Fish Facts: Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)


Wild brook trout are prized by anglers, but their habitat is disappearing.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Although the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is not, in a fact, a trout at all, it is the most “troutlike” of the charrs. A sought-after game fish because it often lives in pristine waters and readily attacks flies of all kinds, it was the first “destination” fish in the Americas. Trains would transport anglers from New York and Boston to the mountains of Vermont and Maine just for the opportunity to lay into a big “squaretail.” While some cynics believe the brookie to be the dumbest of trout because it is supposedly easiest to fool, catching a trophy usually requires skill and patience. But anglers are known to marvel over the tiny, jewel-like brookies caught in headwater streams and dream of the monsters caught in Labrador’s lakes.

Range and Life History
The original range of the brook trout encompasses much of the northeastern corner of North America, including the streams of the high Appalachians as far south as Georgia, and extending west to the Hudson Bay and Great Lakes Basins. Biologists identify two genetically distinct strains of brook trout—a northern and southern strain—with the boundary being the New River drainage in southwestern Virginia. The southern strain, often called “speckled trout,” is less genetically diverse, making populations more fragile and susceptible to change and catastrophic events.
The only native trout species east of the Rockies, the brook trout was an important quarry for the original European settlers. Starting in about 1850, the species’ range was extended westward through stocking, at the behest of the American Acclimatization Society. Such organizations in other countries followed suit, and brook trout were introduced throughout Europe, in Argentina, and as far afield as New Zealand. Currently, there is just a handful of states in the South that don’t have introduced populations.

Brook trout can inhabit a wide range of waters—from large lakes to tiny mountain streams—but they require cold, clean water, and they are sensitive to poor oxygenation and acidity. The size, longevity, and feeding habits of the trout are dependent on such factors elevation, available forage, and water temperature. In small, Southern streams, individual fish rarely live longer than five years, are generally under 12 inches, and feed on aquatic insects. But those in large, northern lakes and rivers can grow to more than ten pounds; feed on insects and larger prey, such as minnows and mice; and can live for up to ten years.


True trophy brook trout are hard to come by, except in a few parts of Canada.
Photo by Dave Jensen, Fly Fish Alberta

Brook trout, both lake and stream populations are fall spawners. Spawning is triggered by water temperatures falling below 52 degrees and an increase in precipitation. Throughout their native range, brook trout are often protected by closed seasons during the spawn. Outside their native range, brook trout can spawn so successfully that they overpopulate a stream or lake, resulting in stunted fish that can outcompete native species for food and habitat. For this reason, some states in the West ask anglers to harvest as many brook trout as they can in these overpopulated waters.

Habitat Reduction
While brook trout have been stocked far and wide for more than 160 years, they have not done so well in their native range. From the first appearance of Europeans on these shores, the waters that supported brook trout were dammed, deforested, and filled with silt. These problems were further compounded by poor agricultural practices, road building, mine runoff, acid precipitation, and the introduction of exotic species, such as brown and rainbow trout. According to the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture—a consortium of public and private entities fighting to save brook trout—the species has been extirpated from about 90 percent of its original range. However, there is a growing groundswell of support for preserving these remaining populations and expanding their range to take back some territory lost in the past. Visit easternbrooktrout.org for more information.

Salters and Coasters
There are two migratory populations of brook trout, “salters” and “coasters.” The salters of the Northeast are anadromous, living in salt water and running up rivers to reproduce, while coasters inhabit the upper Great Lakes and are potadromous, which means that they live in lakes but spawn in river. Both populations were hugely popular in their prime and then fell into serious decline. In the 1800s, fishing clubs from Massachusetts to New York focused on salters, while anglers from around the world traveled to Lake Superior’s shores to cast to coasters. Overfishing, dams, and logging of prime habitat caused populations to crash, and only in recent decades have serious efforts begun to conserve and restore these fisheries. Hundreds of thousands of coaster brook trout have been stocked, and several organizations are focused on preserving salter habitat in Massachusetts and Maine.


