Fly fishing for trout


Fly fishing for trout is the most dreamed of fishing for most anglers all over the world. Down through the years more has been written about trout than about any other game fish. One reason for this romantic angling attention is that trout is the game fish of the really wild country.

Trout are found in wilderness streams of the forest country—cold, white-water streams cascading down from pine and fir-clad mountains, through canyons where ruffed grouse drum in the thickets and deer come down to drink.

Again, trout are the most beautiful of our fresh water game fish. The gorgeous coloration of an Eastern Brook Trout just out of the water almost takes your breath away with its brilliant crimson spots in their purple edgings over a rich, velvet background of black-olive. The colorful orange lower fins with their startlingly white front edges point up a beauty almost too glamorous to be believed.

There are four general kinds of trout for which fly fishermen of the United States and Canada fish: Rainbow trout, Cutthroat trout, Brown trout and the Char. The Eastern Brook trout is a char. Because more fly fishermen, including me, grew up on angling for Brook trout, I am going to start with the char, and with the Eastern Brook trout.

Eastern Brook Trout

Brook Trout were once found in nearly all of our cold upland streams from the arctic regions of Northern Canada south to the southern Appalachian streams of the Pisgah National Forest and west across the highlands of the Middle West up into Hudson’s Bay. As civilization swept virgin timber from the land, many trout streams became too warm for this cold-water fish. This change has been brought about in many streams, too, by floods that come with de-forested water sheds.

These floods wash away much of the aquatic life upon which trout feed. In spite of this widespread change-over of many streams from trout to bass waters, Eastern and North Atlantic anglers who can go far enough into the mountains and woods can still get very enjoyable Brook trout fishing. In this successful “defense of our trout streams,” various state conservation commissions, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Forest Service have been and are doing splendid work that is becoming more practically effective every year.

In partial recompense for streams lost to warm water game fish. Brook Trout have now been planted so widely in the Western part of the United States in places where they never were before that they are probably now found in as many streams as they ever were.

I told you the Eastern Brook trout belongs to the char group of trout’s. The scientists claim that the chars are not true trout’s at all—but for the common fly fisherman, Brook Trout are not only trout but the trout. Anyhow, I think you’d like to know how to tell a char from the other three kinds of trout.

Nine out of ten fishermen don’t know how. You can tell any of the chars from the other trout (Rainbow, Cutthroat or Brown) by one simple thing. Look for a bone running lengthwise in the roof of the mouth of the fish. This bone is called the vomer. All chars have teeth only on the front part or crest of the vomer. The other three groups of trout (which belong to a family the scientists call “Salmo”) all have teeth extending well down the shaft of this vomer bone. This was always hard for me to understand until I saw a drawing of it, so here is one that shows the vomer and how you can tell a char from a true trout.

Eastern Brook Trout

Eastern Brook trout are very easily recognized. Besides the vomer bone distinction, the brilliant red spots with purple surrounding coloring and the whitish spots on a darker background, combined with the olive, worm-like lines on the back and the white front edge of the lower fins, make the Brook trout a fish you will know on sight. With almost every fisherman it is “love at first sight,” too.

Brook trout prefer shady brooks although they are found in the colder headwaters of larger woodland rivers of their range. Brook trout do well in cold ponds and lakes. They like colder water, not over 68°, but can stand a summer water temperature of 75°.

Eastern Brook trout move upstream in late summer seeking cooler waters and spawning beds. They spawn in the fall— from October to December, at the very headwaters of streams —and return downstream in the winter after leaving the spawning beds.

The world’s record Brook trout was a 14 lb., 8 oz. fish caught in the Nipigon River, Ontario, in July, 1916, by Dr. W. J. Cook.

The Chars

There are three principal chars caught by fishermen in America. First, of course, is the Eastern Brook Trout that I have already mentioned—the brook trout of most fishermen and American fly fishing writers.

Lake Trout

The second is the Lake Trout. These are caught in the deep northern lakes of Eastern and Middle Western United States and Canada in the summer by deep trolling with metal lines. You can tell Lake Trout by the large, whitish spots on a background of dark grey.

Lake trout have no red spots and the fins are uncolored. They are a fly fisherman’s fish only in the very early spring. Just after the ice goes out, they do come into fairly shallow water along shore lines and on bars. At this time they can be caught on wet flies, streamers, bucktails and on a spinner-and-fly. Even at this season, lake trout can be taken rather more effectively by bait casting with deep-running lures. So, at best, lake trout just aren’t much of a fly fisherman’s fish.

Dolly Varden

The third principal char is one the anglers of the East probably do not know—the Dolly Varden. This lusty trout is also called salmon trout and bull trout in Alaska and on the Pacific Coast.

