Our Man In Canada
October 24th, 2005

Tactics for Great Lakes Browns

By Nick Pujic

To this day I still remember the thrill of catching my first brown trout. I was barely 15 years old, throwing gaudy looking flies at chinook salmon in the Ganaraska River at Port Hope, Ontario, completely oblivious to the possibility of hooking anything but a salmon. During an ordinary drift, which back then was anything but what a true drag-free drift should be, my line straightened out and the rod started pulsing. This was no Chinook: it was much too small and vigorous, immediately barreling out of the pool and heading straight for Lake Ontario. It peeled off my fly line as if the the drag was non-existent. When I landed that fish a short time later, I immediately realized that what I had just caught was the fish I wanted to spend my life pursuing. It was a migratory brown trout—a male, probably no larger than 5 pounds, but boasting its full spawning dress of golden brown, deep red and orange. It was dwarfed by the plentiful 20 pound plus Chinooks in the river, but that didn't seem to matter. Its dash and its beauty outshone them. I was hooked!

Of all migratory Great Lakes fish, brown trout are arguably both the most rewarding and perhaps the most misunderstood species of all. While many of the anglers who target chinook, coho, or steelhead in the fall hook into migratory browns incidentally, the number of dedicated brown trout fly fishers is relatively few. Of these, even fewer employ techniques specifically designed for browns. Most are simply content to use the same techniques they use for salmon or steelhead, especially on the Canadian side of the lake. Perhaps this is because they assume that, as they've caught a couple of browns while fishing for other species, there's no need to explore techniques specifically for them. Another reason is that, with the exception of parts of New York state, populations of browns are relatively small with respect to Pacific salmon and steelhead.

This is a mistake, for migratory browns behave differently from steelhead and Pacific salmon. Therefore, taking time to observe them and learn a few customized techniques can significantly increase success. As far as the fly fisher is concerned, there are three major stages to the brown trout run. During these, there are significant variations in where the fish locate and how they behave. Consequently, it's necessary to vary techniques and fly patterns accordingly.

Early Season

Depending on water levels and the frequency of precipitation, male brown trout start enteringthe larger lower Great Lake tributaries first, usually between early and mid October. It is important to note that this trend can vary by as much as two full weeks, depending on weather and water conditions, especially if there is a drought or frequent heavy rain. Initially male browns will mill around river and creek mouths, waiting for the right water levels before shooting up into the watershed. There is a popular belief that migratory browns can only caught on single egg flies behind a pair of spawning salmon. However, is a myth, for during these early phases of the spawning run, the most productive method is to swing streamers, large nymphs and even Spey flies through larger, slower pools in the lower stretches of the tributaries.

The males show up in the streams first. At this point they're aggressive. They're all fired up to start spawning, but the absence of females causes them to stage in pools rather than seek out the riffles where spawning generally occurs. If sight fishing is possible, look for browns swimming curiously in pools at first light. With the right combination of patience and stealth you can observe male browns repeatedly harassing each other in their drive to establish dominance. This is prime time to bust out that tried and true Black Nose Dace or alewife imitation and swing it for all its worth through these pools. Takes from these hormone-charged, aggressive fish can be savage.

If the water is clear, as the sun rises, browns will take refuge in areas of shade, or near ledges, shelves and undercut banks. However, murky or "chocolate milk" conditions reduce the trout's inclination to hide, simply because they are not as aware of the external, above-water world.

Prime Time: Pre Spawn

Like it or not, with fall rains (which bring in the fish) come fall nights. Everyone knows the type. Those first cold nights creep up on us, taking us by surprise, and before you know it you're greeted by a thin, all-encompassing sheet of frost on your vehicle in the morning. But this seasonal occurrence is more than an inconvenience to us, it is also a good indication that female brown trout, often much bulkier than males have started entering Lake Ontario tributaries in fishable numbers. I say fishable, as there are always exceptions to every rule. Just ask the pier fishermen who inadvertently tangle with a chinny while jigging in the Summer time.

As those first frosts begin and a solid run of female browns builds into the tributaries though October to mid November, the entire behavioural pattern of the fish changes. At this point, they begin to shift their focus to other, more important things. Now that the females have arrived, the males (now sporting their full spawning colours) move into smaller holding pools, where they begin their pairing rituals with the females. Pay close attention to the lower two thirds of a pool, especially if it is surrounded by gravely riffles in the mid to upper stretches of a tributary. During this phase brown trout will stack up, often in pods of three or more to a pool right at the point where the pool starts to shallow out.

In addition to the behavioural change, is the presence of spawning salmon in the same tributaries. Browns take advantage of this, and can be observed gorging themselves on stray salmon eggs in pools behind pairs of spawning chinook in the skinny water.

As swinging streamers will now become less and less productive, it's time to put them away and bring out your egg box. Glo bugs, egg sucking leeches ESL), infected PT nymphs and other roe imitators produce best during this pre-spawn period. If angling pressure is high in the area, don't hesitate to try unconventional color variations of otherwise conventional patterns, such as baby blue and purple glo-bugs. These are especially deadly on some of the better known Lake Ontario tributaries.

Brown trout move during pre-spawn. This means that if you can't locate many fish one day, it does not necessarily mean that the fish won't be there the next. Paying attention to moon phases can play a key in hitting the water when the fish are there. A priceless tip I learned from a close friend, Graham Owen, another brown trout addict, is to pay close attention to the moon phases. Typically, one would never willingly fish for resident browns during the few days of a full moon, as they would tend to be feeding nocturnally at this time, minimizing their activity during the day. However, during a spawning run, the migratory browns generally navigate further upstream during a full moon as conditions allow for better visibility.


