How to Catch Brown Trout in Lakes and Rivers: Browns Explained

Last update:
Brown trout caught inside the fish net.

Catching brown trout in lakes and rivers requires an understanding of where they sit in cover and structure and knowledge of local food sources. Trout tend to sit in hiding while they wait for the right opportunity to eat. While they’re aggressive, they require patience to catch. 

Brown trout fishing is a deeply studied art form that takes on various shapes and sizes depending on where and how you fish for them. Brown trout live all over the world in lakes and rivers. Even though they span the globe, their behaviors are similar no matter where you target them. 

Catching Brown Trout in Lakes 

You’ll find brown trout in lakes with water under 65 degrees. Generally, these lakes sit at higher altitudes and fill with snow runoff and rainwater. If water temperatures get too warm, brown trout struggle to reproduce and eventually die. However, fishing a healthy lake filled with brown trout should be at the top of your trout fishing bucket list. I spend most of my free time fishing for trout in lakes and rivers.

Where Brown Trout Hold in Lakes

When you get to a trout lake, you must look for a few things. First, take some time to walk along the shore. Brown trout sit near shore in cover and structure if the water temperatures are cool enough. Cover and structure include fallen logs, rock piles, and vegetation. 

I like to wander the shore as long as possible before throwing in my fly or lure. Odds are that I’ll see trout swimming and get a good idea of their behavior and current feeding habits. 

I’ll look for drop-offs if I do not see trout cruising the shallows. Trout sit deeper if the water is too warm up shallow. Plus, they know the food they want sits at the bottom of the water column. They’re willing to go wherever food sits, even if it means staying deeper. 

The final thing I look for when I head to a trout lake is rising, feeding fish. Rising fish create ripples on the surface. Depending on their aggression levels, brown trout may jump out of the water in pursuit of an insect. 

These rises are dead giveaways that the fish are feeding on the surface, and that topwater lures or dry flies should be my first option.

If the water is clear enough, sight fishing for brown trout isn’t too challenging. You can see where they’re swimming if they’re feeding, and where they go when spooked. Piecing this together helps you know where to cast and what methods to use. 

Generally, I focus on cover and structure. I know browns don’t ever want to be too far from protection. From there, I’ll pay close attention to see if they’re on the move in pursuit of food.

Danny fly fishing by the lake.
Lake fishing for brown trout

Gear To Use

I am a fly angler at heart. Even if I’m fishing a lake for trout, I generally choose my fly rod. However, spin rods work extremely well for trout on lakes. You can make further casts and use some different methods that are more challenging with a fly rod. 

Fly Gear

Brown trout that live in lakes have the potential to grow large. As long as the temperatures are comfortable and food sources are plentiful, pulling a 5-pound brown trout out of a lake is not uncommon. As a result, I like to be equipped with a heavier fly rod when fishing for brown trout in still water. 


I’ll use a 5- or 6-weight, 8’6” or 9’ fast action fly rod when targeting brown trout in lakes. The heavier rods allow me to make longer casts and give me extra power if I hook into a bigger fish. When fishing lakes, I want to cover as much water as possible, and a bigger rod allows me to do that.


I pair the same size reel with whatever size rod I use. If I’m using a 6-weight rod, I use a 6-weight reel. Keeping the rod and reel sizes the same ensures a balanced feel to your overall setup. 

Line, Leader, Tippet

When fishing a lake, I carry reels with floating and sink tip line. I want to hit all levels of the water column. If the fish rise and feed on the surface, I stick with my weight forward floating line. It keeps my dry flies high on the surface.

If I’m not seeing rises, I switch to my weight forward sink tip line. I can throw nymphs and streamers lower in the water column and find the deeper brown trout.

For my leaders, I carry 7-12 foot options. Depending on what flies I’m throwing, I’ll have 1X to 4X leaders. Streamers get 1X 9’ leaders. Nymphs and dries get 2X to 4X leaders depending on how spooked fish act. I go with lighter leaders when the fish seem less willing to strike. 

For my tippet, I carry 3X to 6X. When throwing nymphs and dries, I always use the tippet to ensure the trout only see my flies. 


Brown trout eat at all levels of the water column. I’m always prepared with a few nymphs, dries, and streamers.

