Sea-Run Brown Trout Fishing in Newfoundland
By Paul Smith
I live within 5 to 15 minutes driving from some of the best
sea-run brown trout water in the world. Spaniard's Bay, a quiet community of about
5000 people is located on the North side of Conception Bay, Newfoundland, a mere
hour's drive North America's oldest city, St. John's. It may be a little too convenient
and tempting when you can see the ocean from your bathroom window. Once last
spring I woke at two in the morning for a call of nature, looked out at the full April
moon beaming down on a perfect low tide, and just couldn't resist. I quickly dressed,
grabbed my gear, and within minutes I was to my waist in tidal sea-trout water.
That night turned out to be one of the best night fishing experiences I've ever had.
It was cold and about every 10 casts or so I would have to clean the ice out of my
rod guides, but by daylight I had landed 13 sea-run browns ranging between two
and four pounds. All were hooked on dead drifted nymphs, and I had to squint to
see my line in the moonlight, detecting the unnatural motion that signals a subtle and
sneaky brown trout hit. Browns are funny like that. Sometimes they hit like a freight
train and almost yank the rod right out of your hands. Other times, the free drifting
nymph just stops in the current. It makes you wonder how many fish you miss on
black or windy nights.
I went back home shortly after daylight, cold but contented. I sat in my kitchen
with a coffee, watching the sunrise over the ocean. My wife called out from the
bedroom, "Where are you going this early in the morning?"
Newfoundland was the first part of Canada to be stocked with brown trout. According
to a newspaper clipping posted on the wall of the Heart's Content Cable Station Museum,
ships involved in laying the first Trans Atlantic Cable carried trout in live wells for food
on the voyage, and uneaten fish from these were dumped near Heart's Content in Trinity
Bay about 1866. But, in addition, there was also an organized and systematic stocking
of brown trout. It has an interesting history.
In 1864, "The St. John's Game Fish Protection Society" was formed. The founding
members consisted of the socially and politically elite of St. John's, including the Prime
Minister of the day, Sir Robert Bond. In 1887, this fledging society formed the first
privatized fishery in Newfoundland. For 25 cents per year they leased Long Pond,
which is now within the city limits of St. John's, and built a fish hatchery on its inflow.
In 1888, The St. John's Game Fish Protection Society arranged, and privately paid
for, the shipment of 118,000 Loch Leven brown trout eggs from Scotland to the Long
Pond hatchery. As part of the lease arrangement, 10,000 fry from the hatchery were
given over to the Newfoundland government each year for distribution throughout the island.
Not all the trout brought over were Loch Levens. In the 1890's, Robert Brehn,
who was born in Germany, became a member of the society and initiated the
introduction of German brown trout. English browns were brought over as well.
In fact, there are two ponds (Clements and Lees) just north-east of St. John's, that
hold pure strains of English browns from this era.
Many Newfoundlanders refer to our trout mistakenly as "German" browns. This originated
from American troops stationed in Newfoundland during World War II, who were used
to referring to browns as "German", and the name stuck. But what we probably have
today in Newfoundland could best be described as "Newfoundland browns". Evidence
seems to indicate that, apart from a few isolated pockets, the various strains have
interbred over the past 100 years and are now difficult to distinguish.
Today the average size of sea-run browns caught in Newfoundland is between one
and three pounds, but fish up to 10 pounds are not at all uncommon and, every year,
fish in the 10 to 20 pound range are caught. The record is a whopping 28 pounds.
This is clearly a world class fishery. Only rivers such as the Rio Grande in the United
States, the Rio Gallegos in South America, and the Ems in Sweden consistently
produce fish this large.
Fly fishing for sea-run browns is relatively new in Newfoundland, and until recently,
there was little available information about them. However, thanks to the research
of Ian Gall and Scot Chafe, this is changing.
The life cycle of the sea-run brown trout is somewhat similar to that of its cousin, the
Atlantic salmon, but we do know that there are significant variations in the life cycles
of stocks from river to river, and even between individual fish of the same stock.
