by My Fishing Cape Cod member Nick Beltramini
Imagine for a moment that you've transported back to the American Industrial Revolution of the early 1800's. Factories are dumping millions of gallons of raw, untreated sewage into rivers and streams, and dams are being installed that completely prohibit the migration of fish.
All the while, Mother Nature seems to supply an endless chain of resources. During this time, rumors have it that anglers could catch 100+ wild sea-run trout in a single day, with 2.5 and 3 pounders mixed in. And every single one of those trout that was caught would be destined for the table.
According to Warren Winders of the Sea-Run Brook Trout Coalition, sea run brook trout were once so abundant that you could actually watch the trout feed on the surface in schools like stripers.
A wild, native Cape Cod Sea Run Brook Trout, which prior to the Industrial Revolution, were abundant and plentiful in Cape Cod's rivers, streams and bays.
Fast forward 200 years and for the most part, these fish that once called the rivers of Cape Cod their home, are now gone. Many streams that were abundant with salters are too overgrown, too hot, and too polluted to sustain a population.
Only a trace number of individuals are left in a select few streams. But even with that dying hope, these salters are as gorgeous as ever, and that doesn’t stop some devoted individuals from trying to save them, and restore their habitat.
The Industrial Revolution was a time of rapid development in the US., and contributed to the destruction of sea run brook trout habitat.
Working To Restore Sea Run Brook Trout Populations
Dating back to the mid-1970s, Cape Cod Trout Unlimited, or CCTU, was founded and headed by Fran Smith after returning from the Vietnam War in 1975.
Fran played a pivotal role in obtaining the Lyman property (pictured above, and now called the Lyman Reserve) surrounding one of the last remaining salter streams.
Through thousands of hours of labor and millions of dollars spent towards restoration, not only did Fran and CCTU help to restore that particular stream, but they built a model that could be applied to restoring other cold water streams.
In 2009, the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition was founded to extend the restoration efforts ongoing by Fran and CCTU.
The Sea-Run Brook Trout Coalition (SRBTC) is another non-profit organization with the sole purpose of protecting and restoring sea-run brook trout populations and their habitat on Cape Cod and greater New England.
The SRBTC assembles volunteers and donations to oversee and support multi-million dollar restoration efforts on this front. From installing habitat, to tagging individual fish, to relocating brook trout populations, the SRBTC has made incredible contributions to restoring and even revitalizing multiple salter streams.
An example of woody and rocky structures to be placed in a salter stream for habitat.
Cape Cod Sea-Run Brook Trout Tagging Efforts
Under the direction of Mass Wildlife's Steve Hurley, CCTU and SRBTC both tag sea run brook trout. Volunteers can take part in "electrofishing trips" where they tag these brookies with mini electronic chips (the same chips used by E-ZPass for toll collecting).
After being tagged, the trout can be tracked when they move past a specific station, or when they are caught by fisherman who can ID them with an electronic chip reader.
Geoff Klane of Brackish Flies carries around a chip reader like the one pictured above when targeting sea-run trout to be able to ID them when landed.
One of the tagged brookies actually made it all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately for that trout, it was in the stomach of a striped bass!
Data collected can provide valuable insight to how a population of trout is doing numbers-wise, as well as how they grow, and where they travel-especially when being relocated.
You can learn more about what the tagging process looks like here.
Fishing For Cape Cod's Sea-Run Brook Trout
Fast forward to December 4th, 2021, and here I am standing on the bank of what seems to be just another nice little creek, with some meanders and fallen trees.
If I drove by this particular stream, I might say to myself “Hmm...I wonder what I could catch in there?” But even then, this creek is so small that I might not think much of it.
On this day I met up with fishing guide, custom rod builder, and fly tyer Geoff Klane of Brackish Flies, Executive Director of the SRBTC Geoffrey Day, and Senior Advisor of the SRBTC Warren Winders.
Geoff Klane, Geoffrey Day, Warren Winders, and me. (Left to right).
