Written 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.