You must go north to find excellent brook trout fishing

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 “Brook Trout,” an amazing book written by Nick Karas and published in 1997, is an entertaining, informative, and at times discouraging book about North America’s brook trout. I recently re-read Nick’s book, to prepare for public hearings on a couple of important brook trout bills at the legislature.

There’s a lot of truth in the book. Consider this:

“Despite the general deterioration of today’s environment over a great part of the brook trout’s original range, there’s still excellent fishing, some of it on par with that once possible in Maine, Nipogen, or the Laurentides. However, one has to travel north of the 49th parallel to find it. Several ecological niches in Canada allow brook trout populations within them to exhibit all of the potential characteristics of the species, those that few anglers in the United States ever see unless they leave their home waters.”

I’ve been lucky to have fished three of those brook trout waters that Karas names: the Minipi River in Labrador and the Rupert and Leaf Rivers in Quebec. The Leaf is my favorite book trout water and I’ve fished there three times. I’d like to go again, but it costs $7500, and my wife reminds me that we can both go to Italy for three weeks for that! But the price does show you the value of great brook trout fishing, something we no longer enjoy here in Maine, to the detriment of our outdoor industry and rural communities.

And here’s what happened to those huge brook trout once caught in the Rangeley Region.

“Consider the big brook trout in the Rangeley Lakes in Maine. A portion of the lake’s brook trout had probably developed a genetic penchant to reach weights of 10 pounds or more by the time the glacier cleared the state. Arctic charr were also trapped in the lake and its watershed as the last glacier receded. They selected deeper habitat than brook trout in the same waters, switched to feeding on a superabundant supply of macroscopic foods, proliferated to the maximum allowed by the food supply of macroscopic foods, proliferated to the maximum allowed by the food supply, and became stunted. Their appearance was so changed that they were labeled blueback trout.

“Brook trout, with that unique gene-guided maximum size potential, fed on the inexhaustible supply of smaller bluebacks and grew to huge proportions. Another portion of the brook trout in the lake never grew larger than 4 or 5 pounds. Their presence was masked by the bigger fish, and they were thought to be the same fish that hadn’t yet become behemoths. Over a few centuries, maybe less, the big fish prospered and dominated (only in size – not in numbers) the other, coexisting brook trout. Some grew to as large as 12 pounds, and a few undocumented reports even set the upper limit at 15 pounds.

“Then the Oquossic Fishing club goofed. It brought landlocked salmon eggs to a hatchery it had built on Mooselookmeguntic Lake and released the fry into Rangeley Lake. The landlocks ate the bluebacks down to the last one and the charr became extinct. Smelt were then introduced as a forage-fish substitute – but they ate brook trout eggs. Within 20 years, the big brookies were history.”

This was one of many stocking mistakes we’ve made over the last 150 years. But it was a big one.

Karas also writes about the negative impacts of acid rain, focusing on New York. “By 1978,” he writes, “acidity had increased to the point that brook trout populations in 104 lakes and ponds disappeared.”

Last year a survey was conducted to find out if – and where – we still have sea-run brook trout which we call salters. Karas wrote about these too.

“Today, two major problems affect the future of brook trout: the encroachment by stocked rainbow trout and, more insidious, the acidification of their environment by airborn pollution. The first is a management problem, and while the solutions are complicated, drawn out, and influenced by local preferences, encroachment can be reduced or even eliminated. The problem of acid rain is another matter altogether.” He noted that acid rain is threatening “the existence of some genetically unique strains of brook trout.”

Karas also reported on sea-run brook trout, which we call salters.

“Today, the distribution of sea-run brook trout has changed little. However, the region of the Atlantic Coast, between mid-New Jersey and mid-Maine, has lost most of its salter fishes because of either dam construction or elevated stream temperatures… What has changed in the Canadian Maritime provinces is the quantity of fish: It has been reduced by overfishing, introduction of exotic species, and regulations that favor Atlantic salmon over brook trout.”

Towards the back of the book, Karas summarizes the status of brook trout in other states, Canada, Argentina, Africa and elsewhere.

Maine

His report on Maine is fairly upbeat, reporting that “nowhere in the United States have brook trout achieved as much of their maximum potential, in both size and numbers, as in the state of Maine.” Yes, we still have native brookies worthy of protection, and there will be a debate at the legislature this year about improving that protection. Karas does note that in many of our waters, we no longer have descendants of the original brookies, but fish that came from our hatcheries.

His history of brookies in Maine is also informative.

“The status of the brook trout population has changed dramatically since the turn of the century. The causes are the same in Maine as elsewhere. Most prominent is the change in habitat caused by lumbering and poor forestry practices. Lumber-road erosion into streams has destroyed many spawning sites and increased mean water temperatures because of increased runoff and loss of streamside cover. Add to this the growing dominance of agriculture, with its inherent pollution, especially on the coastal plain, and you have vanishing brook trout populations.

“Add overfishing, compounded by the introduction of such non-native species as brown trout and rainbow trout, and brook trout have lost another round. Even worse has been the introduction of native species – lake trout, landlocked salmon, and smelt – into what was once exclusively brook trout habitat. The biggest single threat today is the unauthorized introduction of warm-water fishes, especially small-and largemouth bass. If this continues, brook trout will be relegated entirely to higher elevations and upper watersheds, as has been the case in many states in the fish’s southern range.”

Montana

I have to finish this column with a bit about brookies in Montana. Karas noted that nonnative brook trout “are now found in 52 rivers and streams in Montana.” I’ve been told that Maine supplied Montana with brook trout eggs to get them started in that state.

“In nearly all of these streams to the consternation of fisheries managers, brook trout have developed self-sustaining populations. Only a dozen small lakes and reservoirs, where they’re quickly caught, especially by children, are regularly stocked with brook trout.

“Most western fisheries people view brook trout as a nuisance and a threat to native species,” Karas reported.

He also wrote about problems in rivers holding endangered bull trout. I was fishing a river in western Montana with a guide once, when he told me that the river held a few of those large bull trout, but that the river was full of brook trout which were a serious problem for the bull trout. I offered to stay all summer and catch and kill every brookie I could, but they didn’t take me up on my offer!

PHOTO: Leaf River in northern Quebec

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