A race to save the remnants of America’s 1st Sport Fishery

Farmhouse Log, April 2, 1893 – Frank W. Benson – The Sporting Art of Frank Benson
“All drove to Fresh Brook, South Wellfleet to try for Trout. Tied the horse and fished downstream to the Railroad [bridge]. In the pool above the track F. W. B. [Frank W. Benson] caught a half pounder, then another half pounder then a one pounder. The others arrived and we caught from the pool 13 more fine Trout… The 15 fish weighed 17 pounds after they were brought home and washed.”
“The idea of shifting baselines is this: Every generation has its own, specific expectations of what “normal” is for nature, a baseline. One generation has one baseline for abundance while the next has a reduced version and the next reduced even more, and so on and so on until expectations of abundance are pathetically low.”
From Paul Greenburg’s book Four Fish: His explanation of David Pauley’s concept of “shifting baselines” as it applies to fish abundance.

Wellfleet, Massachusetts, June 2007: We are chasing salters.
The green pick up truck is bouncing down a sandy power line road in the town of Wellfleet on lower Cape Cod. Southeast District Fisheries Biologist, Steve Hurley, is at the wheel. Michael Hopper and I are seat-belted in beside him. Stashed in the back of the pick up are the Division’s back pack electro-fishing equipment, measuring board, rubber gloves, five gallon buckets, a cooler and three sets of waders. We are looking for Fresh Brook; a spring fed coastal stream that according to MDFW records, provided good fishing for native, salter brook trout as recently as 1955. Of one thing we are certain – this will not be a déjà vu of Frank Benson’s experience. Instead, we’re hoping that we can locate a few surviving descendents of the brook trout that Benson and his friends caught in 1893. As we bounce toward Fresh Brook, each of us is mulling the question: Are we are chasing salters, or ghosts?

A couple of months prior to this survey, Michael Hopper had convinced Steve Hurley that Fresh Brook might still have brook trout in its headwaters. Mike had grown up in Wellfleet during the 1970’s and 80’s and had first heard about the trout in Fresh Brook from an elderly fisherman from whom he had bought a shellfish grant. This past winter, a friend of Michael’s reported seeing fish darting about in the impounded upper section of the brook. Hurley had sampled the brook in 1991 and hadn’t found any trout, but he admitted that he could have missed them. Steve has a small list of streams where he has found trout on his second search. In each instance, these are very small populations of brook trout barely clinging to survival.

Through a series of e mails we had agreed to meet at the Cape Cod National Sea-Shore parking lot where we would leave our cars and join Steve in the four wheel drive state truck. From the lot we’d head out over some woods roads and a power line right of way in search of Fresh Brook.

And so this is how it happens that, on this perfectly clear bluebird June morning, we are bouncing through the pitch pine forest of the Cape Cod National Seashore in pursuit of salter brook trout.

After driving along a power line for some distance, Steve parks the state truck at the top of the stream’s valley and we unload the battery powered back pack electro-fisher along with a measuring board, rubber gloves and nets. From where we unloaded the truck, we can see that the bicycle trail is somehow backing up the brook, creating a long impoundment that seems to fill the narrow valley. Upon closer examination, we discover that, at what had been the site of Benson’s railroad bridge, the culvert carrying the brook under the bike trail has a raised lip built into it. The culvert serves as a dam. Fresh Brook has been deliberately turned into a pond.

What has led us to this tragic little pond is Michael’s interest in the history of salter brook trout. To say that Michael is interested in salters is an understatement; actually, he’s obsessed. And, he’s far from being alone with his obsession. Because of their beauty and their unique life history, salter brook trout have been the obsession of a long line of anglers, many of them famous. When we summon up the names of the obsessed, Daniel Webster comes to mind first, followed closely by Theodore Lyman, Grover Cleveland, Robert B. Roosevelt and John Phillips.

Like many of those who today share a passion for salters, Michael is an avid angler and an amateur historian. He has spent long hours in libraries and on-line searching for historical references to salters, the sea-going members of the brook trout tribe. Moreover, as a long time supporter of Trout Unlimited, and a founder of the Sea-Run Brook Trout Coalition, Michael is committed to conserving and restoring the eastern brook trout.

What Michael and a small group of researchers have uncovered is the largely untold story of America’s first sport fishery. The scope and fecundity of the Massachusetts sea-run brook trout fishery in the 18th and 19th centuries is mind boggling when viewed from the present day. Old journals and news clippings report brook trout weighing up to five pounds. Catches were measured by the bushel basket. On Cape Cod and in coastal southeastern Massachusetts, it appears that streams that did not support brook trout were in the minority. Well into the 19th century wealthy anglers and famous political figures journeyed to Massachusetts to catch salter brook trout in much the same way that one might travel to fish for trout in Montana today.

How the Massachusetts salter fishery was lost is best left for another blog or even a book. Obviously, the industrial age and the dams that it required for power played a role, as did agriculture, and the well intended but mistaken belief that trout hatcheries could somehow replace lost habitat and natural reproduction.

As we hike along the pitch pine and scrub oak shaded rim of the valley where Fresh Brook once flowed, we are haunted by Benson’s description of catching brook trout. From the top of the valley wall we can see that the entire headwater of the stream – from the old rail line to where the first feeder springs seep out of a hillside to give birth to Fresh Brook – is a silt choked deadwater.

By bushwhacking down from an ancient earthen path named The Kings Highway, we arrive sweating and thorn lashed at the first flowing water. But the water doesn’t flow for long before it is swallowed by the impoundment. Steve Hurley’s electro-fishing only serves to sound the death knell that we sensed was coming when we viewed the flooded valley from its rim. In places, we can feel what had been the hard bottom of the stream channel that had become buried beneath two feet of silt. A few elvers and a small largemouth bass are stunned by the electric current passing through the water, but no trout. Looking at his thermometer, Michael tersely comments that the short flowage entering the dead water is 62 degrees – trout water.

But the trout are finished. Their spawning gravel is smothered. Their access to and from the sea has been blocked. The singing, sun dappled riffles and pools where they once finned – the gold vermiculations of their backs matching the pale gravel of the stream bed – are flooded, still and drowned in sediment. We have arrived too late. There are only the ghosts of these trout now, and they weigh heavily on us as we wend our way out of the valley of Fresh Brook.