Off-Road Brook Trout
Each fish species has a unique combination of features that endear them to certain subsets of the angling community. Some species are favored because of their large size. Some are beloved because of the challenging sport they provide in coaxing them to strike or landing them once they do. Others are prized less for their performance in the water and more for their performance on the table. Still others hold a special place in our hearts because of aesthetics, beauty both in the fish themselves and the places they take us. Such is the case with brook trout.
A “big” brook trout may be smaller than a striper plug, but it makes up for size and strength with spunk; and, each one is decorated with a breathtaking array of colors and patterns that never gets old. They are also very accessible, with wild populations present in just about every small, cold stream in New England. It’s no wonder that they are one of the favorite targets of the region’s anglers.
While brook trout are easily accessible throughout much of New England, some of the best and most fulfilling brook trout fishing can be had well off the beaten path. Roadside streams see more fishing effort simply because many anglers lack the initiative to get more than a few steps away from an internal combustion engine. While these streams never get “fished out” completely, anglers selectively harvest the larger fish, leaving behind smaller, educated fish that may have been hooked and released a few times. For these reasons, some of the best brook trout fishing, not to mention better scenery, might be just a short walk away.
Brook Trout Biology
The single most important defining characteristic of brook trout biology is their need for cold water. If you find a New England stream with cold water, you are likely to find brook trout. How cold? A few years ago, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, where I work as a fisheries biologist, performed a study to determine what factors were the most important predictors of brook trout abundance in northeastern Vermont. We found that the best brook trout streams rarely exceeded 68 degrees, even in the summer. We also found that brook trout tended to be more abundant in streams with deeper water and large amounts of woody material. Such material, in the form of logs and branches contributed from the surrounding forest, provides hiding places for brook trout and can increase depth by creating small impoundments upstream and plunge pools downstream.
Depth and cover are important for brook trout because of the second most defining characteristic of brook trout biology, namely that it is really hard to be a brook trout. Because of their all-important need for cold water, these fish are often limited to relatively small, shallow streams – at least, that is the case in much of New England. Living in small, shallow streams is difficult for several reasons. Fish in tight quarters are easier targets for predators like mink, otters, herons, and kingfishers, especially during summer droughts when brook trout are forced to congregate in deep pools or at cold spring seeps. Winter can be even more difficult when brook trout find themselves squeezed into even tighter quarters by ice sheets that can take up most of the water column.
This hard life is why stream-dwelling brook trout tend to be small. They reach trophy proportions only in ponds and larger rivers where they have adequate cold water, depth, and food to allow for multiple-year survival and fast growth. In their more typical small stream habitat, they have a high mortality rate, which means that each fish has a very high likelihood of dying of natural causes each year. In Vermont streams, approximately 90% of brook trout are less than six inches long, which roughly corresponds to two years of age. (This is true even in streams that see little or no fishing effort.) These fish don’t have time to grow to large sizes, but they don’t need to because they mature early, with some brook trout able to reproduce at age one and nearly all reproducing by age two. They are also prolific spawners, keeping the streams well-stocked with the next generation. The brook trout’s high mortality and reproductive rates mean that anglers should not feel guilty about keeping some fish for the table, especially on lightly fished back-country streams. Of course, if you feel guilty about robbing the mink family of its next meal or stealing away another victim from Old Man Winter, I respect your decision to practice catch and release.
Choosing a Stream to Explore
Finding cold water is one of the most important considerations when planning a wilderness brook trout trip. Look for streams flowing off wooded hillsides – if the stream is small enough that the surrounding forest provides shade for most of the day, there is a good chance it will be cold enough to support a fishable population of brook trout. One exception is a pond outlet stream, which usually consists of warm waters skimmed from the pond’s surface. If in doubt, take the stream’s temperature during a hot summer day. If it is less than about 68 degrees, it is cold enough for brook trout. A good map and a look at something like Google Earth can help you assess the amount of forest cover along the stream and whether there are any ponds that might warm the water.
A map can also be helpful for determining land ownership, which is another important consideration when planning a wilderness fishing trip. Fortunately, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine offer several thousand acres of forested lands open to public access, including state wildlife management areas, state forests, national forests, federal refuges, and private timber company lands with public access easements. A call to a local fisheries biologist might also help to narrow down your search for good brook trout streams on publicly accessible lands.
Gear and Techniques
After choosing the right stream to explore, the next important decision is choosing the right footwear. If you are going to be walking more than a mile, a pair of hiking boots may be the way to go. These provide the support and comfort needed to march though the woods and rock-hop across the stream when necessary. Hip boots or chest waders are the best option for streams that are too large to hop across, but they are usually not very pleasant for hiking long distances. Knee-high rubber boots may be the best all-around option because they allow for some wading in shallow water without the added weight and heat of waders. In some cases, the best option may be to do the hiking in boots while packing along waders or sandals for fishing. If you are fishing alone, always let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return, just in case you get hurt or lost out there. Of course, there is the risk that you may decide you love wilderness brook trout fishing so much that you want to get lost.
The next decision is what gear and tackle to use. A simple worm on a hook has probably accounted for more brook trout than all other baits, lures, and flies combined, but even when fishing a worm, there are additional considerations. Adding a split shot above the hook helps with casting and can get the bait down in deeper water, but fishing without added weight provides a more natural presentation. On the other hand, a flashier presentation like a snelled spinner rig tipped with a worm chunk may be more effective on some days. Another consideration is the type of rod to use. Most bait anglers prefer a spinning rod, but some prefer a fly rod. A long fly rod and an underhand pitching motion can be used to precisely plop a baited hook into tight places, a tactic which is often necessary on small streams with overhanging trees.
