Talking Monster Brookies with Chris White
Here in New Brunswick, with the recent declines in the Atlantic salmon population, brook trout are perhaps the most popular target for resident anglers. Unfortunately, New Brunswick is not a province known for large brook trout anymore. The majority of trout anglers are excited to catch anything more than 10 inches long these days, but that hasn't always been the case. Our parent's generation tells [fish] tales of regularly catching their limit with 2, 3, and even 4 lb trout, back when the limit was a much higher 15 or more brookies. Today, most people believe those are only a memory, anglers we know would like to catch bigger fish, but just don’t know how. Much like big bucks, they feel they are long gone... but are they?
Today we're going to talk to Chris White, a man who is absolutely obsessed with catching big brook trout. Not only is he obsessed with it, he has been extremely successful. He is a talented and successful fly fisherman who ties his own flies. We have seen pictures and videos of New Brunswick trout he caught this past summer that literally made our jaws drop. They are absolutely enormous, fight vigorously, and look like that has to be in another locale. His passion for fishing is contagious and you can see his eyes dancing as he shares the tales with us. How does he regularly catch trophy sized brook trout in New Brunswick without using a DeLorean to travel back in time?
Wilderness Obsession: What is the largest brook trout you've ever caught?
Chris: To date my personal best is 25 ½ inches, I have caught many close but that was a memorable fish for me. It’s kind of like the first girl you kissed… [laughs]
Wilderness Obsession: How long have you been chasing these enormous brook trout, and how did your obsession start?
Chris: My obsession and chase for Eastern Brook Trout started when I turned 14. I had taken a basic fly tying course and took up fly fishing at the same time. However, it was 20 years ago when I caught my first big trout, he measured 25 1/2 inches, a big male in full fall spawning colours. That night turned my fishing upside down and at one point had stopped my fishing for salmon allowing me to dedicate more time to pursue these beauties.
Wilderness Obsession: Do you keep a running total of the number of fish you catch each season, and can you share an idea of how many that is (for example in 2015)?
Chris: In the past I have always maintained a fishing journal which also helps with hatch determination from year to year. I don’t usually keep such a running tally but I think last year I produced well over a hundred trout that would exceed 14 inches. My two best trips out were 28 in one night that were 14-15 inches and 6 trout another evening that would measure 18-22 inches.
Wilderness Obsession: What time of the year are you catching these monster trout?
Chris: I’m catching large trout from April straight through until the end of the season in September. There is no particular timing in catching big trout unless you stick to one stretch of a river system and choose not to follow the trout. I have spent the last 20 years fishing building knowledge on a number of water systems and I have been fortunate enough in that they have all produced large trout for me.
Wilderness Obsession: What is the biggest brook trout that you caught last year (size or weight)?
Chris: Last year it would have to be a 25 inch trout probably weighing in at around 6 ½ lbs. Not bad for South East New Brunswick.
Wilderness Obsession: Are these trout that you would say stay in the inland waters throughout the year, or do you think they are sea-run to account for their enormous size?
Chris: The trout, in one particular system that I frequent has had extensive studies over the years and the science shows that these trout do not go out to sea. They come down late in the fall out of the spawning areas and winter in the larger portion of the river in 18-25 feet of water. This is where they take on the darker coloration on their backs and turn a brilliant silver on their sides. They then gradually make their way up the system taking breaks along the way. They can be found in shallower feeder streams feeding on the spring abundance of minnows, smelt and other aquatic life. Other systems that I visit are indeed sea run populations but again trout unlike salmon do not spend years out at sea. They may only ever reach the large part of the system which we would call the estuary. This water would not be 100% salt but would be a brine mixture of the fresh meeting the salt [brackish].
I have fished on PEI early in the season and where we fished depending on the tide we often ran across seaweed however those trout too spend very little time in this water and usually are only present because of the feeding opportunities that exist such as smelts.
The size of fish is determined primarily by two factors: environment and genetics, not necessarily by age. Science from Minipi Lake in Labrador, and the Nipigion River in Ontario shows that genetics plays an important role in growing large trout.
Wilderness Obsession: Without giving away too much information, can you tell us whether you travel throughout the province or stick mostly to one region of NB?
