Browns Without The Crowds
October 04, 2010
Break out your map and circle these waters for excellent brown trout fishing -- with some elbow room. (September 2007)
You needn't go where everyone else is to catch fat brown trout in the 20-inch range. Each Rocky Mountain state has a few lesser-known waters that produce, big time!
Photo by Chuck Robbins.
OK, I confess to a love of wild brown trout! I feel blessed to have sampled many of the best spots across the country. Within the Rocky Mountain States, the list reads like a Who's Who of great trout fisheries.
Brown trout addicts are well aware of the great opportunities at our famous rivers -- Big Hole, San Juan, Green, Oak Creek, Arkansas, Silver Creek, Truckee, North Platte, among others. Beyond those exists a wealth of lesser-known waters where the browns are often just as big, feisty and colorful, where the only thing lacking is the competition.
Brown trout are not supposed to live in the desert, right? Arizona -- especially the mountains north and east of Phoenix, places like Apache, Coconino and Tonto national forests, Fort Apache and San Carlos Indian reservations -- offer a surprising amount of quality water for wild brown trout.
Oak Creek, near Sedona, is considered Blue Ribbon and deservedly well known. But in the Mogollon Rim White Mountains country, brown trout streams are abundant, scenic and productive, albeit hardly household names. The Canyon, Cibecue, Chevelon, Clear (east and west forks), Haigler, Horton and Tonto creeks, the Black, Blue, White, Little Colorado and East Verde rivers all hold nice wild browns.
Odds are good of hooking the increasingly rare Apache trout, a true native beauty on just about every angler's most-wanted-list.
These are small streams, often remote, with modest sized trout -- but there are surprises. Access varies from an easy drive to a difficult hike. For the best in quality fish (that is, wild as opposed to stockers), and quality fishing (as in solitude and wildlife), the rule of thumb is: The farther from the road, the better.
During heavy hatches, pools often reach proverbial boiling status. But the browns are seldom fussy. Tie on something close to the hatch in size and color, and you should be in business. Lacking a hatch, I like to plumb the best water with a hopper-dropper style rig, attractor dry with a generic nymph or wet fly off the back.
One last note: There are dozens of lakes within the region, and some hold huge browns. Chevelon Canyon Lake is one.
In a state brimming with trout addicts, there aren't too many secrets left. The key is to seek out the more remote, difficult-to-access sections.
A prime example is the Pinnacles Canyon section of the Conejos River below Platoro Reservoir. Simply put, the browns in the canyon are bigger on average than they are above or below, and the mob scene is non-existent. But getting there is an adventure in itself.
Another canyon worth the hard work it takes to get there is Box Canyon, also called Six Mile, on the upper Rio Grande below its namesake reservoir. It's a rugged two-mile hike from River Hill Campground, and that in itself is enough to keep many wade anglers at bay. Roaring Class III and IV rapids cut down on boat traffic. Fat and happy 18-inchers are common. After one look at all that beautiful holding water, you know the canyon has some truly hefty browns.
Hike the Colorado River Trail north from the highway and before you know it, you'll have the river mostly to yourself. It's hard to imagine you're fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park.
This is quality pocket water, full of hungry browns, rainbows and brooks up to 16 inches or so. September is prime time for hitting the blue-winged olive hatch, one of the upper river's best and most consistent.
All season long, the short tailwater section of the Williams Fork harbors gluttonous browns that average 12 to 16 inches. In the fall, as waters begin to cool and daylight shrinks, the bigger boys and girls begin to show up from summer haunts in the Colorado River. A 20-incher here is a distinct possibility.
The South Fork Snake is renowned for its native
cutthroats, though in my book, it's a better brown trout fishery -- blasphemous, I know.
True, the cutts are native, big and fun. But the browns are even bigger and -- well, you know how I feel about that!
Trust me, in the South Fork there are browns ready, willing and able to gobble the biggest Double Bunnies or JJ Specials in your box. Hopper-dropper rigs fished tight against the banks also tend to charm the larger individuals. This is big water where float-fishing rules, and is often the only way to go. Browns dominate the lower half of the river, to the tune of about 80 percent residency.
The Little Wood River is a pretty desert stream. Its classic riffles and pools are home to heavy browns and rainbows, too. There are many miles of river to fish. Hike a ways from the access, and you should have it to yourself.
Perhaps the best stretch lies hidden in the lava rock and sagebrush desert south of Carey in the Taylor "Bear Tracks" Williams Recreation Area. Real trophy browns, some exceeding 5 pounds, await anglers willing to abide the fly-only, catch-and-release regulations. Right now, large hoppers and other substantial offerings are primo for tempting those trophies.
If brown trout and spring creeks are your bag, check out the Fort Hall Bottoms on the Fort Hall Reservation.
You need a tribal permit to fish there. Permits are available in Fort Hall, 10 miles north of Pocatello of Interstate 15.
Several spring creeks hold decent browns, but the real pigs hang out at the lower ends of Spring and Jimmy creeks. In the fall, browns run up the creeks from the Snake River, adding to the creeks' appeal.
Billingsley Creek, at its namesake state park near Hagerman, is another brown trout hotspot in a spring creek setting. It's actually two waters: the creek itself and Fisher Lake, a small spring-fed impoundment.
The lake and the part of the creek run through a marsh and make for difficult wading. Bring a float tube, small skiff or canoe.
The Stillwater River is one of Montana's best-kept secrets. Some call it "The last best river in the last best place." A tributary of the Yellowstone, the St
illwater begins in the Yellowstone backcountry and flows north to Columbus, through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
This is brook and rainbow country. Below the Wilderness, the river mellows, and browns take over. Some surpass the coveted 20-inch mark.