Of course, a fly rod can be used to present flies. Some anglers prefer short fly rods for brook trout streams because of the tight quarters and limited casting space. Others prefer long rods that can be used to make longer roll casts, underhand pitches, and bow-and-arrow casts. I have a friend who is very experienced in fly-fishing small brook trout streams, and he claims that an angler needs only two flies for this activity: an elk hair caddis and a beadhead pheasant tail nymph. He is probably right most of the time, but I have learned that the fish sometimes prefer something bigger, such as a Muddler Minnow, or flashier, like a yellow strike indicator (I need to start putting a hook in those things).
Spinning lures like spoons and spinners are often frustrating to fish on small brook trout streams because they require more frequent casting and more water to fish effectively.
The final consideration is where on the stream to fish. My advice is to do more walking and looking than casting. If a stream is cold enough, brook trout will be present in most of it, but shallower areas with no cover will usually be dominated by the little guys. The larger, adult fish are usually found in the best habitats. Likely locations include deep plunge pools created by waterfalls, large boulders, or downed trees. Brook trout feed primarily on insects drifting in the current, so they prefer to hold in slower water with easy access to faster current that serves as the grocery conveyor belt. It may also be helpful to ask yourself where a predator might have the hardest time seeing and catching a brook trout – that is where the bigger ones will be.
When you spy a likely location, approach very carefully so as not to alert the fish that yet another predator has come to call. I sometimes crawl into position on my hands and knees. Approaching from downstream often minimizes the risk of being spotted because the fish are usually facing upstream, waiting for food. Food is scarce in most brook trout streams, so the fish are often hungry and aggressive. If they are not cooperative, try changing your presentation while “resting” the pool, which can be especially effective when fly-fishing. The fish may have decided that they don’t like the look of your Mickey Finn, but if you give them ten minutes to forget about it and come back with a small beadhead nymph, you may find more takers. If you accidentally spook a pool, it could take at least a half-hour before the fish will consider biting again.
While exploring, you may also come across a beaver pond, which is worthy of an article of its own. Here, I will note only that beaver ponds can be hit or miss – they can provide the best brook trout fishing you’ve ever experienced or they can be full of nothing but chubs and dace. The difference is water temperature. A newly built beaver pond on a cold stream will often maintain cool enough temperatures to support trout. Beaver ponds built on warm streams and ones that have grown shallow with accumulating silt will be too warm for brook trout.
I can tell you from experience that getting away from the road does not guarantee great brook trout fishing. Every summer, my co-workers and I spend many days sampling streams throughout northeastern Vermont. Much of this sampling occurs near roads to minimize the distance that we need to carry our electrofishing equipment and other gear. One stream we sampled last summer had a particularly abundant population of brook trout, but none were over six inches long. I had previously fished this stream with rod and reel, and caught plenty of larger trout, but I had done it well over a half mile from the road. Based on our findings and my past experience, I concluded that the roadside portion of this stream must be popular with anglers and that they had managed to harvest most of the larger fish.
On the day we sampled that stream, we had all agreed to bring our fishing gear and do some angling (on our own time) before making the long drive home. The stream we chose to fish was the same one in which we found no larger trout near the road. “Not to worry.” I thought, “We’ll just get away from the road.” We did get deeper into the wilderness, but we were disappointed with our results. We saw and caught plenty of small brook trout, but very few over six inches.
I was determined to find those larger fish, so I set out on my own to some fishing holes I knew further upstream and further from the road. I marched to a section of the stream where I had done well in the past and found the same thing, mainly small fish. Puzzled but undaunted, I marched upstream to the base of a waterfall that I had found previously, where there was the biggest, deepest pool in the brook. The waterfall is not named and not on the maps, so very few people know about it. I paused to take in the scenery. The waterfall was about fifteen feet tall, and during this hot, dry summer, it was a massive mound of gray granite flanked by lush, green hardwoods with three or four white ribbons cascading over its surface. “If I can’t catch them here, I won’t catch them anywhere,” I thought to myself as I made my first cast, which produced yet another four-incher. Not what I expected from such a good-looking pool. I was out of ideas and starting to run out of interest, but I kept up a half-hearted effort for a few more casts.
Suddenly, a splash sounded near the base of the waterfall and to my left. It was a big splash that made my heart race and visions of trophy brook trout dance in my head. I looked in that direction in time to see the water erupt again. That was no trout rise. What was it? A few seconds later, a wet, mahogany head popped above the water like a miniature Loch Ness monster. It was an otter; actually, it was four of them. Four of the most skilled and voracious fish eaters in the north country in a small stream made even smaller by that summer’s drought … this might explain some things. I gazed in startled wonder as the family of four swam downstream, less than ten yards away. Should I have been concerned for the stream’s trout population? No, even otters can’t catch them all, and when the fishing gets too tough for them, they will move on to a new stream. Should I have been jealous? No, sometimes the best part of pursuing brook trout in the great Northwoods isn’t the catching, and sometimes it isn’t even the fishing. That day, I got to behold my own, personal waterfall, I got to observe a family of otters at very close range, and I got to admire some of the most beautiful fish in the Northwoods.
Jud Kratzer is a fisheries biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, where most of his projects are funded by fishing license sales and sportfish restoration funds (federal excise tax on fishing equipment and marine fuels) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.