Some Things About Brown Trout

White River Brown Trout on a terrestrial _ Chris Franzen image

I MAY have been 10, a perhaps younger by a couple of years, when I hooked my first brown trout, a silvery sea runner in the turbulent rips and currents of Hell’s Gates. I was just old enough to be trusted to walk the beach and handle a sliced chrome metal lure without constant supervision.

It was late winter school holidays and my father, a salesman for a food distribution company, had finished his calls to mining and hydro-electric camps early. We took the company station wagon down the sandy tracks to the Gates, at the seaward of Macquarie Harbor, and walked the mouth, saltspray from the breakers which had rolled across the Southern Indian Ocean to throw themselves on this remote and desolate shore, wetting our clothes and lips.

Macquarie Harbor was first established as a penal colony for the incorrigibles among the convicts, who would work and die in the mountains and forests surrounding this place _ few lived out their sentences, and fewer successful escapes. Walk north and eventually you will intersect the Pieman River, named one of the few partially successful escapees, Irish baker Alexander Pearce. Pearce made it our of the wilderness but was subsequently hanged for murdering and making a meal of his fellow escapees _ if I call the Tasmanian West Coast gothic you’ll get the picture.

The entry to this huge waterway is tiny a few hundred yards across _ a maelstrom of waves, currents and boils where the outgoing tea-stained fresh meets the salt. Trout, both resident fish and the nomadic sea-runners, along with a host of of other southern ocean predators hunt baitfish in the roiling currents; only the biggest and baddest survive.

I probably wasn’t able to cast that slice out very far, but apparently it was far enough_ I remember the throb and tug, and my own astonishment at actually catching something: we’d spent a few outings fishless chasing sea-runners, whose movements remain a mystery to fishers and science. And equally mysterious was how I managed to hook and land that fish: I recall my father’s excitement being way higher than my own, I was more astonished.

It took me another 18 years to return to the freshwater, other saltwater species and pursuits, having intervened. Once again I was astonished, as that long spotted shape solidified behind the lure (it would be another 3 months before I would pick up a fly rod) and followed it in, almost to my feet. It may not have been a totally life changing moment, but it close.

I’ve spent the intervening years chasing that moment: the “will it eat” quest, if you like, between the presentation and hookup, mostly though not always, after brown trout.

We like to think of brown trout as more cunning, more shy, more selective than other salmonids. So what to make of the tale of a guide acquaintance back in Tasmania who found a brown dining on blackberries from an overhanging bush. Or the gluttony which triggers browns to feast on snakes _ venomous or not _ small rodents, ducklings, other trout including its own kind, and just about anything that enters its domain

Big brown trout are predators pure and simple, just one of the reasons I dig hunting and studying these fish. Wherever you go in the world there are some consistencies in brown trout behaviour, which means if you can catch them on the White you can catch them in Montana or Tasmania.

DIET:  There’s a quote from a British study into brown trout feeding that remarked that brown trout will eat anything resembling food in their domain. Similarly I’ve remarked if they grey to 15’ long we’d all need bigger boats.

The science here shows juvenile browns subsist on a diet of sowbugs, scuds, midges and seasonally caddis and mayflies _ normal fly fishing fare. But at 16” bigger protein items become the mainstay sculpins, crawdads, minnows and on up to stocked trout. But they will still “snack” on smaller fare between their meals.

Browns are also pretty quick to hone in on seasonal or irregular smorgasbords like flooded grassbeds releasing drowned worms, a shad kill, our 17-year periodic cicada hatch or other bursts of terrestrials.

Easy pickings won’t be ignored, even by trophy fish.

FEED SHALLOW: You’ll hear a lot of times that the slow deep almost “froggy” is brown trout water. But if you want to find feeding browns then look shallow. Browns will go hunting the shallow margins, cruising slower sections or laying up in ambush in current, particularly in low light conditions. Studying the skinny water before you wade out can earn you some nice browns, particularly now with minimum flow conditions. Even otherwise innocuous gravel flats can hold some quality browns.

AMBUSH FEEDING: Brown trout have carried a bad rap for a lack of speed, but don’t let this fool you. A trophy class brown can chase down anything that swims or you care to cast in the river. Those big broad tails allow them to close on fleeing prey hard. Spend enough time on the river and you will see browns flushing sculpins out of rockpiles or herding schools of rainbow. That speed and power of the bigger fish comes to the fore in high flows or the faster shoals. Brown trout are adept at using structure, boulders, log or rock piles as an ambush point from where they can foray into the heart of the current for less able prey.

SURFACE ORIENTED: Brown trout globally are a sucker for a dry fly when conditions are right. Terrestrials, our spring caddis, sulphurs or floating shad will soon have those fish dialled in. Smaller fish 12” to 18” in particular will come onto a surface bite faster but if the hatch is thick enough the bigger fish will join in.

Terrestrials in particular can draw up some serious trophies.


  • Steve,
    I don’t usually reply to your articles…..but I thought this was really good.

    Rick Murley
    Collierville Tn.

  • Brilliant article – thanks for sharing it! I caught a wild sea trout in the Thames in London earlier this summer and I definitely understand your father’s excitement at the time! Kind regards – metiefly

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