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Successful Strategies for Brown Trout Fishing Part I

Updated on December 26, 2011
The author with a fine Colorodo Brown Trout taken on a Black Wooly Bugger, size 14
The author with a fine Colorodo Brown Trout taken on a Black Wooly Bugger, size 14
This small Brown Trout took a bead head Pheasant Tail Nymph on a small stream in Rocky Mountain National Park.
This small Brown Trout took a bead head Pheasant Tail Nymph on a small stream in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Part I - Strategies for Smaller Brown Trout

Before your first cast, you need to decide what fish you want to target. Brown Trout feeding behaviors are highly differentiated by the size of the fish relative to their local environment. Smaller Brown Trout rely heavily on smaller food sources such as insects. Different tackle and techniques are generally used for larger browns than for smaller browns. You might catch both large and small browns with any technique, but most of the time, any given strategy will be more successful with one or the other. The benefit of targeting smaller Brown Trout in most waters is that they are plentiful, while the larger trout are not. If you want to catch a lot of fish, smaller browns are the way to go to have a fun day. In Part 1, let's discuss successful strategies for smaller Brown Trout.


Aquatic insects, including Mayflies, Caddisflies, Stoneflies and Midges are taken in both their larval and adult forms. Trout have better access to larval forms since they grow in the water, while the winged adults emerge to continue life outside the water, returning primarily to deposit their eggs. Other aquatic insects of interest in many Brown Trout waters include Dragonflies and Damselflies, Hellgramites, and aquatic beetles. Fishing aquatic insect imitations is generally done by fly fishing, since a fly rod can deliver very small insect imitations easily with relatively minor disturbance of the water. It is certainly possible to use spinning tackle but the greater need for floats or sinkers to provide the weight to cast small flies to the fish creates significantly more water disturbance, and tends to reduce success rates. When fishing with aquatic insect imitations, it is important that the fly you use is similar to what is available to the trout when you fish. The more abundant the food, the more selective the trout become, and the more closely you need to match the natural food. Be aware of the insects in and on the water when you fish to successfully take fish using aquatic insect imitations. You can either try tying your own flies, or seek good quality flies from a variety of sources, like Umpqa, Orvis, Montana Fly Company, Cabelas, Bass Pro Shops, L.L. Bean, or your local fly shop. Excellent hellgramite imitation lures for spinning tackle are available from Rebel, Creme and other companies. Some great patterns that should be in your fly box would include Pheasant Tail nymphs, Hare's Ear nymphs, Brassies, Copper Johns, Partridge and Orange, Zebra midge, and Diawl Bachs. All of these are available with bead heads to get deeper faster, and getting the fly down to the level of the fish is critical to success.

When insects are emerging, usually referred to as "the hatch", you should focus on emerger patterns. When insects are emerging, trout will frequently feed at or near the surface, and sight fishing can be very productive. When sight fishing, do not drop the fly on top of the fish, or you will spook it. Get the fly five feet or more in front of the fish when there is some riffle, and fifteen feet or more in front of the fish when water is smooth. Sometimes the fish will turn and not encounter your fly, but there are plenty of opportunities when the hatch is on, so take your time and make sure it counts when the fish encounter your fly.

Many dry flys with a "trailing shuck" simulate a crippled emerger, and specific emerger patterns like the CDC One Hackle, Barr's Emerger, and Parachute Emerger Midges can be extremely effective, as can a number of popular dry flies such as The Adams, either Catskill style or parachute style, the Elk Hair Caddis, Stimulators, Yellow Sally, Griffith's Gnat, Blue Winged Olives, Quill Gordans, and many others. Using a Hatch Chart from your lodal Fly Shop or local fishing reports will give you a great idea what to expect before you hit the water so that you can go prepared.

Terrestrial Insects

Brown Trout also take terrestrial insects such as ants, grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles. The trout see these insects less frequently, and do not generally key on them as much, but there are times when terrestrial insects are extremely important to fishing success.


When the wind is blowing, many terrestrial insects can suddenly become available to hungry trout. I have been out on days when the only thing the trout wanted were ant imitations, because they were so plentiful, and the trout were totally keyed in on the ants. The key to exploiting this opportunity is to look for areas where the wind will natually drop terrestrial insects onto the water. You will often find trout rising to take terrestrials, so knowing where to find the fish is no problem. Observe what is on the water. Struggling insects will be trapped by surface tension on or in the film, and are relatively easy to spot. Some great terrestrial imitations and suggestive lures for spinning tackle are made by Rebel, Arbogast, and others. You can also tie numerous terrestial fly patterns or buy commercial flies that will work great.

