The Ghost Trout of Fresh Brook: A Race to Save the Remnants of America’s First Sport Fishery
by Warren Winders, SRBTC
“All drove to Fresh Brook, South Wellfleet to try for Trout. Tied the horse and fished downstream to the Railroad [bridge]. In the pool above the track F. W. B. [Frank W. Benson] caught a half pounder, then another half pounder then a one pounder. The others arrived and we caught from the pool 13 more fine Trout… The 15 fish weighed 17 pounds after they were brought home and washed.”
The Sporting Art of Frank Benson, Farmhouse Log, April 2, 1893
“The idea of shifting baselines is this: Every generation has its own, specific expectations of what ‘normal’ is for nature, a baseline. One generation has one baseline for abundance while the next has a reduced version and the next reduced even more, and so on and so on until expectations of abundance are pathetically low.”
Four Fish byPaul Greenberg. This is Paul’s explanation of David Pauley’s concept
of “shifting baselines” as it applies to fish abundance
Wellfleet, Massachusetts, June 2007
We are chasing salters. The green pickup truck is bouncing down a sandy power line road in the town of Wellfleet on lower Cape Cod. Southeast District Fisheries Biologist, Steve Hurley, is at the wheel. Michael Hopper and I are seat-belted in beside him. Stashed in the back of the pickup are the Division’s backpack electrofishing equipment, measuring board, rubber gloves, five-gallon buckets, a cooler and three sets of waders. We are looking for Fresh Brook – a spring fed coastal stream that, according to MDFW records, provided fair fishing for native salter brook trout as recently as 1955. Of one thing we are certain—this will not be a déjà vu of Frank Benson’s experience. Instead, we’re hoping that we can locate a few surviving descendents of the brook trout that Benson and his friends caught in 1893. As we bounce toward Fresh Brook, each of us is mulling the question: Are we chasing salters, or ghosts?
A couple of months prior to this survey, Michael Hopper had convinced Steve Hurley that Fresh Brook might still have brook trout in its headwaters. Mike had grown up in Wellfleet during the 1970’s and 80’s and had first heard about the trout in Fresh Brook from an elderly fisherman from whom he had bought a shellfish grant. This past winter, a friend of Michael’s reported seeing fish darting about in a dead-water in the upper section of the brook. Hurley had sampled the brook in 1991 and hadn’t found any trout, but he admitted that he could have missed them. Steve has a small list of streams where he has found trout on his second search. In each instance, these are very small populations of brook trout barely clinging to survival.
Through a series of emails we had agreed to meet at the Cape Cod National Seashore parking lot where we would leave our cars and join Steve in the four-wheel drive state truck. From the lot we’d head out over some woods roads and a power line right-of-way in search of Fresh Brook.
And so this is how it happens that, on this perfectly clear bluebird June morning, we are bouncing through the pitch pine forest of the Cape Cod National Seashore in pursuit of salter brook trout.
After driving along a power line for some distance, Steve parked the state truck at the top of the stream’s valley and we unloaded the battery-powered backpack electrofisher along with a measuring board, rubber gloves and nets. From where we unloaded the truck, we could see that the bicycle trail was somehow backing up the brook, creating a long impoundment that seemed to fill the narrow valley.
To say that Michael is interested in salters is an understatement; actually, he’s obsessed. And, he’s far from being alone with his obsession. Because of their beauty and their unique life history, salter brook trout have been the obsession of a long line of anglers, many of them famous. When we summon up names of the obsessed, Daniel Webster comes to mind, along with Grover Cleveland, Robert B. Roosevelt and Theodore Lyman III.
Like many of those who today share a passion for salters, Michael is an avid angler and an amateur historian. He has spent long hours in libraries and online searching for historical references to salters, the sea going members of the brook trout tribe. Moreover, as a long time supporter of Trout Unlimited, and a founder of the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition, Michael is committed to conserving and restoring the eastern brook trout.
What Michael and a small group of researchers have uncovered is the largely untold story of America’s first sport fishery. The scope and fecundity of the Massachusetts sea-run brook trout fishery in the 18th and 19th centuries is mind boggling when viewed from the present day. Old journals and news clippings report brook trout weighing up to five pounds. Catches were measured by the bushel basket. On Cape Cod and in coastal southeastern Massachusetts, it appears that streams that did not support brook trout were in the minority. Well into the 19th century, wealthy anglers and famous political figures journeyed to Massachusetts to catch salter brook trout in much the same way one might travel to fish for trout in Montana today.
How the Massachusetts salter fishery was lost is best left for another time. Obviously, the industrial age and the dams that it required for power played a role, as did agriculture, and the well intended but mistaken belief that trout hatcheries could somehow replace lost habitat and natural reproduction.