It was really nice of these guys to come meet me and give me not only a tour, but a thorough history class on four different salter streams located on Cape Cod.
We even got to take a few casts!
The true marvels of the stream are no exception. These brook trout are from the same genetic strain of brookies that occupied the Cape at the time of its formation! When fishing these streams, it's hard to look around and not be surrounded by centuries of history.
Warren Winders of SRBTC tells me legendary fishing stories of the historical Samuel Tisdale, who fished the same rivers we set foot on that day.
I looked to my left and saw the remnants of an abandoned cranberry bog, likely from the 1900s that choked off oxygen supply to the fish. I looked to my right and saw a large berm, which was perhaps used to dam the stream and provide power to a grist mill.
I then looked straight ahead and saw evidence of the tireless efforts of nonprofits trying to combat the damage of the past, with their strategically placed fallen trees and boulders.
Gear & Tackle For Sea Run Brook Trout
It’s challenging... it’s really challenging to connect with a sea-run trout. The remaining salters (which there are not many of) can be tough to fool and tough to find.
But if you put your time and effort into it, you just may find yourself with the prettiest fish of Massachusetts in your hand.
If landed, it is highly recommended to handle these fish with wet hands and leave them fully submerged in water 100% of the time if possible.
In terms of fishing, Geoff gave me a run-down of all the gear and precautions necessary to getting started before our outing.
Geoff recommends using a 2-wt fly rod with a 5 lb tippet. For me, I’ve only held a fly rod once or twice, so I got away with my ultralight spinning outfit, which although is less ideal, I made do with it.
A 5 or 5'6 foot long rod would be best to avoid the plentiful overhangs when pitching casts. Most fishing for salters requires close-quarter, technical casting.
In terms of tackle, I was using a 1/64 oz trout magnet, while Geoff was using a hand-tied custom streamer which is “deadly” according to him.
Both my Trout Magnet and Geoff's fly feature a single, barbless hook which is highly, highly recommended when targeting sea run brookies.
Geoff made sure to point out the overhangs, which are tempting to avoid due to potential snagging. However it's shelters like these overhangs that can hold fish.
According to Geoff, the combination of current, overhanging structure, and depth all seem to be a good combination for success.
Sea Run Brook Trout Spawning Habits
Salters spawn from mid-October to the end of November, during which it is unethical to target them. Directly after the spawning, the trout leave the beds, but all the eggs remain on the beds throughout the winter until about April.
In these streams, most reds (spawning beds) are almost, if not entirely impossible to spot. It is highly highly recommended to stay out of the river and bank cast when fishing for salters in the winter months to avoid stepping on and killing hundreds of future salters in one step.
Note that this type of fishing is catch and release only and it is illegal to use live bait.
Although most of these brookies range from 5-9 inches, for me the thrill comes in that brief moment of contact, when we can take part in a 10,000 year old history.
My first ever native brookie! An absolute stunner! Thanks to Brackish Flies.
You can experience firsthand the unabated destruction of an ecosystem that has been tirelessly met with arguably one of the most successful and remarkable restoration revitalizations there is.
Geoff of Brackish Flies with a solid 9-inch brookie from later that day. How about those colors!
By taking part in this history, it is up to us as fishermen to shape it responsibly for the future so that this fragile, 10,000 year old population can remain for years to come.
Tight lines! 🎣
Acknowledgments & Resources
Huge thanks to Geoff at Brackish Flies for meeting me and giving me a rundown of the fishery! Geoff runs guided trips in central MA for trout, stripers, and sight casting to giant carp - all on the fly. He builds custom rods and ties flies for the angler's unique situation. "I want to create the stuff that you can't find. I want to make the gear that you just need to make the big fish come to the net, but you can't find anywhere." -Geoff Klane
Also, thanks to Warren Winders and Geoffrey Day of the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition for meeting me and giving me a debriefing of your work. There is plenty to be done! They are actively looking for volunteers and board members. You can find more info about the coalition at their website or contact Geoffrey directly ([email protected]).