Lighter winds tend to dislodge tiny insects in abundance, such as ants and tiny beetles. Gusty winds can drop all kinds of bugs onto the water, including larger beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, and spiders. Look for lures or insect patterns that match what is seasonally available on the water you fish.

Other Food Sources

In addition to insects, there are other things that small Brown Trout will target for food. Annelids, or aquatic worms can be common in many waters, along with snails, small crayfish, freshwather shrimp, scuds and sowbugs, tadpoles, newts, and leeches.

Crayfish, tadpole, newt and leech imitations are available in either hard or soft plastic lures from a number of companies such as Arbogast, Rebel, Mister Twister, Storm and others, and there are also many effective flies that imitate terrestrials, so terrestrial patterns can readily be fished with either fly rod or spinning tackle. Annelids, scuds, sowbugs snails and tiny freshwater shrimp are available as flies, and can all provide excellent opportunities to take smaller browns that will eagerly accept a wide variety of food sources.

Smaller Brown Trout will also feed on small minnows, smelt, sculpin, and a variety of other small baitfish. There are many excellent minnow patterns from most any lure company. Tiny Rapala, Rebel, Yozuri, and other small stick baits are extremly effective, as are small minnow patterns from soft plastice manufacturers like Banjo, Mister Twister, Storm, Bass Pro, Renegade and more. Smaller patterns, from 1 to 2 inches are generally effective, and tube minnows and tube jigs work as well.

Additionally, look to traditional spoons such as Kastmasters, Daredevils, Johnson's Silver Minnows, Little Cleos, Super Dupers and other small spoons to provide lively action to bring trout in when food is scarce. These should be retrieved with a steady motion with a tiny twitch of the rod every few seconds to make the lure imitate injured prey. And traditional spinners such as Mepps, Panther Martin, Rooster Tail, and Blue Fox can work great in colored water when trout are having a hard time finding prey, because the spinners offer a constant vibration that foraging fish can detect from some distance. Both spoons and spinners will allow you to easily fish through greater water depths by counting down before beginning your retrieve. Once you find the depth of the fish, the same countdown will get you into the same zone over and over again. Smaller sizes, 1/8 to 1/4 ounce for spoons and sizes 1 and 2 for spinners will generally do well for small brown trout.

Fly fishers will do well with small streamer patterns and wet flies, and will look to patterns such as Black Nosed Dace, Joe's Smelt, Light Spruce Fly, Micky Finn, Muddlers, Matukas, Zonkers, and of course, Wooly Buggers. Flies in sizes 10 through 14 will be about right to attract attention from smaller browns.

Bait Fishing

Bait can be a good way to fish for brown trout, but requires a little more patience for the angler, as you may spend some time watching a line before anything happens. Small hooks are best, from size 10 to 14, and either 4 lb or 6 lb line is best. Trout in heavily fished water quicly learn to avoid size 6 hooks on 10 lb test because they see it all the time. Gearing down a little really improves your hookup rates. Pieces of nightcrawler about the size of a baked bean will work great. You can put more bait on if you like, but the fish are far more likely to steal the bait than they are if you use a smaller piece. Make sure the bait is well set with the hook point exposed. If the hook point is buried you will probably not hook up on most takes.

Another popular bait that works well is soft bait such as Berkley Powerbait or other soft baits. While Powerbait is more popular among anglers fishing for rainbow trout, many anglers have great success with power bait for brown trout. It is important to rig floating soft baits so that they stay near the bottom. The reason they are designed to float is to get them to float above any weeds that would conceal them from foraging fish. If you have a good idea what the bottom looks like in the area you are fishing you will know about how high you want the bait to float. Rig the line with the hook at the end, and split shot sinker 8 to 10 inches from the bait for clear bottom water, or high enough to clear the tops of the weed beds by several inches if weeds are present. If you do not hook up to fish within the first 30 minutes, you are either not in the feeding lane, (you are too close to or to far from the edge of the water) or you are at the wrong depth. Try changing feeding lanes first. If this does not work, change the position of the sinkers to allow the bait to rise higher. Once you find the correct feeding lanes and depths, you can often keep taking fish in that zone for hours.

