Of brook trout and Adirondacks adventure


Editor's note: ESPNOutdoors.com Fishing editor Ken Schultz also is a commentator for "BassCenter," which air Saturdays on ESPN2; look for his "Reel Speak" segment.

TUPPER LAKE, New York — "The biggest trout usually strike ferociously," said guide Walt Boname. "No bumping or fooling around. They slam it."

Sure enough, just before 8 o'clock, with the last streams of mist rising off Sperry Pond, something ripped into my streamer — a flashabou-laced, smelt-imitating Boname creation dubbed the Sperry Skunk — so hard that I barely had to set the hook.

The fish ran toward me, however, peeled line off the fly reel three times, then dashed perpendicularly under the canoe and jumped 10 feet away.

After a spirited tussle, Boname slipped his wooden long-handled net under a stunning, slightly hump-backed brook trout, adorned with a cranberry-hued belly, white-trimmed fins and flanks full of red and yellow specks. It was about 18 inches long and probably weighed 3½ pounds — a trophy trout for sure.

A headwater to Little Tupper Lake, Sperry Pond is just a speck among 6 million wilderness acres in New York's Adirondack Park, and one of several thousand lakes and ponds.

Many of these contain brookies, or speckled trout, although catching specimens from 14 to 18 inches long (and in Sperry up to 21 inches) is uncommon and due cause for jubilation.

Sperry is part of a private tract owned by International Paper Company and accessible to Boname through a hunting and fishing lease arrangement. We released the trout after a few photos, then headed back to the lodge in waning light.

Whitewater rafting, too

Two days earlier, I'd followed Boname and his friend and fellow guide Wayne Failing through the forest from the upper Hudson River to a small unnamed beaver pond where Failing had stashed a one-person canoe and a 10-foot johnboat, the latter being slightly leaky as the result of bear damage.

There was abundant black bear sign along the trail to the pond, as well as coyote sign and impressively large deer droppings; but the only wildlife we spotted was a 20-pound egg-laying snapping turtle that Wayne almost put his foot on.

We caught 18 small brookies in just two hours of fishing; they were beautiful, frisky natives … and a sample of what so many Adirondack waters can produce.

When finished, we hiked back to the river and resumed floating down the Hudson in Wayne's raft. We were spending two days floating, camping and fishing 17 miles of the upper Hudson River.

And while this might sound unappealing if you're thinking of the Hudson as it looks from Manhattan, bear in mind that the Hudson originates from Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, and — at least in this upper section, hundreds of miles from the ocean — is drink-from-a-cup clean (really), mountain-pure, swift and bumpy.

It has a superb gorge and loads of whitewater — including treacherous Class III and IV rapids, which can step up a notch in classification if the flow is heavy enough.

Sometimes there are 12-foot-high standing waves; we saw nothing like that, although there were moments when it took a great deal of Failing's skill — honed from about a thousand Hudson whitewater rafting trips — to safely navigate.

We drifted through all of this section's rapids, and for me it was a better thrill than any amusement park ride. Moreover, it's a piece of the world (in New York, of all places) that you cannot experience unless you kayak through or float in a raft.

Thousands of people ride the whitewater each season, but few stop to fish, which is a special love of Failing's and one that usually invites an overnight campout.

So in the stretches that were calm enough or slow enough, Boname and I took out spinning or fly rods and caught brook trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, smallmouth bass and even sunfish and fallfish.

There were no trophies, but there was also no competition. And it was so much fun, so relaxing, and so peaceful, that the finale at the take-out was bittersweet.

No worries

When we were on Sperry Pond, Walt Boname used his beautifully maintained 18-foot wooden Adirondack guide canoe with customized oarlocks, which he outfits with folding wood-slat chair and comfortable seat cushions.

He rows all the time, varying the pace as necessary for the flies or lures being used. As his client or guest you feel pretty decadent.

The most productive fishing on Sperry occurs by slow-trolling with streamer flies. A floating fly line is generally used, although a sink-tip line may be helpful later in the season for getting deeper. You don't need to be an accomplished flyangler to do this, and Boname supplies streamers that do the job. You can drift and cast as well, although this is not as productive.

Boname takes a lot of city people on wilderness fishing and hunting adventures, so he's always preaching the stress-free, no-phones, no-hassle, take-a-deep-breath philosophy.

And it was true that at the end of our three days, I had no idea what new tragedy had unfolded in the world, what the stock market had done, what had transpired in the sports world or what the Weather Channel had forecast.

My cell phone had no signal, my laptop had no place to be plugged in and my truck was right where I left it, without any windows broken.

"Is this a great place or what?" said Failing. "And this is New York!"

Game-fish profile

Species: Trout, brook (Salvelinus fontinalis).

