggest advantage for brook trout anglers is that the rod can telescope down to a very small size so that when you’re walking through thick brush, you’re only carrying a 12-16 inch long “stick” instead of a 9-12 foot rod.
Tenkara angling is a technique that any serious brook trout fanatic should give a chance. There are many manufacturers, accessories, and lines available today. They work great as a backup rod in your pack, and take up little space in your car as an impromptu rod for exploring a small stream you happen upon. It takes some getting used to the fact that you don’t have a reel or line to manage, but the learning curve isn’t that steep.
Canoes and Belly Boats
Many of the ponds and lakes in the Northeast (upstate NY and ME) are remote and require a hike to reach the water. Ponds also present a challenge since the brook trout can be anywhere in the lake, and you may not be able to reach them from shore with any angling gear. This is where boats and inflatables come in handy. One of the most lightweight options for pack canoes today are Hornbeck boats. These ultralight canoes often weigh as little as 20 lbs at 12 or 13 feet in length and are easily carried on your shoulders above your backpack.
There are many options for inflatable belly boats which can serve a similar function as a canoe. Inflatables can be very lightweight, and since they pack down they can be packed in or on top of your camping pack. Belly boats allow you to fish any portion of the lake you can reach by the surface of the water and can be a fun way to experience a lake. One issue with belly boats is your casting position relative to the surface of the water. This often requires you to raise your arm well above your head in order to cast. As mentioned above in the fly rod section, a longer rod may help counteract this issue.
With either boat or inflatable option, a spinning rod helps negate the issues of casting a fly rod from a low relationship to the water. Additionally, trolling with a spinning rod is much easier and allows the lures to sink in the water much faster than a fly line and leader can. Spinning rods also allow you to cover a lot of water efficiently and allow you to vary depths and retrieval rates easily. Spinning rods are often a little easier to work with in a boat as well since they aren’t as long as fly rods.
Regardless of the type of boat or inflatable you choose, watercraft are an excellent and often necessary tool for reaching backwoods brook trout ponds. Fishing from a boat is a unique experience and requires a little getting used to. Be sure to practice safety procedures while boating, and always wear a life preserver!
One of the most effective methods of brook trout fishing small freestone streams is the dry-dropper method. I like to use small size 14 or 16 stimulators tied in yellow, dark brown, or traditional colors like those in the photo below.
Tied off the bend of the hook with about a foot or so of 5x or 6x tippet you can drop a small nymph. The beauty of the stimulators is that they float well and can handle having a relatively heavy bead head nymph suspended off their bend without sinking. This rig allows you to reach pocket water and fish both the surface and the deeper water at the same time. The only downside to this method is you’ll occasionally hook two fish at once.
Traditional bushy dry flies are also a go-to option for brook trout fishing from early spring to late fall. Though brook trout will often eat dry flies in the dead of winter as well! All of the flies I tie are either barbless hooks, or the barb has been pinched down when I tie the fly on my tippet. I always check my flies before fishing them to make sure there is no barb. Some of my favorite patterns are (all size 16-12):
- Royal Wulff
- Roayl Coachman
- Adams (traditional and parachute)
- Yellow Humpy
- Blue Dun (Iron Blue Dun)
- Deer Hair Caddis
One consideration with dry flies for small brook trout in small headwater streams is the size of the fly. While brook trout are ferocious and will try to eat anything they think they can fit in their mouth, they’re often too small to be hooked if there is too much bulk on the fly. One way around this is to use smaller flies that are brightly colored and easier to see. As you can see on the stimulator photo above, I often tie a bright colored parachute post on the top of the dark flies so they’re easier to see. Brook trout tend to not care too much if the color of your fly is off, or if you use bright colors. So tie the flies bushy, but smaller with bright colored posts to improve your hookup rate.
Streamers are another great fly choice for brook trout fishing. One of my favorite patterns is a black nose dace which I covered in a how-to article HERE. Micro streamers like the one in the photo below are another great pattern for brook trout. They’re also very fast to tie. They consist of a small streamer shank hook in size 8 to 10 (smaller is better) with a pair of small lead dumbell eyes, micro flash body, and marabou tail. Any sculpin pattern is also great for brook trout as sculpins are typically found in the same streams as brook trout and brook trout love to eat sculpins. Streamers often produce the larger brook trout since the fish become more piscivorous (feeding on fish) as they grow older and larger.
In ponds and lakes, stripping streamers is deadly for brook trout. Black wooley buggers, bunny leaches, or anything that resembles leaches or damselfly nymphs are a great choice. Fish to cover like fallen trees along the shoreline, inlets and outflows of the ponds, or points and rocky features.
Fly fishing for brook trout is an incredible experience. Not only because brook trout readily take flies even when poorly presented or poorly tied, but because brook trout live in beautiful places that are often devoid of other anglers. Solitude and beautiful scenery makes fly fishing for brook trout more enjoyable to many opposed to more crowded fisheries with nonnative trout. If you’ve never targeted brook trout on the fly, be sure to give it a try!
