Brown Trout
by John Holt

When you want to go hunting for big, crafty, stealthy trout, head for your favorite brown trout water. This species (Salmo trutta) epitomizes predatory sophistication, and is a result of thousands of years of evolution. When you land a brown over 5 pounds, you've got a right to be happy and proud. You've earned these basic pleasures.

Brown trout were first widely introduced into North America in 1883 when eggs were shipped to a hatchery in Long Island, New York, by Baron Lucius von Behr. These were to provide a substitute for brook trout, which were disappearing with the encroachment of civilization on their wild, pristine habitat. Browns are native to Europe from the Mediterranean region up to Norway and Siberia including the British Isles. In fact, brown trout are known locally in this country as Loch Leven for their native water in Scotland. The fish have also been introduced into Asia, New Zealand, South America and Africa. Wherever trout fishers wander, they seem to bring along either brood stock or eggs. The brown is one of the most widely distributed trout in the world.

Browns are found throughout the West, North-Central and Northeastern United States, as well as the Canadian Rockies and along the eastern coast of Canada.


Theodore Gordon, who is considered the "Father of American fly fishing," frequently referred to browns as "yellow trout" because of the predominance of this color along the lower flanks and belly of many specimens, particularly during their fall spawning runs.

The brown trout's body is about five times as long as it is deep, and its fins (as with all trout) are soft-rayed. They do not have sharp-pointed spines like the dorsal fin of a perch for example. The fish is brown in color, often shading to nearly black on its back. Black spots mark the sides, back and dorsal fin. These are frequently surrounded by a soft halo of silver or much lighter brown. Lesser numbers of crimson or orange spots are often present. The belly may be anywhere from yellow to creamy white. The fins, including the square-shaped tail, are dusky brown.

The tail may also have a number of indistinct spots. The only fish the brown might be confused with is the landlocked salmon of the eastern portion of the continent, but the brown has a double zigzag row of vomerine (middle of the roof of the mouth) teeth, while the landlocks are poorly developed.

The Lock Leven version is a still-water strain that is much more silvery than the German fish that contributed the genes responsible for the red and black spots and yellow color of many of today's browns. Because of intrabreeding among the strains, variations in color now are due more to environmental conditions than genetic traits.

Brown trout can reach weights of 40 pounds. Every year anglers regularly take fish of greater than 10 pounds in the Western U.S., less often in the East. A 5-pound brown is a big fish in the West. Two pounds generates similar excitement in the East where waters are usually smaller and fishing pressure much more intense. This is all relative, and an angler's scale of perspective seems to adapt almost immediately to an area's conditions. Brown trout usually exceed 18 inches by the sixth year and may live as long as 18 years. They spawn in the fall in moving water that flows over clean gravel where the eggs and milt are deposited. Large females lay several thousand eggs which hatch the following spring. A mature male can always be differentiated from a female because of the male's development of a kype or hooked lower jaw.

Big Browns Like Big Meals

Brown trout feed on aquatic insects such as mayflies, caddis flies and stone flies along with terrestrials and crayfish. Big browns prefer forage fish and other trout including their own kind. Some anglers refer to browns that feed heavily on other trout as cannibals. They are often caught for the express purpose of removing them from a certain river or lake under the mistaken impression that this will improve the fishing. Usually what happens is that another dominate brown takes up residence in the former's preferred lie and resumes the feeding pattern done in the past.

Browns are often nocturnal feeders, and many of the largest fish are taken after dark, a truly unique experience on a river where maintaining your footing is a sporting proposition in itself as a huge unseen fish tears line off your reel.

Browns are crafty and voracious eaters, feeding extensively on forage fish and smaller trout.


There are several subspecies and related species including a race of brown trout in Ireland that feeds entirely on snails. The ohrid trout (Salmo letnica), native to Yugoslavia, was introduced into a few waters in Minnesota, but the fish were found to be slow-growing and late-maturing, decidedly negative characteristics for an introduced sportfish.