Dolly Vardens range from Northern California up the Pacific Coast to Alaska and East to Alberta and Montana. They may easily be recognized by the size of the adipose or fatty fin (that’s the small fin on the back between the dorsal fin and the tail). This adipose fin in the Dolly Varden is unusually large. The body is deep and thick with large red spots on the sides. The spots on the back are smaller and paler, something not seen in other chars.

The Dolly Varden doesn’t have the characteristic wormlike markings on the back that are so well known in the Eastern Brook trout. These two differences give you a way to tell these two chars apart if you find them in the same stream, which you may easily do in the West where Eastern Brook have been widely stocked in streams native to the Dolly Varden. This latter type, incidentally, often drop downstream to the sea where they grow to a large size—ten or twelve pounds—and turn silvery color with the red spots very faint or not showing at all. They take flies well.

Minor Chars

There are a number of minor chars found in America. The better known ones are the Lake Sunapee trout in Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire; the Rangely Lake trout in the Rangely Lakes of Maine and a few lakes of northern Canada. It is quite likely that further study will show these to be merely local variations of the regular Eastern Brook trout.

Rainbow or Steelhead Trout

There are three widely distributed kinds of true trout in America. The first of these is the Rainbow or Steelhead — the famous, crimson-sided trout of Western streams which has been so widely transplanted all over the East and Middle West that it has become almost native there. The Steelhead is simply a strain of Rainbow trout whose instinct causes them to go down to the sea or a large inland lake to grow big and sleek and silvery; two or three years later, they come back to their home stream to spawn.

You can tell Rainbow trout by the red band running lengthwise on the sides of the body and the gill covers in spawning males and by the many black spots on a background of lighter color. The lower fins are light in color. The Rainbow has no red spots and does not have the Brook trout worm-like markings on the back. The Rainbow does not have the slash of red color below the lower jaw on each side that is found in Cutthroat trout. Steelheads, when they first come from the ocean or large lake, are silvery with practically no spots. Farther up the river the Rainbow colors come back.

Rainbow trout were originally found only on the Pacific Coast from California northward through Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. They put up a tremendous fight with spectacular jumps equaled only by fighting salmon.

Rainbows like fast, turbulent streams in which the temperature ranges from 50° to 70°. They will stand a maximum water temperature of 83° if the water is highly aerated (large amount of dissolved oxygen in the water). Rainbow trout that live in streams usually weigh from 1/4 to 3 lbs., but grow to 13 lbs. or more in exceptional cases.

Rainbows migrate to smaller headwater streams in spring to spawn. The exact spawning season varies, according to the water temperature, from February to June.

Steelheads run up from the ocean or large lakes to spawn in the smaller headwater sections of the river in which they were hatched. Their usual weight is from 3 to 12 lbs., though they’re known to have grown to 42 lbs. The world’s record Rainbow was caught October 15, 1945 in Garfield Bay, Lake Pend d’Orielle, Idaho, by Ed. W. Dreisbach. This big trout was of the Kamloops Rainbow variety and weighed 31 lbs.

Golden Trout

There is one variation of Rainbow trout that is so differently beautiful that I want to describe it to you before passing on to the other trout’s. This is the Golden Trout found at elevations around 10,000 ft. in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains near Mt. Whitney. These fish are gorgeous beyond belief. Colors are deep vermilion on the belly fading to clear gold on the sides with a bright rose-colored stripe crossed at intervals with beautifully contrasting dark parallel parr marks that stay on all the way to maturity.

The cheeks are of the most brilliant gold, while black spots cover the upper sides and dusky olive upper surface. The lower fins are orange tipped with white. The dark olive dorsal fin carries one bright red spot. A flash of living light if there ever was one. Golden trout seldom grow to a large size, but take flies freely and fight like mad.

Cutthroat Trout

The second group of true trout in America is the Cutthroat. This is a Western species found all along the Pacific Coast and east into the inter-mountain states—as far as the headwaters of the Missouri and the Kansas rivers. The Cutthroats of the Yellowstone country, of Montana and of the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers are particularly well known.

The best way to tell Cutthroat trout is the slash of red color below the lower jaw-bone on each side. To look for this cutthroat color on the lower jaw, spread apart the lower junction of the gills with the head. The dash of color often can’t be seen unless this is done. The Cutthroat is heavily spotted with black on a background of lighter color. There are no red spots, but spawning males often show a red stripe on the sides.

Cutthroat trout of the shorter coastal streams are often sea-run like Steelhead, ascending only a short distance up fresh water. Like Rainbows, the Cutthroat trout spawns in the spring. They are not quite as fond of fast turbulent water as the Rainbow and are not as adaptable to varying water temperatures. They do well in many cold water lakes of the western mountains.