Considerations for the fish while brook trout fishing
As mentioned above, debarbing hooks or using barbless hooks is strongly recommended. In the photo above, the small streamer is hooked right in the maxilla of the brook trout, and the hook is barbless. This decreases the likelihood of harming the fish while unhooking it. While brook trout are resilient animals, they don’t tolerate being handled too much or their slime coat being damaged. You should make every effort to release the fish as quickly as possible, and barbless hooks make that task much easier, and safer for the fish.
Another suggestion is to always carry a small net when brook trout fishing. I’ve seen countless videos of people yanking small brook trout up on rocks to “land” them. It isn’t necessary to “land” a fish of any species, but especially small, fragile brook trout. Use a net to keep the fish in the water as much as possible. A net allows you to safely corral the fish and keep it in the water while you prepare to unhook it. Often, if you’re using barbless hooks, this will allow the fish to become unhooked on its own. While it’s in the net and unhooked, to release the fish, simply turn the net over against the current and let the fish swim out without touching it.
Photographing brook trout is great, and I strongly encourage people to photograph and share photos of brook trout to bring awareness about the species and promote angling for them. However, care should be taken during the process to help protect the fish. As mentioned above, a net is a necessity. When you want ot photograph a fish, you can cradle it in the net, or, as I typically do, lift the fish from the net, snap a photo, and release it immediately. This process takes only a few seconds and I timed myself once to see how long it took and it was less than 4 seconds that the fish was out of water. Again, a net allows you to corral the fish while you get your phone or camera out and prepare to take a photo. If you don’t have a net, you will need to keep the fish hooked and in the water until you retrieve your phone or camera. This increases the chances of the fish injuring itself while you fumble around for your phone.
One issue with brook trout is that they tend to aggressively attack what they intend to eat. A biologist once told me about a study he conducted in a stream that held brook trout and brown trout. Anglers were contracted to fish the area using spinning gear and fly gear. Once hooked, biologists who accompanied the anglers unhooked the fish and placed them in flow-through boxes in the stream where they were left overnight. The following day they inspected the fish and found that none of the brown trout that were caught had died regardless of the fishing method. Several of the brook trout, however, had died, and they were all hooked with spinning gear with treble hooks. The outcome wasn’t necessarily due to the hook type, but rather that the brook trout had inhaled the spinner deep in their mouth which caused injury during removal.
With the above in mind, one of the best ways to avoid mortally injuring the fish while angling is to always be aware of your lure or bait and whether a fish has eaten it or not. If bait fishing, don’t leave the baited hook unattended. If trolling with live bait, check your rigt often to ensure a small fish hadn’t taken the bait and you didn’t notice it. This is less of an issue with fly fishing or spin fishing since you’re actively fishing.
When handling brook trout for any reason, consider that the fish’s slime is a protective coating similar to how humans have mucus in our nose and mouth to help prevent infection. Handling fish with dry hands, allowing the fish to lay on a dry rock, leaves, or dirt risks removing the beneficial mucus membrane which might lead to infection and death. Every effort should be made to keep the fish in the water as much as possible, handle the fish as little as possible, and release them as quickly as possible.
Brook trout have faced many challenges since settlers arrived on this continent. Widespread habitat destruction through deforestation, stream alteration through the use of dynamite to clear the way for logs to be floated to mills, farming, urban expansion, industrial pollution, and the introduction of nonnative trout have all negatively impacted brook trout. Through all of this, brook trout have held on in small pockets across their native range.
While habitat destruction is likely the biggest impact on brook trout, we’ve come a long way in recent times, and have corrected a lot of the mistakes we made. Numerous nonprofit organizations have partnered with state and federal agencies to improve habitat. Regulations like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act have reduced pollution, and resulted in cleaner water. Changes in farming practices have reduced the negative impacts of runoff in many places. Protections have been placed on brook trout streams to protect the riparian area from encroachment from urban expansion.
One of the most overlooked issues still facing brook trout is the proliferation and popularity of nonnative trout. Unlike habitat loss, nonnative brown, and rainbow trout are widely accepted by the public, and promoted and often protected by state agencies. In many cases, wild self-sustaining populations of nonnative trout are widespread and require considerable effort (and money) to remove, even if the public supports it. In many places (like Pennsylvania) the state seems to have no intentions of removing nonnative trout or implementing regulations to protect brook trout while encouraging the harvest of nonnative trout.
This has left fragmented populations of brook trout throughout their native range. Fragmented populations are more susceptible to extirpation since the remaining fish are unable to reach other populations due to warming water temperatures or the presence of nonnative fish. With remaining populations unable to reach isolated populations, when an isolated population is exterpated, no fish can repopulate the stream.
State and federal agencies need to do more to promote native brook trout as an angling species. Many states promote fish size as a virtue in order to sell fishing licenses. This has caused anglers to value the overall size of the species above all else. States can cater to this feature by raising and stocking nonnative trout that are larger than the environment can produce. Additionally, states promote and protect nonnative brown trout which reach much larger sizes than brook trout.