The colors and patterns on a wild brookie can be spectacular.
Photo by Mike Jennette

Flies and Tactics
The vast majority of brook trout caught by fly fishers are under 12 inches long, which makes the true trophies even more spectacular. Most large fish are caught on streamers or nymphs fished right along the bottom. John William Cook’s world-record brook trout—caught in July 1916 on Ontario’s Nipigon River—was 31.5 inches long and weighed in 14.5 pounds.

Brook-trout flies tend toward the traditional, as do Northeastern anglers. Classic dry flies, such as the Royal Wulff, Adams, and Irresistible will often get the job done, but on freestone mountain streams, it’s tough to beat a small Stimulator. Swinging a Cow Dung or Picket Pin wet fly allows you to cover a lot of water. If you’re after big fish, you’ll want to go deep with heavy, buggy, generic nymphs, such as Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ears or stonefly patterns. But if you really want to go Old World, throw a classic feather- or hairwing streamer—a Black Ghost or a Mickey Finn—or even a pattern designed specifically for world-record brookies, the Muddler Minnow.

49 thoughts on “Fish Facts: Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)”

  1. They certainly are a beautiful breed of fish. We have them in some of the waters of the Eastern Sierra. I’ve seen some high altitude lakes over run with tiny specimens that eagerly take whatever fly you drop on the water. The largest I’ve caught was about nine inches. I would love to catch one of those large Northeastern or Argentinean giants one day.

  2. Great article, Phil! I’ve been finding some brookies in my local Eastern MA streams. Very fun to fool on a dry.

    1. Could you recommend and streams in the east to find these fish wild. Been looking for quite some time now. I’m just south of Boston near Weymouth.

      1. Go to Western Maine. The last of the truly wild native Brook Trout. Lots of Guides to help you, some really great lodges. Scenery is not too bad, either.

      1. Its about 20 minutes after sunrise and you come up on a halfcourt sized pool on a small mountain stream. Large wulff with a little hares ear dropper. A few false casts and the rig lands delicately on the surface of near still water near structure. Something changes. A little triangle of fire orange starts to emerge from the depths, and he vigorously attacks that fly. Set the hook. Its one of several 8 inch fish destined for the smoker.

        Hard to beat on days when the big waters are overrun with anglers.

      2. All depends on your reasons for fishing. I go for the experience. If you measure success and satisfaction in inches, then that’s what works for you. I’ve done both and have different motives. If brookies is not your thing then feel free to leave them for others to enjoy. We don’t all have the same favorite color.

      3. Well, in the Rockies where they are not overly welcome, small brookies can and should be taken in quantity. Then they should be cleaned, sauteed lightly, picked up with fingers and the flesh slurped off the bones with many gratifying smackings of lips. I call ’em brookie sliders.

  3. What a very informative article – now I know more about what I consider be be one of the most gorgeous fish to catch on a fly. Thanks for posting.

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  7. One of the major reasons I live in the western Maine mountains. 20″ Brookies are not uncommon here. And people are fierce about protecting the resource. But, the article is right on about all the threats to the fishery.

    On another note – I don’t think Brookies are stupid – they live in an environment where food is scarce, so they tend to react more aggressively than a Brown in food rich water.

    1. I live in upper reaches of north idaho.we have unlimited brookie action.The brook trout is an aggressive feeder,but skidish.High bag limits(15 or 25,depending)will surely take out this long time contributer to the pioneers and beyond. They say,their not native,so fish them out.These are a unique fish,that can adapt to different enviro’s.I have seen these fish thrive in a creek1 foot wide by 10 inches deep.The size is dictated by body of water.You gotta love em!

  8. I have fished a region of the Andes in Ecuador for the last fifty years, as I started when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. It is a system of lakes, and varying size streams ranging in altitude from 12,000 to 14,000 feet. The lakes were stocked with rainbows in the late 1940’s and needless to say I have caught some very large fish. The area can only be described as a pristine “water Paradise”. Do you know of any attempts with Ecuador to introduce the broke? The region in question is Known as Cajas.

