September 21, 2011
By Matt Straw
Turner Jones has been in the fishing industry longer than anyone else I know. He may or may not have invented the tube, but he certainly made some of the most effective ones for panfish and trout. His little Micro Jigs, made with pewter heads and a bit of colored hackle, were always dynamite for trout, too.
So, I was only partly amazed when Jones called me the other day and said somebody in California caught an 8-pound brook trout with one of his Micros on a fly rod.
"Is that even possible?" he asked. "Do brook trout get that big?"
Even us old salts are "too young" to recall the territorial dominance of salvelinus fontinalis.
Way back in 1827, famed American statesman Daniel Webster (who, legend insists, will ask, "How fares the Union?" if you happen upon his gravesite), caught an unofficial yet well validated 14.5-pound "salter" brook trout from the East Connecticut River in Long Island. That record was later matched by an official 14.5-pound brookie from the Nipigon River in Ontario — a "coaster" from Lake Superior, over 80 years ago.
According to the EBTJV (Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture), brook trout dominated every cold-water river, stream, and brook in the East before colonial times. Native brook trout occupied every major river in the Northeast, around the Great Lakes, and throughout the mountain ranges of the South.
Today, "almost no rivers in the United States have wild, viable populations of brook trout," says Nathan Gillespie, fisheries scientist for Trout Unlimited. He lists "poorly managed agriculture, urbanization, invasive species, acid rain, and warming water" as the main culprits in the demise of the Eastern brook trout.
Their biggest enemy is loss of habitat to pollution and warming water. The water was initially warmed by the removal of trees for the development of settlements, farmland, suburbs, towns, and cities. Trees provide shade, which has a dramatic effect on stream temperature. Later came dams, septic systems, mine tailings, power plants, and other things that warmed and polluted the water drastically. Today, brook trout occupy less than 5% of the habitat they enjoyed within the United States when the nation was born.
In other words, 95% of the historic habitat of the Eastern brook trout is long gone below the 50th parallel.
Yet it remains highly plausible if not likely to catch brook trout over 8 pounds today. It can be done in almost any of the many waters of the far north where brookies still run in from the sea. Salter brookies continue to pile into thousands of rivers every August as they make their annual spawning run. Those rivers surround Hudson Bay and the Maritimes of Canada. I've fished salter brookies in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Labrador. I've caught coasters in Lake Superior, where fisheries services on both sides of the Canadian border struggle to reinstate them despite the surprising antipathy of the general angling populace. And I've caught landlocked brookies over 5 pounds in several streams and rivers in northern Ontario.
One of the first fish I hooked as a boy was a wild brook trout from a forest stream in Michigan. It was about 8 inches long. I did not know when I wrapped it in wet grass and placed it in my creel that its ancestors ran the Muskegon River to Lake Michigan. Today, three dams block the way. The main body of the Muskegon is too warm to support brookies in summer. And the remnant population is trapped in the headwaters and freshets that serve as tributaries. "Brookies have been forced into headwaters and small, cold-water streams throughout their natural range," says Gillespie. "Water quality has been significantly degraded over time in the main body of most rivers."
Looking for bigger brook trout, I began hunting through Michigan's Upper Peninsula as soon as I had a license to drive and an old beater to transport me up there. One day, back in 1973, I stumbled into the Seney Party Store. Which is still there. The ancient mounts of 8-pound brook trout, caught in the Fox River many decades ago, are not. I remember staring in disbelief at the old, blackened taxidermy from the 1920s, wondering, just as Turner Jones recently did — do brook trout really get that big?
The answer, in the Fox River, is no. At least, not anymore.
Brook trout are gorgeous animals living in gorgeous places. They're indicative of healthy, sustainable environments, and part of a natural heritage of this land that can be restored. Brookies once ruled all cold-water rivers from New York to Minnesota, and from Maine to Georgia, but most of us are too young to realize what was lost — that brook trout have been extirpated from thousands upon thousands of miles of rivers and streams. By us. Chilling thought. A child thinks the world it is born into is normal. Making it normal, among children born today, for carp and dams to rule our waterways, and for brook trout to grow to a maximum of about 8 inches in a few tiny rivulets far from the outskirts of suburbia.
I have nothing against carp. In fact, I enjoy them immensely. But it's one thing to drive animals out of their native habitat, and other thing to forget them altogether. The most well known of all the char, the Once And Future Squaretail (title of an In-Fisherman article I wrote almost 20 years ago) deserves far better.