Maine’s Naturalist: Seeking Salters, Maine’s Unusual Trout

Maine Audubon regularly features posts by guest authors as part of our Maine’s Naturalist series. If you’d like to explore contributing a post about Maine wildlife, send an email to media@maineaudubon.org. Today’s post is from Ronald N. Dupuis Jr., Maine Master Naturalist and Registered Maine Guide.

Every spring, around the time when the coltsfoot flower blooms in mid-April until mid-June, a magical time happens in certain small rivers and streams in Maine that flow into larger rivers flowing into the sea. Rare brook trout are present, unusual fish that, unlike typical brook trout, choose to spend much of their adult life not in lake and rivers but the saltwater coast. These elusive “anadromous brook trout” — better known as “salters” — still return to freshwater to spawn, but spend a few months each year gorging on crustaceans, smelt, and other oceanic delicacies.

Salters have a long history in New England and became famous in Massachusetts, Maine, and in streams near Long Island New York for their large size and deep yellow to soft orange flesh. Salters were once so popular as a sport fish that fishing clubs were started during the 1800’s to fish for these only for salters. In time, these large populations were over fished, and with the introduction of dams in rivers to support industrial growth, the habitat was severely reduced and once thriving populations in major saltwater rivers along the New England states were pushed back into feeder streams and creeks.

Conservation groups in Massachusetts, Maine, and other New England states became interested in salters and started conservation efforts for this fish once thought to be gone. Maine once had a very prolific population of salters, but their status was unknown. I became interested in finding out more about salters and knowing what could be done to help preserve these populations, so I signed up to participate in the Brook Trout Survey supported by Maine Audubon and Trout Unlimited.

My experience was fascinating. Maine Audubon provided a list of streams and creeks that needed to be surveyed and provided an opportunity for volunteers to sign-up for specific locations. In addition, my local Trout Unlimited chapter supported these efforts by providing information on the project. At the time, I lived in the mid-coast region of Maine and there were plenty of locations to participate. I contacted the Audubon, a stream was assigned, and I planned my next steps.

Being an avid fly fisher, I approached this survey with apprehension because this was the first time I had fished for salters. I was assigned a stream in southern Maine and decided I would make it my mission to learn, pursue, and catch and release these fish to understand their habitat. I was very happy to be able to catch a few small but feisty salters in the brackish water in the stream that I was assigned. They were very focused on my streamers and hit them as if they were acting like their larger siblings. That was several years ago and now I make it my mission to visit these streams in the early spring to see how the salter populations are progressing. Conservation efforts have increased and there is more awareness of the salter brook trout and how important proper fish passage and conservation are to the life of these fish. I am pleased that many more fishers are aware and take steps to protect this once abundant fish in their current stream habitats.

“Salter” Brook Trout