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How to Beat the Big Browns

Brown trout are completely different than their rainbow-colored cousins. Understand the differences to catch more early spring fish.

How to Beat the Big Browns

Big browns are known carnivores and will often pounce on a sinking or suspending minnow imitation. (Photo by Jeff Samsel)

A steady rain smacking the windshield as I wound toward a remote river access point made me almost giddy. With dark skies and a bit of extra flow, the river’s notoriously finicky wild browns would be more cooperative than normal. Like always when conditions suggest that brown trout might be willing to bite, I was excited at the prospect of connecting with a big, buttery, hook-jawed fish.

Trout tend to get lumped together when anglers think about their behavior, the locations they favor and the offerings they are most apt to eat. Just as largemouth and smallmouth bass act differently from one another, different types of trout vary in their behavior. Maybe because rainbow trout significantly outnumber brown trout in so many Southern streams, brown trout defy trout stereotypes in many ways. Interestingly, the browns’ most distinctive behavior traits become ever more pronounced as they gain age and size.

Understanding brown trout behavior and planning a species-specific approach can make you far more efficient, and your efforts more productive, when you fish waters that support good brown trout fisheries—especially on days when conditions are conducive to brown trout activity.

BROWNIE BEHAVIOR

For starters, brown trout seek to avoid battling current. They’ll hold adjacent to swift water in ambush position, and they tend to feed more aggressively when stream flows are stronger. However, they will seldom hold in rocky riffles, atop current-swept gravel bars or in current lines—places where rainbows stack up and watch for insects to drift past. Instead, browns tuck into cuts in the bank, lurk behind current-breaking boulders, hide beneath branches of deadfalls and hold in the heads of deep pools.

Undercuts, boulders and tree branches commonly offer double appeal to brown trout, which are averse to bright light and gravitate to darks spots in streams. The cover offers shade, which often stays on the water for all or much of the day.

Brown trout have nocturnal tendencies that tend to become more pronounced with age. While never fully nocturnal, they feed best at night under certain conditions, and the best daytime fishing often occurs the first and last couple of hours of each day. Cloudy skies extend feeding activity, and on dark, rainy days, brown trout often feed all day. Winter provides an advantage here because cloudy days are more common and the sun stays lower in the sky.

Although this characteristic is less defined in freshly stocked hatchery trout, browns tend to be warier than other trout. While a rainbow might follow a lure and hit almost at the rod tip, a brown that didn’t react when it first saw a would-be meal might likewise follow but will seldom commit and will almost never hit on an immediate return cast. That said, a brown often will return to the same position, and a good, fresh cast to that area, after the fish has had time to “rest,” might produce the desired result.

Big brown trout also tend to be reclusive and rarely stack up to feed like rainbows often do. While a large pool might hold multiple browns, each is apt to be in its own spot, relating to specific bottom features. A large brown often will claim a specific deep, dark eddy and stay there.

Finally, brown trout tend to favor larger food sources than do rainbow trout or brook trout, and the larger they grow the truer this becomes. While brown trout certainly will sip aquatic insects—even miniscule midges—given the option, they’d rather have a crawfish, shiner, sculpin, large aquatic insect nymph like a hellgrammite or a large terrestrial insect like a grasshopper.




Differences in forage preferences play a significant part in brown trout growing larger than rainbows in many Southern streams that lack the fertility to produce huge, consistent insect hatches but hold plenty of the larger menu items that allow brown trout to grow fat and happy.

IN THE CROSSHAIRS

A targeted brown trout approach begins with locations, and it’s as much about where you don’t spend too much fishing time as where you do. Bypassing beautiful looking runs isn’t easy, but the more time you spend fishing everything that looks like it could hold a trout, the less time you have to locate and work the best brown trout zones.

Look for hard breaks in current, undercuts in rocks, cover that creates hiding areas and at least a bit of extra depth. Also pay attention to shade lines and surface elements such as foam or leaf particles that make a spot into more of a hiding place. Generally speaking, the tougher a spot is for making a good bait presentation, the more likely it is to be favored by brown trout.

