I’m in love with a fish. It’s no secret. I don’t try to hide it. This affair has been going on for some time, since I was, I guess, twelve years old and saw my first brook trout. That trout had just opened its mouth to dine on a live worm, until recently a contented denizen of the manure pile outside Paul Wood’s barn on the Warren end of Beechwood Street. The little trout, all seven inches of him, fell victim to a scam that predates the use of the Internet by wealthy Nigerian princes by a few thousand years. There was a sharp hook embedded in the worm. In a second the trout flew out of the coffee-no-cream water of a shady pool of the Oyster River and landed on the bank to be pounced on by teenage boys. I saw the dark back with its meandering vermiculation. I saw the freckled flanks and the brightening hues descending through greens and yellows and oranges to a silvery belly. I saw the tiny red spots and the ethereally blue haloes. I had never seen such a beautiful fish. I fell hard. My love for the brook trout abides, dude. It has outlasted marriages and burns brightly still.
Not long after that first encounter I abandoned the worms and became a fly-fisherman, which I believed was more respectful of the trout. I caught trout and ate them for a few years, then stopped eating them and started releasing them alive, and as I fished more and learned more I became more conscious of the unending threats to their habitat. My consciousness was raised even higher the other evening at a meeting of the George’s River Trout Unlimited chapter, where Merry Gallagher spoke about “The past, present and future of a heritage fish.” Ms. Gallagher is a fisheries biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and wild Maine brook trout are her specialty.
We lovers of brook trout — or Salvelinus fontinalis, for you Latin lovers — are very fortunate to live and do our angling in Maine, because Maine is the last stronghold of wild brook trout in the United States. The brookie ranges as far south as Georgia, if you hop along the peaks of the Appalachians, where it’s still cool enough to sustain a coldwater species, but the farther south you go the fewer trout you’ll find, and climate change is moving the range northward every year. A 2016 assessment of the brook trout’s range by the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture notes that Maine is the only state with “extensive intact populations of wild, self-reproducing brook trout in lakes and ponds” (including my beloved Pond X, which, as I have revealed in the past, lies somewhere within the borders of Maine) and also has thousands of miles of rivers and streams populated by wild brookies. But even for Maine’s brook trout, the livin’ ain’t easy.
Brookies like cool water, ideally in the 60s. In the heat of summer, which, by the way, is getting hotter every year, they seek refuge in deep pools. Fine, but in the bad old days of log drives the loggers often rearranged stream beds with bulldozers to eliminate pools where the pulpwood might snag and create a jam. The brookie is also a travelin’ fish, sometimes roaming 50 miles or more in search of more food and cooler water or a good place to spawn, but often finds upstream passage blocked by a dam (Maine has a thousand of them) or a culvert (many more). In a graphic displayed by Ms. Gallagher, with red dots indicating fish stoplights, Maine looked like it had a bad case of measles.
There’s also the matter of predators, which criminal knuckleheads keep planting in trout water: bass, pike, walleye — walleye! Maine has only about 30 native freshwater species of fish, and they are now nearly outnumbered by the alien invaders.
Yeah, we have more wild brook trout than all those other states combined. But even in Maine we have to fight the forces arrayed against their habitat to preserve our iconic fish, or we’ll have to get passports to angle for them in Canada.