how to catch brook trout

How to Fly Fish for Brook Trout: A Complete Beginners Guide

Fly fishing for brook trout is an addictive challenge that I simply can’t get enough of. Putting miles on the old hiking boots has led me to some incredible trout fishing for unpressured brookies on mountain freestone streams and the allure of nabbing a spring creek brook trout here in the Midwest keeps me up at night.

As a native species to the Eastern U.S. and Canada, brook trout provide ample opportunities to catch true wild fish. And in this day and age where most trout are either stocked or introduced non-natives, there’s just something special about catching a fish that’s thriving in its native range by its own accord.

But don’t take my word for it go catch some brookies yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

So what’s it take to catch brook trout on a fly rod?

  • Seek out the coldest, cleanest waters you can find. Brook trout require water with high levels of dissolved oxygen, which you’ll find in small freestone streams ranging from Maine to Georgia throughout the Appalachian mountains. Spring-fed creeks throughout the Midwest also support brook trout thanks to their year-round cold temperatures.
  • Use a lightweight fly rod for delicate presentations and maximum sport. A 3-weight fly rod with a floating weight forward fly line is the perfect tool for catching brook trout. For the smallest streams with limited casting room, shorter rods in the 7 foot 6 in to 9 foot range offer an advantage but standard 9′ rods work great, too.
  • Read the stream to find brook trout “feeding stations”. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble into a feeding frenzy and catch a brookie on every cast. But when the bite is slower, you’ll need to rely on your water-reading skills to locate the current seams, eddies, and other areas where brook trout can eat with minimal effort exerted.
  • Tie on a big, bushy dry fly . . . or switch it up with a streamer. An attractor fly like the Royal Wulff is a great first choice when prospecting for brook trout. With limited natural food in mountain freestone streams, competition over food is high among brook trout making them less discriminatory when it comes to eating a fly. When your dry flies stop producing, tie on a wet fly or small streamer like a Wooly Bugger and give it a swing.
  • Plan your approach carefully and make every cast count. Brook trout have a reputation for being easy to catch, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be spooked. Especially when fishing small pocket water, assess the scene carefully, conceal your outline, and keep your shadows off the water before making a focused, accurate cast.

Ready to dive deeper on how to fly fish for brook trout.

Let’s dig in!

Where to Find Brook Trout

With a large native range in the Eastern U.S. and an even larger range of introduced brook trout throughout the Midwest and Western U.S., chances are a day’s drive will put you on some brookies.

Regardless of where you are geographically, you’ll want to narrow down your brook trout search to water systems that have cold temperatures and steady flows year-round. Brook trout’s reliance on pure, icy-cold water has earned them “indicator species” status, which means if they’re in a river or lake, the ecosystem is in pretty good shape.

Brook Trout in Mountain Freestone Streams

brook trout in mountain stream
brook trout in mountain stream

If you’re in the East, you’ll want to head to one of the many freestone streams that tumble down steep terrain in the Appalachian Mountains as well as sub-mountain ranges including the Adirondacks, Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Great Smoky Mountains. Most streams within this range even those small enough hop across have the potential to support populations of brook trout. And generally, the farther you’re willing to hike, the better your chances are of finding brookies eagerly waiting to take your fly!

Brook trout are the only native species of trout in the Eastern U.S. and unfortunately there’s been a steep decline in population numbers over the past century. Logging, specifically the practice of floating logs down streams, has had a major impact on brook trout numbers, reducing the necessary streamside foliage to support cold, clean waters while also adding massive amounts of sediment to water systems. The introduction of rainbow trout and brown trout although we love catching them has also had a big impact on the decline of brook trout as these non-native fish out-compete brook trout and, in the case of brown trout, can survive in significantly higher water temperatures.

With that in mind, when brook trout are your primary target, if you find yourself catching only rainbows or browns, you’d do well to seek out another stream or water system.

Plan on hopping around on boulders, climbing up and over fallen trees, and encountering some of the most breathtaking scenery you can imagine when tracking down freestone brook trout in their native range. Freestone streams are inherently less fertile than spring creeks, tailwaters, or lakes, so there’s generally less natural food available to resident fish. This translates to brook trout that are very hungry and highly competitive. These brookies might be small, but as a fly angler, the odds are stacked in your favor especially if you like catching lots of fish.

