Eat More Barse
Any non-native species of plant or animal that proliferates at the expense of native plants and animals, or disrupts native ecosystems, is apt to be described as being invasive. In fact, the word ‘invasives’ has been created so that we can lump life forms with these nasty attributes together, as in: “Let’s go out and uproot some invasives.” Some of the better-known ‘invasives’ are water plants like milfoil and hyacinth, plants that choke waterways and are commonly found in impoundments. The carp is probably the best-known invasive fish, while wild pigs are a good representative of an invasive mammal. A couple of the more nightmarish invasives in recent times are the Asian long-horned beetle, and the zebra muscle.
Not all invasives have surreptitiously arrived from another continent. Many invasives are species that have been intentionally transported beyond their native range on this continent to places where they might have the unanticipated consequence of out competing native species occupying the same ecological niche. Fish are the best-known examples of species that have been moved around North America with the best of intentions, and some of the worst results. Complicating the issue of invasive fish versus native fish is the disagreement about what is harmful and what is beneficial. In the past, fisheries managers were often responsible for stocking species of non-native fish that they considered beneficial, or at least, more entertaining than many of the mismanaged and depleted native species. Here in New England, rainbow trout, brown trout, bass, walleyes, and pike are among the fish species euphemistically referred to as ‘introduced’ species. Some of these “game fish” were ‘introduced’ so long ago that people have come to see them as native.
By far the most popular of the introduced gamefish are the two types of bass. I wish to make it clear that I enjoy catching bass as much as anyone, and I do fish for them, though not as much as I did when I was younger. Of the introduced species that have “gone native” in New England, smallmouth bass are, in part because of their popularity, one of the more destructive of the invasive fish species, with an ironic parallel to the introduction of brook trout in the mountain West. Just as brookies compete with native trout in the west, smallies, with their affinity for cool water, compete with brook trout in the east. We’ll cover this in more detail a little further on.
Trout Unlimited’s Chris Hunt writes a blog titled – Eat More Brook Trout. As an easterner and an advocate for native eastern Brook Trout, I could have an issue with the title of Hunt’s blog, were it not for the fact that I understand where it is that Chris is coming from as an inhabitant of the Rocky Mountain Region. Through the title of his blog, Chris is expressing his western bias for native trout. In the west, brook trout are an unwelcome invasive species that out compete native cutthroat trout in what remains of their mountain stream redoubts.
While I can accept the basic premise behind “Eat More Brook Trout”, I also think that Chris, like many of us, is guilty of being uneven in his heaping of scorn on invasive trout species when he singles out brook trout. Why not suggest that we eat more brown trout? Brown trout, after all, are immigrants from Europe that have been shown to reduce native salmonid populations by competing for limited resources. With few exceptions, brown trout pose a threat to brookies where they are introduced over wild brook trout within the brook trout’s native range.
The reason that we don’t hear suggestions to eat more brown trout is money. Browns are a cash crop, particularly in the west. Brown trout grow fast, live long and get very big where the habitat is big enough to support big trout. Anglers, in particular fly fishers, love browns and consider them to be a challenging fish to catch. Because browns are resistant to whirling disease, they have supplanted rainbows as the principal quarry for anglers fishing many of the west’s finest trout waters. In short, guides and fly shops love them, and we easterners love to hold up alligator sized browns caught in western rivers for pictures that we can show to our less fortunate angling peers when we get home.
Obviously, the whole subject of invasives can be – just that – subjective and at times as thorny as a multi floral rose . My old friend, Howie Strathie, of the Cape Cod Chapter of TU, is fond of pointing out that, unless we are Native American, WE are the invasive and we are a much more troublesome invasive than most of the plants and animals that we wring our hands over. To paraphrase Pogo from the old cartoon of that name, “We have met the invasive, and it is us.” Howie is of the opinion that invasives are here to stay, and that we need to learn to live with them. In some ways I’ve had to adopt Howie’s attitude about the matter. Red Brook, where members of the Southeastern Mass. Chapter of TU have been working to restore native salter brook trout, has an invasive water plant called starwort that can fill sections of the stream during summer months. The good thing about starwort is that its clusters provide habitat for scuds, a small freshwater, shrimp like arthropod that trout eat; and starwort also provides cover for young brook trout. The negative side of starwort is that it slows stream flow causing sedimentation of the stream bottom – and it’s an invasive.
