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Rocky Mountain Brown Trout

Rocky Mountain Brown Trout

It's time to put away the lawn equipment, grab a rod and target the legends of fall!

By Mike Schoby

As the summer draws to a close, the crowds depart and the great rivers of the West are once again left to the wildlife, the residents, and serious anglers pursuing large, hungry fish. As leaves turn orange and yellow with stains of crimson, anglers are often rewarded in shades of brown.

Brown trout, that is.

While many fish species stockpile food for the slow winter months, fall-spawning brown trout turn it up a notch to become veritable swimming, eating machines. If large browns are your goal, then save your vacation time until fall to capitalize on these Rocky Mountain gems.


The North Platte River starts high in the Rockies, making good time through the valleys and canyons, and finally ending its journey by lazily gliding through the plains of Nebraska on its way to a rendezvous with the Missouri. Along this path it provides trout anglers with some phenomenal brown trout fishing.

You can break the North Platte into two main sections: The freestone upper section around the Medicine Bow National Forest on the Wyoming/Colorado border, and what is generally referred to as the Miracle Mile, which is a 5 1/2-mile tailwater fishery between two Wyoming impoundments. While both technically are the same river, they are as different as night and day.

Upper North Platte


The freestone portion of the North Platte, while not known for terrifically sized browns, makes up for this lack of size with sheer numbers.

The bouncy, boulder-laden mountain stream is relatively easy to fish, with large numbers of hookups on any given fall day. There is plenty of access in the Medicine Bow National Forest, with excellent fishing for 12- to 17-inch fish. Standard nymphing and dry fly patterns and techniques work well under most conditions, and it has been my experience that super large "brown" patterns do not produce as well as on other known brown trout rivers.

Photo by Mike Schoby

Miracle Mile

A 5 1/2-mile section of the North Platte River, a typical tailwater, has earned the name Miracle Mile by its admirers who have come to respect the awesome fishing it produces.

The Mile reminds me more of the lower Yellowstone River in Montana - essentially one long glade, limited in structure, pockets or eddies. And yet this tailwater is a jewel among trophy brown trout seekers.

Far fewer hookups can be expected than in the upper section, but when they come, hold on! Trout seem to start life here as fat 18-inchers and go up from there - way up. The record brown from this river tipped the scales well into the double digits!

While large browns are known to be big eaters, it is interesting to note that the main forage food in the Miracle Mile is often such small tidbits as chironomids, scuds, aquatic worms and crane fly larvae. However, while these fish will eat the small stuff, they won't turn down the big Thanksgiving meals either. Don't hesitate to pitch large streamer/baitfish patterns, especially during low light and at night. Particular patterns that shine are Zonkers, Mice, Leeches and Muddler Minnows.

Most anglers use heavier than average rods, as the wind in the fall can be fierce and getting a fly out there can be a chore in itself - anything between a 6- and 8-weight rod will work fine.

While there is a great population of resident browns, fall heralds the migration of the large spawners from the lake, so when the temperature drops and the wind begins to howl, grab your rod and head for the Miracle Mile. You won't be disappointed.


The Madison River truly is the epicenter of the Rocky Mountain trout world.

The entire stretch of the Madison from Hebgen Lake to Three Forks can be great fishing, but of all the stretches I have fished (Bear Trap Canyon, Quake Lake, or Raynolds Pass), the 10 or so miles from Varney Bridge to Ennis is my all-time favorite.

Is this stretch that much better then the rest of the river? Probably not, but it is just as good as anywhere else. The float is wonderful, the scenery outstanding.

The fishing can be as easy or as technical as you want, and at the end of the day, there is a sense of homecoming pulling into Ennis. Any town with a resident population of 1,000 people that has three fly shops and as many saloons, with a 25-foot-tall leaping bronze trout on its main street feels like home to me.

The section from Varney Bridge to Ennis is braided with many small islands and makes a perfect day float. If no hatch is present, fish a heavily weighted stonefly pattern in black, brown or gold (yellow/orange) under a strike indicator along the seams and sides of the islands. At the lee side of each island pull out and wade-fish the island's tailwater.

While there are not as many fish as other stretches of the river, this section seems to have more large browns then most others, with a good mix of nice rainbows thrown in for good measure.

For those interested in wade-fishing, Bear Trap Canyon below Ennis Lake is hard to beat. Being a tailwater fishery, it fishes best early and late in the season and is home to some excellent brown trout, with a good mixture of other species thrown in to make things really interesting.


The Bighorn River, in southwest Montana, has long been known as a brown trout paradise, and 2004 is shaping up to be the same.

"The drought that has affected much of the West has caused lower river flows on the Bighorn, but we average around 1,500 (cubic feet per second) during the fall. This is still plenty of water, and the fishing is proving superb," says Michael Mastrangelo of Fort Smith Fly Shop (

"We have been catching some great browns out here, with an average around 18 inches, and there are some hard-fighting fish that grow much larger," Mastrangelo added. "In fact, daily during this past season, I got many opportunities to see my client's backing and retie lots of broken tippets. Last season we had an angler land a fish that weighed over 9 pounds."

