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Catch More Trout by Understanding Trout Species Behavior

Rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout differ in the locations they favor and how they behave. Knowing species distinctions and using that knowledge strategically can help you catch more fish.

“Brown trout?” I asked, as my son fought a fish.

“It is,” he affirmed after getting the fish close enough to see a telltale flash of yellow. “How did you know?”

I didn’t know, but it also wasn’t a complete guess. He had made a perfect cast to a spot that screamed “brown trout,” and the fish had hit on the first crank of the reel.

Several of the streams where I frequently fish for trout get stocked with rainbow trout, brook trout and brown trout. Having all three species in creeks and rivers that are familiar and that I frequently fish clearly reveals differences in the species’ favored haunt and normal behavior.

Benefits of Trout Understanding

tailwater brown trout catchtailwater brown trout catch

A working knowledge of how trout species differ in preferred habitat and general behavior makes it easier to target the right fish for a particular stream, the day’s conditions or simply the species that are biting best that day.

As an example, one mountain river I fish from time to time has a strong population of wild brown trout, with some quality fish in the mix. Those fish are tough customers, and there is a strong catch and release ethic with the browns, so they are always present. However, the same waters get periodic stockings of rainbow trout, which offer fast action and fun fishing when they are around, but which can get virtually fished out between stockings. I fish the same stretch of river quite differently depending on whether the rainbows are present and I just want easy fun or if want to target the wary wild browns.

Big tailwaters in Arkansas are similar. My approach differs depending on whether I’m seeking fast action from stocker rainbows or targeting larger brown trout. In some trout waters, one species is far prevalent or might even be the only kind of trout in those waters. Again, an understanding of the species allows for a more targeted approach.

Even in the waters that get stocked with all three species, at times one species dominates the catch. That could be based on some aspect of my approach, but often it is because the extra aggressive brook trout have been fished out or simply because one species is more “on” that day than the others. Once I realize that, I’ll focus much more heavily on the waters that species tends to prefer and often will increase my catch rate.

Trout Feeding Locations

big brook troutbig brook trout

The most noteworthy difference among species – and the one that is easiest to use to your advantage – relates to the kinds of areas the trout like to use. Don’t get me wrong. They overlap. You might catch three fish from the same basic cast and catch three species. If you pay attention, though, you’ll see clear trends by species.

Brown trout are the most distinctive. They prefer deep, dark spots, dense cover and sharp current breaks. Prime brown trout waters include undercut banks on outside bends, deep spots at the heads of plunge pools, eddies between tangles of limbs and hard eddies behind boulders with current pushing on both sides. Generally speaking, the tougher a spot looks for making a good presentation and getting a fish out, the better it is for brown trout, especially larger brown trout.

Rainbows like current – sometimes surprisingly strong current. They might preserve energy by holding behind submerged rocks or hold in moderated current close to stronger current, but they tend to favor moving water that will deliver insects, on the surface and along the bottom. It could be a current line at the head or tail of a pool, a stretch of fast pocket water or the line of current that pushes across a bend. If rainbows are your primary targets, look for moving waters.

Brook trout, from my observation, are a bit more widespread than other species, but they really like little pockets and isolated cuts in the bank and smaller eddies formed by individual rocks or tree branches. Brook trout often lay claim on a pocket or a spot in a pocket and ambush anything that comes close until they get spooked.

Differences in Behavior 

Brown trout and Rebel MinnowBrown trout and Rebel Minnow

Although locations are the most obvious distinctions, brown trout, rainbow trout and brook trout also behave differently from one another, and understanding these variances can add efficiency to your approach and help you identify when to target each species.

Brown trout, as an example, far prefer low light conditions, to the point where large brown trout become somewhat nocturnal. Assuming daytime fishing, brown trout feed best early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when the light is lowest, and the best days for brown trout action tend to be dark and gloomy or even rainy. Higher flows and a bit of stain in the water also makes brown trout a bit les wary than normal, which favors better fish catching opportunities.

Rainbows and brook trout will feed all day, and because they tend to be more “bug oriented” than brown trout, both species often feed more actively as a day progresses when the sun is shining because the warming water makes aquatic insects more active and fires up hatches.

Brown trout, especially larger adults, also tend to be loners. A big brown will own its deep haunt. Rainbows, on the other hand, commonly feed together in current lines. A  good feeding lane will commonly hold several rainbows, all oriented the same way and waiting for the food to come through. Brook trout fall in-between. A brookie will often have its own spot in a pocket, but other brook trout might be nearby, with each watching a specific current seam or other ambush point.

Brown trout also tend to favor larger foodstuff than do brook trout or rainbows. Again, exceptions occur. Browns sip their share of small insects, and rainbows sometimes nab minnows or crawfish. However, brown trout turn more toward fish, crawfish, large aquatic insects like stoneflies or dobsonflies and bigger terrestrials like grasshoppers while rainbow and brook trout in most trout streams have more of a stereotypical trout diet that consists largely of aquatic insects.

Finally, I’ve mentioned the natural wariness of brown trout. Once a brown trout becomes aware of your presence, the game is usually over. A veteran White Rive guide once told me that while rainbows that follow lures out might still bite until the bait comes out of the water, browns that follow virtually never bite. If a brown doesn’t ambush a bait as soon as it comes into sight, that fish probably won’t bite. Brook trout, at the other end of the spectrum, seem to be the most aggressive and sometimes will hit the same lure repeatedly.

Trout Fishing Lures

Regarding lures and species, I’ll start with a disclaimer. I have my favorites, and they work well for all three species discussed in this blog. I’ll commonly start my day with a Rebel Tracdown Ghost Minnow or Deep Teeny Wee-Crawfish on the end of my line. If the fish are biting well, I might not ever change, and I’ve had spectacular days with both of these lures for all three trout species.

On days when I do start with something else or when the bite seems a little off and I start experimenting, the trout species I am targeting or most expect to catch often play into the decision process.

If I’m targeting brown trout, I’m likely to go larger with an original sized Rebel Wee-Crawfish or a larger minnow bait, like a T10 Rebel Tracdown Minnow or a Smithwick Suspending Rattlin’ Rouge. If rainbows or brook trout are more likely catches, I’ll often downsize to small jig, either on its own, fished in tandem for better control and more casting weight or drifted under a float. My favorite jigs for trout include a Lindy Little Nipper and a Bobby Garland Itty Bit Slab Hunt’R on an Itty Bit Jighead.

A couple other baits that sometimes fit into my plan that are not really species specific but still warrant mention are the Lindy Rattl’n Quiver Spoon (which is sold as an ice fishing spoon but fabulous for casting in streams) and a Tasmanian Devil. I like the spoon to provide flash, but with a subtle, fluttery action and narrow profile, and the Tasmanian Devil when bigger water or high flows create need for a hard wobble and a lot of vibration.