Brown trout are listed as one of the primary threats to brook trout in many state and federal research documents that address declines in native brook trout populations (Trout Unlimited, 2006). Many states have angling regulations that protect brook trout while allowing the harvest of nonnative trout. Still, states continue to propagate, promote, and protect brown trout. In some cases (Pennsylvania) where the species occur in the same watershed.
Overlooking the impact of nonnative species while focusing on habitat issues may result in a pristine habitat devoid of native brook trout. Habitat conservation without nonnative species removal is not conservation. New research indicates that habitat manipulation may actually increase the chances of nonnative trout displacing native brook trout (Huntsman et al., 2022).
This website addresses conservation issues throughout the posts. The point of this book is not to dwell on conservation but to provide an overview of the species and promote angling for native brook trout. However, since the species is in decline across its native range, an article about brook trout wouldn’t be complete without a section on conservation. Please consider reading some of the other posts on this website to find out more about native brook trout conservation and the issues facing the species.
As our country loses more and more brook trout, I suspect at some point in the future, there will be increased interest in the species much in the same way that Bull Trout and Arctic Charr are darling species due to their rarity. Anglers like rarity, as evidenced by our affinity for yellow trout and hybrids like tiger trout and splake. The species’ rarity may ultimately become its salvation.
Rarity aside, brook trout live in incredibly beautiful environments. Their environmental need for clean, cold water means that the species is mostly found in remote areas unimpacted by man. To pursue brook trout in their native environment often requires venturing off the beaten path in to areas that are seldom visited by humans. That experience in and of itself is enough to place a high value on brook trout angling.
Beyond the beautiful places they live, brook trout are one of the most beautiful freshwater fish species on the planet. No other trout comes close to matching the range of colors and appearance of brook trout. Their behavior is something to behold for those willing to sit patiently along a remote mountain stream and observe them. These little salmon of the springs have evolved and remained in the places they’re found since before Europeans set foot on this continent, and we need to ensure that they remain here long after we’re gone.
Brook trout need friends. Anglers tend to be the most conservation-minded demographic, but our penchant for large brown trout means that only a small subset of anglers have the brook trout’s best interests at heart. I implore anyone who holds wild nonnative brown trout above all else to look deep within and question why their size, or the species in general, elicits such a love affair. Question whether the draw is innate or influenced by those who need you to be so that they can sell you a fishing license.
Angling for brook trout requires that you let go of preconceived notions about what you’ve been told is important in angling. Consider that you’re encountering a species that evolved in this place and has been here since its ancestor split off to form its species. Consider that, in many cases, you are the only human who has or ever will hold that specimen in your hands. Think about all the obstacles that we’ve placed in their way and that even against all odds, the brook trout has persisted. While they need clean, cold water to thrive, the species is not as fragile as we might think. If they were, they would’ve gone extinct decades ago.
Above all else, promote brook trout angling any chance you get. Tell your friends, share images on social media, speak up in defense of the species, and tell your representatives that you care about the species. Reach out to your state wildlife agency and let them know that you’re concerned about the fate of the species. Get involved in boots-on-the-ground conservation and speak on behalf of the species every chance you get. Brook trout need to be elevated in value, not because of some metric that humans have placed on them, but because they belong here and have tremendous value for our heritage and as a keystone species in our environments.
Huntsman, B. M., Merriam, E. R., Rota, C., & Petty, J. T. (2022). Non‐native species limit stream restoration benefits for brook trout. Restoration Ecology, 31(1). https://doi.org/10.1111/rec.13678
Karas, N., & Babb, J. R. (2015). Brook Trout : a Thorough Look at North America’s Great Native Trout- Its History, Biology, and Angling Possibilities (p. 41). Skyhorse Publishing.
National Park Service. (2022, April 4). Coaster Brook Trout – Isle Royale National Park (U.S. National Park Service). Www.nps.gov. https://www.nps.gov/isro/learn/nature/coaster-brook-trout.htm
New York Department of Environmental Conservation. (n.d.). Fishing for Stream Trout – NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation. Www.dec.ny.gov. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/62477.html#:~:text=Each%20year%20the%20DEC%20stocks
Romero, P. (2002). An etymological dictionary of taxonomy. Madrid, unpublished.
Trout Unlimited. (2006). Eastern Brook Trout: Status and Threats (2006) — EBTJV. Easternbrooktrout.org. https://easternbrooktrout.org/about/reports/eastern-brook-trout-status-and-threats%20%282006%29/view
Trout Unlimited. (2006). Eastern Brook Trout: Status and Threats (2006) — EBTJV. Easternbrooktrout.org. https://easternbrooktrout.org/about/reports/eastern-brook-trout-status-and-threats%20%282006%29/view
Ward, T. (2016, March 9). Can Trout Evolve to Survive Climate Change? 5 Questions for Dr. Mariah Meek. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/can-trout-evolve-to-survi_b_9406796
White, S. L., Hanks, E. M., & Wagner, T. (2020). A novel quantitative framework for riverscape genetics. Ecological Applications, 30(7). https://doi.org/10.1002/eap.2147