  9. I have been fly fishing for about 2 years now and yesterday I was in the smoky mountains around the chimney tops area. I was using a blue wing olive and caught an about 11 inch brook trout which I found strange because we were not high enough for there to be brook trout anywhere around. Could someone explain to me how it was this close to the bottom?

    1. Could possibly have migrated from Cherokee Indian Reservation? They stock a LOT of Brook Trout. Just a guess. Without seeing the fish I can only speculate. If it was a real to life “speckled trout” that is a very large specimen! It is fairly easy to see the difference between the stocked trout and the wild version here in NC.

      1. Chimney tops is on the west side of the mountain. Cherokee is on the east. There is no way the fish from Cherokee could get to the west side without some help from somebody. I was just there yesterday. Hopefully the fish are just expanding their range down the mountain.

    2. Dennis may be on to something. It could have migrated but the better answer is that it’s non-native. I live in western NC and have caught brookies upwards of 16 inches. I too thought this was a little odd until i began to research the dnr stocking program for my area. I found out that they stock many streams with browns, bows and brookies locally. However, the brookie stock numbers seem to be an average of 1:10 ratio.

  10. My future son-in-law was extremely mortified because I caught a brookie trout under 10″ and said I was hurting the environment by killing the baby fish! He actually reached in my krill and through my fish back – Argh!!!! My husband is an avid fisherman and taught me that it is common to catch smaller brookies in the stream and never said a size I should be looking at. Can you let me know what the avg size for a Colorado Brookie can be?

    Thanks

    1. The GSMNP offers fantastic Brook trout fishing if you are willing to walk a bit and navigate slippery rock-filled steep sloped streams. I have found these beautiful little fish to prefer a yellow never sink Caddis dry flies with bead head nymph droppers (various patterns). Actually caught 10 nice ones yesterday on Sam’s Creek. This tandem fly setup also took beaver pond brookies in Colorado and streams in Custer State Park, SD.

  11. It depends on the environment you are fishing in some lakes streams and beaver ponds the bookies are a victim of their success. They will be stunted with large heads and little bodies. Or if the fish are in a more balanced ecosystem with abundant food and predation on juvenile fish classes a ten inch trout would be good table fare but would be one of the smaller fish. We’ve been catching 13 inch and up bookies in around 1 pound class and larger on a consistent basis. It all depends on where you’re at.

  12. I spend many days each year chasing natives here in PA.. It is also our state fish.. Wildly beautiful, and amazing to fish for.. Sadly, the state and its people do not care about this fish enough and we lose much habitat for natives each year..

  13. I live in New Brunswick on the east coast of Canada . We are extremely lucky to be able to fish small streams and beaver ponds for the “tinkers” which would be a Brookie in the 8″ and under size for table fare as well as the larger rivers for 16-18″ beauties which will still take a dry. Even better, in the month of June, we get a run of “Sea Trout” which aggressively take size 10-16 wulf and mayfly patterns. These fish average 2 lbs and some go 4-5.
    Having said all that, a trip to Labrador for 6+ lb Brook Trout should be on every fly anglers bucket list!

    1. Right on Labrador, caught 23 from 3>6 pounds and an 8 pounder and a 9Pounder at Igloo Lake Lodge, Labrador in July. Never knew they got that big. For 50 years fly fished for 8>10 inch stuff.

  14. I loved fishing for trout in upstate NY. I used worms. There was a stream in the northern Catskills, Panther Creek, where I was fishing once with my older son. It was a very secluded area that I’d guess no more than a dozen people ever fished. He caught a 10″ wild trout whose belly was huge. I cut it open to find a snake inside about a foot long. Those fish were like fresh water barracudas. We caught our limit of 10 fish from 8-11″ in a couple of hours. Was a great meal when we got them home.

  15. My all-time favorite trout to fish for… Live on PA and in some high mountain streams I have caught some large ones for PA wild fish best ever was 20″.

