The Red-Bellied Stepchild

The Red-Bellied Stepchild

Brook trout fishing in the Rocky Mountains will teach a boisterous fisherman modesty-an important lesson since at the slightest provocation your average

  • By: John Gierach
Brook trout fishing in the Rocky Mountains will teach a boisterous fisherman modesty-an important lesson since at the slightest provocation your average fly fisher will puff up and strut like a horny tomcat over the size of his fish. Which is to say, brook trout tend to be pretty small here. I've heard conflicting theories about why that is from people who should know, but my favorite explanation is the simplest and most obvious. In their native range, brook trout grow the biggest in places like Labrador where pike and lake trout eat them by the bushel.They're essentially a prey species and so, like rabbits, they have lots of offspring in hopes that a few will make it. A few always do, and because the survivors have lots of room and plenty to eat, they grow big. Put those same trout in small mountain creeks, lakes or beaver ponds with few if any predators and they'll continue to breed like rabbits, but their numbers won't be culled. Eventually, they'll over-populate, strain the food supply and stunt. This kind of thing happens a lot with introduced species. One or more of the characteristics that made them flawlessly suited to their native habitat careens out of control in the new place. Think of the introduction of rabbits to Australia. Oddly enough, most of the Western fly fishers I know still like brook trout in the same way that even trophy bass fishers have a grudging affection for bluegills. Of course there are a handful who hate brookies, the argument being that they contribute to the decline of native cutthroats by out-competing them. That may be a bum rap in some cases, though, because many of the waters where brook trout were stocked back in the old days didn't have any fish to begin with. For that matter, the stocking of brown trout and rainbows did at least as much damage to cutthroat populations as brook trout did, but no one seems to mind them one bit. Over the years, as a matter of idle curiosity, I've tried to figure out exactly when those old days started, but haven't quite been able to put my finger on a date. The oldest records are spotty, but it's clear that Colorado was officially stocking brook trout at least by 1885 and possibly as early as 1880. The earliest mention I can find of a private fish culturist importing brookies is from 1870, and there's no particular reason to think he was the first. There's no telling where any of those early fish were planted. Even after the territory became a state in 1876, things were still mostly wide open and undocumented. And then there's the story I heard from a US Fish&Wildlife biologist: According to an old diary he'd dug up, when the first official state-run hatchery in Colorado went into operation, they went to a nearby lake and caught "wild" brook trout for brood stock. Today you usually find brook trout in out-of-the-way places: strings of beaver ponds, small mountain streams and some alpine lakes. Sometimes they're by themselves, but just as often, because of a hodgepodge of stockings over the years, they're living with populations of browns and rainbows-two other exotic species-and sometimes cutthroats. In a few precious places the cutts may be holdout natives, but the majority of them are also the results of stocking. If you manage to get a grand slam-catching a brown, rainbow, cutthroat and brook trout in a single day-chances are the brookie will be the smallest fish, but it'll also be the prettiest, especially if it's late summer or fall when they're fat and in their spawning colors. And since in some cases they're the descendants of trout that were stocked long ago and then forgotten when brookies went out of fashion, you have to admire their tenacity as well as their good looks. The best way to find brookies in Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states is to stumble upon them while exploring in national parks and national and state forests. If you're specifically looking for them, concentrate on small, high-altitude streams and tributary creeks, especially those that flow through beaver meadows. Beaver meadows can be green hells to get around in, but because of that some of them can be almost unfished. Go ahead and fish the ponds, especially the inlets and up against the dam, but also check out the channels and pot holes in between, if only because four out of every five fishermen seem to ignore them. Avoid waters with special regulations designed to protect fish populations, because no one is interested in protecting brookies. In fact, just the opposite is true. In Colorado, in addition to your legal daily bag limit of four trout, you can also keep 10 brook trout 8 inches long or less. Streams that you've never heard of are good because brookie streams don't