Fish Facts: Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)


Written by: Phil Monahan

Wild brook trout are prized by anglers, but their habitat is disappearing.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Although the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is not, in a fact, a trout at all, it is the most “troutlike” of the charrs. A sought-after game fish because it often lives in pristine waters and readily attacks flies of all kinds, it was the first “destination” fish in the Americas. Trains would transport anglers from New York and Boston to the mountains of Vermont and Maine just for the opportunity to lay into a big “squaretail.” While some cynics believe the brookie to be the dumbest of trout because it is supposedly easiest to fool, catching a trophy usually requires skill and patience. But anglers are known to marvel over the tiny, jewel-like brookies caught in headwater streams and dream of the monsters caught in Labrador’s lakes.

Range and Life History
The original range of the brook trout encompasses much of the northeastern corner of North America, including the streams of the high Appalachians as far south a Georgia, and extending west to the Hudson Bay and Great Lakes Basins. Biologists identify two genetically distinct strains of brook trout—a northern and southern strain—with the boundary being the New River drainage in southwestern Virginia. The southern strain, often called “speckled trout,” is less genetically diverse, making populations more fragile and susceptible to change and catastrophic events.
The only native trout species east of the Rockies, the brook trout was an important quarry for the original European settlers. Starting in about 1850, the species’ range was extended westward through stocking, at the behest of the American Acclimatization Society. Such organizations in other countries followed suit, and brook trout were introduced throughout Europe, in Argentina, and as far afield as New Zealand. Currently, there is just a handful of states in the South that don’t have introduced populations.

Brook trout can inhabit a wide range of waters—from large lakes to tiny mountain streams—but they require cold, clean water, and they are sensitive to poor oxygenation and acidity. The size, longevity, and feeding habits of the trout are dependent on such factors elevation, available forage, and water temperature. In small, Southern streams, individual fish rarely live longer than five years, are generally under 12 inches, and feed on aquatic insects. But those in large, northern lakes and rivers can grow to more than ten pounds; feed on insects and larger prey, such as minnows and mice; and can live for up to ten years.


True trophy brook trout are hard to come by, except in a few parts of Canada.
Photo by Dave Jensen, Fly Fish Alberta

Brook trout, both lake and stream populations are fall spawners. Spawning is triggered by water temperatures falling below 52 degrees and an increase in precipitation. Throughout their native range, brook trout are often protected by closed seasons during the spawn. Outside their native range, brook trout can spawn so successfully that they overpopulate a stream or lake, resulting in stunted fish that can outcompete native species for food and habitat. For this reason, some states in the West ask anglers to harvest as many brook trout as they can in these overpopulated waters.

Habitat Reduction
While brook trout have been stocked far and wide for more than 160 years, they have not done so well in their native range. From the first appearance of Europeans on these shores, the waters that supported brook trout were dammed, deforested, and filled with silt. These problems were further compounded by poor agricultural practices, road building, mine runoff, acid precipitation, and the introduction of exotic species, such as brown and rainbow trout. According to the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture—a consortium of public and private entities fighting to save brook trout—the species has been extirpated from about 90 percent of its original range. However, there is a growing groundswell of support for preserving these remaining populations and expanding their range to take back some territory lost in the past. Visit easternbrooktrout.org for more information.

Salters and Coasters
There are two migratory populations of brook trout, “salters” and “coasters.” The salters of the Northeast are anadromous, living in salt water and running up rivers to reproduce, while coasters inhabit the upper Great Lakes and are potadromous, which means that they live in lakes but spawn in river. Both populations were hugely popular in their prime and then fell into serious decline. In the 1800s, fishing clubs from Massachusetts to New York focused on salters, while anglers from around the world traveled to Lake Superior’s shores to cast coasters. Overfishing, dams, and logging of prime habitat caused populations to crash, and only in recent decades have serious efforts begun to conserve and restore these fisheries. Hundreds of thousands of coaster brook trout have been stocked, and several organizations are focused on preserving salter habitat in Massachusetts and Maine.


The colors and patterns on a wild brookie can be spectacular.
Photo by Mike Jennette

Flies and Tactics
The vast majority of brook trout caught by fly fishers are under 12 inches long, which makes the true trophies even more spectacular. Most large fish are caught on streamers or nymphs fished right along the bottom. John William Cook’s world-record brook trout—caught in July 1916 on Ontario’s Nipigon River—was 31.5 inches long and weighed in 14.5 pounds.

Brook-trout flies tend toward the traditional, as do Northeastern anglers. Classic dry flies, such as the Royal Wulff, Adams, and Irresistible will often get the job done, but on freestone mountain streams, it’s tough to beat a small Stimulator. Swinging a Cow Dung or Picket Pin wet fly allows you to cover a lot of water. If you’re after big fish, you’ll want to go deep with heavy, buggy, generic nymphs, such as Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ears or stonefly patterns. But if you really want to go Old World, throw a classic feather- or hairwing streamer—a Black Ghost or a Mickey Finn—or even a pattern designed specifically for world-record brookies, the Muddler Minnow.

9 thoughts on “Fish Facts: Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)

  1. Paul

    They certainly are a beautiful breed of fish. We have them in some of the waters of the Eastern Sierra. I’ve seen some high altitude lakes over run with tiny specimens that eagerly take whatever fly you drop on the water. The largest I’ve caught was about nine inches. I would love to catch one of those large Northeastern or Argentinean giants one day.

    Reply
  2. Chris

    What a very informative article – now I know more about what I consider be be one of the most gorgeous fish to catch on a fly. Thanks for posting.

    Reply
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  6. Ray Craemer

    One of the major reasons I live in the western Maine mountains. 20″ Brookies are not uncommon here. And people are fierce about protecting the resource. But, the article is right on about all the threats to the fishery.

    On another note – I don’t think Brookies are stupid – they live in an environment where food is scarce, so they tend to react more aggressively than a Brown in food rich water.

    Reply
    1. jim romero

      I live in upper reaches of north idaho.we have unlimited brookie action.The brook trout is an aggressive feeder,but skidish.High bag limits(15 or 25,depending)will surely take out this long time contributer to the pioneers and beyond. They say,their not native,so fish them out.These are a unique fish,that can adapt to different enviro’s.I have seen these fish thrive in a creek1 foot wide by 10 inches deep.The size is dictated by body of water.You gotta love em!

      Reply

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