Tactics for Great Lakes Browns
To this day I still remember the thrill of catching my
first brown trout. I was barely 15 years old, throwing
gaudy looking flies at chinook salmon in the
Ganaraska River at Port Hope, Ontario, completely oblivious
to the possibility of hooking anything but a salmon. During
an ordinary drift, which back then was anything but what
a true drag-free drift should be, my line straightened out
and the rod started pulsing. This was no Chinook: it was
much too small and vigorous, immediately barreling out of
the pool and heading straight for Lake Ontario. It peeled
off my fly line as if the the drag was non-existent. When
I landed that fish a short time later, I immediately
realized that what I had just caught was the fish I wanted
to spend my life pursuing. It was a migratory brown trout—a
male, probably no larger than 5 pounds, but boasting its
full spawning dress of golden brown, deep red and orange.
It was dwarfed by the plentiful 20 pound plus Chinooks in
the river, but that didn't seem to matter. Its dash and
its beauty outshone them. I was hooked!
By Nick Pujic
Of all migratory Great Lakes fish, brown trout are arguably both the most
rewarding and perhaps the most misunderstood species of all. While many
of the anglers who target chinook, coho, or steelhead in the fall hook into
migratory browns incidentally, the number of dedicated brown trout fly fishers
is relatively few. Of these, even fewer employ techniques specifically
designed for browns. Most are simply content to use the same techniques
they use for salmon or steelhead, especially on the Canadian side of the
lake. Perhaps this is because they assume that, as they've caught a couple
of browns while fishing for other species, there's no need to explore
techniques specifically for them. Another reason is that, with the exception
of parts of New York state, populations of browns are relatively small with
respect to Pacific salmon and steelhead.
This is a mistake, for migratory browns behave differently from steelhead and
Pacific salmon. Therefore, taking time to observe them and learn a few
customized techniques can significantly increase success. As far as the fly
fisher is concerned, there are three major stages to the brown trout run.
During these, there are significant variations in where the fish locate and how
they behave. Consequently, it's necessary to vary techniques and fly
Depending on water levels and the frequency of precipitation, male brown
trout start enteringthe larger lower Great Lake tributaries first, usually
between early and mid October. It is important to note that this trend can
vary by as much as two full weeks, depending on weather and water
conditions, especially if there is a drought or frequent heavy rain.
Initially male browns will mill around river and creek mouths, waiting for the
right water levels before shooting up into the watershed. There is a popular
belief that migratory browns can only caught on single egg flies behind a pair
of spawning salmon. However, is a myth, for during these early phases of the
spawning run, the most productive method is to swing streamers, large
nymphs and even Spey flies through larger, slower pools in the lower
stretches of the tributaries.
The males show up in the streams first. At this point they're aggressive.
They're all fired up to start spawning, but the absence of females causes
them to stage in pools rather than seek out the riffles where spawning
generally occurs. If sight fishing is possible, look for browns swimming
curiously in pools at first light. With the right combination of patience and
stealth you can observe male browns repeatedly harassing each other in
their drive to establish dominance. This is prime time to bust out that tried
and true Black Nose Dace or alewife imitation and swing it for all its worth
through these pools. Takes from these hormone-charged, aggressive fish can
If the water is clear, as the sun rises, browns will take refuge in areas of
shade, or near ledges, shelves and undercut banks. However, murky or
"chocolate milk" conditions reduce the trout's inclination to hide, simply
because they are not as aware of the external, above-water world.
Prime Time: Pre Spawn
Like it or not, with fall rains (which bring in the fish) come fall nights.
Everyone knows the type. Those first cold nights creep up on us, taking us
by surprise, and before you know it you're greeted by a thin,
all-encompassing sheet of frost on your vehicle in the morning. But this
seasonal occurrence is more than an inconvenience to us, it is also a good
indication that female brown trout, often much bulkier than males have
started entering Lake Ontario tributaries in fishable numbers. I say fishable,
as there are always exceptions to every rule. Just ask the pier fishermen
who inadvertently tangle with a chinny while jigging in the Summer time.
As those first frosts begin and a solid run of female browns builds into the
tributaries though October to mid November, the entire behavioural pattern of
the fish changes. At this point, they begin to shift their focus to other, more
important things. Now that the females have arrived, the males (now sporting
their full spawning colours) move into smaller holding pools, where they begin
their pairing rituals with the females. Pay close attention to the lower two
thirds of a pool, especially if it is surrounded by gravely riffles in the mid to
upper stretches of a tributary. During this phase brown trout will stack up,
often in pods of three or more to a pool right at the point where the pool
starts to shallow out.
In addition to the behavioural change, is the presence of spawning salmon in
the same tributaries. Browns take advantage of this, and can be observed
gorging themselves on stray salmon eggs in pools behind pairs of spawning
chinook in the skinny water.
As swinging streamers will now become less and less productive, it's time to
put them away and bring out your egg box. Glo bugs, egg sucking leeches
ESL), infected PT nymphs and other roe imitators produce best during this
pre-spawn period. If angling pressure is high in the area, don't hesitate to try
unconventional color variations of otherwise conventional patterns, such as
baby blue and purple glo-bugs. These are especially deadly on some of the
better known Lake Ontario tributaries.
Brown trout move during pre-spawn. This means that if you can't locate
many fish one day, it does not necessarily mean that the fish won't be there
the next. Paying attention to moon phases can play a key in hitting the
water when the fish are there. A priceless tip I learned from a close friend,
Graham Owen, another brown trout addict, is to pay close attention to the
moon phases. Typically, one would never willingly fish for resident browns
during the few days of a full moon, as they would tend to be feeding
nocturnally at this time, minimizing their activity during the day. However,
during a spawning run, the migratory browns generally navigate further
upstream during a full moon as conditions allow for better visibility.
