The November gale came off Lake Ontario and pounded the shore like a curse. With it came blinding snow squalls that stung our faces as we cast. Josh and I were cruising “brown trout alley,” the southern coast of Lake Ontario between Eighteenmile Creek and the Salmon River at Pulaski, New York.
Driving along the coastal roads was often impossible. When the snow turned into a whiteout, we used the guardrails for navigation. We were spending a few days “creek jumping”—stopping at every stream with lake-run browns like Oak Orchard, Johnson’s, Maxwell, both Sandys, and several other “somethingmile” creeks that often have only a trickle of water, but now might be flowing with a late, off-color spate that pulls big browns in from the lake.
Near the mouth of a small tributary, we noticed the backs of late-spawning coho and Chinook salmon disturbing the water over a gravel shoal. Josh spotted three or four nervous, shadowy fish below the gravel drop-off at the mouth. Throwing a Truttanator—a sculpin/string leech imitation of a goby, emerald shiner, or sculpin all in one package—he let it dead-drift past the spawning salmon. With a slow, steady strip he got a reaction from a kyped-jaw brown but nothing more.
We rested the pool like Atlantic salmon fishers, and then Josh made another cast. Same drift, same strip, and this time the brown chased and engulfed the fly. After three or four surface-thrashing head shakes, the brute headed past the gravel bar and out into Lake Ontario.
After a stubborn battle, and a few quick photos, we released the hook-jawed male back into the lake. We sat in the snow smiling like Cheshire cats, and popped open a couple of Sackets Harbor Lake Effect Winter Ales to make the moment perfect.
With the wind and snow we had the place to ourselves, and we were certainly the only ones crazy enough to pack cold beer with us.
Like most other immigrants of the day, brown trout came to North America through New York Harbor. In 1884 they were introduced to the Pere Marquette River—a tributary to Lake Michigan. As Great Lakes brown trout were later introduced all over the Great Lakes and the rest of the Northeast, they eventually displaced the more fragile native brook trout in many rivers.
In 1979 New York State received the first shipment of 4,000 fertilized Seeforellen German trout eggs. These trout came from a deep glacial lake in the Bavarian Alps, and are known to grow up to 40 pounds and live 12 to 15 years. Seeforellen browns have gargantuan appetites and a predisposition to feed on baitfish like alewives, smelt, herring, and shiners. The Great Lakes provide the ideal habitat for these beastly predators.
In the fall of 2009, a new chapter in the ongoing Great Lakes tale took place on the Big Manistee River in Michigan. Joe Healy, fishing for Chinook salmon on a warm, clear sunny day, latched into what he described as “a brown trout from Hell.” Healy’s 41-pound, 7-ounce beast is probably a descendant of the Seeforellen eggs, and is now the new world record brown trout. Final DNA testing is pending, but it is already reported that the fish was six years old and on its first spawning migration.
The Great Lakes is the perfect soup bowl for these junkyard dogs. These eating machines have a diverse diet and are fond of cruising the shorelines and harbors of the Great Lakes, preferring 60 to 63 degree water, which is too warm for salmon and steelhead.
As the Great Lakes evolve in both positive and negative directions—predominantly from invasive species like zebra mussels, Asian carp, and gobies—browns are poised to capitalize on these new food items. Salmon eat alewives nearly exclusively, but these baitfish have a drastic up-and-down population cycle that in some cases negatively affects the salmon populations.
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