Minnesota Profile - Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)
With an olive back covered by wormlike markings, fiery spotted flanks, and white-trimmed fins, the brook trout is one of the most colorful fish in freshwater. The "brookie" is a char, closely related to the lake trout. Slow-growing and short-lived (rarely surviving eight years), few brookies surpass a pound. But where angler harvest is slight, they get bigger. The Minnesota record, 6 pounds, 5.6 ounces, was caught in the Pigeon River in 2000. The world record, 14.5 pounds, was caught in the Nipigon River in Ontario in 1916.
Brook trout live from Canada's Maritime Provinces south through the Appalachians and west through the Great Lakes to Manitoba. In Minnesota they are native to cold-water streams in the southeast and Lake Superior tributaries below the first barrier. They have been stocked in the upper reaches of Superior streams and many small lakes.
The species name fontinalis refers to cold-water springs feeding the waters where brookies live. Along Superior, some stream-hatched brookies migrate to the lake. These so-called coasters grow larger than stream-dwellers. They return to their natal streams to spawn.
Brookies spawn October through November. The female builds a nest, or redd, in gravel with an upwelling of spring water. Lying side by side, the female and male simultaneously release eggs and milt.
Young brookies eat tiny aquatic invertebrates. As they grow, they take larger items, such as big insects and small fish. In streams they feed in deep runs and riffles and take cover by cutbanks, logs, and rocks.
Population and management
Brookies are aggressive and vulnerable to overfishing. "Every river swarms, every bay is a reservoir of magnificent fish," Robert Barnwell Roosevelt wrote of fly-fishing Lake Superior in 1862. He mistook concentrations for abundance. Within a few years, the fishery declined as loggers cleared streambanks of shade-giving conifers. Anglers targeted vulnerable trout. By 1879 N.H. Winchell wrote, "The brook trout is an object of wanton destruction in northeastern Minnesota." Recent restrictive regulations in Ontario and Minnesota aim to grow more large fish. The Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe has stocked Nipigon-strain brookies, removed barriers to migrating fish, and created spring-fed gravel redds to propagate coasters.
How and where to catch them
Check out tiny headwaters streams in the southeast, alder-lined North Shore creeks, and stocked trout lakes. Fish with small flies and tiny spinners or jigs.