Bassing for Autumn Browns
2014.10.5
Idaho may not be famous for brown trout but, in certain waters, it should be. The glory days of fall offer the best shot at a big one. This article is adapted from Idaho’s Top 30 Fishing Waters.

Brown trout over two pounds in weight have a reputation for being tough to catch. They’re often called the Einsteins of troutdom, implying that only the most skilled and devoted of anglers can hope to hook one.

Baloney!

Brown trout may be secretive loners in behavior, but they’re not much “smarter” than other trout. Mainly they just seek out quieter and deeper water than do rainbows, brookies, and cutts. Largely nocturnal feeders, they also tend to pass daylight hours under hard-to-fish undercut banks or in tangled masses of sunken tree roots.

Several years ago I was fly fishing the Boise River above Eagle and doing fairly well on small hatchery rainbows. Working downstream to my car, I came upon a deep, swirling hole that had looked good on my way up but from which I got no strikes. The current tumbled under a steep bank beneath a cottonwood tree, and a tangle of roots extended into the dark water. It was a perfect lair for the big browns which now populate this lower stretch of the Boise, a fact unknown to many Treasure Valley anglers.

releasing Silver Creek Idaho brown trout

Silver Creek is known internationally for fine fly fishing but its big brown trout are almost a secret where the rainbow is king.

Removing my bright attractor pattern, I tied on a large Skunk bucktail and, without casting, let the current sweep my offering almost into the roots. Snubbing the streamer short and staying as low as I could, I rhythmically jigged the lure in place, moving it slightly from side to side to probe different spots.

I had almost given up when a huge brown rolled up and engulfed the bucktail! His pectoral fins appeared almost 4” apart, and I had only an instant to recognize the black-and-ruby markings on the yellowish fish before my well-worn 3-lb. tippet snapped. I doubt I would have landed such a beauty anyway in that root tangle.

Big browns like that one rarely dash around structureless white water feeding on tiny midges and mayflies as cutts and rainbows do. They usually want an easier-to-catch mouthful of chow. That means really big aquatic and terrestrial insects, crawfish, minnows, frogs, maybe even an occasional night-swimming mouse!

Considering all the above, the best way to catch a hefty brown should be clear:

Fish near bottom in reservoirs, and always in deeper and slower stream sections. Fish at night, or very early and late in the day. Use big lures on tackle strong enough to haul whopper browns away from breakoff cover. Cast or drift your oversize offerings near sunken brush and undercut banks.

Sounds Like Fishing for Bass?

All this sounds strangely similar to largemouth bass fishing, doesn’t it? (Bass also are secretive, nocturnal, structure-oriented, and receptive to high-calorie meals.) Not surprisingly, a number of established bassing techniques also work great on brown trout!

Take bass-sized lures for example. With spinning or light bait-casting tackle, you can offer hidden browns crankbaits, spoons, inline spinners, leadhead jigs, plastic worms, pork eels, even gaudy spinnerbaits and surface plugs! If you prefer flyrodding, try deerhair bugs, cork-bodied poppers, fat wooly worms, and bushy 3” streamers. Such lures are usually available in the bass, not trout, section of tackle catalogs and sports shops.

On lower Silver Creek one year I got frustrated trying to tempt picky rainbows with #16 dries and resorted to spinning tackle and my favorite big-trout lure, a bushy black marabou jig. By racing the leadhead rapidly past feeding rainbows, I triggered several into reflex strikes, though most missed the hook. Then about dusk something heavy grabbed my lure as it hopped past a shadowy weedbed. Ten minutes later I lifted a 4 lb. brown from the water, which species I didn’t even know lived in Silver at the time. After a few pictures, I released the beautiful fish for other anglers to enjoy.

A proven bassing technique totally overlooked for big browns is the use of weedless lures. Cover-loving browns often take refuge in deep holes clogged with sunken roots and tree limbs. Drift any open-hooked trout lure in there and you’ll hang up before a fish can hit. Struggling will then alert hidden browns to your presence.

But what if you quietly drifted a small Texas-rigged weedless worm deep into such brushpiles? Or current-jigged a wire guarded single-hook spoon among groping subsurface limbs? Or retrieved a whirring spinnerbait near a shaggy hideaway on a dark night? The hook-jawed browns hiding in such places rarely see a well-presented lure wiggling and tumbling literally under their noses. Their response is likely to be a solid hit, even during daylight hours.

Dawn and dusk are a good time to try for secretive browns, as are the hours of darkness nearest these periods. Other promising low-light situations are on overcast days and right after autumn rains cloud a stream with runoff. Rain also washes extra food into the river, which may lure ever-hungry browns from cover for a brief feeding binge. If the water is so off-color that a lure can’t be seen, dress up your offering with a nightcrawler or other bait for scent appeal.

An overlooked generic hotspot for big browns is the first few miles of tailrace current below Idaho dams. These deep and turbulent waters are best fished near bottom with spinning tackle and heavy bass-type lures. In food-rich tailraces, lunker browns gorge themselves constantly and grow to dramatic size. A classic example is the Snake River below American Falls Dam where boat-fishing for huge browns can be so good that a special season is needed to protect them and the trophy-class rainbows also found here.

Be There in October, November

The months of October and November are an especially good time to try for big Idaho browns. That’s when these fish leave inaccessible summer hideouts in lakes and rivers and move up shallow tributaries to spawn. It’s a good idea to work near small creek mouths at first, then move upstream, keeping a low profile as you cast into each new holding pool. You’ll be surprised at the enormous fish resting in pools you can sometimes literally jump across! Because big browns don’t strike as readily in open water as do rainbows and cutthroats, many casual anglers aren’t aware Idaho contains excellent number of Salmo fario. Good Gem State bets include the Priest and Spokane Rivers in Panhandle country; the lower Boise and Payette Rivers in southwest Idaho; and Salmon Falls Creek, lower Silver Creek, and the Big and Little Wood Rivers in south-central Idaho.

In the eastern part of the state, virtually all headwater tributaries of the mighty Snake above American Falls are loaded with browns. This includes especially that river’s South and lower Henrys Forks, both of which are famous for this species.

At present Idaho’s state record for brown trout is a 27 lb. 5 oz. whopper taken at Ashton Reservoir in December, 2007 (caught on bait, however. Plus: earlier in the month, a huge brown, estimated at 23 pounds, was caught in the Boise River below Lucky Peak Dam, by drifting a nightcrawler, but was gutted before it was weighed).

Browns over 10 pounds are fairly common in eastern and south-central Idaho in particular. With hook-jawed lunkers like that roaming our waters, heavy-duty bassing tackle and oversized lures make much more sense than wispy leaders and size 22 dry flies!