“There is gold in Maine’s North Woods. It is the beautiful brook trout.” —George Smith
Cool Fact: According to the latest data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, fishing brought in $371 million to Maine in 2011. Much of that money came from anglers chasing brook trout.
Mainers are lucky. Very lucky. Almost all of us live within a bike ride of streams or ponds where brook trout live. Many of us don’t realize that these beautiful fish are all around. According to Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, more than 1,000 lakes and ponds contain self-sustaining populations of brook trout, which also occur in about 2/3 of Maine’s 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. In fact, Maine has the vast majority of remaining brook trout habitat in the United States. These fish have disappeared from much of their historic range from Tennessee to Vermont. Maine remains a brook trout stronghold, but these fish are elusive, and you won’t find them without looking!
What makes brook trout so special? First of all, they are beautiful fish. They have a unique wavy pattern on their back, and the front of their fins are bright white. Both of these striking characteristics are also helpful in telling brook trout apart from other trout species you might find in Maine. Brookies are also stealthy. They move like aquatic ghosts, coming and going in the blink of an eye. The effortless way they hold their position in rapidly flowing streams, explode into motion, and then disappear into the rocks will take your breath away. Brook trout are great fighters and delicious to eat, though many brook trout anglers practice catch and release fishing most or all of the time.
Recreational fishing is a huge industry in Maine, and brook trout are the state’s most prized sport fish. According to the latest data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, fishing brought in $371 million to Maine in 2011. Much of that money came from anglers chasing brook trout. Here’s what Aroostook County Tourism, which promotes tourism in Aroostook County, has to say about brook trout fishing there:
“Shady brooks, spring-fed ponds, and crystal clear streams are the perfect home for brook trout. And there’s nothing like the feeling of gently laying out 30 feet of line right on the edge of the deep pool where you know they’re waiting. Aroostook is one of the last strongholds in the Northeastern United States for the native brook trout…”
The great brook trout fishing in Aroostook County is a major attraction and supports guiding and tourism there, as in many other parts of Maine. One reason JD Irving’s proposal to build an open-pit mine at Bald Mountain in Central Aroostook causes so much concern is because of the threat it poses to brook trout. The mine would be right in the headwaters of the Fish River, which, as its name suggests, is well known for brook trout fishing. Brook trout are very sensitive to the type of pollution that comes from mines: acid and heavy metals. Acid and heavy metals from mines have been a huge cause of brook trout decline in Pennsylvania, for example, so Maine needs to use great care in any mining operations here. The weak mining rules that the Lepage Administration recently proposed and the Maine Legislature rejected would have been a terrible threat to brook trout. NRCM played an important role in helping to defeat those rules, and one of the most important concerns we heard, and raised ourselves, was about the harm mining could cause to brook trout habitat.
There are many other threats to brook trout as well: sprawl, acid rain, climate change, and invasive species are a few. Brookies need clean, cool water to thrive. They also need intact forest, which provides the shade to keep streams and ponds where they live cool. Such forests also provide the woody debris that ends up in the water, which the fish can use as they hide from predators.
Maine is lucky to have so many brook trout, but we need more than luck to keep this amazing fish here into the future. We need policies that protect our water quality and forests and that will limit the spread of invasive fish species that threaten brook trout. Remember, brook trout are the real gold in Maine’s forests, and we want to keep them there, not mine them and ship them away.
Nick Bennett is NRCM’s staff scientist and clean waters project director.