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Jim Gronaw: The quest for native browns | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

For much of this winter I have sat at home, watched YouTube fishing channels and boring reruns and gained a few pounds. Skim-ice has kept me from my beloved small lake passion and continual snow events just flat out stink. Yes, we got out a few times and even caught some decent fish between the weather.

But as a hint of spring seeps into our lives the fishing opportunities unfold.

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One of my occasional passions is finding, and attempting to catch, native, or naturalized, populations of brown trout along various areas of the Mason-Dixon and slightly beyond. I revisit this quiet yet exciting brand of angling every other year or so when I get the urge and feel up to the physical hike it requires. I say “naturalized” brown trout because they are not a native trout specie in our area or even in North America.

Over the past several decades, however, populations of these fish have established themselves in a number of headwater streams, meadow creeks and tributaries of established, stocked trout locations in both northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania.

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Some of these pockets of browns are small and others are thriving. Traditionally, it takes map work (Google), time, effort and a tight-lipped mentality to maintain their existence. They are smart, spooky and can shift their location frequently based on high-water or runoff events. Larger fish, 17 to more than 20 inches, are territorial and can literally “own” a prime pool or deeper pocket of a smaller flow. Amazingly, some very impressive fish can be found within the realm of suburbia and development.

I caught and released this gorgeous naturalized brown trout from Codorus Creek in Pennsylvania while other waters still had ice on them. The fish took a small spinner on ultralight tackle.
I caught and released this gorgeous naturalized brown trout from Codorus Creek in Pennsylvania while other waters still had ice on them. The fish took a small spinner on ultralight tackle. (Jim Gronaw Photo)

Sometimes, prime native brown trout water is locked up in private land and thus inaccessible. Yet other quality streams are listed as approved trout water and routinely stocked for springtime trout fishing.

I will be the first to admit that my largest browns were indeed stocked fish with nothing over 21 inches. My personal best “native” brown was a 17½-inch beauty from a small stream in Adams County, Pennsylvania. My son Matt caught a gorgeous 19-inch specimen from the same water and I personally know of several 24-inch class fish that were taken from a couple of small streams in Carroll County.

Headwater streams to our local reservoirs have some and the trout streams in the nearby Catoctins have varying populations of browns as well.

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March is a good month to hunt down native browns provided you can hit the creeks when they are not terribly muddy. However, a slight degree of turbidity can aid in keeping you from spooking fish in these shallow environs. Spin fishermen like to use small spinners like #1 and #2 Mepps, Panther Martins or Wordens Roostertails of similar blade sizes. Smaller crankbaits and 1/16th ounce hair jigs can also catch fish with 6-pound test clear monos being ideal lines.

Most fly anglers these days favor olive and black Wooly Buggers or various bead-head nymph patterns fished on a 4 or 5 weight outfit. Still other anglers will even employ the live bait approach with a large nightcrawler drifted into the darkness of a deep hole.

I‘ve heard it many times from savvy trout men, that is, if you think an exceptional fish is holed up where you’re fishing then don’t be afraid to go big with a larger lure or fly.

Though not all are natives, the brown trout that currently swim in Morgan Run, the Gunpowder complex and various branches of the Codorus system can offer both pleasing, challenging and rewarding fishing long before the leaves burst out. Most areas will require hip-boots for access and positioning to temp trout with natural drifts and retrieves. Naturalized browns can be active and aggressive one day and spooky and finicky the next. If you hook, and lose, a good fish in a small pool then it might be wise to “rest” the water for 30 minutes or so for things to settle down.

Then on some days the very next cast could tempt an even larger fish. Go figure.

As temperatures rise this spring and the waters warm you are likely to encounter the 17-year locust along your favorite trout or smallmouth stream. I know that these overwhelming insects will attract many species, especially large carp. But they could possibly trigger feeding activity from trout species as well. They do seem large for trout, but a giant, 24-inch brown can easily take a 6-inch sucker minnow for supper, any day.

Be sure to check the local rules on the streams you choose to fish as trout fishing regulations are varied and complex in most states, including Maryland and Pennsylvania. Good luck and enjoy!

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