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Fin-Telligence: Brown Trout

Left to their own devices, brown trout (salmo trutta) would own the world’s freshwater. They’re aggressive, voracious predators that start young, picking off insects and invertebrates that inhabit the same streams, rivers, and lakes. Bigger specimens (and they DO get big: more than 40 lbs.) make life miserable for their smaller neighbors, snacking happily on fish, frogs, and pretty much anything else that annoys them.


The reason brown trout haven’t emptied the waters of all their rivals is that they are delicious — and fun to catch — themselves. Between people and predators, very few brownies make it beyond a 16″-20″ slot.


And that’s why there’s a whole subculture of reelers that chase not only brown trout, but the big, gold, spotted monsters that’ve eluded capture and predation for years. Trophy browns are an addiction that nobody’s found a cure for.

Brown trout surfacing in a crystal clear creek.

If you want to see for yourself, here are a few things you should probably know before you go.

Where are they?

Once limited to their original Central European range, brown trout have now spread across the globe. They inhabit streams, rivers, and lakes and can tolerate water temperatures to the mid-80s if there’s enough oxygen (i.e., fast-moving streams). Water that’s below 68° F. is ideal, which means higher latitudes and altitudes result in the best fisheries.

the U.S., brown trout eggs were brought over from Germany and Scotland. After the German and Scottish eggs were hybridized and hatched, what’s commonly called the “generic American brown trout” was introduced into Michigan’s Baldwin River in the late 19th Century. Since then, they’ve spread to the mountainous areas of the country, as well as the Upper Midwest thanks to management plans and angling enthusiasm.

Whether you’re fishing the Sierra Nevadas, Ozarks, InterMountain Range, Appalachians, or Northeast Iowa, you’ll find brown trout.

Brown trout who are resident in lakes and reservoirs will migrate up rivers to spawn and return to their homewaters afterward. Each season the trip makes these brood trout bigger and stronger — and smarter. They’re essentially the brown trout equivalent of a steelhead.

What do they eat?

Brown trout are opportunistic predators. But they’re also wily and wary. If a presentation doesn’t look natural, a brownie’s likely to give it a look and turn away in disdain.

What you throw out should be dictated by where you’re fishing,

what time of year it is, and the size of the trout you’re targeting. I’ve caught 12 to 16-inchers in the midwest on waxworms and salmon eggs. Chelsea Baum, a fly reeler in Northern California has had luck with nymphing patterns on the Truckee River.

Monster-hunter Andrew Engel has reeled in beefy browns with baitfish and even mouse presentations to pre-spawn trout on his fly rig.


Think about what’s natural on the water you’re fishing. Using a spinning reel and see a grasshopper on the bank? Put it on a hook and try your luck. What’s hatching in the water? Pick the fly of the season. Looking for bigger trout? Figure out the baitfish patterns for your chosen fishing spot.

Location, season, size

Andrew Engel takes a photo before the release. @TheFlyDudes

How Big Do They Get?

In spite of their difficulty to catch, brown trout get exceedingly more rare and harder to land as they get bigger. So, if you’re regularly catching 24″, 4-pounders, you’re already in a small minority. But they get bigger. Much bigger. And that drives many reelers absolutely bonkers. They make thousands of casts, ignoring smaller specimens, just to hook a hulking brown. And hopefully put it back after the battle.

Thanks in part to catch-and-release fishing, the world brown trout record has been set and set again several times in the past 25 years. To-wit:

  • 1992: 40 lbs., 4 oz., Howard “Rip” Collins, Little Red River, Arkansas
  • 2009: 41 lbs., 7 oz., Tom Healy, Big Manistee River, Michigan
  • 2010: 41 lbs, 8 oz., Roger Hellen, Lake Michigan, Wisconsin (still the U.S. record)
  • 2013: 42 lbs., 1 oz., Otwin Kandolf, Ohau Canal, New Zealand

The big ones are out there. Go get ’em! Check out our Brown Trout Tips and Hacks this Friday for some suggestions on just how to go about it.

How Do They Taste?

Like any trout, browns are delicious. And given how hard it can be to land one, a brown on the grill may taste just little bit better than the rainbow next to it.

Try a simple preparation. Gut and dehead the fish. Squeeze fresh lemon juice into the body cavity, spread salt and olive oil on the skin. Wrap the fish in foil and toss it on the grill until the flesh is flaky. Eat smugly.