Interest #3: Brook Trout in Pennsylvania

A native, Eastern Brook Trout; state fish of Pennsylvania.

Where did all the Brook Trout go?

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Eastern Brook Trout are the state fish of not only Pennsylvania, but a number of other states. In their native range, re-establishing and enhancing existing populations is a noteworthy and important cause. However, in the Western half of the U.S., where they are not native, they are and have been a detrimental invasive species that outcompete native Cutthroat and Rainbow Trout. Most of New York and Pennsylvania have fishable populations of indigenous Brook Trout to this day. However, none of the streams feeding into Lake Erie in Northwestern Pennsylvania have Brook Trout. Lake Superior has a Coaster Brook Trout sport fishery & Maine has a notable, though troubled sea-run Brook Trout fishery. Did Lake Erie ever have coaster Brook Trout?

Native is synonymous with indigenous. Naturalized is not native. Steelhead are stocked in the Great Lakes, but have naturalized in many streams and rivers feeding into the Great Lakes.

How to catch Brook Trout in the Keystone State:

A native Brook Trout is a challenge to locate and successfully bring to hand. They spook back to a boulder overhang or tree root with minimal reason or disturbance, but their greedy feeding habits make them an easy fish to solicit a bite from. Any fly will do, but a barbless fly is best. A native Brook Trout takes many seasons to mature to a size of merely 6 inches; they will gobble your fly and a fly lacking a barb is far easier to remove. Their impressive beauty makes the hiking, and sometimes frustrating fishing, worthwhile.

How do you locate Brook Trout? I recommend visiting the PA Fish & Boat ArcGIS map; I linked it here. Read the legend for information on what sort of wild trout stream it is. Once you peruse the available streams via the map you may have a fair idea of where you want to fish. If you want to up the adventure experience, and you are a responsible angler that practices Leave No Trace, then blindly pick a gorge in the Allegheny National Forest that shows a few blue lines on the topographical map view and you’ll surely have a nice time. If you own a copy of Keystone Fly Fishing you can use it to cross-reference potential spots.

Blue Lining is a term typically used by Brook Trout enthusiasts. On USGS Topographical maps streams are marked with blue lines, intermittent streams show as blue dashes. If you find any sort of hilly, steep terrain near the Allegheny National Forest all the way to the Poconos you will likely find Brook Trout. If you spent any sort of time hiking into your Brook Trout spot then please do not blow it up on social media! You may very well be spoiling other angler’s quiet, treasured water. Enjoy the resource. If you see other outdoor enthusiasts there then by all means socialize and talk with them, but be wary of advertising an otherwise quiet watershed.

Equipment List:

—I utilize a 4 weight because there are sections of stream I fish that I could run into a decent-sized stocked trout. You can fish with whatever rod weight you would like. I have rarely caught brookies that pull line with my set up, but it does occur.

  • Small fly rod, I use a 7’ 6” Redington Butterstick 4 weight rod
  • Small fly reel, I use a Redington Zero clicker reel (4/5 weight)
  • Floating fly line of appropriate weight to match the fly rod
  • Tapered leader, 7.5 feet or even shorter so you can better control your casts. If you are in a tight spot you may only be able to bow-and-arrow cast & a long leader makes that quite difficult.
  • Small barbless or barb-crimped flies (use your hemostats to tamp down the barb on hooks; young Brook Trout inhale flies)
  • Hemostats or very small pliers
  • Landing net

Fly size is variable; depending on the size of the Brook Trout you are after it may be best to use a larger terrestrial or oversized Parachute Adams because smaller fish will not be able to engulf them; size 14 or size 12 are not too large, but again, if there is a barb on that size hook you will have a challenging time safely removing the hook. I like using smaller dry flies and nymphs in general. I use size 16 or 18 dries with a comparable or smaller sized fly as the dropper. A size 20 Griffith’s Gnat is a great fly, but you need to be quick with the set when you see the water’s surface break. Try fishing a tandem rig for Brook Trout. Such as a Zebra Midge, a Flashback Scud, or an English Pheasant Tail Nymph dropped beneath a Stimulator or Royal Wulff. Your fly choice is not nearly as important as your stealthy approach before casting into the target area.

Eastern Brook Trout spawn in the fall. Most Pennsylvania anglers see paired up fish and redds (nests) in October and November. Wild Trout streams that do not receive stockings should be left alone during spawning times so that future generations are not negatively impacted.

Stay low when targeting Brook Trout—move slowly and stay below your target with the aforementioned rig. If your outline is at all visible against the sky all you will see are dark shapes darting for cover. If you are swinging a micro streamer a downstream swing is lethal! Jigged micro buggers are very fun to fish on a small fly rod in a secluded stream.

Pictured is a Stimulator dry fly. See the barb on the hook? That needs tamped down for Brook Trout and any small fish that tend to inhale flies. This photograph was taken fishing along the Allegheny River searching for Brown Trout, early Summer 2019.

How to take a cool picture of your Brook Trout that you would like to release safely:

  • Play the fish; use the rod flex to tire fish. As majestic as it is seeing fish jump, it is best to angle the rod and keep jumpers in the water. Fight fish fast—reasonably fast, this is not a Bass Masters Tournament, but you should be landing these fish rather quickly. Minimizing Lactic Acid build up is important and playing fish quickly is an important component of that.
  • Lift the head of the fish as you net it. So, as you scoop the silicone net up and out of the water with one hand you are lifting your rod high with the other in order to raise the head of the fish, or, swing that little Eastern char into the net best you can, any way you can
  • Keep the fish/net in the water! Keep Fish Wet at all times
  • Wet your hands and make sure the fish stays as wet as possible
  • Remove your fly with hemostats, but barbless flies should slide right out
  • Wet your good hand/photogenic hand
  • With your other hand, grab your iPhone and flick to your camera app
  • Gently lift the Brook Trout with your wet hand and snap the photo
  • Remember, most of these fish are rather small. Your non-fishing family and friends would rather see how beautiful that tiny trout is! Not you, smiling and holding a super small, navy-colored fish in the palm of your hand.
  • Try to be quick with your photos and release
  • Dip the net deep into the water while holding the bottom silicone netting open to release the fish, or you can place the fish back into the brook, facing upstream right after you snap your photo
  • There is a catch and release video below for reference!
I think Brook Trout are absolutely stunning! I handle them with wet hands, I minimize touching them, and I use a net. If you stay low and do not spook the fish, you will be chuffed at how readily they eat a fly.