    1. My all time favorite fish to go for. Never caught one over 14″. If you love wilderness, clear streams, lots of action and flat out pretty fish, brookies are for you.
      What is not mentioned is the superior flesh, orange in color, far firmer than cutthroat.
      I don’t fly but bait cast as the water I use is brush laden and shallow. But, I take pride in the fact that if I present it properly a fish will be there in nearly every Idaho stream that supports brook.

  16. This site needs to point out that in many places (Western NA) Brookies are an invasive species, and wreak havoc with Native trout. In Western MT, Alberta and British Columbia, they interbreed with Dolly Varden (an endangered native trout / char), and the native Cutthroat, to the detriment of both (sterile offspring). They are a density dependent species, meaning they will consume an entire food source and stunt out, leaving 10000 5″ fish in a stream. Most Western states / provinces have eradication programs for them.

    1. “Outside their native range, brook trout can spawn so successfully that they overpopulate a stream or lake, resulting in stunted fish that can outcompete native species for food and habitat. For this reason, some states in the West ask anglers to harvest as many brook trout as they can in these overpopulated waters.”

  17. Here in Western NC they are attempting in selected streams to eradicate the non native Browns and Rainbows (aka Steel Head) and restock with Native Brook. Rainbows tolerate the silt from runnoff better than the Brook so the need pristine wayers for the Brook to thrive. Browns like the headwayers and cand devastate fingerling Brooks. IMO Rainbow is the most fun to catch because it jumps a lot. Brown is the hardest to catch and Brook is the best tasting of the 3 “trout” in NC waters. A Brook is a Charr, not a true trout.

  18. Been picking big brookies for two trips in the past 2 weeks. Don’t know if they are potadramous or anadramous, both options exist here. They are however big and fat and we have spotted them in pairs on gravel and sand creek sections. Spawning ?

  19. When I was nine years old (I am now 63) my Family purchased a resort located in Rangeley, Maine. I had few responsibilities and spent most of my time fishing for landlocked salmon and brook trout. An elderly man who came to the resort (Evergreen Village) every year taught me how to fly fish. In August of 1964 I caught a 17″
    brook trout which my Dad promptly took a picture of while I held it up in all its glory. That picture has adorned my wall ever since. I will fish for 8″ brook trout anytime over 40″ spawning salmon from the Great Lakes. To me,
    brook trout will always be the fish legends are made of. If you are ever in South West Maine take the time to fish the Rapid River and the Magalloway River. the waters of fishing legends……..you won’t regret it. JLH

  20. If you don’t understand why anyone would fish for 5” Brook, then you fish for reasons dramatically different then me. I am a native of Western NC and have been fly fishing for brooks here for over 50 years. I have learned that the thrill in fishing for these true natives lies in getting to visit the places where they live. I’ll hike a few miles and fish unspoiled and uncrowned stairstep pools for a few hours any day, even if I don’t catch a single fish. And I’ll still have had one of the best days of my life. My Orvis 2 wt is a joy to use and is a perfect fit for what I believe is the most beautiful fish on earth, even at three inches. If I want a fight, I’ll go for smallmouth. If I want to enjoy the experience, put me on a high, clear mountain stream with just me and whatever nature provides.

  21. All you avid brook trout fisher-person (gender neutrality). I live in Ottawa, Canada. I fish from April to September on a river (more like a wide stream) on the Quebec side about 1 hour 30 minutes of driving. The river is not too deep but you do find some deep honey holes. In the last 3 years we are using sit-on-top kayak. We are blessed as we are the only one using kayak on the river so we go where its virgin territory. In 2017, we counted our catch by the feet (12-16 inchers), not joking, in one honey hole.
    We usually release all brookies under 10 inches unless they are badly hooked (they will float). This year’s trophy was my partner catching “grandpa” at 19 inches. We are looking for “grandma”. Size 12-16 inches is common. It’s not the size that matters, it’s about being in nature usually with a friend or family member.

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