Other species that resemble the brown include the softmouth (Salmo obtusirostris) of Yugoslavia, which is similar except for a sucker-like mouth; the seven (Salmo ischchan) of the Soviet Union and the marble (Salmo mormoratus), also of Yugoslavia, which can exceed 40 pounds and is even more predacious than the brown.

Brown trout have also acquired a reputation of being able to survive in waters where other trout cannot those waters that are either considered too polluted or too warm. There is some evidence to justify the part concerning tolerance of despite heavy concentrations of toxic metals accumulated from decades of mining.

As for temperature, studies seem to indicate that rainbows have a higher upper limit tolerance than browns, despite what many anglers may believe. One of the main reasons for this misconception is that brown trout prefer deep runs and pools, while other species are often found in sparkling mountain streams and fast-flowing riffles water that gives the appearance of being colder than prime brown-holding areas.

Browns are the Hardest Trout to Catch

Anglers consider brown trout the most difficult to catch, especially when they reach a couple of pounds or more. In Oregon on the Deschutes, one brown was taken for every four rainbow by anglers, and in Maine, the ratio was one brown to every five brook trout. The reason for this is obvious when one examines the locations where big browns are found. The largest fish prefer undercut banks, calm areas in among logjams, deep eddies and pools and powerful runs. This is among the toughest water to fish properly. The trout will not move far to take the lure or bait because the expenditure in energy is too great. So, the angler must get his offering down along the bottom or back under a bank, often among a tangle of roots. The feeding lane for these browns is often no more than a couple of inches wide, a very narrow window of opportunity.

What then distinguishes a brown trout from other members of its clan when it comes to feeding and fighting characteristics? One thing is for sure. If you want to consistently take big browns, you are going to have to use a big bait. You are not going to take very many browns that weigh a couple of pounds or more with a maggot or a 1/16th-ounce spoon or a No. 24 midge dry. Older browns will not waste their valuable energy chasing the small stuff.

Admittedly, there are times when browns weighing 5 pounds or more gorge themselves on aquatic insects. Summer evenings on the Beaverhead in southwestern Montana will often find large fish cruising the smooth water near shore scooping up mouthfuls of caddis flies that are hatching in such profusion that their mating flights obscure the water's surface and the bankside bushes. Anglers are often unable to catch any of these fish for the simple reason that their flies are lost in the swirling crowd. At other times on the same river, the damselfly hatch brings the big boys to the surface, but even with the smaller numbers of flying bodies on the water, the angler still has a somewhat difficult time attracting the attention of the browns.

Over the years, fishing down deep for large browns with large offerings has proven itself time and time again. Losing tackle is part of the process if you are fishing trophy-fish water properly. Whether this is a large spinner, spoon, minnow or streamer such as a Woolly Bugger, the key is to locate the deepest, nastiest, most-secure looking water a river has to offer.

If there is a tangle of small tree limbs submerged next to a wide curve in a stream with an undercut bank filled with exposed tree roots, there will also be a very large brown trout. To move the fish, the lure must be worked right in front of its nose; otherwise, the trout won't budge.

Sometimes, getting anything under a bank is impossible, but there is a tactic that sometimes provokes an attack. I prefer a large streamer and hefty fly rod, but any gear and lure will work. Cast the lure right to the bank. Bouncing off trees, dirt or rocks is fine and part of the game. As soon as the bait reaches the target, the line is stripped in as fast as possible, or the spinner retrieved very quickly. This is done over and over, literally pounding the banks, bushes or any cover you find.

Even on a very bright summer day, brown trout cannot resist this activity. They will come out of nowhere and race after your lure. More fish will be missed than hooked, but this can be some of the most exciting (and nerve wracking) trout fishing around. When you find a stretch of water that is deep, fast and with lots of cover, undercut banks (big fish will always be here) and submerged logs and brush, you have found brown trout heaven. Landing 50 percent of the trout you move is a good success rate.

