Thursday, April 12, 2012

Still Water Brookies

By Guest Author Brian Holland
Every serious angler has heard of Salvelinus fontinalis, the crown jewel of the North's back country, or as most anglers know it, the brook trout.  This is not a fish famed for its gigantic sizes, a true trophy is a fish in excess of four pounds, but what has gained this fish its fame is its spectacular colors, the vivid blue halos and dark red bellies, particularly in the fall when these beautiful trout make their annual spawning runs and gain their spawning colors. 

These trout are quite possibly just as famous among serious trout enthusiasts for the places they wind up when targeting these fish.  Deep back woods valleys, cold crystal clear free flowing mountain streams, and remote beaver flowages, all places that can truly only be described as God's country, are the types of places that brook trout, or brookies as they are affectionately known, call home. 

Maine is one such place in the eyes of many anglers, having a reputation that is well deserved as the state holds over 95 percent of the nations wild brook trout stocks and is home to hundreds of miles of wilderness, broken only by the gravel logging roads that are used the access this region.  I have been very fortunate, having grown up in the central part of the state, and now attending college in the extreme reaches of Northern Maine to have these brook trout waters in my back yard. 

I developed my passion for these trout at a young age, targeting small wild trout in the area's local brooks and streams, and working up to larger river systems as I grew and learned.  I was also fortunate to be introduced to the entirely different sport of fishing big water, or large lakes and ponds for these fish, and that is where my passion truly lies today. 

Comparing the art of fishing for brook trout in lakes to the art of fishing for them in flowing water, is like comparing apples to oranges.  In general brookies grow much larger in lakes than in flowing water, and they become less opportunistic and more selective on what, when, and where they will eat, making them much more difficult to catch.  It also makes catching one that much more rewarding.  The methods and techniques for catching these fish vary as much as the opinions on what truck is best suited to get you to the lake.  These techniques vary depending on the season and the fisherman.

While I fish for big water brookies using a variety of these techniques, my favorite way to fish for them is trolling.  Trolling can be broken into two categories, trolling with fly gear, and trolling with hardware or other types of lures and attractants.
The colors alone of a native Maine brook trout make fishing for them a treat.
Photo courtesy of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Traditionally, brook trout have been sought by serious anglers with the fly rod in hand, and it is considered a greater challenge by many to hook play and land brook trout on the fly than it is on other types of gear.  While this is true, it is also true that using fly gear on brook trout can produce some excellent fishing, and it is just plain fun.  Under the right circumstances brook trout can be landed using fly gear throughout the open water fishing season, but trolling with this type of gear really stands out in the spring of the year. 

Spring is an awaking time for brook trout like it is for all living things.  The sun's rays are once again warming the water's temperature, bringing it closer to that 45-55 degree range that brook trout love.  Brook trout take advantage of the fact that these waters are still cool by spending their time in the shallow portions of the lake.  These shallow portions heat up faster than the rest of the lake, particularly large shallow flats in protected coves. Brook trout seek out these places, looking for that ideal water temperature. 

These shallow portions of the lake also offer brookies a variety of food sources in the spring of the year.  These food sources range from the larval forms of water born insects, to crayfish and bait fish,  and brook trout take advantage of these food sources, often feeding heavily.  The fact that these fish are in shallow water, and that they are eating a variety of food sources easily replicated by flies, makes fly gear ideally suited to catching them in the spring of the year. 

My set ups consist of a 6 weight fly rod paired with either a 6 weight, weight forward floating, or a 6 weight full sink fly line, all with at least a hundred yards of backing.  The weight forward floating line may not be ideally suited for trolling, but as a broke college student, I take advantage of any instance where I can utilize the same the gear for different fishing styles without loosing much performance. 

I have found that the leader to loop fly connections that many fishing outfitters carry work well and use these to attach my leaders.  The waters I fish are crystal clear, and the brook trout tend to be line shy,  so I usually run fifteen feet of 8 pound fluorocarbon leader before attaching a small barrell swivel and another five feet of fluorocarbon leader. 

I fish with a variety of flies, both nymphs and streamers.  I usually fish nymphs in the earliest parts of the season just after the ice has receded from the ponds.  At this point in the game brook trout can be some what lethargic and not willing to chase streamers imitating bait fish.  Nymphs, however, when dragged slowly across the bottom on a sinking fly line can present brook trout with a meal they can't pass up.  A good rule of thumb for this kind of fishing is maintain slightly faster than headway speed.

As the old timers have told me, “If you don't loose a fly on occasion, you aren't fishing right”, so make sure you are getting your flies on bottom, an occasional jerk of the rod tip as the fly bounces over a rock is a good indicator you are fishing your nymph right. 

There are many good nymph patterns out there, but a couple of my personal favorites are the wooly bugger and maple syrup.  Streamer fishing usually peaks anywhere from a week and half to three weeks after the ice has receded, depending on the weather and the lake.  I have found, however, that as the surface temperature of the water reaches 41-42 degrees, you'd better have a streamer in the water.