As brown trout prefer much of the same spawning locations as chinook salmon, it makes it easier to locate them. Spawning salmon are much darker than the browns and much easier to spot.

By mid to late November, it will be easy to tell when the browns have started spawning as they will no longer be found in groups lying in lower portions of pools. Instead, they will have sought out gravel bars in riffles, where they will pair up and start building redds.

If at all possible angling of any type for spawning fish should be avoided. However certain streams and rivers, especially in New York, do not allow for natural reproduction, relying completely on provincial or state stocking programs. In these areas browns can still be taken on an array of smaller nymphs and egg flies while they are spawning. At this time, I've had the best success with downsized PT (both conventional and "infected") and Hare's Ear nymphs. A common mistake among those who target browns using salmon techniques is to continue using egg flies. However, these become decreasingly effective, as by this time, most, if not all, salmon have already finished spawning and their corpses begin to appear washed up on the bank. The most effective method is a repeatedly drifted nymph to pairs of visible browns. It takes patience, but it can be a rewarding experience. Try to keep out of sight if at all possible and cast upstream—not only to get a better drift, but also to prevent spooking the fish. As with steelheading, persistence works!

It is possible to make a case for a fourth stage in the run—post spawn, for, like steelhead and Atlantic salmon, many individual browns survive spawning. While some move quickly back to the lake, many remain in the river, sometimes as late as December, especially if there's been little rain. However, at this point, the fish are tired and listless from the rigors of spawning. They're not particularly aggressive and they're sluggish when hooked. I don't usually fish for them at this time, preferring to leave them to build back their strength for another return to the river next year. Moreover, it can get uncomfortably cold in December!


Selecting gear for a brown trout outing need not be complicated. Bring along your 7 or 8wt in the earlier phases of the run when the fish are fresh. It's also handy to be equipped with a rod capable of handling the odd chinook. Once spawning begins a 6wt will suffice, but I still prefer a heavier rod in order to land fish as fast as possible, so they can resume their reproductive activities having undergone minimum stress. Tippets ranging from 4 to 8 pound test gives you more than enough for all types of conditions. I prefer fluorcarbon, for, despite the ongoing mono vs. fluoro debates I have never had any problems with the latter. The total leader length rarely needs to exceed 9ft, especially if the fluorocarbon tippet is attached to a quality braided or poly leader, allowing solid turnover of hefty flies. Reel selection is also simple. Stick to one that has a good drag system and plenty of capacity, and spool it up with a WF floating or mini sink tip line. Large arbor spools are handy, but not necessary by any means. On a few of the larger Lake Ontario tributaries a full intermediate or heavier sink tip, such as Jim Teeny's new Chuck & Duck line may be required. However, these are considered exceptions.

Fighting migratory fish, whether they are football sized browns or double digit Chinook, can be marginally easy or very difficult depending on your technique. I find the "drunk driver" approach works best for coaxing fish out of the current in record time. What makes the drunk driver technique unique is that instead of applying steady pressure from one angle on a fish, which lets it gain balance and predict where the tension will come from, switching the rod from left to right consistently, while applying steady pressure prevents it from gaining balance, making it much more difficult to hold in faster water.

Above all else, please remember that brown trout are amongst some of the rarest migratory species in Lake Ontario. And while the authorities on both sides of the border are doing their best with the insignificant resources they have to sustain populations, fly fishers should do their bit by practicing careful catch-and-release. The all too frequent spectacle of double digit females browns stacked in coolers like sardines in a can, just for their roe, is nauseating. It's up to us to ensure that the beauty, elegance, color and mystique of the world class brown trout we treasure is not diminished to a mere memory.

The memories of my first brown haven't faded. The picture still hangs above my tying bench as a reminder of that special moment which forever changed me as a fly fisher. Since that day, my pursuit of browns has spanned international borders and has led me to friendships I will cherish for a lifetime. It has also cost a small fortune and has even resulted in a few broken bones from overzealous attempts in clambering down dangerous banks in waters where big browns lie—but such is the price of passion. Each season, I add more wonderful memories to my scrapbook. And, without doubt, the rains in the fall of 2005 will bring with them more—not only fish, but friends and stories, too.

River Reports

Keeping a pulse on river conditions can make or break any fishing trip. If you're planning on visiting any lower Great Lakes tributaries, touching base with local anglers beforehand can make all the difference. Check out these popular Internet fly fishing discussion forums before your next outing for the most recent river conditions and hot techniques!

Fly Tying Forum
An excellent site for hot migratory trout patterns, advice, and much more!

Talk Fly Fishing Forum
River conditions for all Great Lakes, including reports from both sides of the border.

Float Board
This is mostly a non-fly fishing community, but it's a great place to get the latest stream conditions on Lake Ontario's Northern shore.

Current issue

Author's Top 5 Migratory Brown Trout Patterns

    1 – Egg Sucking Leech

    2 – Estaz Glo Bug

    3 – Infected PT Nymph

    4 – Black Stone Nymph

    5 – The Pinkie

A Note on Size:
Great Lakes browns can grow big—over 20lbs., and there's always a fair chance of a double figure fish. However, the average is around five or six pounds. While males can reach 15 pounds or more, most of the really big fish will be females. ~ Nick Pujic

Credits: We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!

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