Brook Trout in Midwest Spring Creeks

mid west brook trout
mid west brook trout

Unlike freestone streams which are fed by rainfall and snowmelt and are very seasonal in nature, spring creeks are fed by underground springs that provide cold water year-round with air temperature having minimal effect on water temperature just what brook trout need. Life abounds in spring creeks with ample aquatic vegetation supporting healthy populations of aquatic insects, providing trout with lots of natural food. While this is great news for the fish, it makes for some tough fishing conditions for us anglers. With so much natural food in the system, brook trout in spring creeks have the luxury of being selective and if our fly pattern or presentation isn’t just right, there’s a slim chance a fish will take our “fake” offerings.

The spring creeks in which brook trout thrive are also known for having high water clarity and relatively uniform stream structure and flows. In other words, the fish can see you coming from far away and reading the water to find trout-holding lies can be very difficult.

If your nearest brook trout stream happens to be a spring creek, you have your work cut out for you, but through the challenge your skills as an angler will be honed razor sharp. So get after it.

Best Fly Fishing Equipment for Brook Trout

Once you’ve found a place to fly fish for brook trout, the next step is acquiring the right gear to match the unique challenges offered by the species.

Best Fly Rod for Brook Trout

Unless you’re fishing for trophy brook trout in Newfoundland, a 3-weight fly rod is ideal for brook trout in the U.S.

With the lightweight and nimble action of a 3-weight, making the delicate and accurate presentations necessary to fool brookies is easier than with a heavier rod. The softer rod also helps protect super-light tippets affording you the option to go down to 7X without worry of constantly breaking off. Plus, playing and landing a 6-inch brookie is a heck of a lot more fun on 3-weight than it is with your 5-weight trout rod.

Standard 9 foot fly rods work well on most brook trout streams. But if you’re fishing the tiniest mountain freestone streams with lots of overhanging trees and itty bitty pools and runs, a shorter rod say, 7′ 6″ can offer an advantage when room to cast is limited. Still, a 9 foot rod will get the job done reliably (especially once you master the bow and arrow cast I share below) and can actually offer some advantages over shorter rods when trying to keep as much line off the water as possible.

My Pick for Best Fly Rod for Brook Trout

I?ve found that a great all-around fly rod for brook trout is the TFO Drift. This rod has become my go-to rod for all my small game fishing pursuits, serving me equally well on my local bluegill lake as in the mountains chasing brookies.

The TFO Drift is unique in that instead of being a standard 9-foot rod, it comes with several additional rod blank sections that increase its length to 10′, 11′ 6″, or 12′ 6″. On top of that, it comes with a screw-on fighting butt AND a 3-inch cork grip that you screw on below the reel transforming it from a single-handed to a two-handed switch fly rod.

You can read more about the Drift Fly Rod in this article. Best Nymphing Rod, Reel and Line or if you’d like to check one out here’s a link to Amazon. TFO Drift Fly Rod

For most of my brook trout fishing, my TFO Drift stays in the 9-foot configuration. But when I come across a deep run that I want to try Euro-nymphing, I’ll add in a rod blank section using the extra length to help keep my line off the water for making those quick, efficient casts.

Best Fly Line for Brook Trout

A weight-forward floating fly line is all you really need to catch brook trout. An intermediate sinking line can be helpful when swinging flies for brook trout in larger streams, but adding weight to the leader or using weighted flies on a floating line will have similar effects without the need for a second line.

If you’re looking for a great fly line for brook trout, check out the Rio Gold Trout line. There’s a reason why this is one of the all-time best-selling fly lines on the market. If you get the TFO Drift, the 4 wt forward floating line matches perfectly.

Alternatively, if the brook trout streams you fish have zero casting space, having a fly line that makes roll casting easier can be a huge asset. In that case, its worth considering a double-taper line which has more mass throughout its length to properly load the rod on a roll cast. Another option to check out would be something along the lines of the Rio Intouch Single-Handed Spey which is designed to make long casts without a back cast.

With the extra length of the Drift incorporating a spey cast into the casting arsenal is the perfect ticket.

But if you’re not sure, just go with a weight forward fly line and get busy.

Recommended Reel for Brook Trout

For a reel, I pair my TFO Drift rod with a TFO BVKII which is the perfect complement and balances the rod nicely. I’ve written about the BVK II in this article Recommended Fly Reels. Most brook trout I hook never make it onto the reel, but its (surprisingly) large arbor gives me confidence that if I do hook into something big, I’ll have plenty of line capacity and a fast line retrieval rate to get the job done. And even though the arbor is so large, lots of porting throughout the reel’s spool and frame drastically cut down on weight.

