Photos: The Mythical Blueback Trout of Maine

Written by: Bob Mallard

The author shows off his first Maine Arctic char.
Photo by Tim Beckwith

You don’t have to travel to the far corners of the earth to fish for rare and exotic salmonids. In fact, you don’t even have to go to the High Sierra, deserts of Arizona or New Mexico, mountains of Colorado, or rivers of eastern Idaho and western Montana. All you have to do is head to Maine. . . .

What I am talking about are Arctic char, Salvelinus alpinus oquassa, formerly known as blueback trout and Sunapee trout. While most anglers have at least heard of these rare species of trout, many are unaware that they actually still exist. Unlike the Arctic char anglers are most familiar with, Maine’s Arctic char are landlocked, not anadromous.

One of six species of salmonids native to Maine—along with Atlantic salmon, brook trout, lake trout, landlocked salmon, and lake whitefish—Arctic char are present in just fifteen waters, one of which is closed to fishing. Of these, twelve are native populations, two are introduced populations, and one was recently discovered and its origins are not completely clear.

Maine’s Black Pond is one of several waters where fly anglers can cast for Arctic char.
Photoby Diana Mallard

Of the two introduced populations, just one is thriving. Two of the twelve native waters were recently reclaimed, and their status is unknown at this time. Several others have what the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife classifies as a “low abundance” of fish.

Arctic char are related to brook and lake trout. They can live for 15 or more years, a life span more than twice that of brook trout, and more in line with lake trout. While they average less than a foot long, they can attain lengths of over 20 inches. In fact, the current state record is 25.4 inches, caught from Pushineer Pond in 2008.

Arctic char resemble both brook and lake trout, to some degree. Their fins are orange and tipped in white. Most have yellowish spots on their flanks, and some have intermittent red spots. But they lack the vermiculation and blue haloes found on brook trout. Their tails are forked and pointed like those of lake trout. And in the fall, they turn a brilliant orange like brook trout—only much more so.

Since larger char are piscivorous, classic Maine streamers are a good choice.
Photo by Diana Mallard

Maine’s Arctic char are, for the most part, a deep-water fish. They rarely, if ever, enter moving water, and they occupy shallow water primarily in the spring and fall only. In spring, they move into the shallows to feed, and in the fall, they move in to spawn, utilizing rocky shoals rather than building traditional redds. They will, however, come to the surface to feed on certain occasions—even in the middle of the summer.

Juvenile Arctic char feed primarily on zooplankton. Adult fish are more opportunistic, eating minnows, invertebrates, insects, and even snails. As char mature, they become very piscivorous, feeding heavily on small minnows.

While not always obvious, the habitat requirements of char are unique. Their home waters range from 64 acres to 3,100 acres and from 52 to 170 feet deep. Eight of these lakes are more than 90 feet deep, and five are 100 feet or more deep. So while deep—and by default, cold—water is obviously a requirement, a lack of competition is at least as important, and in some ways even more so.

A male Arctic char in its full spawning colors is something to behold.
Photos courtesy of ME Dept of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

Most extinct populations of char got that way as a result of the introduction of invasive fish, which include both gamefish and baitfish. (Predation, competition for food and space, and hybridization have all played a role, as well.) Populations have been lost to lake trout, landlocked salmon, and smelts. While most of the gamefish introductions were the result of state-sponsored stocking, baitfish introductions were mostly perpetrated by anglers through the legal and illegal use of live bait.

The most notable lost population were the Arctic char—known as blueback trout at the time—historically found in the Rangeley Lakes.  These were the primary food source of the legendary giant brook trout that graced the pages of old books and magazines. Last seen in the early 1900s, they fell victim to the state-sponsored introduction of landlocked salmon and rainbow smelts.

Maine’s native Arctic char waters can be found in clusters, in close proximity to each other, or all alone. There are four waters in the Deboullie Region, two in the Allagash Region, two in the Baxter State Park area, two in Kennebec/Moose River Valley, and two in what is known as Downeast Maine.

If you want to catch an Arctic char in Maine, you may need to walk a little bit.
Photo by Diana Mallard

One of the many myths and misconceptions surrounding Maine’s Arctic char is that they cannot be caught using conventional fly tackle. As a result, they are rarely targeted by fly fishers. After reading everything I could about them, advocating for them at the legislature, and writing about them, I decided to see for myself if this was true, and headed out to try to catch an Arctic char on a cast fly.

So as not to stack the deck in my favor, I allocated just a couple of days to the task. I chose the Deboullie Region, due to its unique concentration of char waters. While there, we caught a couple of fish that could have been char—we were not absolutely sure—and one confirmed specimen that went over 16 inches and ate a spinner off the surface just before dark, which challenged two more myths about the size and feeding habits of char.

