Saving “Salter” Brook Trout
Brook trout that take advantage of the marine environment are strong, fast-growing, molded genetically to their specific water and in desperate need of protection.
by Ted Williams
In much of the literature they’re known as “anadromous brook trout,” but that’s a misnomer. Better to call them “salters.” They spawn in fresh water but don’t spend years at sea or undertake long migrations. Rarely do they venture far from the mouths of their natal streams, and they frequently trade between salt, brackish and fresh water, sometimes in the span of 24 hours. In winter, when most landlocked brook trout put their metabolisms on hold, salters fatten on such marine and estuarine bounty as smelt, sand lances, mummichogs, spearing and grass shrimp.
If you haven’t targeted salters, you’re missing out on fish significantly stronger and, for their age, larger than their inland cousins. A multi-agency study of the native trout of Stanley Brook, on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, reveals that fish taking advantage of the marine environment grow 30 percent faster than fish that reside in the same system but spend their entire lives in fresh water.
In 1827 Daniel Webster, who served in Congress as both representative and senator, reportedly caught a 14.5-pound salter from Long Island’s East Connecticut River (now Carmans River). That unofficial yet-well-documented world-record brook trout was tied in 1915 when Dr. John Cook took a 14.5-pound fish from Ontario’s Nipigon River.
Salters are in big trouble throughout their US range, mostly because their coastal habitat attracts human development. They need special protections. Convincing managers of this, however, is a major challenge.
To understand how quickly salter populations can blink out, consider the fate Massachusetts’ Santuit River, thought to have produced Cape Cod’s largest wild trout. Now the Cape has but four salter streams (two by reintroduction), though there are a few on the north side of the canal. When Steve Hurley, regional fish manager for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, sampled the Santuit in the fall of 2015, he was dismayed to find no trout. They had, he told me, succumbed to “death by a thousand cuts,” not the least of which was water withdrawal by the Willowbend Country Club, associated development and removal of downed trees in a misguided attempt to create “safe passage” for river herring which, like trout, need woody debris for shade and cover.
Little is known about salters or where they still abide because, with the exception of Massachusetts, no state has paid serious attention to their management. Maine, keeper of the vast majority of the nation’s salters, provides them no protection beyond the general brook-trout regulation of five fish per day over six inches. In fact, alien browns and rainbows in coastal habitat get better care with a two-fish, 14-inch limit. What’s more, Maine and other states (with the exception of Massachusetts) still dump hatchery-raised alien trout into current or potential salter streams. Maine is getting better about this, perhaps due to enlightenment and definitely due to the Endangered Species Act, which now protects Atlantic salmon (whose waters are shared by salters) from competition with and predation by hatchery fish.
The angler-generated infestation of bass, most recently largemouths, in Maine’s northeastern (Down East) rivers and other coastal drainages illustrates how little salters are appreciated or understood. “Largemouth bass [like smallmouths, alien to the state] are being moved everywhere,” lamented salter angler and advocate Nate Pennell, manager of Maine’s Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District. “Now they’re even in Old Stream—great salter habitat and the best Atlantic salmon stream left.”
The Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition (an alliance of academics, fisheries biologists, ecologists, NGOs and private citizens working to protect and recover salters) informs me that Maine salter streams “number in the hundreds.” Yet, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (IF&W) acknowledges only four, presumably to protect others it may know about.
In 2014 the Coalition started a “Fishing For Science” survey program to help IF&W answer questions about salter biology and the location and nature of salter habitat. The program was funded through a $10,000 Coalition grant to IF&W matched by Maine’s Wildlife Action Plan. Partnering with the Coalition and IF&W are Maine Audubon and Trout Unlimited (which already ran an inland brook-trout survey) and the Downeast Salmon Federation.
While IF&W’s research branch and field biologists are enthusiastically engaged, the agency’s leadership evinces little interest in using data from volunteer anglers to protect these special fish. Nor does the general angling community, which was singularly uninterested in discussing salters with IF&W online or at any of the four meetings the agency held in 2016 to gather public input on long-term fish management.
In May I joined 15 other volunteers, including three IF&W biologists, in the Fishing for Science survey. Between us we checked 35 Down East streams, catching wild brook trout (almost certainly salters) in 28. Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, guided Emily Bastian (now of the Appalachian Mountain Club), who managed the Maine Audubon/Trout Unlimited/IF&W Brook Trout Survey from 2011 to 2016; Maine outdoor writer, Bob Mallard; and me down the Chandler River. Bobolinks burbled from lush hayfields, and blooming shadbush painted the woods winter white.