Keep in mind that I use this rod and reel setup for lots of fish beyond brook trout as it’s incredibly versatile. If brook trout are the main species you’re after, however, going with a less expensive die-cast or click-and-pawl reel that matches your 3-weight rod will serve you just fine. But if you’re looking to upgrade, I highly recommend the TFO BVKII clearly I’m a huge fan!

Leaders and Tippet for Fly Fishing for Brook Trout

Since most brook trout (in the U.S., anyway) are on the smaller side 6 to 12 inches on average you can easily get away with fishing 6X and 7X tippet. To fish these dainty tippets, start out with a 7.5-foot nylon leader in 5X. Then, tie on 12 to 24 inches of 6X tippet and fish away. Then, if you need to go lighter, tie on a 12 to 16-inch section of 7X tippet.

Learn all about tippet and leaders in this article What is a Tippet and Make your own fly fishing leaders

With this basic leader and tippet setup, you should be able to adapt to any fly you wish to fish throughout the day. For dry flies, simply tie that bad boy to the tippet with nothing else. Swapping out the dry for a single unweighted nymph or wet fly can be a potent maneuver on a brook trout stream. Need to get deeper? Tie on a weighted nymph and add a strike indicator up the line.

But why so light?

Because the lighter the tippet, the less influence it has on your fly. The suppleness of 7X tippet flexes and flutters in the current imparting less drag on your fly than heavier tippet. Lighter tippet is also harder for a fish to see, adding an extra dose of stealth to your brook trout slaying efforts.

Reading the Water to Find Brook Trout

You may find brook trout so willing to eat flies that you get a hit on every cast. It may feel like cheating, but embrace such abundance as its a rarity in fly fishing. However, when the bite slows down, if you want to keep catching you’ll need to rely on your water-reading skills to figure out where a brookie might be holding in a particular pool or run.

Reading Water in Freestone Streams for Brookies

When fishing small freestone streams in the mountains, youll encounter lots of “pocket water” in which boulders in the stream form a patchwork of small pools, often within a larger run. Solving the puzzle of where fish are holding in pocket water can be frustrating if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but luckily, there are several “feeding stations” that are found from run to run in one form or another.

The first trout lie you’ll want to scope out in a freestone stream is the tail-end of a run which may or may not have a defined lip. In pocket water, boulders at the tail end will form a funnel of sorts through which all the food in the run above must pass. This is where the biggest, smartest, most well-fed trout in the run hang out. Sneak up from downstream and make a nice cast just beyond upstream of the lip and get ready for the hook set.

The head of the run is perhaps the second best place to find brook trout in a freestone; it’s where all the food entering a run must pass. Seek out any little nooks and crannies or current seams around the head of a run and make your casts from downstream.

In the warmest months, the deep middle section of a pool can be a great place to find brookies seeking a cold water refuge. You’ll likely have to switch to weighted nymphs to get down deep where the fish are.

Due to the seasonal nature of freestone streams, you may find yourself fishing for brook trout while spring runoff is in full swing causing the stream to rise. In that case, you’ll want to drift your fly through eddies where slow water provides an escape from the current for trout.

And if you’re stuck in a stretch of true pocket water without any defined runs whatsoever, focus on fishing behind boulders and any natural features that form funnels. Experimentation and creativity in your approach will yield the best results.

Reading a Spring Creek to Find Brook Trout

The gin-clear water and relatively uniform streambed and flow can make finding brook trout in a spring creek very challenging. And with so much natural food in the system, your fly patterns must look as close to the real thing you can get and you must work hard to eliminate any drag on your fly by using the lightest tippets. A stealthy approach is key to evade the vision of a brookie, making sure not to cast any shadows on the water that would betray your presence.

Here are three possible holding lies you’ll want to look for when chasing spring creek brookies:

  • Undercut banks Many spring creeks don’t have much in-stream structure like boulders to hide behind, but banks that have been eroded by the constant flow of water serve as a good substitute. Especially if the undercut bank is lined with tall grass or other foliage, there’s a good chance a brookies under there waiting for grasshoppers or other terrestrial insects to fall in.
  • Current seams Although they may not be as obvious as in a freestone, you’ll find many current seams in spring creeks that deliver food to waiting trout. Watch for any flotsam in the water to see where it’s pulled and manipulated by the current. Bends in the stream are also good places to check for current seams.
  • Spot the fish In the clearest spring creeks with the glassiest surfaces, your best bet may be to look for the fish themselves. Polarized sunglasses are a must and on a sunny day, you’ll likely see a fish’s shadow cast on the streambed before you spot the actual fish.

