The brown and white fly landed in a crystal-clear pool on the edge of the Seven Devils Wilderness and swirled around.
It was only a second before a small brook trout slammed the dry fly and danced across the surface. It was all I could do to keep the 5-ounce fish from tangling in the branches that lined the brushy stream bank in western Idaho.
The fish was tiny but provided a jolt of excitement that made for a great afternoon of high-country fishing.
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Within minutes, the brookie was in my canvas creel and destined for a frying pan.
I was was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sandals as I crawled over logs and under brambles to cast a fly rod in a hallway of trees and brush. I was wet and cool, but dinner was worth the scratches on my arms and neck.
A lot of trout waters have catch-and-release or limited-take rules, so the spunky little brookies fit the bill for anglers who want to eat their catch. Though brookies are technically char — close cousins to trout — they taste as good.
I’ve caught brookies all over the state — from small streams that flow into the Bear River in eastern Idaho to creeks in Central Idaho and from mountain lakes in the Gospel Hump Wilderness to small creeks and lakes in the mountains that overlook Hells Canyon.
That’s because brook trout can survive and thrive at a range of water temperatures and habitat conditions, said David Parrish, fisheries program coordinator at Idaho Fish and Game.
“They are often found in mountain lakes and beaver ponds, where sediments make spawning conditions less than ideal for rainbow trout and cutthroat,” he said.
Brook trout were originally found in the eastern United States and Canada. They were stocked in headwater mountain lakes and streams in Idaho in the late 1800s and early 1900s because they were so popular back East. Fish-management agencies used milk jugs, mules and horses to carry them into the Idaho backcountry. They soon moved up and down streams to pioneer new populations.
“We’re unsure which particular mountain lakes have viable populations of brook trout,” Parrish said. “Given the adaptive nature of brook trout, it’s probably safe to say over 50 percent of mountain lakes (in Idaho) that will support reproducing fish populations have a brook trout component.”
Brook trout are popular with anglers because the colorful fish are aggressive predators and will take a fly, spinner or worm. That aggressiveness often leads to brook trout gobbling up all their prey and eventually not having enough food to grow. They overpopulate, and with a lack of food, become stunted in size.
“This results in a big head and small, malnourished body,” Parrish said. “Bull Trout Lake northwest of Stanley has the most stunted brook trout population I’ve seen in Idaho.”
Brook trout are considered a threat to native bull trout, which are federally protected. Since both fish are char, live in some of the same habitat in Idaho and spawn in the fall, they interbreed. Because of this, Idaho and other states have tried to reduce the number of brook trout to protect bull trout.
Brookies also threaten native cutthroat and rainbow trout because brookies tend to be larger as fry, get a better head start in life and take over habitat and food.
So, you can see why the Idaho limit on brook trout is 25 a day. That’s a lot of fish for the frying pan.
Brook vs. bull
Since brook trout and bull trout look similar, especially to non-biologists, it’s best to carry the Idaho fishing regulations booklet when you stalk brookies. I have pictures of each in my smartphone when I fish to remind myself of the difference.
A brook trout’s color ranges from dark green or blue-black on its back to white on the belly. The belly and lower fins may turn brilliant red in spawning males. A brook trout’s upper body and dorsal fin have mottled or wormlike markings, which is the best way to identify one. The sides have pale and reddish spots that might have bluish rings around them. The lower fins, including the tail, have a white leading edge. The tail is square or only slightly forked.
▪ A bull trout is olive green and brown, which transitions to white on its belly. Bull trout lack wormlike markings. The upper body has yellow spots and the sides have red or orange spots. The spots on a bull trout don’t have bluish halos and the white borders on its fins are less distinctive. The tail is slightly forked.
Best flies to use
Classic dry flies to use include Royal Wulff, Adams, Renegade, Stimulator and Irresistible. Nymphs to try include Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ears, stonefly patterns or black woolly worms. Salmon eggs or small worms are great for bait.
Best spots for brookies
The most well-known hotspot is Henrys Lake. The food base and water temperature provide optimum growing conditions, which means brook trout can reach several pounds. Research suggests the strain of brook trout introduced in Henrys Lake tends to be larger than others in Idaho, according to Idaho Fish and Game. However, the statewide brook trout limit doesn’t apply. The lake’s trout limit is two, and brook trout must be counted.
Easy recipe: Brookies and bacon
- 6 bacon slices
- 6 whole small brook trout, gutted and gilled
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup cornmeal
In a skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until crispy. While the bacon is cooking, combine flour and cornmeal in dish or storage bag and coat trout with mixture. When the bacon is done, remove from pan and set aside in a warm place.
Add brookies to skillet with hot bacon grease. Do not overcrowd the skillet. If trout curl, flatten them with spatula. Cooking time will be about three to five minutes, depending on the size of the fish. Poke the fish with a fork. When the flesh flakes easily, they are done. Serve trout with bacon.