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A pair of anadromous brook trout, the 'holy grail' of trout fishing. Photo by Tom Seymour
Shrouded in myth and mystery, sea-run, or anadromous brook trout have fascinated Maine anglers since time out of hand. Sea-run trout are eastern brook trout that choose to spend at least a part of their lives in a marine environment. However, even when afforded the opportunity to drop down to an estaurine habitat, not all brook trout do so. That’s just one of the many mysteries surrounding these trout of lore and legend.

Of all of Maine’s fish species, sea-run brook trout are the least understood by fisheries biologists. Length of time at sea and, more specifically, the timetables of the runs, differ from watershed to watershed and this lends to the lack of across-the-board knowledge regarding sea-runs.

While the fishery had at one point declined somewhat due to back-to-back years of drought, the last four seasons have been unusually wet ones, good for trout. Consequently, Maine’s brook trout have not had to deal with low water conditions and associated problems such as too-warm water temperatures, low oxygen content and loss of young-of-the-year to predation.

In essence, what affects brook trout anywhere in Maine affects trout that have access to the sea. Brook trout, in general, are not necessarily fragile, but rather, hardy and durable, well able to repopulate their streams and brooks within a few years of a loss. And that is precisely what has happened over the last four years.

In retrospect, Maine is now entering the fifth straight year with optimum conditions. Brook trout populations, including those with access to the sea, have rebounded, great news for anglers. In fact, brook trout fishing in streams is at a peak, the best it has been in decades. This holds true for sea-run populations, too.

It is important to remember that sea-run brook trout are freshwater fish first, and only spend part of the year at sea before returning to their freshwater environs. Alewives and other fish, American shad, for instance, are saltwater fish that make spawning runs into freshwater rivers and streams. These fish spend most of their lives in salt water and only venture inland to spawn.

As mentioned earlier, each stream with free access to the sea has a potential for hosting runs of anadromous brook trout. The only way to determine when fish begin to work their way back into coastal streams in fishable numbers, is to fish the stream on a daily basis. Anything less amounts to hit-or-miss. A pool or section of stream that is totally devoid of trout today may hold one, two or a half-dozen tomorrow. And the following day, those fish will have moved upstream to a new location. If others have not filtered in to fill the void, an angler with the ill fortune to fish this section on only the fishless days may well deduce that there are no sea-run brook trout at all.

Timing Counts
Record-keeping has considerable value for those seeking sea-run brook trout. Generally, the runs commence on or near the same calendar date each year. Unusual weather conditions can hasten or retard this, but by keeping track of when the runs begin each year, it is possible to judge when to head out fishing.

Since these runs are so predictible, we can use certain plants to gauge the timing of the return of sea-run brook trout to their home streams. The old adage about going brook fishing when leaves on hardwood trees are as big as mouse ears probably holds true for inland waters. But sea-run brook trout have long since begun to wend their way upstream by the time the leaves unfurl. Fortunately, we have a better and far more accurate indicator. Coltsfoot.

Coltsfoot blooms at the same time sea-run brook trout asend coastal streams. Photo by Tom Seymour
Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, a naturalized alien, has bright-yellow, ray-type flowers that bloom several weeks ahead of dandelions. Many people mistake coltsfoot for dandelions and erroneously report that dandelions have “gone by” prematurely.

Coltsfoot has the common name of son-before-the-father, which alludes to the habit of the flower blooming and fading long before the large, heart-shaped leaves appear. For sea run trout fishermen, all we really need to know is when and where to look for masses of the brilliant-yellow flowers.

In mid-April, perhaps earlier in southern Maine and later in Down East Maine, look for coltsfoot blooming along roadsides, particularly on rough banks or on the sides of gravel ditches. When this happens, take every available opportunity to hit likely-looking sections of sea-run trout streams.

Some may wonder if sea-run brook trout differ in appearance from stream-bound fish. Time in a marine environment does, indeed, alter the trout’s appearance. First, after an unspecified time in a saltwater environment, brook trout develop an iridescent sheen. This iridescence does not obliterate the fish’s dots and vermiculations, but it does lessen their sharpness.