Read about some great selections in fly fishing sunglasses in this article. 4 Best Fly Fishing Sunglasses

Stock Your Box with the Best Flies for Brook Trout

When the brookies are just begging for a meal, pretty much any fly you toss their way will get snatched up. Other times, you’ll have to work harder to match the hatch with more accuracy. No matter what situation you find yourself in, these are the flies you want to carry.

best flies for fly fishing
best flies for fly fishing

Best Dry Flies for Brook Trout

I like to separate my dry flies for brook trout into three categories: attractors, “match-the-hatch” flies, and terrestrials.

Attractor dry flies for brook trout:

These big, bushy flies don’t represent any insect in particular but they do a great job getting the attention of brook trout.

  • Royal Wulff, size 10 to 18
  • Royal Coachman, size 10 to 18
  • Hi-Vis Coachman, size 6 to 20 This is Phil Monahans concoction he developed specifically for catching wild brook trout in southwestern Vermont.

Match-the-hatch dry flies for brook trout:

Unless you’re casting to highly selective spring creek brookies, you don’t have to match the hatch exactly, but making an effort with these flies certainly helps.

Elk Hair Caddis
Elk Hair Caddis
  • Elk Hair Caddis, size 8 to 20 My go-to anytime caddis flies are in the air (also serves as a decent hopper imitation)
  • Parachute Adams, size 8 to 20 Imitates a wide array of mayflies and floats high and dry.
  • Griffith’s Gnat, size 10 to 24 Serves as a midge imitation.
  • Blue-Winged Olive Dry, size 14 to 24 Imitates these tiny mayflies found across the country.

Terrestrial Dry Flies for Brook Trout

These land-borne bugs provide high-protein meals for hungry brook trout and their imitations can work when nothing else will. The more rubber legs, the better.

For each of the fly types below, hundreds if not thousands of fly patterns and variations are available and they all seem to work well.

  • Hoppers, size 6 to 16
  • Beetles, size 12 to 18
  • Ants, size 12 to 20
  • Spiders, size 12 to 20

Best Nymphs for Brook Trout

Turning over rocks to figure out what natural aquatic insects are on a brook trout s menu will give you a big head start when choosing a nymph to tie on. Drab-colored caddis and mayfly nymphs should occupy a sizeable portion of your fly box.

For each of the nymphs below, get or tie some with bead heads and without.

  • Pheasant Tail Nymph, size 12 to 20
  • Gold-Ribbed Hares Ear Nymph, size 12 to 20
  • Prince Nymph, size 10 to 18
  • Kaufmann’s Stone Fly Nymph, size 8 to 14 If stoneflies are present, you won’t want to be without a good stonefly nymph imitation.

Best Streamers and Wet Flies for Brook Trout

Stripping in or swinging small streamers is an exciting way to catch brook trout. Here are some staple streamers and wet flies to carry when you grow tired of dry fly or nymph fishing.

  • Wooly Bugger, size 8 to 14 Like most fish on the planet, a brook trout won’t pass up this all-time classic streamer unless something better looking is immediately available.
  • Zonker Streamer, size 8 to 14   White is a great color for these small streamers with a life-like action in the water.
  • Clouser Minnow, size 8 to 14 Another standby when nothing else seems to work.`
  • Classic Winged Wet Flies, size 8 to 16 Mickey Finn’s and Grey Ghost wet flies have been catching brook trout for as long as fly fishing for brook trout has been a thing. Loosely imitating minnows and small baitfish, think of these eye-catching wet flies more as attractors.

The Dry/Dropper Rig for Brook Trout

Tie a buoyant dry fly, like a foam Hopper or the Hi-Vis Coachman, to the tippet end of your leader. Next, tie a 12 to 14-inch section of tippet to the bend of the dry fly hook. Tie a small nymph, like a size 16 Pheasant Tail, to the “dropper” tippet.

Read in this article the exact way I setup a Dry Fly with a Dropper

Voila! You now have an extremely effective and versatile rig that appeals to brook trout both on the surface and below.

Play around with different combinations and don’t be surprised if this is the only rig you use for brookies it’s that deadly!

Key Methods and Techniques for Catching Brook Trout on a Fly Rod

You’ve scrambled up and down a series of steep valleys and draws, stopped for a photo-op at a few small waterfalls, and now you’ve found yourself a stretch of pocket water that looks promising.

Now what?