If you are sold on the qualities of the brown trout in the Bighorn, be sure to bring along some stout leaders and the right patterns. A

ccording to Mastrangelo, the traditional fall brown patterns are Bighorn Specials (a brown and yellow feather wing streamer), JJ Specials (a brown and yellow Woolly Bugger with yellow rubber legs) and Woolly Buggers in brown, black, tan, olive or white. In addition to large patterns to satisfy a large brown's appetite, Mastrangelo and his clients also have great success using traditional nymphs and dries as situations dictate.

There is good public access at any of the five public boat ramps along the upper 28 miles of the river, and in addition to the cabins at the Fort Smith Fly Shop, there are public and private campgrounds in the area.


Southwest Montana's Hidden Treasures

If you believe size matters, especially in all things piscatorial, than stillwater fisheries may fit your style.

Go with a standard assortment of brown trout flies, but come equipped with some large patterns and heavy leaders to target fish rivaling the state record. Yes, it is a distinct possibility. Patterns of choice include Muddler Minnows, Woolly Buggers, long bunny strip streamers, and deer hair mice.

Many anglers use float tubes to fish these big waters, but a boat brings many advantages. A small boat, a canoe or a pontoon boat often works better for covering large waters, and if the wind picks up they are easier to control than a float tube.

Here are some top picks for lakes that produce brown trout that weigh in the double digits.

Hebgen Lake

About 20 minutes west of West Yellowstone, Hebgen Lake is one of the most underrated brown trout stillwaters in the Rockies. Surprisingly under-fished, this lake holds some real bruisers. Bring a boat or other floating device, tie on a strong leader and target these fish with large patterns.

Wade & Cliff Lakes

Wade Lake and Cliff Lake are in the Beaverhead National Forest. With reputations for kicking out big browns, both lakes are capable of breaking the state record. In fact, the 29-pounder that holds the current record was caught in Wade in 1966. In recent years several Wade Lake fish have come within a half-pound of the record. And for 30 years a 20-pound rainbow from Cliff Lake held the state record. -- Mike Schoby



If one is looking for a quintessential trout river in Montana, it is pretty hard to beat the Yellowstone. Steeped in history and angling lore, the Yellowstone has seen its share of famous people inhabiting its banks, from the likes of Teddy Roosevelt to the noted fishing writer Joe Brooks and every sort of individual infatuated with fly-fishing and large browns in between.

For fall fishing on the Yellowstone, like many other great Western rivers, think large streamer patterns - under the right conditions, hooked-jawed browns will smash them to pieces. While the entire stretch from Gardiner to Livingston contains browns (as well as a good mix of cutthroats and rainbows), the wild-water stretch of Yankee Jim Canyon reportedly holds some real bruisers.

Public access is good along this entire stretch of river, but like many large Western rivers, floating anglers do have an advantage. There are many boat ramps as well as shuttle and rental/guide services to make a float trip easy.

While the Yellowstone can be crowded, by the time fall rolls around the crowds often diminish, leaving the river to serious anglers who are searching for large browns.


Driving into the parking lot of the infamous Green River last fall, I encountered dozens of anglers rigging rods and a stream bank that looked like a scene from the Kenai - anglers plying their trade darn near shoulder to shoulder and more swimmers, inner tubers and picnickers than I have ever seen outside of a hydroplane race. I almost turned around and left, and probably would have if I hadn't driven all night to get there.

I parked and walked down to the water, and the one thing I saw more of than anglers was fish - literally hundreds of them, taking dries, nymphing under the surface, being caught, jumping across pools - while the whole scene lacked the aesthetic value and tranquility I longed for, it sure did have one thing going for it - fish, and lots of them!

I rigged a rod and gave it a try. The good news is, while the pool in front of the boat launch did hold almost the entire river's population of anglers, it did not hold all of the fish. As one would imagine, they are stretched out all over, and some excellent fishing without the crowds can easily be had with just a little bit of legwork.

For the uninitiated, the Green is broken into three main sections: A, B and C. Starting at the Flaming Gorge Dam seven miles downstream to the boat ramp at Little Hole comprises the section A. Section B stretches from Little Hole eight miles downstream to the boat ramp at Indian Crossing at Browns Park. Section C flows from Browns Park 17 miles downstream to the Colorado border.

In a nutshell the sections can be classified as such:

Section A - This section holds the highest density of trout in the river, with as many as 20,000 per river mile. It has been my experience that these fish are, on average, the smallest of the river, but with a 14- to 18-inch average, you will encounter some real whoppers. There's a good mix of browns, cutts and rainbows. This section by far has the most boat traffic (summer floaters as well as anglers) and foot anglers. True, it is scenic in this upper end, but tons of fish attract tons of people.

Section B - Section B contains a good mixture of browns, rainbows and cutts, and it has been my experience that browns and cutthroats slightly outnumber the 'bows.

Expect extremely crowded conditions around the boat launch/take-out, as this is where Section A anglers depart the river. The number of anglers declines drastically with every step downriver. Head anywhere from a mile to three miles downstream and the pressure is comparable to most other "known" trout streams of the West.

Section C - Section C is probably the biggest sleeper of the three sections, known primarily for its large browns, with fewer fish numbers and lighter angling pressure than either of the other two sections. While the entire Green is known as a large pattern, dry-fly game, fish large patterns on Section C for some smashing takes from large browns.

* * *

Whether you find browns in Utah, Montana or Wyoming, one thing is for sure, if you pitch a pattern to them in the fall, odds are you will be back again and again each year as the leaves change colors.

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