My relationship with the Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) is long and convoluted. It began when, as a schoolboy in Oconto County, I would crawl along the muddy banks of tiny rivulets of Hines Creek or the outlet stream from Anderson Lake. I was in quest of not brown trout, but brook trout. At the time, the size limit for these colorful and tasty fish was a mere six inches. A seven incher was a prize, a nine incher a trophy. School chum Howie and I would spend the entire day slogging through these mosquito infested wetlands with a half nightcrawler dangling from the end of our spinning rod attempting to place it in front of an unsuspecting brookie. Most often all we caught was a branch, or a log, or maybe a bumpy faced creek chub. If I could return home with a couple of trout nestled in my grass lined wicker creel, it was a good day. A limit of ten brook trout was fantasy, an unrealistic goal only to be achieved in our dreams. But my real trout dreams were of brown trout. To catch a brown trout was an early grail quest for me. The bronze, red speckled fish wielded an almost magical sway over me. It was like a mythical chimera I had only read about in the pages of Outdoor Life or Roy Ovington’s classic book “Tactics on Trout”. I had heard stories of epic brown trout fishing from the older and more worldly local anglers. The nearby Oconto River was said to have deep pools filled with plump brown trout. The legendary trout waters of the Wolf River were close by in what was then the Menomonie Indian Reservation. I determined to someday catch a brown trout.
Over the years, brown trout have swum in and out of my life often intertwined with significant events and people. I did manage to catch a few browns out of the Oconto River while still in high school, almost all less than 10 inches. It was not until 1994, while fishing with my son Matthew and his cousin Mike, that I caught my first big brown trout out of the Oconto. It was a 20” beauty I hooked into below the dam at Chute Pond. Alas, no photo record survived, and I proudly released the fish. In 1996, on a trip to Scotland to attend a conference at the University of Edinburgh, Matthew and I took the opportunity to fish the legendary River Spey near Kingussie. We managed to catch and release four small brown trout while fishing amid verdant pastures and rabbit warrens. This remains a cherished memory. I was given my first opportunity to fish for Lake Michigan brown trout in Door County by my brother-in-law Den. During the early 70’s Den would generously take me along on his spring forays to Baileys Harbor. This was my introduction to the place I now call home. We would spend long days flatlining lures through the waters off Jacksonport, in Moonlight and North Bays but mostly in Baileys Harbor. We spent a lot of time on the water often with nothing to show for the effort but fresh air and companionship. It was well worth it. When winds would not allow us to launch a boat, we would don our waders and venture out on the rocks off Anclam Park. We would hurl Little Cleo spoons into the buffeting winds, hoping for that shoulder wrenching jolt of a big trout. One day in 1971 I caught a nine-pound brown along with a 6 pounder and two brook trout, one weighed in at three and a half pounds. To this day, this stands as my best day casting at Anclam. I have targeted browns in many parts of Lake Michigan from fishing with Matthew in Milwaukee Harbor to boating fish with friends off the warm water outlet of the now decommissioned Point Beach Power plant, but Door County has always been my home waters for browns. Since moving to Baileys Harbor a dozen years ago, I have had the opportunity to put a lot of brown trout in the net. I have spent many enjoyable hours with friends and family in pursuit of brown trout including a memorable day with Kelly, the mother of our grandchildren (And the namesakes of the Maggie Leigh). However, it took six decades in pursuit of this fabled species, to have my best brown trout day ever.
Brown trout are not native to North America. Like most Americans and almost all Door County residents, their roots lie in a foreign land. They are native to Europe and Asia. Unsuccessful attempts to introduce brown trout to North America were made as early as the 1860’s. In 1883 80,000 brown trout eggs were brought from Germany and sent to hatcheries in New York and Michigan. In 1884, about 5,000 young trout were released into the Baldwin River in Michigan. In 1887 the hatchery in Bayfield, Wisconsin started rearing and releasing brown trout originally brought from central Europe. It was the start of a beautiful relationship. Sort of. Although brown trout are now found all over Wisconsin and in almost all fifty states, they are still an introduced species. Some would say an invasive species. As with many newcomers, they have not always been welcomed with open arms. Since they can tolerate a wider range of habitats than the native brook trout and are aggressive and grow larger, they have forced brook trout from many of their former habitats. However, brown trout have now embedded themselves in the fabric of Wisconsin ecology and few would want them removed. It begs the question, when does an invasive species become native? One might well ask, when does a person not born in Door County become a “native’? Many would say “Never!!!” So it is with the brown trout.
Although brown trout attempt to spawn in late fall and winter in the waters off Door County, most spawning is unsuccessful in Lake Michigan and Green Bay. Brown trout populations are maintained by annual stocking operations by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The number of trout stocked each year fluctuates with the vicissitudes of budgets, logistics and the whims of the Wisconsin fishing community. Some years the stocking attempts were minimal, resulting in some lean years for brown trout anglers. Over the last several years however, the stocking has increased somewhat. In addition, there have been changes in how fish are introduced to local waters resulting in improved survival of the young trout. In 2019 about 110,000 brown trout were stocked in the waters surrounding Door County followed by another 81,000 in 2020 and 76,000 in 2021. Since, according to Becker’s Fishes of Wisconsin, most browns stay within fifteen miles of their stocking site, these fish are available to Door County anglers. The fish stocked in 2019 should be about 5-6 pounds now, maybe larger.
Paul and I found ourselves the beneficiaries of this largess during our outing a week ago on the bayside. Despite our typical poor showing during the Baileys Harbor Brown Trout Tournament, we have had a pretty good year on the lakeside. We have successfully boated several nice “eater” fish in addition to fish over eight pounds. However, since winter has held on like grim death this year, the ice cover stubbornly clung to the Green Bay shoreline icing in the marinas and preventing any launching. The ice finally cleared enough for us to attempt to launch the Maggie Leigh at Murphy Park, south of Egg Harbor. The Egg Harbor launch, until just this week, was still iced up. The launch at Murphy Park was a challenge with the shallow water and no docks yet, but we eventually managed get launched and motored north. Just south of Egg Harbor, we deployed planer boards, set six lines and settled in under a clear, sunlit sky with light winds. Our serenity did not last long. Within fifteen minutes the outer planer board darted backwards, and we saw a brown trout leaping wildly fifty feet behind it. We immediately initiated our familiar ballet, clearing the other lines, removing the planer board, and readying the net, all while keeping the boat moving steadily forward. I steadily moved the fish aside the boat and Paul slipped the net under our first fish of the day. It would not be our last. Over the next three hours we hooked into eleven fish and boated eight of them. The smallest trout was two feet long and the largest came in at 32” and 14 pounds. The action included two doubles and the last two fish we boated was part of a triple, three fish on at the same time. At that point we reluctantly left the water only because we had dinner reservations. It was Easter Sunday after all.
I have caught more brown trout in a day (I once caught twenty sub-10-inchers casting in Baileys Harbor Yacht Club basin) and Paul and I have both caught bigger trout (My largest is 21.5 pounds and Paul has one on his wall representing a 27-pound fish), but for the combination of action, numbers and size, we both agreed this was our best brown trout day ever. Despite any success I may have catching brown trout, they still in many ways remain a mystery to me. I am always in awe of their beauty and power. When I do keep fish, they provide wonderful table fare for myself and my friends. This relative newcomer, the brown trout, has contributed an awful lot to the lore and wonder of Door County. Thank you.
Stay safe and sane.