Streamers have been equally effective for me fished on floating and sinking fly lines depending on the conditions and the day.  I usually run one rod with floating line and one with sinking to cover a variety of water depths.  When streamer fishing I have found a good rule of thumb is to move forward at about the same speed as you would if walking steadily along the shore line, however, don't be afraid to mix it up if you aren't catching fish.  Speed up or slow down, and try to remember either the bend in your rod or the sound of the motor when you hook a fish, so that you can repeat the same speed if you don't have a GPS or fish finder to measure speed. 

I have caught brook trout on a variety of streamers, and the ones that will be as effective on any given day change as often as the weather in Northern Maine.  Most of the time it's tough to go wrong though, assuming that you stock your box with a few gray ghosts in a variety of colors, a couple 9-3's, black nose dace, and Barne's specials.  It doesn't hurt to have these patterns in a couple of sizes either, both single and tandem hook flies. 
This twenty inch beauty fell to a 9-3 and black nosed dace
tandem set up.
When fishing streamers they can be fished either as a single fly or as a tandem set up.  Most of the time I fish a tandem set up, running a single hook fly on a dropper loop two feet in front of a tandem fly on the back.  I have seen these tandem set ups out fish single fly rigs on numerous occasions.  I'm not sure of the exact reason for this, but believe it both gives the fish more to see in the water, as well as the fact that the rig looks like a larger fish chasing a smaller one, causing brook trout to hit out of aggression. 

There are several other important things to remember when trolling for brook trout with fly gear in the spring.  Fish shore lines that remain shallow for a distance out from shore, these shallow flats are where the feed brook trout are chasing live bait.  If it is possible you should also target wind blown shore lines as the wind pushes much of the debris floating on the lakes surface into the wind blown shore, which in turn attracts bait fish, which also in turn attracts brook trout. 

This rule of thumb has proven the difference between a skunk and a successful trip for me many times.  Last May, for instance, a fishing buddy and I headed into Western Maine to troll for brook trout for three or four days, the first two of which we only caught a very few brook trout.  The third day of the trip we finally headed for the other side of the lake, the wind blown shore, and our luck immediately changed, and we proceeded to land ten healthy brookies in the next 45 minutes.

A final word of advice is to troll just off the shore line where the bottom is visible on one side of the boat but not the other, while weaving in S shaped patterns in and out from shore.  This accomplishes two things, one of which is to cause the gear on one side of the boat to speed up while causing the other to slow down, this can be a great way to determine if you are traveling to slow or fast.  If the line on the inside of the curve is the only one getting hit, you need to move faster, the outside line slower.  It also allows you to drag your gear over water that the boat has not directly traveled over the top of.  Also, brook trout may scare easily in shallow water as a boat travels over head, and when getting the lines out and away from the line of boat travel, you are less likely to scare these fish.
This healthy looking brookie was one of many we were rewarded with on a recent trip after changing to a wind blown shore.
Lastly, sometimes it can make a significant difference in your catch rates by “working” or pumping your rods as you troll.  This a simple matter of pulling the rod towards the bow of the boat in a pumping motion and then allowing it to settle back towards the rear.  This causes the fly to dart, speed up, slow down and more closely imitate the movements of a bait fish more closely.  If there is one thing I've learned, brook trout always seem to strike when you least expect it.  I've been caught off guard many times staring at some mountain in the distance pumping a fly when the rod is nearly ripped from my hands as a big old square tail grabs hang on!

In my book, nothing beats the feeling of a twenty inch native brookie making the drag of a 6 weight sing, but as the season progresses and the water warms, dragging fly gear in extreme shallow water becomes less effective, and to catch good numbers, my fishing partners and I switch over to fishing lead core and stainless steel alloy lines to improve our catch rates.  Not only do these setups help to get our terminal gear deeper, but allow us to put more pressure on these native jewels allowing us to get them to the boat quicker and avoid stressing them in the warm waters.
In the waters we fish, we attempt to imitate two main food sources when trolling hardware for brook trout.  The first of these food sources are bait fish, mainly smelt and dace.  In this type of fishing we make use of the lead core setups.  Lead core line is line with a lead center and a plastic sheating on the outside.  The plastic sheating is colored in different colors every thirty feet, allowing the angler to determine how much line is off the reel.  As the center is lead, these lines are heavy and sink much faster than traditional monofilament or fluorocarbon lines, allowing you to present your baits baits and tackle in deeper and colder waters. 

Lead core setups consist of a medium heavy action spinning rod 7-8 feet in length, paired with a Penn 209 level wind baitcaster reel.  The reel is spooled with ten colors (300 feet) of 12 pound test lead core,  that is attached to a fifteen feet of 15 pound test florocarbon leader attached to ten feet of 8 pound test fluorocarbon using a blood knot.  I then attach a small size 16 barrel swivel to the 8 pound fluoro using a palomar knot, and then attach another three feet of 8 pound fluoro using an improved clinch knot, our lures are then directly tied into the leader. 

