Stories Trout & Char

Brook Trout – My Love/Hate Relationship

If you have followed my personal blog Teton Tenkara, for any amount of time, you will know that I have a complicated relationship with brook trout. While I love to hunt and stalk wild salmonids, I must admit I have a little less of a smile when I see that it’s a brook trout on the end of the line.

Exotic salmonid species were introduced in the intermountain west back in the 1800’s and continued until a few decades ago. As one of these exotic species, the brook trout were introduced into the Teton region in the early 1900’s. Other exotics were introduced as well, mainly the rainbow trout and brown trout. These introduced species were brought in to “enhance” the fisheries for sportsmen. Unfortunately, most of these species out compete the native cutthroat, or become piscivorous earlier in their life cycle thus eating cutthroat smolts before they can develop. This has greatly damaged cutthroat populations in many streams, and has eradicated cutthroat all together in some watersheds.

Brook Trout - My Love/Hate Relationship - Tenkara Angler - Tom Davis - Stream
Brook Trout - My Love/Hate Relationship - Tenkara Angler - Tom Davis

Brook trout (char genus Salvelinus of the salmon family Salmonidae) are native to a wide area of Eastern North America, but are increasingly confined to higher elevations southward in the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia and northwest South Carolina, Canada from the Hudson Bay basin east, the Great Lakes–Saint Lawrence system, the Canadian maritime provinces, and the upper Mississippi River drainage as far west as eastern Iowa. Their southern historic native range has been drastically reduced, with fish being restricted to higher-elevation, remote streams due to habitat loss and introductions of brown and rainbow trout.

As early as 1850, the brook trout’s range started to extend west from its native range through introductions. The brook trout was eventually introduced into suitable habitats throughout the western U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th centuries at the behest of the American Acclimatization Society and by private, state, and federal fisheries authorities. Although not all introductions were successful, a great many established wild, self-sustaining populations of brook trout in non-native waters. 1 Many of those waters are in the greater Yellowstone-Teton ecosystem, where I live.

Brook Trout - My Love/Hate Relationship - Tenkara Angler - Tom Davis - Brookie

But here’s the thing, why is it that I dislike brook trout in my waters, where I don’t have any problem with rainbow or brown trout being there? In fact, although I prefer to hunt out native cutthroat species, my next favorite trout to catch are browns! That just doesn’t make any sense! If I was sticking strictly to this line of thought, I ought to view rainbows and browns just like I view brook trout. But I don’t. And I’m not sure why.

My distorted view of brook trout may come from my childhood. I remember my grandfather talking about trout. He loved “German browns”. He thought they were the highest and loftiest fly fishing quarry. He said they were very wary and hard to catch. He said you had to know what you were doing to be able to hook a brown trout. Next, he loved rainbows. He felt that they fought the best. They were less cautious than browns when taking a fly, but they were still something to aspire for. I don’t ever remember grandpa talking about cutthroats – that’s interesting. But I do remember what he said, or at least what he did with brook trout. He ate them. Yep, he’d catch as many as the law would allow and then fry them up! It’s been said by some that browns are the hardest to catch and brookies are the best tasting of the four “trout”. Maybe that’s why I view brook trout the way that I do, as a food item and not a sports fish.

Brook Trout - My Love/Hate Relationship - Tenkara Angler - Tom Davis - Cutthroat
Not a brook trout. Snake River cutthroat, although not of the Fine Spotted variety. This is my usual quarry.

But it also might be that around my neck of the woods, brook trout tend to stunt out. They are a density dependent species, meaning they will consume an entire food source and stunt out, leaving 10,000 5″ fish in a stream. I guess that’s one reason why some Western states have eradication programs for them. I guess it t depends on the environment you are fishing. In some lakes, streams and beaver ponds the brookies are a victim of their success. They will be stunted with large heads and little bodies. But if they are in a more balanced ecosystem with abundant food, or of they become piscivorous, then larger fish may be present. In Idaho, the creel limit for brook trout is 25. In Wyoming, it’s 16.

Brook Trout - My Love/Hate Relationship - Tenkara Angler - Tom Davis - Hero

I guess I don’t know why I choose not to pursue brook trout. They are very pretty, especially in autumn during the spawn. They take a fly readily and sometimes can be quite selective, making catching them a challenge. When hooked, they fight heroically, usually with much more energy than my beloved cutthroat. And although they are never very big (at least in my waters), they are big enough. Afterall, I’ve never been found guilty of being a “big fish” guy. Wild fish in wild waters is what floats my boat. Although they aren’t native to the west, they are wild fish, and that is something virtuous now days.

So, I need to mend my ways and have a paradigm shift when it comes to brook trout. I’ll try to look on them more kindly and treat them with more respect when they grace me by taking my fly. I’ll stop being so conflicted when I catch them, and just go and catch them and enjoy the ride. But what I really need to do is catch brook trout in their native range and experience these eastern char in the waters of their nativity. Yeah, that’s it! Brook trout in eastern waters! Anybody out there willing to help a western trout snob rehabilitate and become a brook trout lover? If so, cast me a line. Maybe I can reciprocate and treat you to some wild, native cutthroat waters if you ever visit Idaho!

Brook Trout - My Love/Hate Relationship - Tenkara Angler - Tom Davis - Flowers

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  1. Tom, you have an open invitation to come to Roanoke and fish for native brook trout in Southern Appalachian mountains. We can hit several gold medal brook trout streams within 90 minutes of where I live.

  2. Many years, Dave, many years. Hopefully, I’ll get out there this coming year for the Wisconsin/Driftless gathering.

  3. Another instance of “where you stand depends on where you sit” (or, in this case, fish!) As you correctly noted above, the Iowa Driftless has brook trout. There is one single creek representing not only the westernmost extent of native brook trout but the only trout/char native to the state, dating back some 10,000 years to the end of the Pleistocene. The creek is closely monitored by the Iowa DNR and is a special regulations, catch-and-release only waterway. Back in 2004 the DNR introduced fingerling brook trout from this location into a few other small, suitable Iowa creeks; sadly, although they took hold and started reproducing naturally the pervasive French Creek strain of wild brown trout appears to be slowly but inexorably crowding them out. The end result is that northeast Iowa anglers see the local, rare brookies as the crown jewel of Driftless trout fishing.

  4. I feel the same way and have been asking myself the same question for many years! And I don’t know why either. I grew up catching a combination of Cutthroat, Browns and Rainbows in Colorado. Maybe that’s what I got used to and why I’m fine with them. I’m working g on my Brookie attitude as well.

  5. You’re always welcome to come to my area in the heart of the Southern Appalachian form of native brookies. I’m in the junction of three states: North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, surrounded by three national forests and have secret headwater brookie streams in all three. So come on down!

  6. I own land in Northern Maine and have fished new England from 16 to now at 34 and from 6 to 15 in Colorado the brookies are definitely bigger in some places in my neck of the woods but gotta get out there always would love to show someone who loves wild trout in wild waters and it’s life changing for sure I grew that passion in the rockies and furthered in maine vermont and new Hampshire be glad to share fishing experiences and making some with someone who feels the same about trout species my two favorite are the cutty and the brookie there’s some ferocious brookies out here that will give you reasons to love them so.e very colorful ones to I’ve caught them fire truck red bellies

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