Photo Essay: The Rare Sea-Run Brookies of the Northeast

Written by: Colie Egertson

Sea-run brook trout are a rarity worth preserving in their native coastal habitat.
All photos by Colie Egertson

The streams in which sea-run brook trout live are small, snaking slowly through the pine forests and salt marshes of coastal Massachusetts on their way to the ocean. At first glance, they don’t look like good trout streams; in fact, they don’t look they would hold trout at all. Fortunately, they do hold trout, and those trout, colloquially known as salters, are among the largest and most difficult to catch in the state.

Most salter streams are small, and conservation groups have added structure to create habitat.

Though salters are relatively unknown these days, that wasn’t always the case. In the early 19th century, before the introduction of brown trout from Europe and rainbow trout from the West Coast, brook trout were the only trout around. Prominent citizens traveled from all over to experience what has been called “America’s First Sport Fishery,” the most notable of whom was Daniel Webster, who famously claimed to have caught a brook trout weighing over 13 pounds out of the Carmans River on Long Island.

These salty brookies often display beautiful colors.

Unfortunately, the salters’ heyday was short-lived. By the middle of the century, most salter streams had been impounded to create cranberry bogs, warming the water and restricting movement to the ocean. Some trout survived around springs in a few of the streams, but the populations of many waters were entirely extirpated.

Red Brook is the head of Buttermilk Bay, where salters can find plentiful baitfish,

Today, thanks to the work of the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition, Trout Unlimited, and others, the salters are recovering. Both Red Brook and the Quashnet River in Massachusetts have had extensive habitat improvement in recent decades, with dams removed and woody debris added for cover. Though things are looking up, salters are still at-risk. The lands surrounding Red Brook and the Quashnet River are protected, and special catch-and-release, articials-only regulations have been put in place there, but lesser-known streams have no such protections. The salters’ ocean habitat is also in danger. Eelgrass beds, which anchor the aquatic food chain in the shallow bays where salter streams meet the ocean, are in decline, likely due to eutrophication from fertilizer applied to lawns. The lack of eelgrass beds may explain why today’s salters, though large relative to other brook trout, don’t reach the proportions of Webster’s famous fish.

Sometimes, you find a real trophy. . . .

If you decide to fish for salters, be prepared to be humbled. The streams are tight and brushy, and the fish are extremely spooky in the slow, clear waters. Because much of the best trout habitat is within the brackish part of the streams, and because the water in these streams is naturally quite acidic, there is relatively little aquatic insect life. In my many trips to Red Brook, I have only seen rising fish once, and that was when inchworms were falling out of the trees en masse.

The calm, clear water can make for very spooky trout, so you must employ stealthy tactics.

These fish are meat eaters, feeding voraciously on herring that run up the streams to spawn, in addition to any fish or crustaceans they can find in the estuary. As such, streamers are the best choice. My go-to is a size 12 Mickey Finn, but you can never go wrong with a Woolly Bugger or other small streamer. Though you likely won’t catch many fish, those that you do will be worth it. Just be sure to release them all quickly, so these trout remain around for years to come.

These fish are worth preserving, as they are part of American fly-fishing history.

Colie Egertson is a Massachusetts native, who is currently a Senior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He likes fishing for anything that will bite, but his favorites are wild trout in small streams.

8 thoughts on “Photo Essay: The Rare Sea-Run Brookies of the Northeast”

  1. I fish Redbrook once a year while I’m on the Cape visiting relatives. What a beautiful stream, but indeed be prepared to be humbled. I do manage to catch a few on streamers.

  2. I happen to live behind Red Brook and fell in love immediately with the salter Brookies. A unique jewel of a fish in a unique area. There are other brooks and streams around that are equal in their beauty. Amazing how little people know about them…might be a good thing.

    1. I think the number of fisherman is limited mainly by the difficulty of fishing – this was one of the first streams I found when researching trout streams in MA, so I imagine anyone else could find it too… But most people don’t want to deal with the brushy conditions and spooky fish.

  3. Pingback: The Rare Sea-Run Brookies of the Northeast « This is Fly Daily
  4. I use to fish the Carmens river on Long Island. These jumbo Brookies also reside on the Connequot River on Long Island too. Some of the fish (Brook Trout) were 5 and 6 pounds. There is an established sea run on this creek and a few others in the area.
    I currently live in Webster, NY were Daniel Webster grew up. His original home is about a half mile from my current residence. Small world.

  5. My uncle who grew up on Head of the Bay Rd. Would take me there ( early 60’s) for the trout.
    It was always C&R with him except the flounders we would get in the salt end.

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