Swimming in tidal currents builds muscle and brook trout bodies soon become chunky and well-developed. This makes the trouts’ heads appear proportionately small in relation to their bodies. Also, when hooked, brook trout fresh from the sea put on a far, more powerful and spirited fight than their stay-at-home brethren. In fact, while brook trout rarely jump, fish newly-returned from the sea often leap straight out of water, in the manner of a salmon.

The flesh of sea-run brook trout acquires varying shades of deep yellow to soft orange. This not only adds visual appeal but also, gives a richer flavor when eaten.

After a couple weeks of returning to their freshwater environs, sea-run brook trout lose their bright iridescence and become indistinguishable from other trout. So again, anyone fishing a stream after the runs have ended may logically assume that the place has no runs of anadromous trout.

Tackle & Techniques
Sea-run brook trout average between 9 and 12 inches, with the occassional larger individual. Rarely, at least in smaller brooks and streams, do these trout weigh more than a couple of pounds. So it makes sense to match tackle size to the size of the quarry. In this case, ultralight spinning gear provides the most exciting sport.

Modern lines, especially the multi-strand types, come in ultra-thin diameters, but have great strength. A 4-lb.-test line of 20 years ago had the same diameter of an 8- or 10-lb.test of today. So fill a lightweight spinning reel with 4-pound test and match it to a lightweight, modern rod.

Sea-run brookies, like all other trout, respond well to earthworms. But unlike other trout, sea-runs are nibblers, nipping and tapping at the worm, often stealing several worms before stopping biting altogether. In order to increase odds of a hookup, use a hook no larger than number 8, with number 10 being even better. Avoid snelled hooks like the plague. The stiff, heavy leaders and thick, baitholder hooks make hooking sea-runs difficult indeed.

As per weight, use only as much as needed to keep the worm somewhere between top and bottom of the stream. Hook the bait so it appears natural. That means once through with the hook, allowing the worm to wiggle and twist in a normal manner as it floats along.

Cast upstream and, leaving a bit of slack line, allow the bait to drift downstream. If a light tap is detected, resist the urge to immediately strike. Often, sea-run brookies will hold a worm in its mouth before finally swallowing it. So wait, let the line tighten and then strike.

Also avoid swivels, snaps, beads, or anything else that might make the presentation appear phony. A small hook, one b.b. size split shot sinker and a lively earthworm are all the gear you need in order to have fun with sea-run brook trout. For those who still have lead split shot sinkers, remember that it is okay to use them but illegal to sell them in Maine. The new, non-lead sinkers have lesser density and consequently, a much larger mass and twice as many are needed to get the bait down to the fish. This cuts down significantly on number of strikes per trip.

Fly-fishermen have great fun with sea-run brook trout. Bright-colored streamers and bucktails work best, with yellow being the top producer. The Edson Tiger Light has to be the all-time best fly for sea-run brook trout. This has a peacock herl body, yellow calftail wing and sparse, red calftail throat. This color combination drives sea-runs absolutely wild.

Again, reserve the stiff, heavy fly rod for casting to stripers and break out a lightweight rod for sea-run brook trout. A 5-weight or 6-weight system fills the bill here. Fill a fly reel with sinking fly line and be sure to use a relatively short, tapered leader, say perhaps eight feet. Longer leaders result in slack line, which is desireable for bait fishing but detrimental to bucktail fishing.

Finally, remember that sea-run brook trout often ascend far upstream. Fishing for sea-runs near river and stream mouths at the beginning of a run makes great sense. But as the runs progress, sea-run trout often manage to make their way four or five miles upstream, given a lack of obstructions. So even though fish have stopped coming in from the sea, they often continue their journey upstream for another week or two

In the end, it may be good that these seagoing trout are so misunderstood. But make no mistake about it. Maine has a fine population of sea-run brook trout and anyone can learn their habits. It just takes time and effort.