Great Lakes Brown Trout
Some anglers travel halfway around the world to catch giant brown trout.
Midwesterners can do just that right outside their backdoors.
By Rick Kustich

Great Lakes weather can be unforgiving. Driving snow, howling gusts, and brutal wind chills tempt even the most ardent anglers to put the rods away at times. But, the opportunity to pursue brown trout that are truly measured in pounds as opposed to inches isn’t commonly found in many fisheries.

Anglers often venture to South America, New Zealand, or Iceland for this level of fishing results. But runs of large brown trout have made their way up some of the Great Lakes tributaries for nearly a half-century. The returning adults are typically beautiful fish sporting golden-yellow hues adorned with pronounced black spots. Males sport deep jawlines that project the distinct image of a top predator. Brown trout exceeding 10 pounds occur with some regularity and fish exceeding 20 pounds are possible.

Lake-run brown trout begin moving into Great Lakes rivers and streams in the fall, sometimes as early as the first part of September with the highest densities of fish typically found in late October into mid-December. Some lake-runs spend the winter in tributaries that don’t ice over or those that have deep enough pools to allow those fish to ride out the cold months. During late winter and early spring the browns that have wintered-over begin dropping back to the lakes but can linger, building up their body weight in the tributaries since the water warms much faster than the lakes. During spring some brown trout that spend the winter in the lakes will nose their way into the estuaries and lower ends of the rivers and streams to feed. The behavior of the brown trout in the spring is largely impacted by various bait migrations that occur near the warming tributary waters. Some fish can also be encountered staging in the lake near the mouths of the tributaries.

The autumn months tend to attract the greatest angling pressure. Lake-run brown trout go through the spawning process in October and November. While the fishery is largely supported by annual hatchery plantings, there are some pockets of successful reproduction on tributaries with sufficient water quality. I steer clear of any actively spawning fish to focus on those that are on the move, upstream or downstream. In some of my favorite waters the best fishing begins after the spawn is completed. Fish that are no longer consumed with the biological desire to procreate now have feeding on their minds.

Most of the consistent lake-run brown trout fishing exists in the rivers and streams feeding Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan, and to a lesser degree Lake Erie. The state of New York and province of Ontario both stock Lake Ontario, and the states of Michigan and Wisconsin supply Lake Michigan with fish. There is a limited stocking plan in place for Lake Erie tributaries by the states of New York and Pennsylvania. Most of the lake-runs caught on Lake Erie tributaries are a pleasant surprise by-catch while steelhead fishing. Some migratory brown trout fishing exists on a few rivers along Lakes Superior and Huron.

The rivers and streams that host brown trout throughout the Great Lakes region run the gamut in terms of size, length, fishing pressure, and overall surroundings. Those located in remote areas can boast pristine environs and backdrops leading to a high quality fishing experience. Most of the rivers and streams offering a more isolated opportunity are found along the north shore of Lake Ontario and in northern Michigan and Wisconsin. Fish can be more spread out on these tributaries, requiring a searching and prospecting approach. The northern rivers also offer the best opportunity for naturally reproducing lake-runs.

It’s only natural to expect that rivers and streams receiving consistent runs of trophy-sized brown trout located closer to population centers see a fair amount of fishing pressure. And a few of the tributaries that experience concentrated runs of fish see the type of close-quarter angling that only trophy-sized trout can attract. The crowd is usually a mixed lot of anglers employing a range of fly fishing or conventional fishing techniques. Streamside manners vary widely amongst such a cross-section of individuals and actions not considered fit for your typical trout stream may be part of the backdrop. But even in these higher fishing pressure situations, when anglers exhibit some respect for one another, enjoyable fishing can still be found. Enjoyment on heavily pressured waters requires a certain mindset focused on finding the positives of a social fishery while fitting in with other anglers.

In the more populated areas, fishing the rivers and streams that have some length will help spread out anglers. The shorter tributaries that concentrate the fish receive the heaviest pressure.

Even on the most heavily fished waters there are strategies to counteract fishing pressure. On popular tributaries I focus on the off-peak times. Fishing pressure tends to wane in late November and often corresponds with the end of the spawn and an increase in brown trout feeding. I also search out marginal weather and water conditions. The type of conditions that keep anglers at home create a literal gold mine for those who know where to find fish. Rainy, snowy, blustery days with light fishing pressure puts lake-runs on the move and on the feed.

Focusing on slower pools, which are often located low on the tributaries and into the estuaries, can separate you from other anglers while providing a tactical advantage. Brown trout can search out these deep, slow pools from fall through spring. Some of this lower water allows for a slow swing and strip, but often there is little current—relying on stripping the fly for movement will be the best approach.

Almost all of the Great Lakes tributaries that receive runs of brown trout also experience runs of steelhead. In many rivers and streams steelhead numbers exceed brown trout numbers and in most cases both species occupy similar types of water. But over time it is possible to identify water that is more likely to hold brown trout. One observation I have made over the years on my home rivers is that migratory brown trout tend to search out softer flows than steelhead.

Water flow is a key consideration on many Great Lakes tributaries, particularly those that are spate in nature and rely on rain and runoff. An increase in water flow draws fish from the lake and redistributes brown trout and steelhead that have already ascended the tributary. Often the best fishing opportunities occur as the water recedes from a high water event.

