Outside: Chasing Brook Trout

I got into brook trout for the same reasons I sought brown trout, golden trout, char and, for that matter, tarpon, bonefish, permit and even Atlantic salmon; like most anglers I started on the fishes found out my back door — salmon, steelhead and cutthroat — then migrated toward exotic species. And, strange as it might sound, brook trout do seem exotic to me.

That’s because I grew up in western Washington and the nearest brook trout, for all I knew, swam east of the Cascades, somewhere in the sagebrush country of eastern Washington or even farther away in Idaho or Montana. The bastion for brook trout, I knew, was in the Northeast where I had absolutely no interest in being, let alone visiting — a natural Western bias, I think. Therefore, it didn’t look like brook trout would ever be on my radar, let alone a priority fish.

Then I started attending sportsman’s shows in Seattle and I watched every outdoors program I could find — pre-ESPN, OLN and Versus — which meant options were limited at best. Somehow, I became aware of the enormous brook trout to be found in Maine, Manitoba and Labrador. I saw scenes of Lee Wulff hammering 5-pounders on mice imitations in wild, remote and barren tundra country where caribou, moose, wolves and bears ruled the turf. Also I sensed the history involved with brook trout, from the fly-in wilderness camps of early angling explorers, to the weathered log lodges sprinkled around the North Woods, storied places where anglers gathered, all with a common goal to catch the largest brook trout of their lives. There is lore associated with brook trout that you can’t find in the West, mostly because our Western angling history doesn’t date as far as the East’s. And, perhaps, because we remain in an angling infancy, a state of denial where we still believe in secret places and mystery and that those gems will remain just that if we just don’t mention our successes. It’s a miscalculation, of course, and does nothing to promote fellowship, but a nice dreamy vision nonetheless.

On the flip-side there’s something to be said about an opportunity to pioneer in the West. And if you want to do just that, brook trout are a good place to start because they aren’t as common here as brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. Naturally, catching a good one, meaning a brookie stretching 18 inches or longer, isn’t as easy as landing one of the more common fishes matching those dimensions. You can find little beaver ponds sprinkled through Wyoming, Idaho and Montana hosting scads of brook trout, and you can target some hefty brookies in places like Idaho’s Henry’s Lake and Montana’s Georgetown Lake, but even here a 20-incher weighing 3 pounds is a giant. In Maine, Manitoba and Labrador a monster brook trout might range between 6 and 10 pounds. The largest brook trout ever landed, by all accounts, is a 16-pounder taken in Manitoba by Tim Matheson. The largest brook trout I’ve found are finning in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains.

I discovered those fish while on a week-long backpack trip prospecting for golden trout. I’d set out to catch the world-record golden and failed miserably. All of the lakes I’d researched so thoroughly and tagged with “possible world record” seemed barren. By the end of the fourth day I threw away all that research and targeted off-trail lakes, hoping that a golden or two had accidentally slipped down a drainage or that a pilot had stocked a load of fish in an unnamed lake, a private little stash that he or she might pilfer for years.

One of those off-trail lakes was completely obscured from view by surrounding timber. I stumbled on it while taking a direct path from one drainage to another. Seriously, I had to wonder how many people had cast a line on that lake even though it was large enough to host lots of trout and contained an inlet and outlet suitable for spawning, which meant the lake could be self-sustaining and carry a trout population indefinitely. I remember being about as excited as I’ve ever been when a rise broke the lake’s flat surface. Life! I was dreaming giant golden, but my first cast was eaten by a fish with bright, white-tipped fins. A couple minutes later I had a 3-pound brook trout in the net and I let out the loudest holler of my life that nobody heard. Hey, this wasn’t Lee Wulff skating mice imitations in Labrador, but it was pretty damn cool, I thought. By the end of the day I’d landed a few more book trout of equal size.

I returned to Wyoming not long ago specifically looking for brook trout, but this time in moving water, where large specimens of that species are even more difficult to find. I hit the Tongue River in the Big Horn Mountains and found a gently meandering meadow stream that coursed through a high, broad valley. Rarely could the river be seen from the road because a thick band of willows, 100 yards deep on either side, obscured it from view. This was all fine until I tried to reach the water and, while parting super-thick willows, bumped into a cow moose at a distance of, say, 6 yards. I ran away as fast as I could and, thankfully, the moose didn’t chase. But, as I broke through the brush another moose rose to its hooves and towered over me. I reversed direction and ran halfway back to the first moose before I stopped. Then I carved another path to the stream where I fished between those two moose, looking over my shoulder between casts.

I wasn’t fully concentrating on the fishing, but that didn’t matter. The Tongue River’s cutthroat and brook trout are abundant. Fall Baetis rode the surface in droves. And trout eagerly scarfed them down. The cutthroats were yellowish and heavily spotted; the brook trout were dark on their backs, brilliant orange on their sides, stacked up in tiny feeder creeks and sloughs, their white-tipped fins giving away their hiding places. Also they were easy; I tied on a flashback pheasant-tail nymph and drifted it through those fish and they didn’t even think twice about eating. After a while it got old. There wasn’t much left to prove. And the light was beginning to fade. Those moose were somewhere near, I was sure. So I left with my mind set on fishing the next day at a lowland lake known for big brown trout.

