DILLINGHAM’S DRIFT - Samuel Clements, Hooked Jowls and the Empire of the Brown Trout

DILLINGHAM’S DRIFT - Samuel Clements, Hooked Jowls and the Empire of the Brown Trout

Brown trout are my favorite species of trout although I can’t easily articulate why. Brook trout? A handsome little fella…but usually awfully wimpy. Cutthroats exude a native vibe that makes us all lose our minds, but they’re mostly pushovers. And rainbows are grabby, love to leap, and readily suck down dries, but many of them—minus a diet of Mysis or scuds—are rather pedestrian-looking in comparison. While all trout are really swell, there’s just something special about brown trout. Maybe it’s the mean-looking hooked jowls of a boss buck brown. Maybe it’s the thrill of a predatory brown mugging a streamer inches from an undercut bank. Or perhaps, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “In order to make a man or boy covet a brown trout, it is only necessary to make the brown trout difficult to attain.” Don’t misunderstand me, I adore all trout, but the brown trout is el jefe.

Brown trout aren’t native to the United States, but like the bumper sticker says, “They got here as quickly as they could.” In 1884 to be exact, when 4,900 fry were emancipated into a tributary of Michigan’s Pere Marquette River. Brown trout are native throughout Europe, but were also originally present in surprising outliers like Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. In the headwaters of two rivers that flowed through Adam and Eve’s Garden of Eden—the Tigris and Euphrates—brown trout are native. Was Adam the first Homo sapiens to catch a Salmo trutta? Maybe. And today, brown trout have literally been exported around the globe—now firmly established on every continent sans Antarctica—an impressive feat not lost on author, editor, and longtime Colorado fly fishing presence, Kirk Deeter, when he exclaims, "The sun never sets on the empire of the brown trout."

Within the pantheon of Colorado’s piscifauna, brown trout are the toughest trout to fool—there are actual scientific studies to back this up!—followed in order by ‘bows, brookies, and cutts. This is hardly a surprise to any fly fisher, but what is surprising is that this is not due to browns having any increased intelligence. All trout possess a pea-sized intellect with an IQ of about 8, and browns are no exception. The difficulty in catching brown trout, especially large ones, has more to do with their superior eyesight in dim lighting, which enables them to hunt effectively in the twilight of dusk and dawn, when most anglers aren’t on stream. Also, a brown’s propensity to seek out the tightest, most impenetrable cover during the daylight hours in a river or stream often prevents flies from even reaching a brown’s liquid lair. Finally, when a brown gets to be about 12-14 inches, it begins to feast more often on other fish—scientifically, it becomes piscivorous. Thus, bigger brown trout enjoy a stout advantage over fly anglers employing only traditional small nymphs and dry flies, and fly rodders heading to the river during bankers hours, which is most of us. Though there are exceptions to every rule, think streamers early and late in the day in your quest for the biggest browns.

There are gobs of places around the nucleus of Montrose where you can get the drop on a big brown. The entire Gunnison River is rife with stud browns, but my two favorite specific locales for quality are the East Portal and Pine Creek. The latter, the tailrace of Blue Mesa Dam just above Morrow Point Reservoir, isn’t as well-known and can occasionally produce humongous browns, especially around Halloween. And of course, Pa-Co-Chu-Puk isn’t a secret to anyone living in the Uncompahgre Valley, and while it doesn’t host strong numbers of brown trout it can give up a surprisingly big one. Closer to Gunnison, the Taylor C&R is a Salmo trutta Shangri-la. Although the herds of brown trout beneath Taylor Dam average between 14 and 16 inches in length, browns up to 28 inches are occasionally caught, almost exclusively at night as they prowl for protein under the cover of darkness. And not all hefty trout inhabit hefty rivers. Cebolla Creek harbors browns with surprising bulk, as does Tomichi Creek if you can find just the right undercut bank.

Brown trout immigrants have undoubtedly made Colorado's fly waters better. If every Centennial State trout stream was still chock-full of exclusively cutthroat trout, we'd quickly get bored with their naivety. Browns have been naturalized citizens for 137 years so we might as well start calling them American brown trout. They're as wild as any cutthroat...and twice as fun to catch.

By Doug Dillingham