Chris: I’d tell you but I’d have to kill ya… [laughs]. No, all kidding aside almost all of our inland waters in Southeast NB contain large trout you just need to find them and understand their eating habits – then you will have success. I have a tendency to stick to the Southern half of the province and follow the fish as they eventually make their way to spawn far up in the river systems.
Wilderness Obsession: You mentioned to us that some of the areas you fish are very frequently targeted by other anglers. Can you share with us any reasons why they don't bring in those big fish but you do?
Chris: When I first started fishing and tying my own flies I remember a conversation I had in the basement of a friend – Bryant Freeman. He said ‘Chris if you want to catch more and larger trout, you need to learn what they eat’. He then proceeded to hand me 3 books, 1 on Mayflies, 1 on Caddisflies, and 1 on Stoneflies. I put my time into understanding insects and this put me in tune with the trout. That’s not where it stops. I also invest hours each year watching the system I’m fishing, studying it from a perspective of where trout would be waiting for their next meal. Trout are an opportunistic feeder they try to ingest as much nutrition without expending energy. Matching the hatch and presenting a fly in the correct fashion will almost always lead to success or a hook up. I find myself on the river fishing when I see others leaving…their loss. Large trout are smart, if you can see them they can see you. They do not run the risk of exposure and be taken by a predator such as an eagle or osprey in the middle of the day. Therefore fishing as close to dark as possible keeping our regulations in mind of course is also a contributor to success. When it comes right down to it fishing is a game of probability, time on the water with your fly in water will produce fish and if you fish the wrong fly long enough it will eventually become the right fly, however your successes will be further spaced apart.
Wilderness Obsession: We know that you tie your own flies. Do you use your own materials from the animals you harvest or are you mostly purchasing the supplies?
Chris: I mostly purchase my own materials with the exception of a few feathers from grouse and woodcock. Fly tying has come a long way over the short 30 plus years I have been doing it. With better science, bird breeders have been able to use genetics in producing top quality materials. On the other end we are now seeing some of the best synthetics being produced today since fly tying began. Sure you might want to stick with the traditions of using rabbit fur as dubbing material on the body of a dry fly but when there exists a synthetic that is waterproof why not use it.
Wilderness Obsession: Everyone has a favourite fly that is their go-to. What is yours, and is it something that you designed yourself?
Chris: That’s a loaded question, I have way too many favourites. With the amount of flies I carry if I fell in the river I may not get back up; being so loaded down with boxes of flies. My fly choice is usually based on the hatch. I do, however have two which I will mention and that at this point cannot be found in any book. One is “White’s Chocolate” and the other is “The Yellow Maple Nymph”. Both these flies are of my own creation trying to match and imitate some insect life that trout feed upon. I’ve included pictures and recipes for this posting.
Wilderness Obsession: As a passionate outdoorsman, what do you think is the single biggest obstacle to seeing the return of these monster brookies throughout the province?
Chris: Well, although this is merely my own opinion, there is some loose science that does back me up. I think that it is the fisherman. Big trout do not necessarily mean they are old. What I think a lot of us miss the boat on, is that big trout come from big trout genetics. If we kill all the big ones they are not breeding and passing along their genetics. I would equate it to taking a large buck, if he had an enormous rack he had some pretty good genetics, once taken from the herd his genetics are no longer passed down. I am supporter of letting the big ones go as they will produce big fish in turn. A few years ago we hooked and landed a big hen (female) 3 times in 2 weeks. She had a very distinguishable scar on her side in the shape of a ‘J’ she was 18 inches in length. Hook and release works. I know we all want to be proud of the fact that we caught a trophy fish but wouldn’t it be nice to catch big trout all the time? Sure, take a feed once in a while, I will never condemn that but release those big ones. As corny as this might sound, I believe, that nature will always treat those that treat her with respect and perhaps that is the reason why I am blessed with so many large trout each year.
A few years ago when history was made and the gates on the causeway that joins Moncton and Riverview were opened permanently, a big misunderstanding occurred. I recall a letter to the editor that spoke to the great returns of sea trout to the river that year. What actually occurred was that the trout that lived in the headpond were driven upstream into fresh water. I recall not being able to get anywhere near the rivers including the Petitcodiac and Little River that year. People flocked to the river and killed everything they caught. The next year hardly a fish was to be found. In one year we had almost decimated the population of trout in this local watershed that I had been successfully fishing for 20 years, catching trout each year upwards of 23 inches. There are still a few returning trout each year but not like previous years.