That may be why brook trout aren’t revered in the West — anglers usually encounter brookies in beaver ponds, small streams and mountain lakes where they are often stunted in growth because they outcompete native species and reproduce profusely. Soon, they quash food supplies and rarely achieve 6 inches. They make great table-fare and anglers are encouraged to fry as many as the law allows, but that lack of trophy potential and the ease at which they arrive in the net steers most anglers clear. However, they remain the trout of choice in the East and the legend and lore of that fish, I soon discovered, is as pronounced now as it was when Lee Wulff cast mice patterns over their heads.

One year a friend, Jim, invited me to his wedding, which was located on manicured grounds next to a remote, private lake in Connecticut. The groom and groomsmen camped next to the lake during a week-long fray. We mostly stayed out of trouble, although our campfire antics were questionable at best. Overall, however, we Westerners made what I thought was a suitable effort at pomp-and-circumstance. That is until a few of us fished brook trout at a historic, private lodge (with $100,000 memberships fees) tucked away in the thick woods.

We got the invite to this trout club after the groom ingratiated himself with a member. This is something you and I couldn’t do, but Jim holds an Ivy League education and could talk a python out of a half-swallowed deer. I don’t know what Jim said to this guy, don’t really care, but soon we were being shuttled up a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, paralleling a small, crystal-clear stream with many deep pools and subtle riffles, all lined by the Eastern hardwoods I remembered seeing in those old films on brook trout. As we arrived at the lodge I thought, This is the kind of place Lee Wulff would have fished.

We were met by a groundskeeper who didn’t seem too enthused with our presence. He gruffly showed us around and we feigned interest until entering a hall containing rows of rustic, yet beautiful hardwood lockers where club members stashed gear until their next visit or death, whichever came first of course, at which time their membership would transfer to the next in line. Then we marveled at old photos showing famous men puffing on big cigars and raising Scotches toward the sky, the other hands hoisting stringers of dead fish. Most intriguing was a logbook dating back to the Neanderthal days where club members recorded hatches, wildlife sightings, weather conditions and, of course, their catches.

As we perused the numbers the groundskeeper talked down to us and warned, “This is a historic place that’s seen all the best anglers. It’s a tough place to catch fish. They are super-wary and smart. Do not be disappointed if you don’t catch a thing — lots of people don’t catch anything here and those are club members who fish often. It’s a humbling place, boys, and you’ll probably leave here with more questions than answers.”

I took one more glance at the logbook before walking to the water — most entries recorded catches of one or two fish with the occasional “Greatest day of my life!” entry detailing the capture of 10 or more fish. One of those entries, I noticed, was penned by Lee Wulff. Two entries were inked by long-dead U.S. presidents.

We didn’t look like much of a fly-fishing crew. The three of us wore whatever we’d brought with us to Connecticut; I remember shaking off a hangover in shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of Johnny Cash; Jim wore some sort of collared fly-fishing shirt that looked more likely to serve purpose on a zebra hunt than a fly-fishing stream; and our pal Steve wore a grungy ballcap and a hooded sweatshirt. If a real clubmember had passed they would have called the state police figuring one of us to be Eric Rudolph.

I don’t know what kind of tactics they use at private clubs in the East, but our trio of offerings — a dry fly on one rod, a woolly bugger on another, and a double nymph rig on the third — completely wrecked the trout. Each pool held so many oversized fish that I expected to see a dust plume from a hatchery truck leaving the grounds.

Jim landed a few 20-inchers; Steve railed on one rainbow, brown or brook trout after the other and sneered, “Yep, real difficult!” I buggered fish out of each pool and chimed, “Alright, who’s next? Who doesn’t have a hook-scar?”

Together we admonished those fish as nymph-grubbing whores, the East as a fly-fishers preschool, and the private trout club and its pristine stream as a hatchery raceway.

However, our attitudes mellowed as we neared the old clubhouse. Each of us signed the logbook and penned favorable thoughts. As a group I think we permanently marked 14 fish, enough to set our prowess with the fly rod — and properly represent the West — but not so many as to seem incredibly greedy or just plain liars.

I’m still prone to call brook trout pushovers, no matter where they are found, but I’m also sure there are waters where those fish see heavy pressure and develop rainbow or brown trout-like mentalities. And there are still places where brook trout are living and never fished. One of my friends heard a rumor about brook trout that reach 15 pounds and he flew all the way to Chile to find out if it was true. He spent two weeks in a shack with some old woman who cut her hair off each year and tacked it to the wall. She made bread every night, probably because she didn’t own any teeth; he drank Jack Daniels every night; and it rained every day and night for two weeks. He’d read both of his books in three days. With all the rain he couldn’t make it through the jungle or navigate the Class V rapids that protect the upper lake where the giants were rumored to fin. Maybe the East is figured out, but there are brook trout in the West and farther away, in places like South America, that continue to tempt. And, if there’s a rumor in fishing, some angler is going to chase it. Might as well be a brook trout.

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