Editor's note: Many people do not realize that most of the trout that are so important to anglers fishing in Connecticut's rivers, streams and lakes were imported to this country years ago. America's only true native trout was almost wiped out by industrialization and the damming of rivers for power. In the following piece, adapted from the December newsletter of Nutmeg Chapter Trout Unlimited, former president Ron Merly talks about an ambitious effort to restore those native trout in Connecticut and other states.
Before brown and rainbow trout were introduced into American waters in the 1860s and '70s, the only trout naturally found in Connecticut waters were brook trout (actually a species of char). Brook trout inhabited most of the streams in our state as well as throughout the Eastern section of the country. Sea-run, or salter brook trout, were brook trout that were caught in the salt estuaries of streams emptying into the saltwater throughout New England and on Long Island. The fish were plentiful and were prized by anglers for their size as well as being delicious table fare. It was common to catch salter brook trout between 6 and 10 pounds and more than one.
As the rivers were dammed and polluted from the Industrial Revolution, salter brook trout, like their cousin the Atlantic salmon, were unable to reach their traditional spawning grounds. As a result, populations of those fish all but disappeared except in a few little-known streams scattered throughout New England.
Cape Cod has always been a place where anglers sought and caught those fish. In the mid 1970s, restoration began on remnant populations in Red Brook and afterward, several other streams on Cape Cod. The restoration work proved to be a huge success and continues on streams throughout the Cape. The Massachusetts government is now behind the restoration project and works with Trout Unlimited and the Sea-Run Brook Trout Coalition on these efforts.
Because of the success of these restoration projects on the Cape, Trout Unlimited and the coalition are interested in the restoration of salter brook trout in other New England states. Not every stream is a candidate. The criteria for restoration is pretty simple, although the research to discover this simple criteria took years of study. In order for a stream to be a candidate for restoration, it must have:
• A wild population of brook trout in its waters. Stocked brook trout do not survive, only wild fish seem to be able to adapt to the saltwater environment.
• The stream must not have barriers such as dams that prevent the fish from freely traveling from the river to the saltwater.
• If the stream to be restored is currently being stocked with trout, the stocking must stop. Brook trout will not climb steep fish ladders so natural passage is preferred.
There is a general misconception that trout wind up downstream in the salt because they get washed downstream during heavy flows. Actually, trout do not get washed downstream, they instinctively know where to hold during heavy river flows. Food competition is the reason that fish move downstream and into a salt estuary. As a stream becomes more and more populated with fish, there becomes competition for the food source. When the dominant fish chase other fish out of their feeding holds, it causes those fish forced out to seek out a place to eat, which is how they eventually wind up in the saltwater. Ironically, those fish that were displaced due to food competition are the ones that will grow large because of the rich saltwater environment.
The first steps toward restoration in Connecticut were recently taken. DEEP biologists; Michael Hopper, president of Sea-Run Brook Trout Coalition; and myself sat down at DEEP headquarters in Old Lyme to establish a program for restoration of these fish in Connecticut waters. During that meeting, it was decided to begin with Anguilla Brook in North Stonington as it meets the general criteria for restoration. The plan is to begin to electronically monitor the brook trout starting in the spring.