How to Fish Dry Flies for Brook Trout: The Upstream Dead Drift

When fishing dry flies for brook trout, sticking with an upstream casting approach will yield the best results. Since trout naturally hold facing into the current, you’ll be less likely to alert them to your presence by sneaking up from downstream.

After reading the water and choosing a few potential holding lies to target, position yourself as close to directly downstream. Then, your goal is to make the first cast count. Try to land your fly upstream above the target several feet. Using a “tuck cast” in which you abruptly stop the cast short on the forward stroke, will cause the line and leader to pile up adding slack to the system from the get-go for a drag-free drift.

Watch your fly and mend your line as needed to reduce line drag on your fly.

If all goes well, you’ll see your fly disappear into the mouth of a brookie.

How to Fish Nymphs for Brook Trout: Get ‘Em Deep!

Nymphing is best saved for times when brookies aren’t actively feeding and are hunkered down in the deeper pools and runs. For ease of casting and a better presentation, try to use weighted nymphs over unweighted nymphs and split shot.

If you go with a Euro-style approach, your goal should be to cover every square inch of a run or pool in which you expect brookies to be hanging out. Short, quick casts are key. Try to keep as much line off the water as possible and gently guide your flies downstream with your rod tip.

how to setup nymph rig
how to setup nymph rig

If you can, try to fish your nymphs tight-line or Euro-style without the addition of a strike indicator. You’ll get them down faster and eliminate the possibility of your strike indicator spooking the fish. If you insist on using a strike indicator, consider using a dry/dropper rig instead, though you’ll be limited on how deep you can fish.

Without a strike indicator, you’ll be detecting a strike by feel. Ideally, you’ll feel the tick tick tick of your point fly bouncing along the bottom followed by a distinct THUMP of a fish hitting your nymph.

Euro nymphing is definitely an art form unto itself and if you want to learn more, check out the in-depth article I wrote on the subject here.

How to Fish Streamers for Brook Trout: Small Strips or the Down-and-Across Swing

If you need to go subsurface but don’t want to fish nymphs, streamers are the answer. There are the two main ways to fish streamers for brook trout:

  • Small strips: This technique is perfect for fishing deep pools with slower water. Simply cast your streamer across the current towards the head of the pool, give it a few seconds to sink, then slowly strip it in a few inches at a time. Make it dart and twitch and wait for that satisfying tug.
  • On the swing: Swinging streamers is a technique widely used by steelhead and salmon fly anglers on big rivers using spey and switch rods and heavy sink tip lines. But when you scale down this subsurface technique for use on a brook trout stream, the results speak for themselves! Facing downstream, cast your streamer across at roughly a 45-degree angle. Let your line come tight to start the pendulum-like “swing.” Use your rod tip to guide your fly across the current, mending your to the right or left to slow or speed up the fly. There’s just something about a swinging fly that brings out the predatory nature of fish the strikes can be vicious! 

The Bow and Arrow Cast: Your Secret Weapon for Small Stream Brookies

Some of the best brook trout streams are the hardest to access. To reach these precious waters booming with wild native fish, you have to work for it. And often, casting space is very limited. But don’t let this discourage you because I’m about to share with you one of the most useful casting techniques for small stream fishing I’ve ever tried.

Here’s how to perform the bow and arrow cast:

  • Strip out line so that several feet of floating line is hanging below your rod tip.
  • Using your index finger and thumb, grab your fly by the bend of the hook so that it doesn’t stick into your hand upon release.
  • Extend your fly-rod arm toward your target, pinching any excess line against the cork grip.
  • Pull the fly and leader back towards your head like you’re pulling back a, well, bow and arrow. This action will cause your fly rod to bend and load with energy.
  • In one smooth motion, release the fly and “shoot” it toward your target like you’re shooting an arrow.

This maneuver takes some practice to get down. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll never be discouraged by a lack of room to make a traditional fly cast.

Want to see how to get more distance with a bow and arrow cast. Check out this demonstration by fly fishing legend, Joe Humphreys:

Fly Fishing for Brook Trout is Beginner-Friendly with Lots of Adventure!

Even though the native brook trout we have here in the U.S. aren’t the biggest or toughest fighting fish, tracking them down will take you through some incredible scenery, away from the crowds, and onto unpressured fish. So get set up with a 3-weight, a box full of brook trout flies, and invest in a quality pair of hiking boots the farther you hike, the more brook trout action you’ll experience!

How to Fly Fish for BROOK TROUT
How to Fly Fish for BROOK TROUT
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