Of Browns and 'Bows

Tackling America's Top Two Trout
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Brown Trout
A German or a Scot?

Taxonomically speaking, rainbow and brown trout are two completely different species, but fly-fishing for one is usually very similar to fly-fishing for the other—even though the results often vary.

The two species often co-exist in the same water, be it a stream, river, lake, pond, or reservoir, and feed on the same fare, be it insects, bait fish, or crustaceans. They use the same lies and have similar needs in water quality and temperature, although the rainbow is heartier when it comes to water in which it can inhabit and reproduce.

But there is one clear difference between the two trout besides their being different fish: The brown trout isn't from North America, and the rainbow trout is.

Yes, the brown is a foreigner.

Before we discuss how the brown found its way into North American waters, first a note on the confused lineage of rainbows. About 10 years ago some sticklers for minutiae got together to talk about the rainbow trout and its allegedly anadromous form, the steelhead.

What's in a Genus?
These people, the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists Committee on Names of Fishes (come on, you knew someone had to name the fishes), decided that we had it backwards.

You see, the steelhead isn't an anadromous rainbow trout after all, and the rainbow trout isn't a trout, either. In reality, the rainbow trout is a landlocked steelhead, and a steelhead isn't a trout but a Pacific salmon, related to the chinook, sockeye, and the rest of the gang.

Therefore, the scientists took the rainbow trout, er, salmon, out of its previous genus (Salmo) and released it into the genus of the Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus). Then they changed its species to mykiss, making the fish Oncorhynchus mykiss.

Understand? Good.

But as of late the rainbow has acquired more than just an identity crisis. Whirling disease, a crippling malady transmitted by a parasite that found its way into hatcheries, is now considered a major threat to the health of Western rainbow trout.

The disease has also spread east, and browns and brookies also have been found to be susceptible, though not to the degree rainbows are. As of this writing (1998), whirling disease is a serious ailment that we have yet to get a handle on.

A Scottish-German Disposition
All that aside—yeah, as if we are going to now call the rainbow trout the rainbow salmon—let's get back to the brown trout and how it slipped by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The brown trout first came to America from Germany in 1884, having been released into Michigan's Pere Marquette River. They survived and thrived.

A year later, another batch of browns, these from Scotland's Loch Leven in Kinross, were brought to America and they, too, did very well. (These Loch Leven browns are known for their dark spots and lack of red spots.)

Decades passed. The two strains of browns, one from German rivers and streams, the other from a big (3,500 acres), cold lake in Scotland situated between the Firth of Forth and the Earn, spread and began to eventually mix.

Soon, America had her own brown trout, and it would be one of the most discerning trout to ever swim in North America, known to refuse the very best presentation of a flawless fly, even when the rainbows, cutthroats, and brookies feed with abandon.

This isn't surprising. Take the adaptability of the German and toss in the individuality of the Scot, mix the result with the eclectic appetite of the German and add the discriminating taste of the Scot, and you get the American brown trout.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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