The largest fish fought significantly harder than any brook trout I have ever caught of equal size. It ran much faster, went farther, and dove deeper than a brook trout would. Its teeth were noticeably sharper than those of a brook trout, and more like what you would expect from a lake trout. Its tail was forked and pointed. It was pale olive with yellowish spotting. There were no red spots, blue halos, or vermiculation.

A float tube is a great way to get around on the deep lakes where char live.
Photo by Diana Mallard

Maine’s Arctic char are an exotic fish living in a not-so-exotic place. They are a so-called “bucket list” species and the only freshwater salmonid east of the Rocky Mountains that can truly be classified as “rare.” They offer anglers the opportunity to catch a rare and beautiful fish in a remote and relatively unspoiled setting. They give you the chance to do something most anglers will never do—hold a fish that exists in its wild and native form in only ten or so places in the contiguous United States.

But Maine’s Arctic char face many threats—most significantly the introduction of invasive fish species. This threat comes in the form of state-sponsored stocking, bucket biology, and the legal and illegal use of live fish as bait. Each population that is compromised moves us one step closer to losing this rare and beautiful fish. If we don’t want Maine’s mythical blueback trout to become exactly that, mythical, we will need to do far more to protect them than we are doing today.

Bob Mallard is a blogger, writer and author. His writing has appeared in newspapers, magazines, ezines and blogs at the local, regional, and national levels. Look for his books 50 Best Places Fly Fishing the Northeast and 25 Best Towns Fly Fishing for Trout (Stonefly Press). He is currently working on a book about Maine and another about brook trout.

31 thoughts on “Photos: The Mythical Blueback Trout of Maine”

  1. I believe the author is mistaken the Maine Arctic Char maybe the only rare salmonid in the Eastern US . The Aurora Trout of the District of Tamiskaming Northern Ontario is an Eastern Salmonid equality rare but dwelling in Canada.

    1. I fished Rainbow Lake in north central Maine in September for about 15 years. The fish population was Brooke’s, smelt and Bluebacks. I contacted the Maine Fish and Game, and they told me that there were no bluebacks in Rainbow Lake. We have fought hundreds of them over a 15 year period!

  2. I meant US not North America when I said “east of the Rocky Mountains”.. But you are correct, the Aurora is a truly rare–and actually rarer fish, as it exists in only a couple of lakes if I remember correctly.. It is a strain of brook trout I believe.. There was also a fish called the Silver Trout that lived in a couple of ponds in NH, but is now extinct.. Like the Aurora, it too was a strain of brook trout although it was once believed to be a form of Arctic char.. Fascinating stuff these rare trout..

  3. Kind of ironic someone that would bash Orvis with the best of them in his non-orvis fly shop is now writing an article for Orvis news, lol

  4. The fish in your first picture is a brook trout. The brookies in Black Pond all have that washed out silvery tone even compared to the other Deboullie lakes.

    1. Matt.. yes, the brookies in black are very pale–as are the char.. it is easy to confuse either for the other.. not so in regard to the other three area ponds.. in this case, the fish was verified as a char by several relative experts–including one from F&G.. there were absolutely no red spots–never mind blue halos.. others we caught and discounted had slight red spots, usually with at least faint blue halos.. And really, would it matter 😉 Why try to discredit the picture and by default the article, what is to be gained? This is why we and our resources are in the trouble we are in.. Everyone has an agenda…

  5. New England is an exotic place to people who do not live there. When i think of rare salmonids, especialy Chars i think of New England, as an equal of the northwestern United States or even Kamtchatka Russia, hotspots for salmonid diversity. New England is truly the throne of the chars for north america, with more species of char and more varieties of char than anywhere else in north america, and some of the most beautiful places on earth to find them. by the way, the silver char of christine and dublin lakes in southwest new hampshire were actualy two individual species; both with seperate origins and both unrelated to eachother, although both belonged to salvelinus. new englands sea run brook trout can also be treated as a rare form, i have never found reference to this anywhere but in my own experience i have foud sea runs that were clearly morphologically different but also were more vibrantly colored than any freshwater brook trout i have ever seen. landlocked salmon i have heard also are only native to sebago lake,(not a char), and if you add them up lake trout are also only native to a dozen or so lakes in new england, most are introduced populations. also there are seven salmonids in maine, you cant forget about the round whitefish. one more thing, although maines arctic char are genetically the same race, there are two different life history types, which should be recognised. All of New Englands Salmonids are true jewels.

  6. Great article by the way, i can never seem to find decent pictures of maines arctic char, at least in spawning form like the fish and game picture you have here. im looking forward to getting some of my own photographs this summer

  7. I have caught the Quebec reds in a series of small lakes in Quebec. For every 100 regular brookies you would get a Quebec red. they fight completely different. this series of lakes has not been stocked in over 60 years. supposedly the Quebec mnr realized how pure the strain was and stopped back then.