In September, anglers can expect to find large sections empty of competition -- and browns hungry to get in shape for the upcoming spawn. These opportunist trout attack anything remotely resembling good eats, including high-floating dry flies --hoppers, stimulators, tarantulas and such.
Because of drought and over-apportioned water rights, the Jefferson River is sort of an iffy call, come autumn. It's good in the wet years, but otherwise not so hot. But usually -- sometime in September -- the river climbs out its summer doldrums. Fishing picks up for the big browns the river is famous for.
Never crowded, the Jeff is home to some real whoppers. Rumors abound of lucky souls hanging dream-fish of double-digit poundage.
One day last September, we floated the upper river. It was just starting to recover from the ravages of yet another long, hot, dry summer. Between the two of us, we landed six browns -- the smallest about 17 inches, and the largest just shy of 2 feet!
But that was par for the river and season. Four of them ate streamers, while two preferred hoppers.
The Marias River, below Tiber Reservoir (also called Lake Elwell), is really off the beaten path. And not many anglers are willing to brave the gumbo-laden roads and two-tracks to get there. But trust me, this one is worth a little pain. Three pounds is common. Five pounds is not rare, and 10 pounds is not out the question. Need I say more?
This is not the place to test-drive that new 2-weight. Day-in and day-out, buggers, leeches, Clousers and Double Bunnies get top honors.
September is typically hot, dry and dusty, and the hoppers are thick.
I doubt Nevada appears on too many "Places to Fish for Brown Trout Before I Die" lists. But if you find yourself here, perhaps panting for a little brownie action -- well, believe it or not . . .
Brown trout, the biggest over 25 pounds (Yes, that's a 2 and a 5, and pounds), are a large part of a mixed bag at Ruby Lake on the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Largemouth bass, rainbow and brook trout are other possibilities. Ruby "Lake" is sort of a misnomer, since it's made up of some 9,000 acres of lakes, ponds and waterways within a natural spring-fed, high-elevation marsh.
Some of it is wadeable, but much isn't. Float tubes, small skiffs and canoes are de rigueur.
Cave Lake browns spawn in Cave Creek. With the first cool nights of September, browns begin staging. And fishing -- especially early and late in the day -- picks up big time around the inlet and in the creek.
On average, the browns run about a foot, but occasionally some real busters show up. A prime example is the current state record: 27 pounds, 5 ounces. Four- and 5-pounders show up with fair regularity.
Other waters worth a shot are the Truckee, East Walker, Carson, South Humboldt and North Little Humboldt rivers, Kingston and Martin creeks.
Browns are most abundant in the Carson, including its forks.
For the best in combat fishing, head to the San Juan for its huge browns and huge crowds.
If you're like me and you abhor mob scenes, don't despair. New Mexico boasts more brown-trout water than most of us are capable of casting into in a lifetime.
Cimarron in Spanish means "wild and untamed," and that's just the sort of brown trout you'll find swimming its pools and riffles. The river below Eagle's Nest Lake dam is a fertile, spring-creek-like tailwater fishery.
New Mexico Department of Game and Fish estimates it contains nearly 4,000 catchable trout per mile. Since it's Special Trout Waters, regulations demand single, barbless-hook flies or lures. Abundant hatches, with browns programmed to look up make this a dry-fly slingers dream.
One of the more scenic and productive high-country treasures is the upper Chama River. Low September flows bode well for dry-fly artists. Other favorites include Mundo Lake, home to some of the state's heftiest browns. Rio Pueblo, a tributary of the Rio Grande below Taos, is difficult to fly-fish, but its fat browns more than compensate for the extra effort.
Much the same goes for the Rio Hondo, another small but interesting Rio Grande trib north of Taos.
With exceptions of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the Green and -- perhaps -- Provo rivers, this is another state that probably doesn't appear on most anglers' must-do lists. But brown trout freaks should bear in mind that every Blue Ribbon stream lists brown trout as a principal species. You might want to reconsider.
But beyond the Blue Ribbon list is a host of less famous but productive waters. Some of them are the Ogden, Beaver and Lake Fork rivers, south Uintas, upper Escalante River, Fremont River, Santa Clara River near Veyo and Cottonwood Creek near Castledale, Rock Creek, west Uintas, Antimony Creek and Corn Creek near Kanosh.
Each of these off-the-beaten-track waters provides decent brown trout fishing, minus the crowds.
Still waters are another option. Among others, East Canyon Reservoir near Morgan, Echo Reservoir near Ogden, Porcupine Reservoir near Hyrum, Rockport Reservoir near Wanship, Starvation Reservoir near Duschesne, Jordanelle Reservoir near Heber, and Moon Lake near Mountain Home all hold browns, some of them quite large.
Don't spread it around, but it was Ray Bergman who first put me onto the Encampment River's brown trout.
Innocently enough, the Encampment flows north out of Colorado into Wyoming along the eastern flank of the Sierra Madres. At Entrance Falls, its mood suddenly changes as it drops into an 18-mile-long pocket-water canyon infested with brown trout.
It's highly recommended for any anglers looking to score a brown trout fix, Wyoming style. This is a great hopper stream, by the way, and September is prime time.
West of the main Encampment, the so-called North Platte River Valley offers brown trout seekers a wealth of opportunities. This is not the famous North Platte scene, however, but rather its many relatively untapped tributaries within the Medicine Bow National Forest.
Not all of it holds brown trout, but enough does. Most run from 10 to 15 inches, but 18 inches is not uncommon. This is also dry-fly country. Hatches ar
e frequent, but something close is usually good enough.
Consider my wife Gale, who rarely if ever casts anything other than her favorite go-to Orange Stimi -- and does quite well. Size 14, in case you're wondering.