Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Brown Trout

Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Brown Trout

Along with new Spey tactics for Great Lakes brown trout, the burgeoning fishery is also encouraging new fly development. Left to right (top) are Senyo's Truttanator, Senyo's Parr-ticular, Merlino's Rainbow Smelt Critter, (bottom) Senyo's Super Ice Man, and Matt's Great Lakes Mykiss. See flyfisherman.com for complete fly pattern recipes.


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 Truttanatora sculpin/string leech imitation of a goby, emerald shiner, or sculpin all in one packagehe 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.


Junkyard Dogs

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 Rivera 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 directionspredominantly from invasive species like zebra mussels, Asian carp, and gobiesbrowns 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.


Continued - click on page link below.

Great Lakes brown trout typically run from 7 to 15 pounds, but fish over 20 pounds are always possible, especially in tributaries running into fertile lakes such as Ontario and Michigan. Photo: Grahm Owen

They are fond of harbors, warmwater discharges from power plants, sewage purification stations, and other "slum" areas where unusually high plankton and nutrient loads feed baitfish and other smaller prey species. Also in shallow bays and along the shorelines are heavy populations of Hexagenia limbata mayflies that cause lake-dwelling browns to become elegant topwater sippers in July and August when this hatch occurs.

Of course, brown trout also love salmon and steelhead eggs, and whenever these other gamefish are migrating or spawning, you can be sure the browns are close behind.

I'll never forget a 20-pound lake-run brown I stalked for weeks on Michigan's Torch Lake watersheda deep glacial lake system that empties into Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay. The water is extremely clear, and like clockwork, each day I watched the big trout swim out of the lake and take position behind the spawning salmon. Anchoring my drift boat far away from the trout to avoid spooking it, we threw egg patterns, nymphs, streamers, leeches, baitfish, and finally tube flies. The large flies did nothing but alarm the fish and send it scurrying.

Eventually I dropped down to 6-pound-test fluorocarbon tippet and a tiny creamy peach Trout Bead egg. After a dozen looks and refusals, the big male inhaled it. The fight took me 300 feet into my backing as the brown bolted immediately for the security of the big lake on its first run. We rowed as fast as we could to keep up, but light tippet on this fish was hopeless. Guide Bill Veurink caught and landed the same fish a week later.

Photo: Ross Purnell

Run Timing

Fall, winter, and spring are by far the most opportune times to focus on lake-run browns, but don't rule out summer if the offshore surf and wind conditions are perfect. In August on the Lake Superior shoreline of Wisconsin, the Bois Brule River hosts an excellent run of surface-feeding wild lake-run browns.

In late November through February on most Great Lakes tributaries, you find migrating salmon, steelhead, lake trout, and brown trout all on their annual upstream spawning runs.

Decreasing daylight and cooler nearshore water temperatures trigger the pineal glands of the browns for upriver migration. Browns can detect the slightest increase in river flow levels, and a strong river spate or the powerful scent of spawning salmon are irresistible migration signals.

If you could pinpoint the ideal fall conditions to hunt lake-runs, it would be after a strong cold front that dumps lots of rain and raises the river levels to spate, and hopefully coincides with a full moon. Whiteout, lake-effect snow squalls and fierce storms that pound the waves on the beaches at river mouths are perfect "safe haven" environments for browns to migrate. These conditions encourage elusive brown trout to become more aggressive. Mornings and evenings provide similar low-light opportunities.

Tackle

For swinging large baitfish flies and tubes, I like two-handed, 11- and 12-foot switch and Spey rods. Use short and regular Skagit lines with T-14 heads in different lengths for different depths. For Great Lakes-style deep nymphing with strike indicators, the standard set-up is 10- or 11-foot, 7- or 8-weight, single-handed rods, but with switch rods you can do it all.

A light, sealed large-arbor reel with smooth drag is important since in clear water you often use light fluorocarbon tippet. Browns have keen eyesight, but in murky off-color spate conditions you can get away with 8-pound Maxima.

Matthew Supinski and his wife Laurie own Gray Drake Lodge and Outfitters, an Orvis-endorsed operation in Newaygo, Michigan (graydrake.com).

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

Recommended for You

Modern methods for catching smallmouths on topwater flies. Bass

How to Catch Smallmouth Bass on Topwater Flies

Dave Karczynski and Tim Landwehr

Modern methods for catching smallmouths on topwater flies.

Chip's Monster Magic. Designed in Saskatchewan's pike paradise - works anywhere. Fly Tying

Fly Tying Chip's Monster Magic Fly

Dwayne 'Chip' Cromarty - January 15, 2016

Chip's Monster Magic. Designed in Saskatchewan's pike paradise - works anywhere.

The fly fishing communities in the U.S. and Belize are mourning after twin slayings that occurred on what appeared to be a routine guide trip on Sunday, June 23, 2019 in a shallow lagoon near San Pedro, Brazil. Industry

Fly Fishing Community Stunned by Twin Slayings on Belize Saltwater Flat

Fly Fisherman Online Staff - June 27, 2019

The fly fishing communities in the U.S. and Belize are mourning after twin slayings that...

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Breaking the Surface

Breaking the Surface

Attack of the Bass continues as Breaking the Surface attacks bass with fly and lure 12:30pm ET Sunday, April 17th.

Fly Fishing for Taimen in Mongolia

Fly Fishing for Taimen in Mongolia

Finding giant Mongolia taimen and a state of enlightenment.

Casting Backhand in Tight Quarters

Casting Backhand in Tight Quarters

A backhand cast is when you use your backcast to deliver the fly.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Best Panfish Flies Fly Tying

Best Panfish Flies

Skip Morris - October 17, 2016

Best Panfish Flies

You don't always catch large trout in these alpine lakes and streams, but even the small ones are brightly colored treasures. Trout

Alpine Lakes for Remote Monsters

Landon Mayer - April 18, 2018

You don't always catch large trout in these alpine lakes and streams, but even the small ones...

American River California United States

American River California

MIchael Wier - March 23, 2017

American River California

See More Stories

More Trout

Here's three proven guide strategies for effectively presenting flies to steelhead. Trout

Effectively Presenting Flies to Steelhead

John Larison - February 26, 2018

Here's three proven guide strategies for effectively presenting flies to steelhead.

The Brachycentrus hatch along the Watauga River is said to be the the Super Bowl of southeastern aquatic insect emergences. Trout

Brachycentrus Hatch on The Country Mile

Matthew Green - December 07, 2017

The Brachycentrus hatch along the Watauga River is said to be the the Super Bowl of...

Rainbows fear the giant brown trout lurking in California's most popular national park. Trout

The Yosemite Boogeyman

Michael Wier

Rainbows fear the giant brown trout lurking in California's most popular national park.

See More Trout

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.