Wilderness Obsession: Do you have any tips or secrets for your fishing success that you can share with us?
Chris: Try to carry a good assortment of colours and sizes of flies. Try to research what flies are hatching at a particular time of year and learn about the different stages of a hatch. Sometimes trout feed upon the nymphs while other times they feed on the nymph as it starts to reach adult maturity (this can happen in 20-30 mins). I personally watch the hatches but also pay close attention to my presentation. Even if your fly is an identical match, if you’re not casting that fly in a natural occurring presentation, you’ll have a hard time convincing a large trout that it’s real and not a fake.
I can recall an evening out on the water last year, there was a large Dun Quill hatch and I was fishing up river into the pool. Cast after cast produced no fish. Perplexed, I decided to try fishing the pool from above. I started catching fish. I then went back down and tried fishing the same pool once again from below, and again no fish. On my drive home that night I was left bewildered? Why fishing from above produced fish while fishing below did not. I went to my library of books on insects and found that certain mayflies hatch swimming against the current, therefore head up. Call it coincidence but my presentation was head down tail up, remember your leader is attached at the head, when fishing from below. When I changed position I also changed the position of the fly, in a more natural occurring presentation with the fly’s head upward.
Wilderness Obsession: For a person just getting into fly fishing, would you have any advice on how to get out there and start catching trout?
Chris: The internet is a good start, of course you need to find your way between the good and bad advice. Also visiting one of the many shops around can be of help as most have local knowledge. Getting in touch with a local sporting organization is also a means of obtaining advice and learning about fishing in general. Many shops and organizations have seminars and demonstrations on fly fishing and fly tying that can be attended and much can be learned.
Most of all, do not get discouraged, if I had a nickel for every fishing trip where I did not catch something I’d have a lot more fishing rods! Each trip out is an experience and chalk it up to be a learning one.
We thank Chris for spending some time with us today talking about these trophy sized brookies that he regularly catches!
The brook trout population here has a number of strikes against it when one thinks of seeing a return to those glory days. First, we need to speak of the increase of logging and specifically logging roads. There really aren't any remote spots left in the province, far from the beaten trail. If you're out in the woods, you generally don't have to walk very far to find a logging road! And in today's technologically advanced day, along with the access roads comes a wide range of maps and tools to locate bodies of water that were once "secret gems" in the province. If you know of a good spot nowadays, it's certain that someone else does too.
A second obstacle is our warming waters, and that problem is increased by logging activities. Our climate is warmer now than in generations before, and warm water is not a friend of trout (or salmon). If trees are cut near streams, it causes erosion and perhaps destruction of spawning areas, along with allowing the sun to warm the water quicker than it would have been years ago, raising the temperature beyond what brookies like.
A third obstacle, quite frankly, is anglers. Although Wilderness Obsession eats some fish each year, we aren't the type of guys that want to go out and limit out repeatedly. And when we do decide to keep a fish, it won't be a large one. The biggest ones are the best breeders and perhaps have the best genes. The age of that fish could be in the teens or more, and when you take that fish out of the gene pool it definitely has an impact. We love fish, and we won't criticize anyone for keeping a legally harvested trout if they want to. It is most certainly the right of every sports angler to determine what they will do, but we must recognize that it does have an impact.
The fact is, the big brookies are still there in our water... but just in much smaller numbers than days gone by. If we want to see a recovery of their numbers, we need to get involved in conservation and in habitat restoration first and foremost! There are some great organizations out there doing good work for our province... what are you doing?
For any questions pertaining to fishing for trout or tying flies Chris can be reached by using our contact page and we'll pass it along for you!
Here is a list of Chris' own fly patterns along with pictures:
Yellow Maple Nymph:
Tail: Yellow Marabou or calf body dyed yellow
Rib: Fine gold or silver oval tinsel
Wing Casing: Mallard breast dyed yellow
Body: Beige/Maple Chenille
Thorax: Peacock Herl
Hackle: Yellow or natural grizzly (wet)
Thread: Yellow, Brown or Black
Tail: Coq de Leon dyed chocolate dun
Body: stripped Chocolate dun hackle quill
Wing: Natural mallard breast
Hackle: Chocolate Dun
Thread: Dark Brown
Contact us and let us know!