For instance, unlike salmon, not all browns in a particular river migrate to sea. Some
stay in fresh water all year round. Research has shown that three times as many females
as males are sea-going. This might be due to the energy requirement associated with
egg production and the attraction of the protein rich ocean environment.
Sea-run browns have much more complex and flexible migration patterns than salmon.
Not only does the timing of runs vary from river to river, there is also considerable
variation within individual rivers. Fish will move in and out from February to November.
Some individuals will move to the salt and stay there for several years and may not return
to their natal rivers. Many do not venture into the open ocean, but hang around the estuaries
and sheltered bays. While this can be frustrating at times, it makes for interesting and
Fresh-run brown trout have a distinctively different appearance from non-migratory trout
and from migratory trout that have been in fresh water for some time. When brown trout
go to sea they tend to lose their distinctive spotting, develop scales, and take on an overall
silvery appearance. They also tend to put on weight and become much chunkier than their
stay-at-home cousins. In fact, sea trout look very much like Atlantic salmon and, to the
untrained eye, are difficult to distinguish. This can be a problem because salmon and sea
trout are often located in the same river at the same time, but fall under different fishing
regulations. Being capable of distinguishing these fish is important if you choose to fish in
Atlantic salmon scheduled waters for sea trout. There are hefty fines for taking salmon
without proper tags and license.
Typical tackle for sea-run browns is an 8 or 9 weight, 9 to 10 foot rod, with a matching
floating line. You can use a sink- tip line for nymphing if you wish, but it isn't really
necessary. To fish many of the hot spots, it's necessary to roll cast at least 50 feet
of line. Alternatively, you can use a small boat or canoe to obtain sufficient room for
a back cast. Generally, long leaders are best (sea trout are very wary), although you
have to balance this against getting the leader to turn over, especially when roll casting.
Fly selection depends on where and when you are fishing. It's always best to consult
the locals. This is a relatively new fishery and the best flies are locally tied and not
widely available commercially. You may find some effective patterns in local stores,
but you can't count on it. However, if you visit Spaniard's Bay, check out Paul
Kearley's Fly Shop. He fishes sea trout himself and stocks all the popular patterns.
There is plenty of room for experi-mentation with your own ties. Just about every
year a new killer fly comes on the scene. The best patterns tend to be very simple,
but the fish are very fussy about size and colour. What is interesting about sea trout
is that they seem to learn the patterns. A new fly will be deadly for a year or so,
but, with time, its effectiveness will fade.
Sea trout fishing in Newfoundland offers a variety of options. You can fish in a tidal
estuary in the middle of a community or in a tumbling, boulder-strewn river in relative
solitude. You can nymph fish on a cold spring night or you can dry fly fish on a warm
summer day. I have even had success fishing in a snowstorm.
If there are fish in a particular spot, you will usually see them finning the surface from
time to time. This is true even in winter. But if you're new to the area, you can best
locate fish by watching the locals. They're the experts, so watch them closely and
don't be afraid to ask questions. Newfoundlanders are known world-wide for their
hospitality, and they will typically point you in the right direction. You also have the
option of hiring a local guide. Remember, though, that brown trout are renowned for
their wariness, and those in Newfoundland are no exception. Catching them requires
dedication, patience, attention to detail, and a tolerance for harsh weather conditions.
Brown trout are nocturnal and can be effectively fished at night. Nymphs are used for
this and are allowed to drift along in the tide until you see or feel a strike. You need
sharp eyes because you don't always feel the strikes. In my experience, only about
50 percent of strikes are felt. The nymphs used are very simple. Tied on size #8 - #4
nymph hooks, they consist of a silver tag and a chenille body (yellow, red, pink, etc)
with a very short sparse hackle and a chenille head usually coloured different than
the body. If you're tying your own, don't be afraid to experiment. Also, remember
to dress warmly and take a flashlight. Night fishing is usually best in late winter and
early spring. ~ Paul Smith
Concluded next time!