Small streams, less than 20 feet wide, that flow into brown trout rivers nearly always hold big fish, especially in the fall. Look for the same water you would fish on a river and any protected deep hole. Browns will be there. Anglers take fish of several pounds in streams that are narrow enough to jump across in spots, but also have holes several feet deep for the browns to hide in. Depth, with several current seams distorting and refracting the light, equals cover.

More than any other trout, browns seek out overhead protection. With the notable exception of spawning time, or when they are feeding on a prolific insect hatch, browns will not be found out in the open like rainbows or cutthroat holding in the riffles. Browns are predators of secrecy and stealth.

Most anglers believe that browns fight with deep runs, and rainbows are the acrobats of the family. In cold rivers, I've found that most browns jump at least once and often several times when first hooked. Then, they run long and deep. If you are not ready for these initial jumps, the fish, more often than not, will slip the hook.

Big Browns In The Fall

In the fall, a great place to look for big browns, one that is a little easier to fish, is out in the open along gravel bars. This is the type of stream bottom the fish use for spawning. You won't find the fish here on bright days. They will be hiding under cover. But when the skies cloud over and the weather turns autumn nasty, large trout will move out over these areas.

Almost anything worked right along the bottom, bounced right up to the browns, will turn the trick, but a red-and-white spoon cast quartering upstream and then retrieved medium-fast as it swings across, and in front of the fish, produces vicious strikes more often than anything else. The fish will be large and 10-pound test or greater line (hefty by trout standards) is required along with a good ball-bearing swivel. Terminal tackle is the weak link in the equipment chain for most anglers and is responsible for more lost fish than any other piece of gear. A little attention and money spent here can increase catch rates by a third or more.

The most important thing to remember with browns is that the best time to fish for them during the summer is late in the day or at night. In autumn, after August, watch for cooling weather coupled with cloud cover. Whatever you use, make sure it is large. Spoons should weigh a quarter ounce or more. Streamers should be at least No. 4, and No. 2 is better still.

Finally, look for stretches of a river that have plenty of cover like brush piles and undercut banks. This cannot be stressed too often. In water with good numbers of browns, fish the banks first and hard. That's where the big boys hang out.

Sea Trout Provide Great Sport

The sea-run, or anadromous form, of the brown trout is called the sea trout. They normally reach about 5 pounds in their East Coast spawning rivers. There are also minor populations in Argentina, Chile and New Zealand. In Europe, the fish is known variously as the peal, sewin, white trout, finnock, whitling and herling. The largest sea trout are caught in Argentina, Norway and Sweden where the fish may reach 30 pounds. Silvery in appearance when first returned from the ocean, the trout gradually darken and return to their freshwater appearance as they spend more time in native rivers.

The majority of sea trout spend the first three years of life in their home rivers before migrating to sea where some of the trout spend as little as two months before returning to freshwater. Biologists consider the sea trout/brown trout relationship to be the equivalent of the steelhead/rainbow trout relationship. It is believed that mature trout return after three years in the ocean, while immature fish return after a year and a half to river estuaries. Mature fish weigh from 4 to 9 pounds, and immature fish weigh around 1 to 3 pounds.

Zane Grey said, "The fight of a sea trout is thus stronger than that of a brown trout and, if possible, even more active and full of quick turns ... I prefer a good fresh run sea trout, of three or four pounds, in a river on a single-handed rod and fine tackle to anything else." Fine praise indeed from a man who spent every spare minute fishing throughout the world.

The sea trout is a cautious individual and as such, easier to catch after dark when found in rivers. It is less spooky in lakes. Tactics that work on freshwater browns work on sea trout. When found in the mouths of rivers, sea trout are provoked by large streamers cast far out on the water and rapidly stripped through the water. The fish, when hooked, is famous for a leaping, fast-running fight.

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