Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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New respect for brookies

By Tori J. McCormick
Contributing Writer

For ages, writers – including luminaries such as author-outdoorsman Ernest Hemingway – have used trout and trout streams as symbols to explore broader literary themes in their work. 

Perhaps no other fish – fresh or saltwater – has been lionized in print more than the brook trout, to say nothing of the enigmatic anglers who pursue them. 

“To a small but dedicated cadre of anglers, in both Canada and the United States, there’s still only one trout. …” late author Nick Karas wrote in the preface of his book, “Brook Trout: A Thorough Look at North America’s Great Native – Its History, Biology, and Angling Possibilities.”

Brook trout are stunning fish, found and fished for in the cleanest, coldest streams that Mother Nature has to offer. Anglers and writers alike revere them. Beauty, it seems, breeds deep respect. 

“Brook trout are a reminder that the most beautiful things in life are the little things. In only a couple of inches of fish, nature painted a perfect masterpiece,” wrote one outdoors commentator, also noting that brook trout in general “take your breath away.” 

Beyond the gushing praise, brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) have a fascinating natural history. They’re native fish, for one. They’re indigenous to the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. Their historic range goes as far west as Minnesota and extends as far south as the Appalachian Mountains, where they’re still found in select high-elevation streams as far south as Georgia. 

Brookies, as they’re often called, have been introduced outside their native range, including in some Western states in which they’ve given fish managers headaches by outcompeting native cutthroats and other fish. But across their historic range, brook trout can be fished as far west as Minnesota (including throughout the unglaciated Driftless Area of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa) and as far east as the cold-water streams of upstate New York.

Brook trout actually aren’t trout; they’re char and belong to the salmon family, Salmonidae. Likely unknown to most anglers, brook trout have more in common with Arctic char and lake trout than they do with rainbow and brown trout – fish that share some of the same waters as brookies. 

Keith Curley is the vice president for eastern conservation for Trout Unlimited in Arlington, Va. Along with his wife and young son, he likes to fly fish for brook trout in the small freestone streams of the Shenandoah Mountains. 

“Brook trout are beautiful fish that take you to beautiful places,” said Curley, by way of answering why brookies are so revered by anglers. “I like to fish, and my wife would prefer to hike. But she also has an appreciation for brook trout when I catch one. It’s hard not to. They’re stunning.” 

For Curley, that’s only part of the story. He’s worked for TU since he started with the cold-water conservation organization in 2003. Part of his job is working with TU staff, state partners, and others on brook trout-restoration efforts, which, he said, have showcased the resiliency of North America’s different brook trout populations. 

“Brook trout are versatile – and not just the small, 6-inch fish you often hear and read about,” he said. “They have a variety of life histories, from resident small-stream populations to those residing in lakes and ponds, and from populations that migrate between large rivers and small tributaries to those that migrate from Lake Superior.” 

The latter fish – those that migrate from Lake Superior – are called coaster brook trout, a kind of potamodromous brook trout that have a rich history in the Upper Great Lakes. Once abundant and widespread, coaster brook trout grow bigger than the average stream brook trout found in the clean, cold, well-oxygenated waters of some forested headwaters streams.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, historically, Lake Superior’s 3,000 miles of shoreline and tributaries supported fishable populations of the colorful and prized fish. In fact, in the mid-1800s, the fishery attracted anglers from across the globe. Overfishing and habitat destruction reduced numbers. By the 1950s, only a handful of tiny remnant stocks existed. 

Said Curley: “The more you learn about brook trout, the more you realize the need to conserve the full range of brook trout populations for the species to thrive in the future.” 

The good news for anglers, and thanks to state agencies and groups like Trout Unlimited, is that there are still plenty of brook trout waters to fish and to take home a meal. 

Brook trout have a well-earned reputation as voracious eaters, which makes them more susceptible to small lures and flies. “They’re often very, very willing,” said Curley, laughing.

Brook trout have a diverse diet, with younger fish eating all manner of aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates. In addition to insects, snails and worms, bigger brook trout will readily feed on minnows and even smaller fish. 

For fly fishers, a small, 3- or 4-weight rod with a floating weight-forward line should do the trick. Shorter rods work better while fishing smaller headwater streams. 

Matching the hatch is the key to consistently catching brook trout, although brookies have been known to eat rather large attractor patterns such as the fabled Royal Wulff. When dry flies stop working, brookies will willingly eat nymphs, streamers, and other wet flies. Whether you’re fishing with flies or lures, use barbless hooks. 

“They’re also great to eat,” Curley said.

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