Long ago, I stopped pulling the starwort up. It’s just too persistent, and the good that it provides may balance any harm. And while I can’t get excited about following a botanist around and pulling up every non native plant that is pointed out, I do have a list of species that I’d like to see disappear. Purple loosestrife is one, because, as pretty as its flowers may be, it can choke the diversity out of a marsh in a very short time.
Another invasive species that I wish would go away, at least in Maine, is the, previously mentioned, smallmouth bass. Bass, like brown trout, are a money fish, so by saying that I wish they’d disappear I’m making a slew of enemies. It might be better if I mimicked Chris Hunt and simply said: Eat more bass, or, as the Mainers say, “barse.”
In fact, bass are such a threat to brook trout in Maine that there are some waters where regulations require that any bass that is caught be killed. The legal and illegal introduction of bass into brook trout waters may be the single biggest threat to Maine’s brook trout. And while no one seems to be willing to say it, bass seem like the most likely culprit, after dams, for the decline in Maine’s Atlantic salmon. It seems to me that having hordes of introduced, opportunistic predators, like bass, feeding on salmon from the time they leave the redds, until they smolt and try to drop down to the ocean, might explain the poor returns of spawning salmon to Maine rivers.
Yet smallmouth bass are behind only brook trout and landlocked salmon in popularity in Maine. Here again, as with brown trout in the west, guides love bass. Being a member of the sunfish family, bass are prolific reproducers. And even better yet (from a guide’s perspective), because they’re voracious feeders, bass are relatively easy to catch. When anglers brag about 50 to 100 bass days on the Penobscot, they may actually be ringing the death knell and chanting a sorry and perverse elegy for the Penobscot’s Atlantic salmon.
So you can imagine my “knee jerk” reaction last spring, when I saw a sign advertising “Fishing for Trophy Bass” in front of a guide’s camper trailer that was parked in the shadow of the Matagamon Dam. There on a bluff above the East Branch of the Penobscot River, overlooking some of the best brook trout fishing in the state of Maine, a guide was offering to take people bass fishing. Bloody BARSE FISHING! While Grand Lake Matagamon and the upper East Branch are not (yet anyway) THE last bastion for brook trout in Maine, they are part of a significant bastion, or reserve, for brook trout that includes Baxter Park and the headwaters of the Allagash. This is a frail bastion that is continuously being eroded by a small collection of idiots with buckets – or live wells – who seem to believe that their preference for bass is more important than the continued survival of native brook trout.
Naturally, I was relieved to hear that bass were not in Grand Lake Matagamon – yet. Bass are, however, now found all of the way up to Grand Pitch, a considerable shortening of the East Branch brook trout water since the last time that I had fished the region. And I was sickened to hear that almost all of the legendary brook trout waters to the east of the river are now infested with bass, including the Shin Ponds, Bowlin Pond, and the entire reach of the Seboeis River. To the west, bass have gotten into Moose Head Lake, Umbagog Lake, Magalloway River and the Rapid River. We only have to look to the history of the Belgrade Lakes to see where this may be going. The Belgrades produced 5-pound brook trout until smallmouth bass were introduced. Not long after, the brook trout disappeared.
Last June we had the best brook trout and salmon fishing that we had ever experienced in our 25 years of fishing the East Branch. Decades of a two trout limit and restricting fishing to artificial lures has given the wild brook trout of the East Branch the chance that they needed to grow both in size and numbers. The upper East Branch is now a river where one can reasonably expect to catch a three-pound brook trout on a fly, but we have to wonder for how much longer.
