Written by: Bob Mallard
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.