As we hiked along the pitch pine and scrub oak shaded rim of the valley where Fresh Brook once flowed, we were haunted by Benson’s description of catching brook trout. From the top of the valley wall we could see that the entire headwater of the stream, from the old rail line (that is now a bike trail) to where the first feeder springs seep out of a hillside to give birth to the stream, was flooded. By bushwhacking down from an ancient earthen path, long ago named The Kings Highway, we arrived sweating and thorn-lashed at the first flowing water. The water didn’t flow for long before it was swallowed by the impoundment. Steve Hurley’s electrofishing only served to sound the death knell that we sensed was coming when we viewed the flooded valley from its rim. In places, we could feel what had been the hard bottom of a stream channel that had become buried beneath two feet of silt. A few elvers and a small largemouth bass were stunned by the electric current passing through the water, but no trout. Looking at his thermometer, Michael tersely commented that the short flowage entering the dead water was 62 degrees, trout water. But the trout were finished. Their spawning gravel was smothered. Their access to and from the sea had been blocked. The sun-dappled riffles and pools where they once finned – the gold vermiculations of their backs matching the pale gravel of the stream bed – were flooded. There were only the ghosts of these trout now, and they weighed heavily on us as we wended our way out of the valley of Fresh Brook.
As happens all too often, Fresh Brook is a tragedy that could have easily been avoided. The trout of Fresh Brook, unlike the trout of countless other salter streams, had died from carelessness. It was not the profit motive of mill dams or cranberry bogs that killed them, it was simply disregard. There was good trout fishing in nearby ponds, ponds like Gull Pond, Big Cliff, and Great Pond. The state raised thousands of trout in their hatcheries that they used to fill the ponds with big browns, rainbows and brookies. Apparently, a few wild, one-pound salters in a tiny coastal stream had little value.
We don’t know who made the decision to impound Fresh Brook, and at this point I guess it doesn’t really matter. In fact, I don’t want to know. It may have happened because somebody wanted better duck hunting, or because they thought that the pond created more wetlands biodiversity. Whatever the reason, Fresh Brook just boils down to another case of humans trying to alter the natural world to match their self-interest motivated idea of how things should be.
Revisiting the concept of a sliding baseline: If, as anglers, we are willing to accept the product of hatcheries to offset the ongoing exponential degradation of our ecosystems, then we deserve what we end up with. But, how will that ultimately affect our children, and their children? Is this mess of ruined watersheds and dying wild fisheries what we want to pass on? There is a reason why the trout of Fresh Brook survived millennia of climate change in their spring seep of a stream at the edge of the sea. They were superbly adaptable, but, sadly, they couldn’t adapt to us.
A few weeks after Fresh Brook, Michael accompanied TU member Charles Devens along with MDFW fisheries biologist, John Sheedy, on a survey of Saw Mill Brook, a small North Shore salter stream flowing through the town of Manchester, Massachusetts. Sheedy had surveyed Saw Mill Brook in 2001 and found that the stream harbored a vital population of native brook trout. Charles Devens’ interest in Saw Mill Brook began as a boy when he had often fished the stream, catching fat brook trout of eleven or twelve inches. Devens wanted to see how his trout stream had fared over time.
What they found when they surveyed Saw Mill Brook was discouraging. One very short section of the brook supported a few small trout. In less than a decade, malls and other recent development had surrounded the brook. A spring that had once fed into the brook had disappeared. Runoff from road crossings and parking lots had increased the turbidity of the stream and warmed the water beyond the 70-degree threshold for brook trout. Within a couple of weeks of the ill-fated Fresh Brook survey, Michael was witness to the demise of yet another salter stream.
The news, however, is far from all bad. While the surveys of Fresh Brook and Saw Mill Brook serve as vivid illustrations of how native brook trout populations are lost, they also give us a greater appreciation of our streams that still support brook trout. It often seems miraculous to me, living as I do in Massachusetts, the third most densely populated state in the country, that we even have wild brook trout living in any of our coastal streams. Yet brook trout are proving to be a surprisingly resilient species. In two historic salter streams where we have been able to launch significant restoration projects, brook trout populations have rebounded in response to the restored habitat.
The first, and most notable, example of what is possible for wild brook trout in Massachusetts is the Quashnet River in the town of Mashpee on Cape Cod. The Quashnet River restoration was begun almost forty years ago by a partnership of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and Trout Unlimited. Joseph Bergin, the regional fisheries biologist at the time, contacted the local TU chapter (at the time Cape Cod was still part of the Southeastern Mass. Chapter of TU) to see if they were interested in restoring the Quashnet for the purpose of creating a sea-run brown trout fishery. As a result of decades of cranberry farming along its banks, the Quashnet was deemed too warm for brook trout.