One morning when the bass fishing guide and his sports were standing around behind his trailer above the river, I hiked down below them to fish a section that we call the Sluice. The Sluice is a steep run beside the riverbank that drops fast water into a pool at the base of the bluff that the trailer sits on. The natural inclination is to fish down into the pool, but the bigger trout like to hold in the slow water on the far side of the Sluice where they can face into water eddying at them from mid river and slightly upstream. It sounds complicated, but we had figured out how the fish use the currents, during different water levels, many years ago when we used to camp on the bluff, back before the guide showed up with his trailer.
Back when we used to camp where the trailer is, we could wade out into the surging river and cast back toward the shore and the fish holding at the edge of the current seam. But the back, knees and balance aren’t what they used to be, and I had to resist the temptation to try wading into position. Instead, I fished from the boulder-strewn bank. I tied a green, crystal flash Bead Head Woolly Bugger onto a 6-pound tippet and launched it across the fast water of the Sluice and up into the slower current where I mended line upriver while reaching high with my rod to keep the line from being caught by the racing current directly in front of me. As the fly was swept down toward the seam of fast water that defined the outside of the Sluice, it was grabbed by a fat brookie that came to hand only after a run down river and a frothy tussle in the calmer water of the pool below. With the guide and his sports watching, I caught and released three more brook trout, all of them about the same size as the first one; then I reeled in and climbed up the steep bank to the road.
As I walked past, the guide came from behind the trailer and out to the road to intercept me. “Plenty of fish in the river.” “Yep.” I said without stopping or looking at him, “Plenty of nice brook trout.”
Later he was casting into the Sluice with his sports, and I felt a twinge of regret that I hadn’t stopped to talk with him. But that sign of his saying “Trophy Bass Fishing” had turned me against him. It didn’t matter that he was probably bringing his clients over to Grand Lake Seboeis, or White Horse Lake to fish for smallies; posting his damned barse sign beside sacred trout water felt like more blasphemy than I could stomach without lashing out in anger – anger that he probably wouldn’t understand. My only advice to the guide and his clients would be: Eat more barse!
As a footnote, I should explain that the most likely places for my guide friend to locate “trophy bass” are Grand Lake Seboeis and White Horse Lake. This chain of lakes and deadwaters makes up the headwaters of the Seboeis River. These waters once produced brook trout as “broad as a canoe paddle.” Wealthy sports would stay at the Seboeis River Lodge and guides would pole them up into the Seboeis Deadwater to catch the big trout. Bass were introduced, and now these fertile waters belong to the smallmouth. The log buildings of the Seboeis River Lodge are collapsing into the spruce duff and are now owned by the Nature Conservancy. If you visit this site, you may come across an abandoned set pole resting on the deserted canoe racks that look out across the deadwater. The broad trout that once swam there, like the guides who pushed the set poles, are now ghosts fading from memory.
A short note on the Matagamon Dam:
When the power company abruptly abandoned the Matagamon Dam in the mid-1990s, they opened the gates and let Grand Lake Matagamon drain down to what it had originally been, First and Second Matagamon Lakes. These lakes were much smaller than the Grand Lake, and the people of the region were horrified at the prospect of being left with these reduced flowages. Their response was to form a committee that took over responsibility for the dam (apparently, the state of Maine wanted no part of the dam). Now the dam is in serious need of repair, and the Dam Committee is trying to raise $300,000 to study the condition of the dam and design a repair.
The history of water control in the Allagash region dates back to the mid-1800s when loggers diverted water from the north flowing Allagash system into the south flowing East Branch for the purpose of floating pine logs down to the mills in Bangor. The log drives ended over 40 years ago, but it hasn’t been suggested that the Allagash and Penobscot drainages might be best served by restoring their respective headwater flows to what they were before the loggers built their dams.