My favorite dry flies include Elk Hair Caddis, Chubby Chernobyls, Royal Wulffs, Parachute Adams, and Yellow Sallies.

Some of my favorite nymphs are Pheasant Tail nymphs, Prince Nymphs, Zebra Midges, stoneflies, and Copper Johns.

My favorite streamers include Woolly Buggers, Muddler Minnows, small Clouser Minnows, Sex Dungeons, and any crayfish or leech pattern.

Spin Gear

When using spinning gear for brown trout in lakes, you want a heavier setup than in a river. You want to make longer casts and throw larger lures and can expect to land larger fish than you expected. 


I like using a 6’ or 7’ light or medium spinning rod. Plus, I like the rod to have a medium action, so it has the sensitivity of a lighter rod but enough power to keep a fish pinned and get it into the net. 


A spinning reel somewhere between 500 and 2500 is ideal for trout. It’s light enough to handle your thin line but holds enough power to land the fish without hurting it. 


Throw monofilament or braid as your main line when fishing for trout. Braid casts light lures well, and you can attach a lighter leader so the trout don’t see the braid and get spooked. I use a 6- to 10-pound braid for my main line.

Use a fluorocarbon line for your leader. Fluorocarbon allows natural light to pass through it, so trout won’t get spooked when they see it. Use a 2- to 6-pound fluorocarbon for your leader.


There are a few old failsafes for trout lures. Panther Martins, Mepps Spinners, beads, and Marabou Jigs are some of your best options. Anything with a little flash to it is ideal.

Lake Fishing Techniques for Brown Trout

When fishing for brown trout in lakes, be prepared to cast near structure and rises. If you’re using fly gear, you must retrieve the flies instead of letting the current take the fly like you would in a river. If you’re using spinning gear, vary your retrieve and give your lures time to get to the proper spots.

Danny lake fishing for brown trout.
Lake fishing for trophy brown trout

Fly Fishing Techniques

When your fly hits the water, be prepared for a strike. When using a dry fly, cast near the spot where you saw a fish rise. Brown trout don’t wait to strike when your fly hits the water. You’ll get a strike within a few seconds if it’s the right pattern. 

If you’re fishing nymphs or streamers, stay patient. When your fly hits the water, give it a few seconds to drop. You want to let it get near the bottom where trout tend to sit. After waiting a few seconds, begin your retrieve. A few slow strips followed by a fast strip is a solid rhythm. 

Find holding areas for fish and make your casts near them. Find a submerged log, a rock pile, or vegetation and work it. Cast past it and retrieve your fly through it. Cast next to it and tease the fish with slower strips. Cast into it and make aggressive strips out of it. 

Spin Fishing Techniques 

Don’t cast your fly into the middle of the lake, then retrieve it and expect a strike. Yes, your lures are attractive and move water, but that doesn’t mean you’ve cast it where the brown trout are sitting. 

Like fly fishing, cast your lure near cover and structure. From there, let it sit and fall in the water column. You want to retrieve it from the deep water so brown trout follow it. Wherever you cast, ensure there is a safe spot for trout to hide nearby. 

Catching Brown Trout in Rivers 

As a die-hard fly angler, I think brown trout are the most fun to target when fishing a river. You have to work hard to find the trout, but you also need to know how to read the water, make accurate casts, and choose the perfect fly to get them to strike. 

Where Brown Trout Hold in Rivers

In rivers, brown trout rarely spend time in open water in the fastest current. You can count on them tucked behind rocks, under logs, under any cut banks, in slow-moving pools, near seams, and in shallow riffles. 

They want to spend time near the fast current in case a meal swims past, but they don’t want to spend all day fighting it. If you can find a break in the current where it looks like the water slows down, expect a brown trout to be sitting there.

While there may only be one trout behind a rock or under a log, it’s worth hitting a fishy-looking spot. You never know what’s sitting there.

Gear to Use 

River fishing for brown trout is most fun with a fly rod. You can use a variety of flies and cover water in ways you cannot with a traditional spin rod. 

Fly Gear

The ideal brown trout fly fishing gear varies depending on the size of the river you’re fishing. 


When fishing rivers, I use anything between a 3-weight 7’ to 6-weight 9’ rod. If I’m fishing smaller streams and rivers, the 3-weight gives me better casting angles and makes fighting the fish way more fun. 

