The cormorant swims upstream past the canoe launch on the Indian Head River, occasionally poking his head beneath the river’s slick surface as he paddles by me. Upon reaching the bend some fifty yards up current, he turns and allows the flow to carry him back past where I’m standing at the ramp. Then he turns and repeats his upstream search. We’re here, the cormorant and I, for the same reason. We’re looking for trout. To be more precise, we’re waiting for trout. The hatchery truck hasn’t arrived yet, but we remember that at this time last year the river was full of trout.
The annual trout migration, via state owned tank trucks, has been delayed by a long winter and a late spring. The cormorant and I have been conditioned to arrive at the river at about this time every year with the expectation of finding a stream full of fat, flaccid trout that we can easily catch and eat. So we are disappointed to find that the trout haven’t arrived.
The cormorant looks bizarrely out of place so far from the sea. With his serpentine neck and large size, he clearly has the appearance of an open water predator. And that is the usual habitat of his clan, except during the early spring when cormorants key in on the arrival of hatchery trout to our coastal streams.
The cormorants have the trout stocking schedule and locations down pretty well. And they pass their knowledge along to younger generations of cormorants so that there is a never ending supply of cormorants available to take advantage of the state’s largess – or more correctly – our largess, because we licensed anglers have paid for those trout.
Small millponds that get stocked are popular feeding stations for cormorants. Having silted in over the centuries, they are shallow and confining and trapped by the dam the trout find it hard to escape. Over the course of the spring season, some of these impoundments may take on the aspect of a cormorant Opening Day celebration.
Naturally, we anglers don’t appreciate the cormorants competing with us for the trout that we’ve bought, but there’s not much that we can do about it, because as numerous and ubiquitous as they are, cormorants remain a protected species. So we’re forced to reluctantly share with the cormorants, much like little kids forced to share a lunch at recess. We can take some comfort (but not much) from the knowledge that all of the trout that we’ve bought, but can’t catch, are only going to croak when our degraded river heats up into the high eighties by the end of June. So the cormorants may as well take the surplus, if there should happen to be any. Which brings us to a point where we might be forced to examine just what the hell is really going on.
We know from historical narratives that most of our coastal rivers and streams, and their tributaries, once supported wild brook trout, and in some cases, Atlantic salmon. The Indian Head, where the cormorant and I are waiting for a truck to arrive, certainly did. Catches of 60 brook trout a day in the Indian Head were recorded by a wealthy merchant named John Rowe during the 18th Century. Then dams were built, fluvial habitat disappeared under impoundments and their accumulated sediments, the barriers disrupted connectivity, and the water in the impoundments heated above the tolerance of coldwater fish during summer. Over time the rivers began to die and wild trout all but disappeared. Fish cultivation was seen as a solution – sort of. It was seen as being easier than protecting and restoring rivers, and as a way of warding off angry fishermen. And it worked until 1959, when a small group of fishermen in Michigan pointed out that there was something very important missing from the experience of fishing for stocked trout – wildness.
George Griffith and his fellow founders of Trout Unlimited asked a very basic question of the state of Michigan: Why can’t we have wild trout to fish for? The answer, as it turned out, was that they could, and the fishing was better by all measures after the stocking of hatchery trout ended.
I don’t mean to imply that the restoration of fishing for wild trout can be easily accomplished in all of the former trout streams of Massachusetts. What I’m suggesting is that we need to think seriously about the possibility of wild trout for a number of reasons.
As I see it, the problem with reliance on hatcheries has to do with our reason for fishing, which at its most valued level amounts to our immersion in the wild. Fishing introduces us to the life of our river with all of its magical cycles. Having originated in cement flumes, hatchery trout are separate from the river’s natural process and amount to a temporary interference within the river. By knowing of the alien source of the trout, we tend not to treat them with the same reverence with which we would accord them had they been born of the river. The fishing is reduced to little more than a game, and we are lulled into accepting the status quo while turning a blind eye to the heart of the matter, that being the damage done to the river that keeps it from supporting wild trout as it once did.
We have the ability to change that. The dams can come out, and the river can heal and the trout that are hiding in the tributaries can return to their river. And the fishing will be very different, each trout brought to hand being a hard won sacred jewel, the product of the river’s magical cycles of caddis, mayflies, stones, herring and elvers. If enough people can relearn what a river is, it can happen. The money now spent on hatcheries would pull out dams instead, and the cormorants won’t mind. Healthy, free flowing rivers will produce more food for them than hatchery trucks ever did. That’s what the cormorant told me.