Large trout will stick around in rivers or near river inlets after the smelt run is over to feed on other spring-spawning species. Suckers move into the first moving water riffles above a lake to spawn when stream temps approach 50 degrees—usually several weeks after smelt spawning is over. Trout don’t feed on the suckers themselves (at 12 inches or better, they’re too large) but gorge themselves on small yellow sucker eggs. I have unhooked trout that had mouths jammed with what looks like lemon JellO. The dominant (often the largest) brook trout will position themselves immediately downstream from sucker schools that are leaking eggs or spawning. Picture large rainbows feeding on salmon eggs in Alaska, and you get the idea.
The best way to target these fish is to nymph with sucker-egg imitations. A small amount of light-yellow yarn, McFly Foam, or soft plastic tied on an egg or scud-style hook is all that is required for success. No fly is easier to tie. Depending on the speed and depth of the water, you might need a little weight to get the flies in position just off the bottom.
Once spring forage-fish spawning season is over in late May, most bragging-sized brookies drop back into deep water as river temperatures warm, although some will remain if insect hatches are heavy and flows stay cool.
As hatches of large mayflies and caddis commence in earnest on lakes, ponds, and rivers, trophy-sized brook trout will focus their attention more on insects, but fishing is never easy and often unpredictable. During a peak hatch on a river or stream, larger trout move into faster and skinnier water to take up feeding stations, but will not stay
In ponds and lakes, large trout will feed where the temperature is comfortable and there’s some depth nearby to escape from loons and other predators. Most often that means you’ll find trout slowly cruising along drop-offs.
If you are fortunate enough to be on the water during a hatch when pods of trout are actively rising, big trout often lurk on the edges of the action. Why? Because big trout are more cautious than small trout, and because small trout prefer not to swim right next to a larger one, lest it becomes the main course.
HOOK: Mustad 3665A, size 8 or 10.
THREAD: 8/0 tan Uni-Thread.
TAIL: Yellow calftail tied sparse.
BODY: Tan medium chenille.
In ponds and lakes, hatches of green or brown drakes will bring fish up, especially if conditions are not too bright. Large brookies avoid the sun like vampires. A Hexagenia emergence occurring just as darkness descends can bring large trout to the surface, but only if surface water temperatures haven’t become too warm. Even during a heavy hatch, emergers, nymphs, and streamers work better for big brookies than classic dry flies. Feeding on subsurface items limits their exposure to predators and means more calories for less effort.
It takes discipline to ignore small trout gulping on the surface, but to target the largest fish, try a sinking line with your favorite Hex nymph imitation (mine is the Maple Syrup Nymph) or a Baby Brook Trout streamer (the largest trout are eager cannibals).
Between hatches, large attractor patterns can tempt stillwater trout once the sun is off the water. Try a size 10 or larger Kaufmann Stimulator, Royal Wulff, stonefly imitation, or any mouthful that looks calorie-rich to a brookie—like a deerhair mouse imitation. We caught many broad-shouldered brook trout last spring by slowly swimming a mouse pattern out from shore or from an undercut riverbank. I believe native brook trout are genetically predisposed to attack such fare, even if they haven’t seen a mouse in their lifetime. But be warned! Make sure your heart is healthy first, because the strikes cause a real adrenaline rush.
THE THIRD QUARTER
Summer is a difficult time to find large brook trout. They require cold water and will retreat to the depths, including pond and lake thermoclines or spring holes. I find blind-casting full-sink lines 40 feet down to a thermocline as enjoyable as doing my taxes, but go for it if you want to. A few New England bottom-release dams maintain coldwater flows and offer trophy brookie possibilities all summer.
CONEHEAD MARABOU SOFT-HACKLE
HOOK: 4X-long streamer hook, size 4 or 6.
WEIGHT: Black or gunmetal tungsten conehead, size to match hook.
UNDERBODY: Two turns of lead wire pushed into conehead.
THREAD: Black 8/0 Uni-Thread.
UNDERWING: Red, yellow, or orange bucktail or comparable material.
WING: Gray or white marabou wrapped around shank so fibers sweep toward hook bend.
COLLAR: One or two turns of mallard or grouse flank
The autumn season is my favorite time of year. Crisp nights, warm days, no mosquitoes, stunning foliage, and the chance to catch the brook trout of a lifetime in full spawning colors. Depending on the year, New England fall weather arrives as early as mid-August or as late as early October. Waters rise and cool, and brook trout emerge from deepwater haunts and move upstream toward spawning habitat—fine gravel with moderate flows and some upwelling of water through the bottom substrate. In still waters, schools of mature brookies congregate on windward shoals or around inlets and outlets.
Mature brook trout behavior changes during this time frame. While the fish continue to feed opportunistically, prespawn aggression drives their behavior. Males will chase other rivals and females will get into the act. Gaudy streamers that match brook trout spawning colors are great options—the same soft-hackle streamers that I cast in the spring are my first choice for the fall, but with brighter red and orange accents or collars. A pinkish-orange chenille creation called a Wood Special doesn’t look like anything found in nature, but trust me—it works. Black soft-hackles or Woolly Buggers can also be effective because large leeches also seem to be prevalent at this time of year. The water flow is lower than in the spring, so fish floating or intermediate lines in the rivers and lake shallows.
It’s not a bad idea to carry bulging fly boxes with an assortment of patterns, because autumn brook trout can be moody. Gaudy streamers or large colorful dry flies like Royal Wulffs, red Humpies, or orange Stimulators will trigger savage strikes when the trout first ascend rivers and streams and they haven’t seen an artificial fly in some time. But as they’re pressured, wary brook trout will start to ignore gaudy temptations. As the migrants acclimate to their new surroundings, they’ll opportunistically feed on the food sources available, which for the most part are tiny bugs like blue-winged olives, midges, and ants. Eventually, nymphing with tiny nymphs or midge imitations (in cream or black) between sizes 20 and 26 becomes critical for success. Orange brook trout egg patterns are also worth a try.
Hunting king-sized brook trout requires an understanding of their migratory urges, life cycle, and food sources. It also requires perseverance and flexibility, since tactics are so weather dependent, and key events like ice-out and autumn rainstorms are increasingly unpredictable. But the reward is worth it. The vision of a fully mature male brook in its prespawn splendor will remain in your mind’s eye all winter, until the ice goes out and the chase begins again.
Lou Zambello guides in Maine and is the author of Flyfishing Northern New England’s Seasons (Wilderness Adventure Press, 2015) and Flyfisher’s Guide to New England (Wilderness Adventure Press, 2016).