The Chandler is big enough that we were obliged to travel in canoes, though we frequently disembarked and waded. There’s even a modest Atlantic salmon run on this river. Bob and Emily, using Woolly Buggers, embarrassed me for the first mile. But when I switched from a Muddler to a greased-up Royal Trude, popping it like a bass bug, I caught up fast. The trout got progressively silvery as we neared the estuary.
“We could legally have killed 20 salters today,” Shaw declared at the evening cookout. “And if we’d been using worms, we’d have legally killed 40 or 50, including the ones we released.” Few Mainers use flies or release salters. A traditional bait is porcupine liver.
Bob, Emily and I each landed and released around 15 fish, and not one measured more than seven inches. How was this possible on such a large river? Another member of our survey group, Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition Executive Director Geof Day, offered a possible explanation: “If you have a couple centuries of anglers taking out the biggest, easiest-to-catch fish, you can change the genetics of a population. It may well be that all those trout killed since the 1800s removed the seagoing genetics of the larger fish, which tend to be salters.”
His theory is supported by the fact that as you go farther north into Canada, salters become more anadromous (and therefore bigger). That may be because they’ve been less exploited, though increasingly sterile fresh water may play a part.
All the literature says there is little genetic influence driving brook trout to salt and brackish water. “But none of those studies looked at links between generations,” noted the US Geological Survey’s Dr. Ben Letcher, one of the biologists working on Mount Desert Island’s Stanley Brook study. “We’ve tagged and taken genetics from about a thousand fish, so we’ll know offspring and parents. One of our main goals is to learn if fish that use salt water had parents that also used salt water.”
“Coasters” are brook trout that get most of their growth in the Great Lakes and spawn in the tributaries. Basically, they’re freshwater salters. When I complained on these pages about the “trout-is-a-trout” management philosophy that has ignored these unique natives just as it has ignored salters, the then dean of salmonid scientists, Dr. Robert Behnke (who died in 2013), sent me this note: “A grape is also a grape. One species of grape (Vitus vinifera) is used in virtually all wine made in the world—reds, whites, best and worst . . . . I wouldn’t want some of the managers you quote selecting wine for me or, for that matter, being in charge of fisheries programs where subtle genetic differences that may not show up in analysis can be important.”
Subtle (though detectable) genetic differences are evident in the fish of Red Brook, just north of the Cape Cod canal. Had not avid angler Theodore Lyman bought and protected much of the watershed in 1870, these salters would have been lost to the cranberry industry, which ruined other salter streams by razing woods and building dams.
In the early 1990s when Warren Winders, Geof Day and other salter advocates urged the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife to protect Red Brook’s native trout, they were informed that such fish didn’t exist. They got the same answer even after they showed salter fry to the Division. These, they were informed, were merely offspring of hatchery fish. But in 2005 the Division became a believer and stalwart protector when genetic analysis by Brendan Annett, a graduate student at Boston University, proved Red Brook’s salters are distinct not only from hatchery stock but also from other salters.
Steve Hurley, who typifies the Division’s new breed of biologists, reintroduces salters to streams where they’ve been extirpated. And he oversees habitat work by Trout Unlimited and the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition, including the planting of streamside vegetation, log insertion and restoration of pools and riffles.
Red Brook’s entire 4.5-mile course and surrounding woods are now protected by the Division and the Trustees of Reservations. So small is the stream that, where you’re not blocked by embracing sweetgale, blueberry, alder, scrub oak, pitch pine and bull briar, you sometimes can jump across the flow. Yet inside the Lyman family’s old camp I found wooden cutouts of grilse-size salters taken in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Despite the fact that it has been illegal to kill a Red Brook trout since 2004, they don’t get anywhere near that size now. A 12-incher is a trophy. Day suggests this could be more evidence of human-caused loss of anadromy.
Five of the Maine trout caught by our volunteer group (though none from the Chandler River) were killed and sent to Dr. Michael Kinnison of the University of Maine to see how much, if any, time they’d spent in the salt. Fish steadily lay down material from their surroundings in their otoliths (ear bones), creating bandings resembling tree-growth rings. Strontium is an element common in seawater. By measuring the ratio of strontium to calcium, Kinnison and his team not only can identify salters but also are able to learn how much time the fish spent in the marine environment. (They’re working on a way to determine anadromy by analyzing fin clips, so fish won’t have to be sacrificed.)
“We zap the otoliths, capturing burnt elements in a mass spectrometer,” Kinnison said. “So we can reconstruct through time where a fish has been. Barium is often a signature of fresh water. And in some fish both strontium and barium signatures go up; that may be a sign that they’re using inshore estuarine habitats in salt marsh as opposed to going to sea. We’d like to get more information than just salty or less salty, find out if a population really undertakes more extensive migration or is dependent on river mouth and marsh.”