We use a variety of lures, ranging from small stick baits such as Yo-Zuri's Pins Minnows to things such as DB Smelts, Mooselook Wobblers and Guide Specials. We have found a vareity of colors to be effective, however rainbow patterns and anything with red or orange can be good depending on the time of year.

The most productive way to fish this gear is to target deeper water immediately adjacent to large flats.  Brook trout will hold in these areas during the day occasionally eating the bait that holds in these areas and waiting for the cool of night to bring about fly hatches when they will once again slip into shallower warmer waters to feed on the hatching insects. 

The depth at which we fish varies with the time of year, the weather, and a variety of other things.  The best way to determine which depth is right is to experiment, running different rods at different depths and changing depths every half hour or so until you find a depth that is producing fish.  A good starting place is 15 feet for most Maine lakes after the water warms.  To achieve this depth we assume four feet of sink for every color or lead core line in the water.  So, for fifteen feet of depth, we run just under four colors of lead core.  This sink rate changes based on your speed, lure, the amount of lead core in the water, and a variety of other factors.  Most lead core spools come with a chart that will give you a rough idea of the sink rate based on your setup. 

It can also be difficult to decide on what speed to drag your gear at.  As I'm a broke college student without a fish finder or other electronics to measure speed, I usually run the lure along the side of the boat and change speed until I reach a point at which the action looks correct for the lure.  Determining this is something you can only do with practice, so don't be afraid to get out there and experiment.  Just as with trolling fly gear, changing speed and directions while trolling can help you determine the speed you should be trolling at. 

As the season progresses, brook trout fishing continues to slow until the water begins to cool again in the fall of the year.  As the water warms, fishing around dawn and dusk can prove to be the most productive.

In the spring of the year brook trout can be taken on hardware in much the same way as by trolling fly gear.  Many anglers target them this way by trolling with a medium light action spinning rod and small Super Dupers or other lures such as the one's mentioned above and by targeting the same area's as mentioned in the fly gear trolling section.  Some anglers even claim that trolling hardware tends to produce bigger brook trout then fly gear in the spring of the year,  this may well be true,  but the only way to find out what works best for you is to get out and fish!
This fish slammed a rainbow patterned Mooselook just
after completing a turn on the inside rod.  I slowed my
trolling speed after catching this fish.
During the hottest of the summer months many anglers give up fishing for brook trout in the lakes and ponds in favor of fishing their favorite trout streams.  My fishing partners and I still make an occasional trip chasing the big lake dwelling natives, however, using a technique that not many anglers use to target brook trout.  One of my favorite big brook trout lakes in Western Maine supports a very large population of crayfish, and I have found that during the warm summer months many of the lakes brook trout feed on these crayfish and hatching insects almost exclusively.  Many of these crayfish can be found living amongst the rocky shoals of the lake in 10-25 feet of water and brook trout will spend much of their time hugging tight to the cool waters found near the bottom of these shoals, cruising for crayfish. 

To target these fish we use the exact same setup as mentioned in the lead core section above, except we switch out the lead core for 18 pound test stainless steel alloy line and add several more swivels into the setup to avoid line twisting.  We then use a lure known as a flatfish and drag these lures along the bottom.
This vivid color male brook trout was caught in early August on a DB Smelt.
Flat fish are designed to be very active when trolled and therefore give off a lot of vibration even at slow trolling speeds.  Their design forces the nose of the lure down and allows the rear of the lure and the hooks to rise up off bottom, decreasing the amount of snagged lures.  We troll these lures directly on bottom allowing them to stir up sediment and debris imitating a crayfish on the run.  The stainless steel alloy line works well for this as there is very little give and it is therefore very easy to tell what the lure is doing on bottom, what type of bottom the lure is on and the difference between being a strike and the lure bouncing on bottom.  
This slob of a brookie was caught trolling a silver flatfish on a large flat and was full of crayfish in addition to our lure.
This type of fishing can be challenging as the line must be constantly watched and adjusted to maintain contact with the bottom without dragging feet of line along the bottom as well.  We use a variety of colors, however, we have found silver to be very productive in this particular pond as the water can become dark and stained relatively quickly with depth as many Northern Maine lakes are, and the flash of sliver is one more added attractant to draw these big brook trout out.  An added bonus to fishing with this setup in our favorite big brook trout water is that often times large togue (lake trout) are found feeding in the same area and more than once we have hooked up with and landed these fish while targeting brook trout.  
As an added treat, fish like this 29 inch lake trout also fall victim to trolling with flatfish late in the season.
Whether it's trolling fly gear in the early spring, fishing flatfish late in the season or throwing dry flies to small natives in a stream, catching brook trout is an unbelievable experience in places such as Maine waters.  They can be a challenging fish to catch, but the reward is well worth the effort when you enjoy the experience as much as I do.  This article is by no means a complete guide to catching brook trout in big water.  In fact, it only scratches the surface, but one thing is for certain, get out and experience fishing for brook trout  yourself, and it won't take long until your hooked.

Brian Holland is a contributing member of two of my favorite fishing forums, and, where he is known as Litchfield Fisher. 

Thank you Brian for your contribution to Fat Boy's Outdoors Blog!


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