get famous or draw large crowds. If there are salmon-egg bottles and worm cans in the trailhead garbage can-or, God forbid, on the trail-so much the better. There are two possible advantages to spots like this. One is that in places where people habitually keep brookies for dinner, the remaining fish may grow a little bigger, although of course they'll be fewer and farther between. The other is that here in the West you can kill and eat some brook trout without fear of grief from any but the most annoying self-appointed snobs. A friend once told me that five- and six-inch brook trout are excellent beheaded and gutted, breaded lightly in corn meal, fried crisp in olive oil and garlic and eaten whole with French bread and cheese. The novelist Jim Harrison once said of Michigan fishermen that if they catch three brook trout, they'll say they caught 40, and if they caught 40, they'll say they caught three. In the Rockies we do the same thing with size. Tiny brook trout are so common that a believable way to hide a good, secluded spot is to say it's real pretty, but it's only full of little brookies. Naturally, good-size brook trout do show up from time to time, and they're always newsworthy. In all my years of fishing the Rocky Mountains I've caught one brook trout that was a quarter-inch shy of 19 inches. He was in a popular tailwater known for big rainbows and browns, one of a handful of brookies I've seen or heard about there in 30 years. He peeled off into fast water and got me into the backing. The best guess among fishermen about how brookies get into water like that is that they dribble down from tributary streams because there hardly seem to be enough of them for a breeding population. Of course if you ask a professional fisheries biologist how any brook trout got anywhere in the Rockies, they'll probably shrug and say, "At this point, who knows?" I've caught two other brook trout that were 16 inches long (never mind where) and an increasing number as you go down through 15, 14, 13 and 12 inches. A foot-long brookie is considered to be a real nice fish, and in most of the creeks and streams I haunt, you're lucky to crack 10 inches, although it does happen. Brookies have a reputation for being easy to catch and it's usually well earned, not because they're stupid, but because most of them live in sparse water where they have to be aggressive in order to stay fed. But like all trout they can have their moments. If you put them in a rich, spring-fed lake with browns and rainbows, they can actually get downright inscrutable, showing themselves just often enough to maintain the rumor that they're in there. In some easily accessible roadside streams where they're pounded unmercifully by tourists and locals they can get educated by the fishing pressure, and you'll sometimes see a five-inch brookie make a refusal rise worthy of a spring-creek brown. Or maybe they're just in clear, still water under a bright sun where they're easy to spook. Whatever it is, when you know he's there, but you can't catch him, an 8-inch brookie might as well be a 15-pound steelhead. When brook trout are the only fish in a stream or beaver pond, the chances of them being stunted seem better than even. I've actually caught some of my best brook trout in streams where they're alongside browns and rainbows, although I'm not sure why that is. Maybe competition for spawning habitat is so stiff that only a few brookies reproduce successfully, or maybe the browns eat up a lot of the babies. Years ago when a dam broke and blew out a small stream in Rocky Mountain National Park that was full of moderate-size brook trout, park rangers found the washed up body of a brown trout that they measured at 30 inches. Chances are he didn't get to that size by sipping mayflies. Beaver ponds with brook trout are often crammed with little ones, but new ponds can be an exception. The usual explanation is that when a new pond appears almost literally overnight, the few little brookies who were in that stretch of stream suddenly find themselves in a small lake. There's deeper water and better cover. The flooded vegetation, as well as the leaves and bark that wash in from upstream, breed more insects, which means more food. Eventually the brookies will breed and overpopulate again, but in the first few years they'll have the room and the food to grow big. You know, 10 to 12 inches, maybe even 14 or 15. You don't find these often, but I've found just enough that now when I come on a beaver pond where the chewed sticks in the dam still look as fresh as raw lumber, I'll check my leader, re-dress my fly or even tie on a fresh one and just generally get myself together. (When you're brookie fishing, it's possible to get casual if not downright sloppy and bugger the one strike you get from a nice fish.) If the pond pans out, I'll go home and deliver the plausible report: "Pretty much what you'd expect: full of little brookies."