As brown trout prefer much of the same spawning locations as chinook
salmon, it makes it easier to locate them. Spawning salmon are much
darker than the browns and much easier to spot.
By mid to late November, it will be easy to tell when the browns have started
spawning as they will no longer be found in groups lying in lower portions of
pools. Instead, they will have sought out gravel bars in riffles, where they will
pair up and start building redds.
If at all possible angling of any type for spawning fish should be avoided.
However certain streams and rivers, especially in New York, do not allow for
natural reproduction, relying completely on provincial or state stocking
programs. In these areas browns can still be taken on an array of smaller
nymphs and egg flies while they are spawning. At this time, I've had the best
success with downsized PT (both conventional and "infected") and Hare's Ear
nymphs. A common mistake among those who target browns using salmon
techniques is to continue using egg flies. However, these become
decreasingly effective, as by this time, most, if not all, salmon have already
finished spawning and their corpses begin to appear washed up on the bank.
The most effective method is a repeatedly drifted nymph to pairs of visible
browns. It takes patience, but it can be a rewarding experience. Try to keep
out of sight if at all possible and cast upstream—not only to get a better drift,
but also to prevent spooking the fish. As with steelheading, persistence
It is possible to make a case for a fourth stage in the run—post spawn, for,
like steelhead and Atlantic salmon, many individual browns survive spawning.
While some move quickly back to the lake, many remain in the river, sometimes
as late as December, especially if there's been little rain. However, at
this point, the fish are tired and listless from the rigors of spawning.
They're not particularly aggressive and they're sluggish when
hooked. I don't usually fish for them at this time, preferring to leave them to
build back their strength for another return to the river next year. Moreover, it
can get uncomfortably cold in December!
Selecting gear for a brown trout outing need not be complicated. Bring along
your 7 or 8wt in the earlier phases of the run when the fish are fresh. It's also
handy to be equipped with a rod capable of handling the odd chinook. Once
spawning begins a 6wt will suffice, but I still prefer a heavier rod in order to
land fish as fast as possible, so they can resume their reproductive activities
having undergone minimum stress. Tippets ranging from 4 to 8 pound test
gives you more than enough for all types of conditions. I prefer fluorcarbon,
for, despite the ongoing mono vs. fluoro debates I have never had any
problems with the latter. The total leader length rarely needs to exceed 9ft,
especially if the fluorocarbon tippet is attached to a quality braided or poly
leader, allowing solid turnover of hefty flies. Reel selection is also simple.
Stick to one that has a good drag system and plenty of capacity, and spool
it up with a WF floating or mini sink tip line. Large arbor spools are handy,
but not necessary by any means. On a few of the larger Lake Ontario
tributaries a full intermediate or heavier sink tip, such as Jim Teeny's new
Chuck & Duck line may be required. However, these are considered exceptions.
Fighting migratory fish, whether they are football sized browns or double digit
Chinook, can be marginally easy or very difficult depending on your
technique. I find the "drunk driver" approach works best for coaxing fish out of
the current in record time. What makes the drunk driver technique unique is
that instead of applying steady pressure from one angle on a fish, which lets
it gain balance and predict where the tension will come from, switching the
rod from left to right consistently, while applying steady pressure prevents it
from gaining balance, making it much more difficult to hold in faster water.
Above all else, please remember that brown trout are amongst some of the
rarest migratory species in Lake Ontario. And while the authorities on both
sides of the border are doing their best with the insignificant resources they
have to sustain populations, fly fishers should do their bit by practicing
careful catch-and-release. The all too frequent spectacle of double digit
females browns stacked in coolers like sardines in a can, just for their roe, is
nauseating. It's up to us to ensure that the beauty, elegance, color and
mystique of the world class brown trout we treasure is not diminished to a
The memories of my first brown haven't faded. The picture still hangs above
my tying bench as a reminder of that special moment which forever changed
me as a fly fisher. Since that day, my pursuit of browns has spanned
international borders and has led me to friendships I will cherish for a lifetime.
It has also cost a small fortune and has even resulted in a few broken bones
from overzealous attempts in clambering down dangerous banks in waters
where big browns lie—but such is the price of passion. Each season, I add
more wonderful memories to my scrapbook. And, without doubt, the rains in
the fall of 2005 will bring with them more—not only fish, but friends and
Keeping a pulse on river conditions can make or break any fishing trip. If
you're planning on visiting any lower Great Lakes tributaries, touching base
with local anglers beforehand can make all the difference. Check out these
popular Internet fly fishing discussion forums before your next outing for the
most recent river conditions and hot techniques!
Fly Tying Forum
An excellent site for hot migratory trout patterns, advice, and much more!
Talk Fly Fishing Forum
River conditions for all Great Lakes, including reports from
both sides of the border.
This is mostly a non-fly fishing community, but it's a great place to get the
latest stream conditions on Lake Ontario's Northern shore.
Author's Top 5 Migratory Brown Trout Patterns
1 – Egg Sucking Leech
A Note on Size:
Great Lakes browns can grow big—over 20lbs., and there's always a fair
chance of a double figure fish. However, the average is around five or six
pounds. While males can reach 15 pounds or more, most of the really big
fish will be females. ~ Nick Pujic
Credits: We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!
2 – Estaz Glo Bug
3 – Infected PT Nymph
4 – Black Stone Nymph
5 – The Pinkie
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