Salmon eggs are another bait that works well with small Brown Trout. Salmon eggs are available in a variety of colors today, with either natural or added scents. Popular high quality brands such as Pautzkes or Atlas salmon eggs are widely available, and work well as bait for smaller Brown Trout. Red is the most popular color, but a highly effective color for Brown Trout is dark yellow, and you may find yourself the only one on the water using that color, making it stand out from what the trout usually see (and may have learned not to take.)

The use of a bait spreader, such as those from Eagle Claw or Sout Bend is an effective way to utilize two baits at the same time, and basically consists of an array of monofilimant and wire to allow the use of a weight at the bottom, with a sinking bait such as a salmon egg or piece of nightcrawler on a small single hook, while a baitholder treble hook holds floating bait and floats up from the spreader about 12 to 16 inches above the sinking bait. This two bait combo is often highly effective because the floating bait wil draw the attention of trout to the spreader, but those fish that are put off by their experience with artificial baits will often respond to the natural bait.

One more rig that I recommend is a tiny ice fishing jig with soft plastic behind a small weighted head, with the plastic removed and replaced by a wax worm. Fished beneath a small float such as a tiny Thill or Eagle Claw float or beneath a fly fishing strike indicator such as a larger Unibobber can be extremely effective for small brown trout. Maggot baits can be substituted for the wax worm if available in your area.

Recommended Tackle

Ultra light or Light Spinning rods with 4lb test line are excellent for the smallest Brown Trout, while slilghtly larger fish are better handled on light medium spinning rods with 6lb test line. If I am fishing for a variety of sizes, I lean toward the medium light action rod with 6lb line, as it has enough line strength and backbone to handle a larger fish if you happen to connect with one. The lighter action of the tip is actually beneficial to trout fishing because of the very rapid head shakes of trout that can stress lines and terminal tackle on heavier rods with less give. The drag should be set to about 75% of the break strength of the line, and then should not be adjusted during the fight . More trout are lost because drag settings are too high than any other reason. The purpose of the drag is to let the line play out from the reel without breaking. I have personally landed a tarpon of over 120 lbs on 10 lb Trilene XT line on my medium heavy action Shimano setup, and I was with my friend, charter captain Wayne Brodeur when he landed a 200 plus lb Tarpon on the same line on his Daiwa medium heavy action setup. In my opinion, there is no reason for anyone to break off even a large trout on 6 lb line on a medium light rod so long as the drag is set properly unless the fish gets to a snag and wraps the line up or cuts it over a rock. It is useful to have a landing net, but not essential. Just be sure to wet your hands before handling a fish, and be sure not to squeeze the fish when landing it unless you intend to kill it.

For fly fishing, a 2 to 4 weight rod is ideal for smaller fish, and will definitely handle fish up to a couple of pounds easily should you happen to hook one. Leader length varies depending on application, but for most situations a 9 foot leader with two to three feet of tippet will generally work pretty well. Very clear water requires a bit more, while riffled and colored water will allow you shorten up a bit if you are more comfortable with that. Shorter leaders are helpful when fishing with very short casts, such as situations where you are fishing with lots of trees and bushes on a smaller stream. You can fish with a 5 or 6 weight effectively if you wish, but if you have a faster action rod like some of the modern Orvis or Sage rods, be careful when setting the hook that you don't hit it too hard, or you will launch the smaller fish from the water like tiny missiles. It's hard to successfully revive and release small trout after they spat against your waders or sizzle past you into a bush. Please don't ask me how I know that. But if you are willing to take my word for it, let me just add that you can get some real dirty looks from other anglers after such an incident. When fishing for smaller trout I now favor a 3 weight Ross rod with a slower action, and it's very forgiving in those moments where I might set the hook a little too enthusiastically. Tippet should not exceed 4x, but I generally like to work a little lighter unless I'm using larger flies. Barbs on hooks should be pinched down, in my opinion, and it is surprising how many more times you will set the hook successfully with the barb pinched down. And the primary purpose of pinching down the barb is to make it easier to release the fish without doing serious damage to it. This is especially important with smaller fish, as the hook can easily damage the delicate cartilage in the jaw of a younger trout when it's being removed if you have have to pull the barb back through. Taking care of the fish we release is an important part of protecting the resource for all of us. Our best chance of catching big trout will come if we don't cripple all of the little trout we catch before releasing them.

To Be Continued in Part II...

Part II will cover Successful Strategies for Larger Brown Trout.

Angler David Griffin with a Beautiful Brown Trout caught in a Colorado Lake.
Angler David Griffin with a Beautiful Brown Trout caught in a Colorado Lake.

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