Persistence is the key to success when pursuing lake-run browns. Both locating fish and having one eat your fly can take some effort. Sometimes success is found in spending enough time on the water to encounter an active period. Over the years I have observed numerous occasions when multiple migratory brown trout become active all at once creating a period of opportunity. This often occurs after an extended period of inactivity. Factors that could trigger this change include an increase in water temperature and variations in daylight.

A wide range of techniques can be used to entice Great Lakes brown trout. The fish tend to be more aggressive to the fly before and after the spawning period. Dead-drifting nymphs and small egg patterns can be quite productive during periods in the fall when the lake-runs tend to be less aggressive. Twelve-to 15-foot leaders with an indicator and light tippet produce a natural drift that represents a plethora of aquatic insects and drifting eggs. Rods of 10 feet long or longer are perfect for line control. Seven-weight rods and lines match up perfectly to the average size of a migratory brown.

Tight-line and Euro-nymphing is also very productive for lake-runs and provide a more intimate connection to the fly. The tight-line nymphing rods available today are built to handle larger fish and provide a challenging and fun way to approach the fishery. Long leaders, weighted flies, and a low-diameter Euro nymphing line can attain the ultimate dead drift and sensitivity. I prefer this approach over indicator fishing due to the feeling of truly fishing the fly as opposed to the reliance on watching an indicator.

My preference is to search out aggressive fish that react to larger streamer-style flies by covering as much water as possible. Both swinging and stripping flies can be productive, but wherever there is current I’ll use the swung fly approach. Single-hand rods can be used on the smaller streams to swing flies. But when swinging a fly on larger waters I prefer a switch rod or full two-hander to employ a variety of spey casts. I enjoy the rhythm and cadence of spey fishing and from an efficiency standpoint this approach maximizes the time the fly is in the water. I have also added one-hand spey rods to the repertoire for smaller waters.

The rig for swinging a fly for lake-run brown trout is fairly simple. I typically use a short head line with a sinking leader or sink-tip connected to the head with a loop-to-loop connection. The tippet of 10-to 12 pound test monofilament is then looped to the sinking leader or sink-tip. Skagit heads and other similar short head designs provide great versatility when presenting large streamer style patterns. Long leaders of 10 feet or more, fished off Scandi or hybrid style heads work well in low and clear water conditions. I typically combine this rig with a weighted fly and a fluorocarbon tippet. The long leader rig provides an element of stealth.

Lake-run brown trout can be spread out and occupy a range of holding water when present in the tributaries. Spey fishing allows for efficient coverage of various water types. Focus on structure, such as ledges, drop-offs and log-jams while paying particular attention to the soft flows on inside seams and eddies. An across or slightly downstream cast with an upstream mend assists in placing the fly low in the water column. Maintain a slow, controlled swing by not allowing the line to form too large of a downstream belly. Soft mends reposition the line during the swing without impeding the swimming action of the fly. Be sure to focus on the hang-down phase as the fly swings into soft water. Work the fly back with slow strips, trying to entice any fish that has followed the fly or that might be holding in those soft flows. The soft inside seams can be quite effective when the water temperatures run cold or when flows are high.

Stripping streamers using an integrated sink-tip line or sinking leader looped to the front of a floating line can be effective in water with little or no current. Either a single-hand rod or a switch rod can be paired with this technique. Focus on the lower ends of tributaries and estuaries as well as where a tributary flows into the lake. The lake water can be productive in fall and spring. However, I find that spring provides the best opportunity for aggressively feeding brown trout in the lake. The best conditions exist when warmer, stained flows dump into the lake from a tributary, as trout often stage right along the transition from dirty to clearer water. A slow retrieve works best in cold water but vary the speed and cadence in warmer flows to find the right trigger point. Wading along the lake shore can be productive near some tributary mouths, but a boat or kayak often provides better access to prime water both in the lake and estuary.

Flies for lake-run brown trout can be as simple or complex as you desire. Glo Bugs or egg clusters, such as Scrambled Eggs or the Carpet Fly, cover most of your needs when dead-drifting egg patterns. Basic caddis larva, generic mayfly nymphs, such as the Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail, or simple stonefly nymphs can all be quite productive under an indicator or while tight-line nymphing. Beadhead or heavily weighted versions of these nymph patterns work best when using the tight line approach.

For streamers, Zonker-style flies work very well for migratory brown trout. White, gray, and olive are my favorite colors. The Bunny Spey tied on a tube is my first choice. Muddler patterns in olive, brown, or purple, tied with a combination of rabbit strip, marabou or other soft-hackles, and a head of spun deer hair or wool, are also quite effective. Streamers tied with craft fur or other synthetic materials work well when more suggestive patterns seem to be failing. Tying patterns to match natural bait is an effective approach, too. A wing of Fin raccoon also creates a productive fly that works well in clear water. Long-time favorites, such as the Egg Sucking Leech, Woolly Bugger, and Clouser Minnow, can all be quite productive.

Almost all my streamer patterns are weighted, which allows the fly to drop through the water column quickly. Weight at the head of the fly also adds action during a strip retrieve.

The Great Lakes region offers such a wide range of potential experiences. This includes rivers and streams from pristine to urban and everything in-between. Like most fisheries, the Great Lakes region has its issues and imperfections. But it also hosts some of the best trophy-sized brown trout fishing in North America—the type of results that many anglers travel half a world away to encounter.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.