When, where, and how to find the best wild brook trout fishing in the Northeast.
[By Lou Zambello]
AS I CRAWLED MY BLACK MARABOU LEECH PATTERN ACROSS THE SILTY BOTTOM OF AN EDDY POOL, my retrieving hand felt a slight resistance. Another weed snagged, I presumed. A subtle sideways twitch of my sinking line indicated for the first time since I waded in hours ago that what I had in fact hooked could swim. The tip of my fly rod pulsed as the fish, finally aware that something was wrong, started ponderously shaking its head, telegraphing to me that I was hooked up with a trout too big to be labeled with so diminutive a term as brookie.
After a few short but powerful runs, and a head-down tug-of-war, a hook-jawed male brook trout grudgingly slid into my net. His broad, greenish flanks decorated with blue halos and deep burgundy undersides were highlighted by white-tipped fins that appeared as though some underwater baker had dipped them in vanilla frosting. The beauty of a male brook trout in spawning colors rivals any of nature’s canvases. Landing a wild or native brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) that’s measured in pounds instead of inches should be at the top of every angler’s bucket list, not just because of its beauty, but also because it is just tough to do.
Even though three-pound brook trout are becoming more common, and landing a six-pound trophy is not impossible, most fly fishers have never landed a bragging-size brook trout. One study showed that 90 percent of Maine anglers never catch a trout over 14 inches. Why? The answer is simple—the average angler rarely employs the specialized tactics required to hook a large brook trout. My friends, fellow guides, and I have spent 35 years deciphering seasonal migration patterns, aquatic life cycles, and weather events that impact brookie behavior. We have tested different flies and tactics, both on the surface and down deep. The result is a few nuggets of knowledge that can help you bring more big trout to hand every year.
The first step to landing a memorable native brook trout is to know where these fish still thrive. You can probably guess that mature, native trout require unpolluted waters, abundant food, an adequate spawning habitat, and restrictive harvest (e.g., catch and release) regulations. But more important is that larger fish require thermal refuges with a temperature range that’s optimal for growth and survival (45 to 65 degrees F). This usually means deep (and oxygenated) water that mitigates summer’s heat and winter’s ice. That means most large brookies are fond of complex watersheds with connecting lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams where fish can migrate to deep water whenever needed.
Not all waters with the correct conditions hold trophy brook trout. Only some native strains have the genetic lineage to live long and grow large. Haphazard historical stockings of smaller brookie strains eliminated trophy populations in many areas, but Maine remains a stronghold.
Another challenge is learning to address depth—most large brook trout swim well under the surface in lakes, ponds, and deep river holes, where it’s difficult for the average fly caster to reach. But at certain times of the calendar, big brookies move toward shallow shorelines or more easily accessible rivers and streams. Understanding seasonal food sources and life cycle rhythms is vital to knowing when such changes occur. Brook trout pack on weight during the short New England growing season by swimming miles to zero in on the best aquatic food sources available.
THE SMELT RUN
Shortly after lakes thaw, and when water temperatures reach the low 40s, schools of smelts (a major forage fish) move from many lakes and ponds into rivers, streams, and even trickles of water that will be bone dry in a month to spawn. Monster, piscivorous brookies follow smelts and wait to ambush their prey or feast on the injured, dying, or distracted. Most of the action occurs during periods of low light during dawn, dusk, cloudy days, and moonless nights.
Streamers that imitate smelts are the best way to nail an iceout trophy squaretail. Smelts have iridescent scales that reflect their environment and also vary in body hue and fin-accent coloration. So, depending upon location and conditions including water clarity, lake-bottom color, and the amount of sunlight, smelts can appear as a fleeting impression of almost any color, including silver, white, gray, yellow, green, and purple (which is why classic smelt imitation streamers came in so many color variations).
HOOK: 4X streamer hook, sizes 4 to 8.
THREAD: 8/0 black Uni-Thread.
WEIGHT (optional): Black bead- or conehead.
TAIL: Six golden pheasant neck feather fibers.
RIB: Silver oval tinsel.
BODY: Large-diameter pink chenille.
WING: Wood duck or mallard flank feather.
COLLAR: A webby grizzly hackle feather.
Fly tiers constructed traditional streamers on long-shanked hooks with relatively stiff materials like saddle hackle to imitate a smelt body. The Classic Black or Gray Ghost streamers and other traditional patterns are still popular and catch plenty of fish, but more modern constructions with marabou, rabbit fur, or synthetic fibers act more lifelike in the water and attract bigger, and usually less gullible, trout.
I am a big fan of hackled marabou to create a smelt pattern we refer to as the Marabou Soft-Hackle Streamer. Out of the water, it looks like a miniature feather duster, but in the water, it streamlines and comes alive. While this pattern doesn’t have a clever name, I’ve caught 80 percent of my bragging-size brook trout on this fly.
New England fly tier Jack Gartside first popularized this method of streamer tying, and it involves hackling blood quill marabou around a short-shank hook to create a streamer wing that undulates in even the slowest current, but does not tangle around the hook bend.
The best soft-hackle streamer color option for large brookies is a white or gray marabou wing combined with an orange, yellow, or red underwing. Don’t be afraid to experiment—some anglers swear by green or purple marabou, and adding a tungsten cone head will give the fly a jigging motion in the water that even pressured fish find irresistible.
Retrieve marabou soft-hackle streamers slowly and erratically near the bottom. Ice-out water runs cold and often high from snow runoff, and large trout will not expend the calories to chase food in fast water. Learn to cast a sinking or sinking-tip line, or fast-sinking leaders (I prefer the Airflo brand) to plunge your offering through the heavy flow. Then look for the largest trout in slow breaks or eddies adjacent to the primary current. Often, small schools of the largest brook trout take positions along the first drop-off after a river or stream enters a lake or pond.
BIG BROOKIE BASTIONS
The Primary Place to find large native brook trout is Maine (where they are sometimes called squaretails), particularly in
• the Rangeley area, including the Magalloway, Kennebago, and Rangeley Lakes/Upper Dam watersheds, and the Rapid River;
• the Moosehead area, including the Moose, Kennebec, and Roach Rivers, and the East and West Branch of the Penobscot; • the Great North Woods and Baxter State Park; and
• the 12 interconnected lakes of the Fish River system.
Moreover, you can also find large, wild brook trout in other northern New England locations with the conditions described in this article, like the upper Connecticut Lakes system in New Hampshire, the rivers of the Umbagog Lake system in northern Vermont, and any other select coldwater ponds with some natural spawning habitat.