Other names: Eastern brook trout, speckled trout, native, spotted trout, speckled char, brook char, salter, coaster, squaretail, brookie, aurora trout and mountain trout.

In general: Brook trout are technically not trout but are closely related to true trout. Instead, they are chars, and members of a family composed of lake trout, bull trout, bluebacked trout, Dolly Varden and Arctic char.

Identification: Brook trout are among the prettiest fish in the world, both in color and body form. Their coloration and patterns are so unique that there is seldom any confusion with other fish, especially when one is looking at a native specimen (which will be richer and more brightly marked and colored than a hatchery specimen).

Three external features allow immediate separation of brook trout from either brown or rainbow trout, or other chars. White pipings on the outer edges of all but the caudal (tail) fin identify it as a char. Interior of white leading edges on the fins is a narrow black stripe. Body spots on true trout are on a light background but reversed in all char.

The feature that is wholly unique to brook trout is the wormlike wavy lines, called vermiculations, on the back and head. These appear on the dorsal, adipose and caudal fins like a series of tiger stripes.

In general, back coloration is olive drab or greenish brown, which fades down the sides into a light brown and somewhat yellowish color below the lateral line. On the abdomen, it merges into a pearly white that during spawning phases is replaced by roseate, then red and orange hues with a black swath along the very bottom.

Upon this pallet, vermiculations are just a bit lighter green phasing into yellow; as these run down the sides, they break into pale-yellow, irregularly shaped dots and eventually become blotches. Over this collage are dispersed small, vermillion-colored dots surrounded by powder-blue halos.

Size and age: Brook trout are not a long-lived fish, generally living into their fourth or fifth year, although some fish have lived to at least 10 years of age.

In most environs the average catch of brook trout is one between 7 to 10 inches in length and weighing considerably less than a pound.

In many of their small-water natural habitats, the conditions do not exist to foster large sizes. Nevertheless, brook trout are capable of reaching larger sizes; a 14½-pound brook trout caught in 1916 is the all-tackle world record for the species.

Distribution: Brook trout populations still exist over much of the species' original distribution. Their range covers all of New York, New England, the Canadian Maritimes, Labrador and Newfoundland. Brook trout exist in all the Quebec and Ontario rivers and streams that enter Hudson and James Bays.

In Manitoba, brook trout are spread along all the streams that enter James and Hudson Bays. In all of Manitoba's east- and northeast-flowing rivers, brook trout do not appear, or are not significant, west of the 96th degree of longitude.

This same longitudinal line, where it crosses into Minnesota, is also the natural western limit of brook trout in the United States, although they have been introduced elsewhere, including as far west as California and as far south as northern Georgia.

Habitat: Compared to all other chars, as well as salmon and trout, brook trout are the least specialized in their habitat demands. This allows them to live in a great variety of environments with a wide range of tolerances.

They inhabit small trickles, rivulets, creeks and beaver ponds. They live in larger streams and any lake, from the Great Lakes to little lakes and ponds to small rivers and big rivers with tumbling falls and rapids.

Because of a unique organ in their kidney (glomerulus), they are anadromous and can move into riverine estuaries and are at home in brackish streams that feel the surge of tides, in the purely saline bay, or even the oceans themselves.

They are, however, the classic example of a coldwater species, and thrive best in the northern half of the Northern Hemisphere.

Life history and behavior: Brook trout spawn in late fall and early winter; the eggs grow throughout winter.

Movements of brook trout in a stream are quite local and especially likely during daytime hours. When they aren't hunting, brook trout situate themselves out of main currents and find protected areas behind large rocks, under overhanging bushes and undercut banks.

Big brook trout also are more likely to inhabit lakes and ponds in the summer because these environments usually produce more food, especially small fish upon which bigger trout prefer to feed as their sizes increase.

In a lake, brook trout are more prone to inhabit the periphery, between 20 feet of depth and the shore, and in shoals in the lake where water depths are 30 feet or less.

Some populations of brook trout migrate to sea for short periods. They move downstream and upstream in the spring or early summer and remain in estuaries and ocean areas where food is plentiful. After about two months they return to freshwater. Sea-run brook trout live longer and grow larger than strictly freshwater brook trout.

Food and feeding habits: Brook trout are omnivorous, carnivorous, piscivorous and even cannibalistic, and they occasionally feed on plants. Fish from 4 to 8 inches feed mainly on aquatic and terrestrial insects; between 8 to 12 inches they begin feeding on small fish. Large trout, particularly in northern waters during summer, are known to eat small mammals (mice, voles, shrews and lemmings) that find their way into the water.

For more fish species information, see "Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia," available through www.kenschultz.com.