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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Salter Brook Trout in Southeastern Massachusetts

Tucked away from the beaches, surf-casters, and tourists of southeastern Massachusetts lay hidden tidal creeks and streams filled with America's first sportsfish - the salt-run "salter" brook trout (technically a char). With a two-foot ice-fishing rod in hand, and a container of streamers, I climbed through thick brush to find the Quashnet River in Falmouth MA close to its drainage into Waquoit Bay. 

Only one species of brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) exists with two migratory populations: anadromous "salters" of the northeast, and potadromous "coasters" of the great lakes.  Salters migrate from the ocean to freshwater streams to reproduce. On Cape Cod, they migrate to saltwater in November after spawning, and overwinter there while striped bass and bluefish take vacation. They run again in April, and return to brackish or fresh water by mid-May. Brook trout can differ in appearance from stream to stream, but salters are typically heavy for their length and lighter in color, especially soon after returning from the ocean. 

Not all area streams are as healthy as the Quashnet. In the 1970s, Trout Unlimited began conserving habitat by placing rocks, stumps, native plantings and Christmas trees to add structure. Today ongoing sampling and GPS tracking helps monitor populations. With such success here and Red Brook in Plymouth, MA, other restorations are gaining steam. The nearby Lower Coonamessett River is slated for a wetland restoration this month to transform retired cranberry bogs into the sinuous, cold, and clean stream systems that harbored salters and other diadromous fish like the herring and American eel long before Europeans arrived.

Even without a bite, you will be hard-pressed not to find beauty and solitude in the hidden coastal streams of southeastern Massachusetts. During fall the red berries of winterberry (Ilex verticillata), hips of swamp rose (Rosa palustris), and the changing leaves of tamarack, oaks, maples, beech, and alder will keep you satisfied.

Some Massachusetts fisherman call salters the "fish of 1000 casts" and for good reason. I can attest that they are sparse, easily spooked, and mostly small in size. It was a treat to catch this 12" fish, but I dream of landing a large one this winter in the bay. If you make your way out to this hidden treasure, always make sure to respect the river, avoid disturbaing redds, and practice catch and release.