By Tori J. McCormick
Not all trout are created equally.
Brook trout – the beautiful and prized native species – are easy to catch, and even rainbows have been known to inhale live bait, lures and flies with reckless abandon.
But brown trout are different. They’re often finicky, cunning and rarely easily brought to heel. Indeed, consistently catching brown trout – especially big browns – takes stealth, finesse, casting ability and a deep understanding of trout behavior. For fly-fishers in particular, fooling a big brown with a dry fly is, as one writer put it, the “ultimate expression of the sport.”
Not only are brown trout wary coldwater fish that grow larger than their trout brethren, they have a fascinating, if controversial, natural history. They’re European immigrants, introduced into North American waters in the early 1880s, and are now found throughout the United States and the world. They’ve been extolled in print by Izaak Walton and even William Shakespeare. Coldwater fisheries managers love brown trout because they can survive in warmer, more turbid waters than other trout — especially brook trout, which require clean, cold and well-oxygenated water to survive.
“Brown trout have a fascinating natural history and story,” said Jeff Broberg, president of the Minnesota Trout Association. “Sometimes it was to the detriment to brook trout. Other times it the benefited anglers.”
In 1884, roughly 5,000 brown trout fry were first introduced into American waters, specifically in Michigan’s Baldwin River, a tributary of the fabled Pere Marquette, originally an Arctic grayling stream.
According to a centennial report (1873-1973) by the Michigan DNR, Fred Mather, then the superintendent of the New York State Fish Commission, was responsible for getting fertilized brown trout eggs into the U.S. In the early 1880s, Mather, as the story goes, fished brown trout in Germany’s Black Forest region and found the species very much to his liking. He eventually made arrangements with his German guests to have eggs sent to the U.S. In 1883, 100,000 brown trout eggs – German browns, as they’re still called in some quarters – were shipped to America and directly to Mather, who in turn shipped them to his friend, Frank Clark, then with the U.S. Fish Commission in Northville, Mich.
A second shipment of 5,000 eggs was sent to Northville in February 1884, after which they were hatched and stocked in the Baldwin River. This appears to be the first time brown trout were stocked in American waters, said Mark Tonello, a fisheries management biologist with Michigan DNR.
In 1885, the U.S. Fish Commission received another shipment of 100,000 brown trout eggs from Loch Leven, a freshwater loch located in central Scotland. Many of those eggs were subsequently stocked in Michigan waters. Additional eggs from Germany, England and Scotland were hatched and stocked in waters from the East Coast to the Rockies. Today, brown trout are thriving in streams and lakes throughout the United States and in parts of Canada.
The brown trout introduction into Michigan waters is a source of pride for local anglers and government officials alike. Tonello said the Village of Baldwin, on the shores of the Baldwin River, holds an annual summer brown trout festival and even commissioned a large brown trout sculpture, which is located in its downtown.
“It’s a big, big celebration,” said Tonello of the summer festival. “Everyone takes immense pride in the history of brown trout in this region.”
Not everyone was happy with the introductions of “nonnative” brown trout into U.S. waters. Devotees of native brook trout, according to published reports, worried brown trout would outcompete their beloved brookies. Both brown and brook trout spawn in the fall and often inhabit the same type of streams. But brown trout are far more carnivorous and eat just about anything, from insects to nightcrawlers to frogs to ducklings to other fish, including trout.
Once they were introduced and started to grow larger and larger, brown trout started to monopolize choice pools and eventually, as once feared, started to outcompete native brook trout.
Brown trout made inroads into brook trout waters for other reasons, too. Broberg, of the Minnesota Trout Association, lives in the so-called driftless area of southeast Minnesota. The region also stretches through southwestern Wisconsin, northwestern Iowa and northwestern Illinois and encompasses six major watersheds, including more than 600 spring-fed creeks. The health of these idyllic bluffland trout streams is linked to how the land surrounding them is managed. And on that land, especially when brown trout arrived in the region in the 1920s, serious environmental problems existed.
“Agriculture was a big problem then and is still a problem now, though not on the scale it once was,” said Broberg, an avid trout angler who fishes throughout the driftless area and beyond.
Logging throughout the region during that period left hillsides nearly bare and streams exposed. Poor agricultural practices caused sediment to fill in pools and spawning habitat. Cattle ran roughshod over stream banks. Exposed streams cooked in the summer sun. The best estimates show that brown trout can survive in water up to 75 degrees, perhaps higher, according to some estimates. Brook trout, meanwhile, evolved in cold, spring-fed waters. Not only were they easier to catch, brook trout numbers began to nosedive as their watery environs got too warm.
“Brown trout are a trout managers dream,” Broberg said. “They can survive in murkier, warmer water. Some people call them coldwater carp, because their ability to exist in marginal waters. They’ve done really well throughout the driftless area and elsewhere.”
State agencies still stock brown trout, though in many states natural reproduction is commonplace. Natural reproduction has been aided, managers say, because of habitat improvement projects by state agencies and Trout Unlimited and conservation-friendly agricultural practices.
The brown trout that were first introduced into U.S. waters weren’t gullible fish. Far from it. Years of heavy angling pressure in Europe had created a wary strain of trout. Early on, U.S. anglers were frustrated by the new imports. They weren’t easily fooled like brook trout and their behavior was completely different.
Not much has changed. Brown trout today are still most active after sunset. During the day, they lurk in undercut banks, deep pools and shady spots safe from avian predators and anglers.
“They can be a challenge to catch, which makes them fun to fish,” said Broberg, citing their innate intelligence and echoing other anglers and fisheries biologists. “They’re masters of their domain. They’re masters of evasion and concealment. They’re strong and fast and not easily fooled.”
Like other anglers, Broberg, a spin fisherman, has been humbled many times by the European import over the years. “I’ve been busted too many times to recount,” said Broberg, laughing. “To catch big browns requires anglers to hone their skills. It’s that simple.”
Their natural wariness is part and parcel of their legacy as sport fish in the U.S. “It’s a good story,” Broberg said.