Brook Trout vs Brown Trout: Key Differences Explained

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While there are 11 trout species found in North America and several more throughout the world, few are more beautiful than the brook trout and brown trout.

But that’s where the similarities end – brook trout are actually a species of char. And they tend to inhabit different types of water to brown trout and rarely co-exist.

And while they are both attractive fish, there are many physical differences, which we go on to explain in this detailed article on brook trout and brown trout.

Brook Trout vs Brown Trout: Overview

Brown trout were brought to North America from Germany. They are characterized under the trout species, but they also are genetically related to Atlantic Salmon. These resemblances grow stronger as they grow in size. Any cold water river, lake or stream has the potential to hold these fish. These are a favorite of fly and spin anglers.

Brook trout are technically considered to be char, a subspecies of trout. They’re native to the Eastern part of North America and have been brought to all other parts of the world. These are some of the most beautiful and unique fish species you can find. Odds are, you’re fishing in a picturesque area if you’re targeting brook trout. Both fly anglers and spin anglers have success targeting these fish.

Pro Tip: The simplest way to tell the difference between brook trout and brown trout is by looking at the lower fins (pectoral and anal fins). A brook trout’s fins will have distinct white edges that are present on brown trout. Brook trout also have spots on their tale, which again, aren’t present on brown trout. Note, that brook trout are actually a form of char, rather than a trout.

Brook Trout vs Brown Trout: Distribution

Brook Trout

Brook trout are found all across the United States and can even be caught throughout Europe and New Zealand. They’re native to Ontario, Canada and the Northeast United States. Now, they’re found all the way down in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. You can also find them in the Great Lakes region; Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota all have healthy populations of these fish.

High mountains streams in the Rockies in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming have decent pockets of brook trout. There are also small populations of Washington and Oregon.

Worldwide, you can find them in New Zealand, Canada and parts of Europe, along with Australia and South America. These fish were taken from the United States and introduced into many spring fed, cold water streams across the world. You can fly fish for these in almost every place they live.

Brown Trout

Brown trout are some of the hardiest of the trout species. You can find them in 46 of the 50 United States. These fish are native to Germany, they were brought over the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. Now, you can find them anywhere there’s cold water temperatures (65 degrees and lower) and healthy insect populations. The East Coast, Midwest and Western United States all have populations of these fish. Be sure to check your local Game and Fish Department website to see where you can find them near you.

There are numerous wild populations of brown trout that spawn and repopulate without the help of stocking programs. However, many trout are also stocked because they cannot handle the warmer months.

You’ll also find brown trout populations all over Europe, Asia and Australia and New Zealand. They’re easily able to adapt to their environment. They’re far more hearty than rainbow trout and lake trout!


Brook Trout

The most common sized brook trout that you’re going to find are going to be between 6 and 15 inches and weigh somewhere between one and five pounds. They’re definitely some of the smallest trout you’re going to catch. This is partially due to the water they live in, but it’s also because they are char and tend to be slow growing.

Ontario, Canada is well-known as the premier brook trout fishing spot in the world. The environment and water are perfect brook trout habitat. It’s no surprise that the world record brook trout was caught there! In 1915, on the legendary Nigipon River, Dr. J.W. Cook hauled in a 31 inch 14.5 pound record brook trout. He was fly fishing with several business partners and hauled in the giant male brook trout.

Brown Trout

Brown trout are on the larger side for trout. On average, these fish are somewhere between 12 and 24 inches. Again, they’re a more hardy fish with a diet of both insects and smaller prey like leeches, baitfish and crayfish. They’ll eat and feed heavily year round. Brown and brook trout are different this way!

If you’re familiar with trout fishing and trout populations, you understand the powerhouse that is New Zealand. New Zealand is home to several world record fish! In 2020, the Brown Trout world record was broken by a man named Seamus from Turgani. Weighing in at 44.3 pounds, this record isn’t likely to be broken any time soon.

Characteristics and appearance

Brook Trout

Brook trout ability to change colors as they spawn and age is also a unique feature that you don’t find on most other fish.

In my opinion, brook trout are the most beautiful trout. Their olive green and orange colors combined are breathtaking. It’s amazing that these fish can come out of a cold water stream. Depending on where you are in the world, you’ll even see that they turn silver and red. Their ability to change colors as they spawn and age is also a unique feature that you don’t find on most other fish.

