Last Chance Browns

It's the time of year when these normally shy, difficult fish can be extremely easy to catch

by Craig Ritchie

The flurry of fall fishing opportunities tends to wind down as the final days of November turn into the first few days of December. Shorter days and much colder nights bring fall turnover to its completion, leaving lakes with water of consistent temperature from side to side and top to bottom, allowing most species to wander anywhere they like in equal comfort. As the last clumps of remaining vegetation go dormant, baitfish also scatter widely, making it a challenge to locate cooperative fish with any kind of consistency. That alone can make for very tough fishing.

There are a handful of exceptions to this however, and one of my favorite are last-chance brown trout.

Post-spawn brown trout feed heavily before the worst of winter weather arrives.
I call them last chance browns because at this point in the year, it's only a matter of time till slush and ice make it impossible to keep fishing for them. Through the winter months these fish concentrate in the deepest winter pools in the river, which are also the first spots to ice over completely. Depending on the weather forecast, you could have only a few weeks more to get in on the action.

The reason to get out there now is because these fish are just coming off fall spawning, and they're feeding heavily while they can before winter sets in. It's one time of year when these normally shy, difficult fish can be extremely easy to catch.

Finding Active Fish

Brown trout in cold water prefer to conserve energy, so at this time of year look for them to begin setting up shop in deep, slow-moving pools. They will spend the coldest weeks of the winter hiding on bottom in the gentlest currents, but right now they're still quite a bit more active, holding near the upstream ends of the pools where they get first crack at any potential food drifting downstream in the current. This is where you need to concentrate your efforts.

They're still brown trout, of course, so they won't venture too far from cover like submerged rocks, tree branches or other similar debris that interrupts the stream's flow and provides them spots from which they can quickly dart out to nab passing snacks. Focus on spots like that where swifter riffles flow into deeper water and you have half your problems solved.

Despite the cold water, late season brown trout often hit baits with surprising ferocity.

Go Slow, Go Deep

With the colder water slowing their metabolism, last chance browns may be feeding heavily but that doesn't mean they're looking for big meals. To the contrary, they're far more interested in snacking on multiple smaller appetizers, over and over again. These smaller means are a lot easier to digest, and the steadier nutrient flow tends to benefit the fish more than a handful of big, hard to digest meals.

That being the case, go with smaller offerings. Early winter is the ideal time to haul out the fly rod, even if fly fishing can be a bit uncomfortable on exposed fingers. Dead-drifting moderate sized bead head nymphs right on bottom is a terrific way to tempt these fish.

Bead head nymphs stay near bottom, which is critical when chasing late season brown trout.
Brightly colored crappie jigs, or those with some tinsel in them, can be particularly effective.
If you'd rather not tussle with wet fly line in freezing weather, then dry drifting flies or even small crappie jigs suspended under a sensitive float. Jigs and flies with a bit of glitter to them or in brighter colors appeal to last chance browns, who will hit with surprising ferocity.

Having now rid themselves of bellies full of spawn, the fish fight harder than you might expect as well, and especially in such cold water. That too is part of the appeal.

Not yet ready to give up the long rods for ice fishing gear? Then try your hand at last chance brown trout and get in on what can often be the easiest fishing of the year for these beautiful and spunky game fish.

Author Craig Ritchie
Craig Ritchie
About the author:
Over a near 40-year career as a full-time outdoor writer, Craig Ritchie has fished all over the globe for a variety of freshwater and saltwater species. The author of The Complete Guide To Getting Started In Fishing, he has written thousands of articles for magazines, websites and newspapers worldwide, appeared as a guest on several television fishing programs and won numerous awards for his writing and photography. He lives in the Great Lakes region where great fishing is as close as his own back yard.

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