If I’m on a big river in a drift boat, a 6-weight 9’ allows me to make big casts and fight some larger fish waiting for my fly. 

Sometimes, I’ll use a 3-weight 11’ rod for Euro nymphing if I’m fishing a smaller river with more difficult currents to maneuver.


As mentioned earlier, you want to match your reel’s weight to your fly rod’s weight. If I use a 4-weight rod, I’ll use a 4-weight reel to keep everything balanced. 

Line, Leader, Tippet

I almost exclusively throw floating line when fly fishing for trout in rivers. Even if I find deep pools, I can tie on a longer leader and tippet to reach the bottom. Floating line prevents tangles that often happen in rivers.

For my leaders, I stick with 1X to 4X 7’ to 12’ leaders. I want a size and length for every type of fly fishing I do. I’ll use 1x or 2x with streamers and the smaller sizes with nymphs and dries.

Depending on water clarity and fish behavior, I use 3X to 6X for my tippet. 4X and 5X are the most common tippet sizes I use.


I use the same flies in lakes and rivers when fly fishing for brown trout.

Chubby Chernobyls, Elk Hair Caddis, Gnats, Parachute Adams, Royal Wulffs, and Salmonflies are some of my favorite dry patterns. 

Copper Johns, Pheasant Tails, Zebra Midges, and Stoneflies are my primary nymph flies.

My go-to streamers are Woolly Buggers, Muddler Minnows, and leech and crayfish patterns. 

Spin Gear

Using spinning gear in rivers takes some time to get used to. Make sure the water you’re fishing isn’t fly fishing only. 


I use a 6’ or 7’ light or ultralight rod when spin fishing a river for brown trout. The lighter rods make fighting much more fun. Plus, they’re heavy enough to cover most of the rivers you’ll fish. 


As mentioned earlier, I use a 500 to 2500 reel for trout. It can hold my lighter line while exerting enough drag power to fight those larger browns. 

Line and Leader

I’ll use a 4- to 6-pound test monofilament pair with a 4-pound test fluorocarbon for my leader. It’s a simple setup, but it’s all you need when fishing for trout in the river.

Danny catching brown trout by the river.
Brown trout caught in Wisconsin

River Fishing Techniques for Brown Trout 

Fly fishing for brown trout in rivers is more about understanding currents and drifts than anything. 

Fly Fishing Techniques

Whatever you do, cast upstream of where you want your fly to go. Flies need time to get into the strike zone, so cast at least 10-15 feet upstream of where you want your fly. This allows it to drift naturally into the zone. 

When you get to the water, look under rocks and logs to see what insects live there. You’ll find nymphs attached to the bottom of rocks. Grab one and compare it to any flies you have in your box. 

Don’t be afraid to work a fishy-looking spot for a long time. Trout are picky and want the perfect drift with your fly. If a pool hasn’t produced fish, keep working it. Cast above the pool, let your fly drift into it, and work on different retrieves. It may take 10-15 minutes to get a follow, but once you find out what works, you’re in business.

Use dry flies when you see fish breaking the surface. Hatches usually happen in the mornings and evenings. When brown trout break the surface, have fun with your dry patterns. 

Spin Fishing Techniques 

I have the most success with my spin rod when I fish deep runs and pools. My lures have more time to get to the bottom of the water column, and they excite hungry fish. I’ll cast deep into pools and runs and let my lure sink for a few seconds. 

From there, I start a retrieve. I’ll start retrieving quickly and slow down if I don’t get any strikes. 

I also like casting up along rock walls and other deep structure and cover. Casting along these with my lures usually gets a follow and strike. Since the lures fall faster than my flies, I can have more success in those extra-deep sections. 

Any change in water depth and current speed is a perfect sign for me to cast my lure. I like to work the bottom of the water column whenever possible. Lures are the perfect search baits for deep waters in rivers. 


Brown trout are attractive and aggressive fish. Plus, they live in some of the most beautiful places in the entire world. Whether you’re fly fishing or spin fishing, having the opportunity to take the time to understand brown trout behaviors is special. These beautiful fish provide the perfect challenge but always reward a perfect drift or cast.

Danny Mooers Avatar


Leave a Comment