To study migration performance and return rates of hatchery brown trout Salmo trutta smolts the first 5 months after release, 50 fish in each year (fork length, LF, 158–288 mm) were in two subsequent years tagged with acoustic transmitters and recorded by automatic listening stations in the River Nidelva (central Norway), its estuary and in the marine environment. More than half of the smolts became anadromous migrants (52% in 2011 and 70% in 2012). The fish spent longer time in the estuary than in the marine environment and the results suggest that migratory behaviour of S. trutta smolts is not only restricted to be resident or anadrome–lacustrine, but that there is also an intermediary strategy of estuarine feeding. There were no differences in LF or mass between groups of smolts with different migration patterns. Return rates from the sea within the first 5 months after release were in both years 16%. Median progression rate in the river was 0·090 LF s−1 but decreased significantly as the smolts entered the estuary (0·015 LF s−1). The long residential time in the estuary may increase the risk of negative effects of anthropogenic activities in estuaries, such as harbours and industrial development, and special attention should be given to evaluate effects of such activities.