Would you believe that in most Rocky Mountain states, there's a trout species so plentiful that there are large bonus limits where you can keep an usually large number of fish? In Idaho, for example, you can keep 25 extra; in Montana -- 20; in Wyoming --16, and in Colorado -- 10. These bonus fish are in addition to a regular limit of other trout species, if you wish to keep them.
I speak of the brook trout, also known as the speckled, squaretail, brookie, or officially -- the Eastern Brook Trout. These trout are native to the eastern US, as the cutthroat is native to the west. In the late 1800's and early decades of the 1900's, well-meaning individuals thought it would be nifty to put a bunch of brookies in western waters. One person alone stocked over a million in Wyoming's Wind River Mountain Range.
Not a good idea, according to many people. Brookies were so prolific and aggressive that they virtually took over and eliminated the cutthroat trout from thousands of miles of streams. Now, those streams are heavily populated with brook trout, practically all of them stunted. The cutthroats are gone -- not extinct, but in far fewer streams and creeks than they originally inhabited.
Some states reacted by poisoning entire stretches of streams, killing every brookie, and when the water cleared, stocking with cutthroats. They also established the large bonus limits that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. In fisheries management, heavy harvest of target fish is often the answer to maintaining a healthy population.
Brook trout, which, by the way, are not technically trout, but a member of the char family, are typically small in these overpopulated streams. Many of the waters are in very high elevations of the west. I've caught them at 11,000 feet and higher. Due to the long winters, the growing season is short. Food is not plentiful, and these fish grow slowly. I remember a research paper I did on brook trout while in college. In many waters, a six inch fish was 9 or 10 years old.
So why is this fish my favorite when most are 5 to 7 inches long? I fish for food. The only fish I buy is an occasional chunk of tuna that I'll prepare sushi style. Not much eating from a tiny brook trout.
There are several answers. One, of course, is that the little trout are delicious. A favorite way to cook them is in a skillet with lots of butter and some oil. Sprinkle lemon pepper, garlic salt and salt and pepper on these little beauties and prepare for a feast. If the skillet is over a campfire next to the stream and the fish are so fresh that they curl up when they hit the hot butter, so much the better. If no skillet is available, put the cleaned trout in a square of foil, add butter, sliced onions, salt and pepper, and fold up and put it in the campfire coals. A meal fit for a King and Queen. To me, no brook trout is too small. You'll note in the photo of the trout in the skillet on the stove that a couple are about three inches long. Before you give me hell for keeping such a tiny fish, try one. Fry it crispy, and eat the whole thing, fins, tail and all. Now that's living large! Years ago, I fished brookies with a Montana outfitter buddy during our bear hunts. His wife and I would fight for the tiniest fish, stealing them off each other's plates.
(PHOTO- Nothing beats a batch of brook trout sizzling in butter, coated with flour and spices. Yum yum)
Another reason I love brookies is simply hiking the tiny streams and brooks in the high country. You'll probably not see another soul. You might see a moose or a deer or a bear, or hear an elk bugle if you're fishing in the fall when the mountain air is clean and sweet and the aspens are yellow and orange in all their glory.
Then too, brookies are eager to take a bait, lure or fly, but if you're fishing a tiny stream, you'd better not get too close to the bank or let your shadow hit the water. The fish will immediately dart under overhangs, rocks and logs. You'll do well to hook one. I've taught my kids that if they didn't come to the campground after fishing without mud and dirt on their knees (from crawling along the shore and keeping low) that they'll never catch many fish.
My favorite technique is simple. A small worm, no weight, eased into the water with a fly rod. In a tiny creek, this is essentially hunting. You sneak along, dropping the worm in small pockets, working your way until you feel the telltale series of taps.
PHOTO- The only thing better than cooking brookies in your kitchen is cooking them over a campfire)
I have two brook trout stories worth retelling. Many years ago, Madonna and I hunted caribou in northern Quebec. We each took a pair of bulls, and the outfitter, Johnny May, a full-blooded Inuit who had 15,000 hours in a bush plane, flew us across the vast tundra to fish for brook trout. Finally he put the float plane down on a lake and instructed us to follow him to the river that fed the lake. The lake and river had no name. Johnny said it hadn't been fished for at least 15 years. On my first cast, I hooked a dandy, a huge brook trout that weighed at least four pounds. After landing it, Johnny unhooked the fish. Instead of returning it to water as I expected, he tossed it up in the brush. Madonna immediately caught one about the same size, and Johnny again tossed her trout up in the brush. We caught a bunch more big trout before we left. Now then, I assumed Johnny would take those fish back to his village and share them with the locals, but he presented them to us. "Take these home with your caribou meat," he said with a big smile, "really good to eat." We obliged, and he was right. They were fabulous.
A couple years ago I was fishing a small stream high in Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains. Suddenly I saw something move on the other side of the stream, which was about seven feet wide. I looked closely, and couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a brook trout flopping on the shore. What? How and why did that fish get up on the bank? I backed off, eased upstream, waded across, and slipped back down. I peered over the bank and was astonished to see the brook trout firmly in the jaws of a 30 inch garder snake. The reptile was swallowing the fish tail first. I watch for half an hour, and left after the snake had swallowed most of the fish and slowly crawled under the bank.
Two hours later, I caught a seven inch brookie with something sticking out of its mouth. It looked like the tail of a lizard, but there are no lizards in the high country. I gently pulled, and out came a garder snake that was about a foot long.
Turnabout is fair play, I guess.