Brook Trout Basics

I’ve been blessed to visit many Canadian lodges offering mixtures of walleyes, pike, lake trout, grayling, Arctic char, muskies, crappies, sauger, smallmouths and even largemouths. Each has its own blend of fishing challenge, charm and mystique. But one species eluded me for a surprisingly long time: brook trout. The destinations I’d fished simply didn’t have them. Eventually, I was able to correct that omission, and discovered that catching big brook trout was a unique adventure in itself.
Brook trout, often called speckled trout or “specks” by Canadians, tend to live in rugged, often swift-flowing, cold environments. Some of the rivers they inhabit have rugged, standing rapids that can peak as much as 5 to 10 feet high! I’ll relate an intriguing experience that had I with one of those rapids near the end of this feature.

Brook trout also live along the northern coast of Canada, spending part of their lives roaming the shores of the Arctic Ocean, moving into rivers to spawn in late summer. Remote rivers in far northern Ontario host outstanding populations of big sea-run brook trout from Hudson Bay, where you can float the river by day, sleep in a tent at night, and do it all over again the next day. Newfoundland and Labrador offer world-class fishing as well.

Areas of the Great Lakes also host “coaster” brook trout that behave much the same way, running the shorelines of huge bays much of the year, and then moving up rivers to spawn in late summer. The Nipigon area of Ontario is one such locale that provides access to specks while using your own boat, rather than floating remote river sections. Upstream of the first dam in Nipigon, however, you encounter stretches of free-flowing river mixed with lake environment where big brook trout are common. Move far enough upstream and you reach massive Lake Nipigon, famed for big lake trout, pike and, yes, speckled trout.

Spend time at Nipigon, and you can experience catching brook trout in a lake, rather than a river environment. As you might expect, schools of brook trout hang around rocky points, saddles between islands, and at stream mouths flowing into the lake. But what you might not expect is that you can also catch them running cabbage weed beds while fishing for pike.
The best way to explain this behavior is that they pretty much inhabit the environmental niche where you’d find smallmouth bass if the water was warmer. Bu it’s simply too cold to support smallies, and brookies expand into that habitat. They also grow big here, as with other river environments. Two to 4 pounds is common. Four to 6 pounds is possible, with an occasional monster caught beyond that. The Nipigon River produced the world record 14-pounder 100-odd years ago.

Speckled trout are members of the char family and are closely related to lake trout. They prefer water temperatures of 53 degrees and down and will shift location throughout the year to find areas to their liking. They are carnivores as much as they are bug eaters, so you can and should fish for them in a variety of ways and give them what they want to eat at that time.

When fishing rivers with moderate current, all the various forms of fly fishing apply, using streamers, emerging patterns and surface flies. Matching a caddis hatch would be a good strategy if flies are visible on the surface. Otherwise, fish sub-surface variations.
Casting small, straight-spinners is also excellent for specks. As is casting and retrieving jig heads dressed with 3 1/2-inch boot-tail grubs in light, minnow colors.

In still-water lake environments, and in rivers, casting neutral-buoyancy crankbaits like a #10 X-Rap is remarkably effective for big brook trout. Cast them into and along current seams and eddies, and work them with pulls, interspersed with pauses, just like you’d do for smallmouths. In lake environments, cast them around the rocky areas mentioned earlier, but with a twist; from time to time, turn around and cast them away from shore, out over open water, and work them back to the boat. Specks aren’t glued to the bottom and are as likely to suspend near structure.

In very swift, rugged rivers, try can casting small Countdown Rapalas, which are very heavy lures. You need them to fish effectively in strong current flow. Which brings up the story I alluded to earlier.

I was fishing on the God’s River in Manitoba with my guide, Jon. We got into a big-time afternoon bite of brook trout, catching quite a number of Manitoba Master Angler size fish.

Fishing just above a towering rapids, I hooked a good one. “Keep him out of the rapids,” Jon yelled. But I couldn’t. The fish was too strong, and the water was too fast. Once the fish entered the top side of the rapids, all I could do was open the bail on my spinning reel, let the fish go 100 yards down through the maelstrom of standing waves, and hope for the best.

What to do? Jon pulled to shore and let me out of the boat. I walked down the shoreline, reeling up line as I went. Lo and behold, when I reached the bottom portion of the rapids, there was the fish, still hooked, bewildered and disoriented from the wild ride. I landed and released it, tying the lodge record for catching big brook trout in one day.

Adventure is where you find it, and what you make of it, be it in the far northern wild, or on public access waters. Fly-in trips admittedly get spendy, while drive-ins can be far less so.
If you’re looking for a cost-effective drive-to for big brook trout, I’d suggest Quebec Lodge in Red Rock, Ontario, just south of Nipigon. You can bring your own boat and tackle and fish on your own, or owner Ray Rivard can fix you up with a guide. Among their guides is well-known Canadian outdoor writer Gord Ellis, who fishes the area for all species, including big brook trout. However you choose to approach it, it is a wonderfully rugged, scenic area with outstanding fishing and friendly folks to help make your trip a success.

Last thing: Brook trout, aka “the smallmouth bass of the far North,” are beasts that fight like demons, but they are also delicate. Bend down the barbs on your hooks or use barbless varieties. Single hooks are preferred to trebles, when possible, to enhance catch-and-release. Use fine-mesh landing nets, rather than twine, to avoid knocking off their scales. Handle them gently, and after a quick photo, gingerly return them to whence they came. And scratch another species off your bucket list.

For more information: Quebec Lodge, nipigonriveradventures.com, email [email protected]