That work is important, because before managers can protect and recover salters, they need to know where they are.
So once salter streams are positively identified, how can managers protect them? I put the question to fellow surveyor Jeff Reardon, Trout Unlimited’s New England conservation director.
“Here in Down East Maine we’re finding salters in about every stream,” he said. “But if you ask if these are salter streams we could manage differently, we don’t have an answer yet. The goal for our program is to take volunteers and find fish, then have IF&W come behind us and confirm the presence of salters. It could do this with electrofishing gear and hopefully move toward increased protection. That might be different size and bag limits. With [UMaine’s] chemical samples, IF&W maybe can say, Ok, 10 percent of the fish in this brook have the marine signature, so we know they’re salters . . . . If a brook trout is in tidewater, we know it’s a salter; so a real simple thing to do would be put a one- or two-fish limit on everything in tidewater. In southern Maine they’re still stocking hatchery trout in streams we think have salters. There’s good groundwater and access to the salt. Where we have summer temperatures of 60 degrees, fish will go to the salt. Whether that’s for two months or two days, nobody knows. I’d really like to get a handle on what fraction of fish go to the ocean.”
Bob Mallard, Maine’s busiest and most passionate brook-trout defender, advocates no-kill for all salters in all states. And as a modest first step in Maine, he wants salters added to the state’s “Heritage Law,” which protects most wild-brook-trout ponds from pollution by live baitfish and hatchery genes.
While Maine salter recovery has yet to be quantified, some is happening, thanks to the work Dwayne Shaw’s organization, which is also committed to salters. One of the Downeast Salmon Federation’s missions is improving quality and sustainability of brook-trout angling by cultivating a new generation of guides, conservationists and ecologists along the coast.
Virtually all of the Federation’s salmon work benefits salters. It led the successful effort to remove such ecologically destructive migration barriers as the Pleasant River Dam and the East Machias River Dam, and it is working on removing others. Two years ago it replaced the ruined fishway at the uppermost dam on East Machias River, providing access for both salters and Atlantic salmon. Recently the Federation purchased the 175-year-old, 300-foot-long, 18-foot-high dam at the mouth of the Orange River, below which our group caught 10 fine-looking salters that had spilled over and were blocked from upstream migration.
In 1865 volunteers fitted this dam with one of the first fishways ever built. There was much debate about whether it would work, but it passed fish well and was hailed as one of the major environmental victories of the day. Seventy-five years later it burned. “And here we are in 2016 with a dead river,” Shaw lamented.
When the Federation removes the lower Orange River Dam, salters (along with alewives, eels, smelts, tomcod, shad and salmon) will have access to two miles of prime habitat. Then the Federation will work with the state to install fishways at two more Orange River dams.
The Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition’s Geof Day said this: “Funding trout research gets harder as you go east, because a dollar spent on trout in the West goes much farther than that same dollar in the East. But our goal is to help managers and coldwater-advocacy groups like Trout Unlimited understand how trout in Down East Maine are unique and need special attention. We have to research the hell out of salters. Citizen science is a great tool and partnership, and it applies some rigor to what’s going on in Maine. But it’s still not enough to clearly define salter streams. We believe that these fish should be managed differently than by the current regulation of five a day. With regulations like that, you can very easily wipe out a population. Guides we know in Maine believe that five fish a day is way too many. But for more conservative regulations to happen we need to build a scientific case to show managers that these fish are very different.”
I wish I could feel optimistic that citizen science can make IF&W brass see that difference and take appropriate action. But the agency’s record doesn’t offer a lot of hope. The Heritage Law, merely common-sense management that should have been ongoing, was passed despite, not because of, IF&W. The agency has violated the intent of that law by refusing to add wild-brook-trout ponds to the Heritage List. And it has defended use of alien baitfish in wild-brook-trout water, declined to reclaim wild-brook-trout water ruined by alien baitfish, and polluted wild-brook-trout water with splake—Frankenfish concocted in hatcheries by crossing lake trout with brook trout.
What’s more, IF&W’s apparent strategy of salter management through obscurity and anonymity is ineffective. The few anglers who fish salter streams almost never “tattle” on them, to borrow the word of the late dean of fly-fishing, John Voelker. But for once that dictum won’t afford long-term protection. In fact, it’s counterproductive. If salters are to be saved, they need more angler advocates. You don’t have to publicly advertise salter streams, but share them with select fly-fishing conservationists.
I’ve worked with and for managers, and I know from firsthand experience that they’ll do anything license buyers demand, whether it’s indulging self-destructive appetites—like concocting and stocking Frankenfish—or looking after best interests, like recovering native fish by science-based management and habitat restoration.
--from Fly Rod and Reel