Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Brown Trout
January 15, 2016
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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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 watershed—a 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.
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.
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).