When they live all their lives in streams, Cutthroat run from 1/3 lb. to 3 lbs.; but much larger ones are caught in larger rivers, like the Colorado, and in lakes. The world’s record for the species, 41 lbs., comes from Pyramid Lake, Nevada, and was caught in December, 1925 by John Skimmerhorn.

Cutthroat trout are powerful fighting fish but do not jump on a slack line the way Rainbows do. However, the experience of taking Cutthroat trout on a fly rod in one of the glacier-fed cold mountain lakes of the Glacier National Forest is flooded with romance that no fisherman will ever forget.

Brown Trout

The third kind you may run into is the Brown trout. This is the famous fly fishing trout imported from Great Britain and Europe. The Loch Leven strains of Brown trout come from Scotland, where the world’s record fish of this breed was caught ‘way back in 1866 in Loch Awe by W. Muir; it weighed 39 lbs. 8 ozs.

When first brought into this country, Brown trout were received with marked antipathy. A great hue and cry went up that the Browns would drive our much more beautiful Eastern Brooks out of existence. This did not prove to be so, although the stocking of Brown trout in cold water lakes did prove a mistake. Certain other situations developed where it became plain that the introduction of Brown trout—in fact, any kind of non-native trout—was poor policy.

On the whole, Brown trout, when planted in waters suitable to them, provide fine trout fishing. They are now found in practically every state which has trout fishing of any kind.

Browns take flies, especially dry flies, rather better than any other trout. This is particularly apparent with the larger trout. Big Eastern Brook trout and big Rainbows are inclined to become almost exclusively minnow, or at least bottom, feeders. Browns seem to like a floating insect dessert with their meals more regularly.

Another good point about Brown trout, from the fish management standpoint, is that big Browns become much more selective about the flies and lures they will take than do other kinds. This makes them harder to catch and thus keeps them from being fished out so fast in heavily whipped streams.

When you first catch Brown trout, you might be puzzled to know what they are because they have red spots somewhat like Brook trout. If you make the vomer-bone test I told you about, you will see at once that this fish is not a char as is the Brook trout. Brown trout are of a general brownish yellow color with many large dark spots on a lighter background and with only a few red spots.

The Brown trout has larger scales. You can see them with the naked eye. Eastern Brooks have scales so fine you’ll probably think they don’t have any— they do, but you almost need a microscope to see them. Then, too, Browns do not have the typical dark olive, worm-like markings on the back. The lower fins on Brown trout are pale yellow to white but do not show the spectacular white edgings with the brilliant orange or red color so characteristic of Brook trout.

Browns are usually found in larger, deeper, warmer-water streams than those best for Eastern Brook trout. If in the same stream with Brook trout, the Browns will be in the slower-water pools and pockets above or below boulders rather than in the faster current of the riffles. If in the same stream, Rainbows will usually be in still faster, more turbulent water. Brown trout do fairly well in some lakes and ponds but are not well adapted to cold water lakes. Browns will stand a maximum temperature of 81° F.

Like other trout, Browns move upstream to spawn and downstream for the winter. They are a fall breeding fish—from October to December. Browns, however, prefer larger headwater streams for breeding purposes—those 10 to 30 feet wide as against the preference of Brook trout for much smaller spawning brooks—those only 1 to 3 ft. wide.

Brown trout usually run from 1/4 to 4 lbs. but grow up to 20 lbs. and larger—all the way up to that tremendous record fish of 39 lbs. 8 oz,

Certainly our anglers are lucky to have Brown trout in a good many of our heavily-fished meadow and bottom-land streams.


While so rare as to be almost unknown in the United States, the Grayling is such a splendid fly-fishing species. Grayling are found in the headwaters of the Missouri River in Montana and in the Yellowstone. Essentially a cold water fish, they are distributed over much of the stream and lake country of Alaska and Northern Canada.

Grayling spawn in the spring and are easily propagated in hatcheries if the water supply remains cold during the incubation period. They run from nine to twelve inches in length; some have been reported as heavy as four pounds. They put up a splendid fight on a light fly rod and they take a fly freely, even more so than do trout in the same water. Many anglers consider Grayling even better eating than Brook trout —my favorite fish for the frying pan.

You can easily identify Grayling by the beautiful and extremely large, high, sail-like dorsal fin, which has spectacular orange or reddish markings on it. The mouth is very small —but is shaped like that of a trout—not sucker-like, as in the Colorado Whitefish. Many fishermen in Colorado call the Whitefish a Grayling, which it definitely is not. Other distinctive characteristics of Grayling are the large scales, compared to a trout, and the lack of teeth on the tongue.

You may never have the good fortune to fish for Grayling; but if you do, you will carry the memory of this beautiful silver-and-purple flower of a fish with you always.