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Note, however, that in larger, more open rivers, important current breaks might be beneath the surface. Look through polarized glasses and read the surface to locate boulders and identify other subsurface ambush zones.

Because brown trout are ambush feeders that usually won’t take a bait if they see it from too far away, it’s critical to approach spots strategically. Visualize where a brown is apt to hold in a spot and plan your first cast accordingly. Sometimes there’s only one cast to be made to the back of an eddy. If so, make sure it is a good one. Landing a lure just short of the mark is apt to spook any brown that’s hiding there. Often, casting upstream of an obstruction allows you to get your offering into the zone and working as it sweeps past the cover and in front of an awaiting brown.

Because of a brown trout’s loner ways, and because browns tend to either attack or get spooked, covering water provides a significant advantage. Big, deep pools with extensive holding areas warrant a patient approach, with plenty of casts at various angles and to different parts of the pool. However, for more targeted spots like a cut in the bank or the downstream side of a fallen tree, after a few casts, you’re better off moving along and finding other good spots than continuing to cast to the same one.

Stealth also plays an extra-critical role when you’re targeting brown trout. The higher flows that are more prevalent during late winter help with concealment, but given the cautious nature of large brown trout, it remains important to work from stream edges when possible, limit heavy steps and abrupt motions and cast from as far back as possible to avoid being detected.

LURES, FLIES and BAITS

Spin-fishing with lures, fly-fishing and bait fishing all have merit when specifically targeting brown trout. For each style of fishing, the most productive offerings tend to differ from what is most often associated with trout fishing.

For anglers who favor a spinning rod and artificial lures, crankbaits and minnow-style baits are tough to top for imitating favored forage and getting the attention of the fish. In smaller waters, that might mean a 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-inch minnow lure or a Rebel Crawfish. In big tailwaters, where mega browns feed on everything from shad to stocked rainbow trout, bass-style jerkbaits like the Smithwick Suspending Rogue come into play. In either case, sinking or suspending minnow lures tend to outproduce floating models because they get down to the browns and stay among them.

Other potentially productive spin-fishing offerings for brown trout include marabou jigs in the 1/8-ounce range, soft-plastic baits that suggest crawfish, sculpins or hellgrammites, as well as 3- to 4-inch spoons.

For fly anglers, top producers include streamers that suggest larger natural forage species and attractor patterns like Wooly Buggers. Craw patterns with weighted heads and baitfish flies like Muddler Minnows, Olive Matukas and some saltwater and bass patterns suggest a sculpin or other forage fish to a brown. Streamers are especially important early in the year, when insects are scarce. Accurate casts to tight spots become extra important for targeting brown trout with a fly rod.

Anglers who use live bait and make natural presentations in key areas find good success targeting larger brown trout. Where legal (varies by state), baitfish that match a stream’s natural forage are tough to beat, with live crawfish coming in as a close second. Worms can also work well for brown trout, with big, juicy nightcrawlers outproducing the smaller “wigglers” that are most commonly used to catch rainbow trout.

Elite Southern Trout Waters

Top spots for early season brown trout.

  • White River, Bull Shoals Tailwater, AR: Abundant quality fish with genuine trophy brown potential. February is prime time for large fish, especially when three or more generators are running.
  • Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River, GA/SC: Limited access, plentiful deep pools and outstanding forage allow wild and semi-wild (helicopter-stocked as fingerlings) brown trout to grow shoulders.
  • Deep Creek, Great Smoky Mountains, NC: Miles of waters that can only be reached via a lengthy hike, endless boulder-strewn pools and protective regulations combine to makeDeep Creek a gem for wild browns.
  • Clinch River, Norris Lake Tailwater, TN: Tennessee’s state record brown trout, which weighed 28 pounds, 12 ounces, came from the Clinch River.

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