These fish prefer small spring fed streams that have a healthy amount of vegetation and a gravel bottom. These characteristics are important for the brook trout spawn.

However, the most important factor in brook trout habitat is the water temperature. Water temperature ranging from 32 degrees to 60 degrees is vital. If it gets any warmer than 65 degrees, you’ll find that brook trout populations will decrease. There are few wild brook trout populations in the United States because of the small number of streams that stay at this temperature.

Brown Trout

Brown trout have a tan and brown coloration combined with red and dark brown spots. These fish aren’t easily confused with any other species of fish! Brown trout need to live in waters somewhere between freezing and 65 degrees. While they’re a bit more hearty than other trout populations, any water above 65 degrees is challenging for them.

Streams, lakes and rivers with vegetation and gravel bottoms are ideal. These gravel bottoms are great for male and female brown trout to spawn. Fun fact, when a male brook trout and female brown trout cross, they create a tiger trout.

Brook Trout vs Brown Trout: Fishing

Brook Trout Fishing

Fishing for brook trout isn’t easy. First, you have to put in a decent amount of work to even find a population of brook trout. When you do, they’re able to be caught on both a spin rod and a fly rod.

Fly fishing for brook trout is a blast. Odds are, you’re going to be doing more of a finesse style of fishing. You aren’t going to be targeting 5 to 10 pound fish sitting deep in pools waiting to smash a size 0 streamer. You’re going to find them in small streams and medium sized rivers eating nymphs, dries and smaller streamer patterns.

If possible, focus the majority of your fishing on structure and deep portions of the water. The deep water is going to be a bit cooler than any of the surface water you find.

Flies like Pheasant Tails, Elk Hair Caddis (find one here) and small Woolly Buggers are going to work well when you’re targeting them. Make sure you do your research and check with local fly shops to see what exactly the brook trout are eating and where they’re hiding. Usually, a 4-weight (see our top picks) or 5-weight setup should be plenty for these fish.

When you’re spin fishing, you’ll likely need an ultralight setup with 2 or 3 pound test. See here for tips and choosing a rod and reel. Unless you know the fish are large, this should be plenty of size for you. Mepps Spinners and Panther Martin’s are great lures to use for Brook Trout. Similar methods you would use for rainbow trout can be used for brook trout.

Check your state’s game and fish department website for updated information on brook trout populations!

Brown Trout Fishing

Brown trout are a hearty fish where thy eat and feed heavily year round with a diet for both insects and smaller prey like leeches, baitfish and crayfish.

When you’re fishing for brown trout, you won’t have to work nearly as hard as you would for brook trout. Like mentioned earlier, brown trout live in 46 of the 50 United States! There’s likely a decent population near you. They’ll live in rivers, lakes and streams! As long as the water is 65 degrees or below, they’ll be okay.

When fly fishing for brown trout, all methods are fair game. Large streamers, nymphs and dry flies are all going to catch fish (see here for a list of our favorite flies for catching brown trout). You can high stick with a nymph and swing streamers through pools depending on what the fish are wanting. Also, dry flies are extremely productive flies for brown trout.

As long as you’re careful with these fish during spawning season, they’ll feed all year long. You can use anywhere from a 3-weight to a 6-weight rod and reel setup depending on the size of brown trout that you’re finding (see here for our thoughts on the best weight fly rod for trout).

For spin fishing, you don’t need to vary much from a brook trout setup. A medium or light rod with 6 to 8 pound test is usually plenty of power for these fish. Mepps Spinners, Rooster Tails, and Vibrax lures are all going to be the most successful! These lures have been around for years and they’re continually proving their worth (see also our best lures for trout).

A quick stop at a local fly shop or a call to the game and fish department is going to give you the most up to date information on these fish.

Final Thoughts on Brook Trout and Brown Trout

Both brook trout and brown trout are amazing fish to catch. They fight impressively well for their size and definitely make you work for them. They represent everything that is great about fishing! It definitely feels like a fair fight when you get the opportunity to spend a day targeting them. Whether it’s on a fly rod or a spin rod, there’s never a dull moment with brown trout and brook trout.

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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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