The result of thousands of hours of TU work on the Quashnet took people by surprise, with the possible exception of TU member and Quashnet project leader Francis Smith. Smith had always been a champion of brook trout, and believed from the beginning that brook trout were the trout that belonged in the Quashnet. By 1990 it was obvious that the brook trout population was on the rise. All of the hard work was paying off, not with the originally anticipated brown trout fishery, but with a rebounding native brook trout population. The key was the restoration of the stream.
The first salter stream to benefit from the success of the Quashnet work was Red Brook, a historic sea-run brook trout stream flowing through the towns of Plymouth, Wareham and Bourne before emptying into the saltwater of Buttermilk Bay.
The salter brook trout of Red Brook owe their survival to several generations of the Lyman family who acquired 638 acres along Red Brook and then—inspired by the success of the TU work on the Quashnet—deeded their stream over to a management partnership formed by TU, The Trustees of Reservations, and the Mass. Div. of Fisheries and Wildlife. After thousands of hours of TU grassroots volunteer labor to restore habit and raise funds, and the removal of four dams by a broad coalition of state and federal agencies and private donors, along with TU and other nonprofits, Red Brook’s salter brook trout are thriving once more. In fact, Red Brook’s salters are doing so well that they are now the subject of tagging studies being conducted by a collaboration of USGS, Mass Div. of Fisheries and Wildlife and the University of Massachusetts. So far, the studies indicate that part of Red Brook’s trout population makes use of Buttermilk Bay during the fall and winter months, and may even move out to the Cape Cod Canal and Buzzards Bay.
Just as significantly, the Quashnet is providing another “first” for salter restoration in Massachusetts by supplying the replacement brood stock for another historic salter stream. In 2008, Steve Hurley took 19 mature, PIT-tagged, Quashnet brook trout and placed them in the nearby Childs River. Even though the conditions needed for brook trout survival still exist in the Childs, the Childs’ brook trout had mysteriously disappeared during the previous decade. Hurley hoped that the Quashnet trout would stay in the Childs long enough to spawn, and they did. The following year Steve Hurley was able to place PIT tags in over 100 Childs River young of the year brook trout, and the Childs is on its way to once again becoming a salter brook trout stream. This method of restoring brook trout to suitable streams has come to be known as the “nearest neighbor” method of reintroduction.The successes of Red Brook and the Quashnet, coupled with a growing understanding that the future health of marine fisheries hinges on the restoration of diadromous fish populations, is bringing about a surge in permit applications for dam removals and restorations along the coast of Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, these efforts are often met with hostility by people who view the abandoned mill dams, impoundments and cranberry bogs as having historic and scenic value. Many people protest the removal of dilapidated dams even after the state declares the dam a hazard and the dam owner wants the dam removed to reduce their liability.
In these situations, the challenge that we are facing is David Pauley’s “shifting baseline.” It is possible to travel across much of New England and never come across a stream that hasn’t been altered by human activity. Most people in the northeast have never seen a pristine river or stream. And restoration is, after all, about returning ecosystems, as nearly as possible, to a pristine state. For many people in Massachusetts, a native trout stream in pristine condition, with its biotic abundance – brook trout and a diverse array of other fluvial species – is hard to imagine because they’ve lived their lives unaware that it ever existed.
By teaching people the history of salter brook trout and their role as America’s first sport fish, and by exposing people to streams like Red Brook and the Quashnet River, we help roll back Pauley’s baseline. Our restored salter streams are a glimpse at a past abundance that has been too long forgotten, a vivid reminder of what has been lost. Hopefully, from that glimpse of a better time, people will come to a clear understanding of the damage that has been done to our watersheds, and will begin to support more restorations.
As for Frank Benson’s Fresh Brook in Wellfleet, Michael Hopper and Steve Hurley tell me that a plan for the brook’s restoration is being developed. There is much that still has to be done, but Steve Hurley tells me that he’s already looking for a “nearest neighbor” salter stream from which to repopulate Fresh Brook. The race has begun.
Ed Notes: This piece originally appeared on Warren Winder’s blog Rage Against the Dams and later appeared in The Salter. It was modified with photographs to further illustrate the situation here.
As of January 2016, several attempts to raise money to pay for additional steps for restoring Fresh Brook have been unsuccessful.
As of August 2017, SRBTC was awarded funding from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust organization (the license plate people) to fund a hydrodynamic study as critical next step in evaluating key factors necessary to restore tidal exchange and fish passage. Thank you MET!
If you are really interested in this project, have a look at a 2010 Powerpoint Presentation that puts this all in context.
Below, feel free to view a gallery of additional photos taken at Fresh Brook. All images here are pre 2010.
If you wish to support this effort, please feel free to reach out to Geoffrey Day, Executive Director at firstname.lastname@example.org or become a member of SRBTC through our membership page.