Chasing Trophy Brook Trout - Montana

Chasing Trophy Brook Trout – Montana

Catching a brook trout of trophy proportions is as difficult as it should be. The first twenty years of my brook trout fishing career where spent happily catching dozens of fish in Montana’s streams and lakes. However, after all those hours on the water, I still had not caught a trophy brook trout. Over the next few seasons I decided to make a more concentrated effort to find bigger fish, specifically a squaretail over sixteen inches. By altering my approach, I was able to repeatedly find and catch trophy brook trout. Here are a few things I learned along the way.

Typical small stream brookie on a hopper
Typical small stream brookie on a hopper

Location and timing matters. Of all the things you can change with your approach, changing where and when you fish will make the biggest difference. In the first twenty years fishing creeks and lakes all over Montana, my biggest fish topped out at twelve inches. All those fish but no true trophies. When I began to specifically target lakes known for producing big brook trout, I managed to catch a dozen sixteen to nineteen-inch fish within a few years. In my home region of the northern Rockies, there are only a handful of lakes (prairie or mountain) that routinely produce trophy fish over a period of years. These lakes generally share a few characteristics: they either contain fish that were introduced as sterile and are managed to be trophies, or they lack proper spawning habitat and therefore numbers remain limited. These fish put on the feedbags and grow, and grow, and grow. These are the lakes you should be fishing. Compared to standard brookie fishing your catch rate will go down, but oh the benefits of fewer fish! To increase your odds further, fish these areas a few weeks prior to spawning season – October for valley lakes, and September for mountain lakes. These are precious weeks where the fish are cruising in shallow water, and can be very aggressive. For the record, all of the trophy fish I have encountered have been in lakes. They certainly are present in streams, but my experience indicates that lakes present your best odds of finding and catching a trophy brook trout.

Once you research and find a lake with trophies, how should you proceed? For starters, spend time on the water. On a recent backpacking trip I intentionally targeted a few lakes known to grow large brook trout. These were lakes that everyone else weren’t willing to visit, or they visited and fished briefly as they passed through. I chose to stay at one lake for five days, and fished through all of the ups and downs that a week can present. On the best day, I caught nine fish averaging fifteen inches, while on the slowest day I caught only one. But it was a seventeen-inch hook jawed male! If you are willing to fish for extended periods of time, good things will happen!

17" brookie out of a mountain lake on the mega scud
17″ brookie out of a mountain lake on the mega scud

You should also be willing to alter your approach, often many times in the same day. My best day of brook trout fishing illustrates this point: fish were caught on scuds near shore in the morning, on flying ant dries in the afternoon, and on streamers right before dark. Here are a few flies I would recommend keeping in your box for big brook trout:

  • Rich Osthoff’s mega scuds – These work great for the rare opportunity when fish are cruising near shore, or during the fall spawning season. They cast easily, can be used at different depths, and are very visible to both fish and fisherman. Fish will often rush in to this fly from several feet away. See Rich’s book Fly Fishing the Rocky Mountain Backcountry for more information on the mega scud. It also works great for golden trout.
  • Streamers – Brook trout of large size love a big meal. My research and fishing experience has shown that white streamers work well. I recommend a white/brown clouser minnow. I have seen fish come off the bottom ten feet to the surface to chase these flies. Many other streamer patterns work, and fish seem to key on different colors on different days. Gold spoons work well for traditional fisherman, and fly fisherman can use flies of similar color schemes. Blue and white has been proven to work as well.
October brook trout showing off it's spawning colors
October brook trout showing off it’s spawning colors

When fishing any of these flies, vary your retrieve often. Fish will often follow flies for a long distance before finally committing. Also, experiment with depth and vertical vs. horizontal retrieves. Often times brook trout of large proportions are found hiding out at considerable depths of over ten feet. For these situations, long leaders of fourteen plus feet or fast sinking lines are needed.

These changes have certainly altered my success and outlook on brook trout fishing. Right now (late October) is one of the best times to be out looking for a trophy. Get out there and give it a shot!

Shaun Durkee lives in Bozeman Montana with his wife and two kids. He enjoys fishing the lesser known waters of Montana for trout, bass, and northern pike. He aspires to catch a twenty pound pike and twenty inch golden trout on the fly.