Big Brown OCD

By Beacon Staff

The other day a guy from Cut Bank showed me a photo of a 15-pound brown trout. He said he caught it trolling out at Mission Lake east of Browning. I didn’t know there were browns in the Rez lakes, and I can’t say for sure he was telling the truth. When someone shows you big-fish photos from east of the mountains you expect rainbows, not browns.

Rainbows are great, but brown trout — non-natives introduced from Europe — connect with the primordial ooze that sits at the brainstem of most fishermen. Back when I had ambitions of writing fiction I penned a short story about a trout bum driven into a homicidal rage while staring into the red spots on the sides of an enormous brown he’d wrestled from the Green River in Utah. While my fictional character’s anti-social reaction may have been frowned upon by the more productive members of society, something just a little less extreme is common when it comes to big browns.

One of my first assignments as a young journalist in California was to write a feature about an exclusive club called the Brown Baggers. To become a member you had to catch two 10-pound brown trout from waters in the Golden State. That essentially limited anglers seeking membership to a handful of lakes in the eastern Sierra. Catching a pair of 10s was so tough they eventually loosened the rules to allow one brown to be caught outside the state, as long as it was a 15-pounder. That usually meant Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the afore mentioned Green.

My main source was one of the club’s founding members. He was just back from a “weekend” trip to the Gorge. That was about a 12-hour drive, followed by a day on the water, followed by another 12 hours in the car, then back to work on Monday. He rubbed his elbow throughout the interview and grimaced whenever he moved his arm. He explained that it wasn’t enough to just troll a big plug behind the boat. If you were serious about being a Brown Bagger you had to hold your rod and pump it the entire time you fished. The action this imparted on your lure – a burst of acceleration followed by a momentary pause – was both the ticket for trophy browns and a nasty case of tennis elbow. His arm was sore enough that he was concerned he’d have to take time off from work.

Another trip to the Gorge the following week would not be canceled, however. I think he figured the “injury” just might buy him some extra time on the water.

I’ve had my own bouts with brown trout disease. I learned to fly fish on a small stream in the mountains of Southern California. I caught plenty of browns on dry flies out of the big pools where the water paused on its journey down the mountains in a vain effort to quench the insatiable thirst of the municipal water departments of the cities sprawling across the foothills. But those fish rarely exceeded 10 inches. Then one of the guys in our fly fishing club discovered those big pools held a handful of really old, really big brown trout. While none of those monsters were going to earn any of us membership in the Brown Baggers, being able to catch a 3-pound wild brown within a two hour’s drive of about 10 million people made us feel like we were something special.

Those fish only ventured out of the deepest holes at night. That forced us to climb around dangerous, rattlesnake-infested canyons carrying flashlights while suspended from ropes tied to trees. We fly fished with deer-hair mice that we’d false cast until we saw the hook spark on the rocks across the pool, then let drop into the water. Once the rings settled we’d start chuggin’ the mouse until a brown crashed the party.

My brown trout obsession has faded a bit over the years, but recently I’ve been overcome by a compulsion to drive east of the mountains. Browns may be Euro trash, but I just can’t give ‘em up.

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