  8. When I was younger, about 40 years ago. I caught a trout that I think was a blue back trout. I caught it on the north side shoreline of Nehumkeag Pond in Pittston, Maine. The fish was about 5″-6″ in length, without scales. It was speckled with deep blue coloration down the back and sides. It was the only time I ever saw a fish colored blue like that one.

  9. 25 years ago I targeted Bluebacks and after 10 years of experimentation, discovered them to be color-specific at taking a fly or lure. I tied up a full spectrum of 2″ streamers, from black to white and caught brookies on all of them, but Bluebacks on only one color. It is true that they seldom exceed 16″ in length but the largest one I’ve caught was 23&5/8″ and weighed a little over 3 lbs. The oddest thing about that fish was that it took one of my Green Drake imitations on the surface on a bright windy day. When my taxidermist was preparing it, he discovered a 5″ and a 3″ Lake Chub in its stomach, but NO flies. It was aged at 12 years. A Maine IF&W biologist said I did the other BBs a favor by killing it. All char are cannibals. BBs are schooling fish. When that big one got hungry it would probably dine on one of its own !

  10. I just ran across this article again and saw that my link to a real blueback is no longer working (dang you photobucket). This is what a blueback from Black Pond looks like. It’s a shame that so many of the supposed blueback images on the web are really brook trout, including the first picture in this article.

  11. The native Blueback trout (Arctic char) in Bald Mountain Pond are unfortunately all but extinct these days. As a kid (25-30 years ago), my father, brother, and I would catch them every spring from what seemed to be a thriving population. Schools of hundreds of 8-12 Inch char would start to surface at sunset for a couple weeks every year and could easily be caught with a fly or spinners. It is one of my favorite childhood memories of growing up in rural Maine. I was almost brought to tears when I learned that about 5 years ago the Department of Inland Fish and Game “accidentally” stocked Bald Mountain Pond with Togue(Lake Trout), henceforth destroying the native blueback trout population in the process. Someone needs to be fired.

  12. Identification based on morphometrics.. size, coloration, ect.. is difficult because of the high variability within a population of fish. DNA fingerprinting is likely the only way to be positive.

    1. Yeah, but someone who knows what they’re looking at can be 99% sure that the fish being held by the gentleman in the first picture is a brook trout. As a scientist, I’m comfortable with overwhelming probability over absolute certainty.

    2. Yes. Jorgan Scheel made that clear many years ago. The eye-test isn’t much of a measure, nor are conventional meristics.

      1. (Meant to say that I agree with R. Brown on this one… Bluebacks, “Sunapee Trout” and brookies have barely diverged in a genetic sense.)

  13. 35-40 years ago while visiting some old fishing buddies in Portage Me. I ran into
    an old friend Jimmy Dumont. Game Warden in the area. Maine’s youngest game warden. ever. An affable laidback native game Warden in his mid 30’s who loved the woods. He was due some compensation time so we headed out to Little Black.
    Not far from Red River Camps. Little Black
    was not that accessible in those days. we had a 6 mile walk in carrying a mini Kota
    and deep cell battery. The 12’ aluminum boat was secured to tree for the Summer.
    It was in late September just before
    partridge season . The air was dense with
    2-3” green drakes. What an experience.
    The 24-30” Bluebacks were in a feeding
    frenzy. We must have caught and released
    3-4 each. A day I’ll never forget.
    Thanks Jimmy.
    Deano Mstr. Reg. Me Guide

  14. Yeah seems.lots people grow up in Maine.. Some of us live there to this day and spend weeks in Baxter fishing Wassataquik stream an lake Russel pond,six,deep ,chimney ,and some others for Brooke right through to the Gash .. These fish are still hear and they can be caught .. Maybe seen 15 to 20 in last 10 years but there still hear.. There’s some places that arnt said or talked about were I know they are witch might be a good thing .. Super clear deeper lakes in Baxter ..just hope people catch and release what’s left so there here when your kids move bwck!! I know lol see.then at couple places down east and I know cause I’ve seen pictures last year .. Maine’s a special place and busting out the fly rod is always fun

  15. We caught some 30 years ago in Maine when we were flown into a cabin. Are they catch and release only now or can you eat them?

    1. No Matt is right I’ve caught hundreds of char and the first picture is 100 percent a brook trout I caught 29 Char in like 4 hours last week and only like 4 brook trout. The pond I go to which I will not name but there’s only 14 with char so take your pic but the pond I go to has tons of char and more char than brook trout by far. I caught 29 char and 4 brook trout in 4 hours last week. The guy who wrote this article unfortunately doesn’t know then try to say biologist looked at the fish confirmed it was a char is just hilariously laughable. Either those biologist need to go back to school or need more experience with char or this guy is just a liar and I’m guessing its the latter. 100 percent brook trout.

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