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Maine Squaretails: Beautiful Brook Trout Measured in Pounds Not Inches

The Pine Tree State is the brook trout capital of America.

Maine Squaretails: Beautiful Brook Trout Measured in Pounds Not Inches

Along with moose, loons, and lobsters, brook trout are an important part of Maine’s brand. (Rick Griffiths photo)

The phrase “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” was coined to denote the important role the state once played in regard to national politics. At the time, Maine was considered the bellwether for presidential elections, with the party that won Maine’s presidential election winning the national election 22 out of 29 times from 1820 through 1932.

You could say the same thing about Maine in regard to wild native brook trout: “As Maine goes, so goes brook trout.” Maine is home to 90 percent of several life history strategies of brook trout, including large river-, lake- and pond-dwelling, and sea-run brook trout.

While it’s not Maine’s official state fish—landlocked salmon (Salmo salar sebago) are—no fish is more associated with Maine than brook trout, and no state is more associated with brook trout than Maine. You could argue that no state is more associated with a single species of fish than Maine is in regard to brook trout. Along with moose, loons, and lobsters, brook trout are an important part of Maine’s brand.

Diverse Habitats

I have been fly fisher for more than 45 years. Most of my recreation is tied to fly fishing, and I left a career in software to get into the fly-fishing industry, running a fly shop for 15 years, getting my Maine fishing guide license, designing flies, and writing. I am also a native fish advocate. I have been involved in several native fish conservation organizations, helped to found three, and currently serve as the executive director for one.

The convergence of fly fishing and native fish conservation is what pulls it all together for me. Fly fishing for wild native trout takes angling to the next level for me, while reminding me of why I do what I do from a conservation standpoint, and why it’s important. It is also why I live where I do, Maine, home to wild native brook trout.

My affinity for Maine and for brook trout has resulted in countless articles about both, two books about Maine, two others that include Maine, and Maine contributions to several books written by others. I also wrote the book Squaretail: The Definitive Guide to Brook Trout and Where to Find Them (Stackpole, 2019). Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are native to a swath of land extending from northernmost Maine into northern Georgia, including most of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont; much of Maryland, New Jersey, and Rhode Island; the mountainous region of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia; and a small section of South Carolina. Their native range extends west into north-central Minnesota, and includes all of Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan, northeastern Iowa, and northeastern Ohio.

Bob Mallard holding a large brook trout.
The trophy native brook trout in Maine face many threats—the biggest come from invasive species like muskies, smallmouth bass, and nongamefish illegally used as bait. (Photo courtesy of Pond in the River Guide Service)

Three states recognize brook trout as their state fish: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Five states designated brook trout as their state freshwater fish: New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia. Vermont named brook trout their state coldwater fish. In Maine, brook trout are classified as a state heritage fish.

From a genetic standpoint, for the most part brook trout are all the same. The two exceptions are the extinct silver trout of New Hampshire (Salvelinus agassizii) once believed to be a form of lake trout or Arctic charr, and the aurora trout (Salvelinus timagamiensis) of the Temagami District of Ontario, Canada, both of which are considered unique subspecies of brook trout.

There are two scientifically recognized strains of brook trout: northern and southern. While genetically different, the difference is not enough to warrant subspecies designation. The line delineating the two north/south strains is the New River watershed in southwest Virginia.




Although the genetic differences between brook trout are minimal, you could argue that they are the most diverse trout—figuratively speaking­, as they are actually char—when it comes to the range of river, pond, and lake habitats they can be found in, and life history strategies including coasters and sea-run.

Coaster brook trout use inshore habitat in the Great Lakes, primarily Lake Superior with specimens also found in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. These large brook trout reach sizes found nowhere else within their native range in the United States. The current world record brook trout was a Lake Superior coaster caught from the Nipigon River in Canada.

Sea-run brook trout, also known as salters, can be found from Long Island in New York to Maine’s border with Canada. These diadromous fish move between fresh water and salt water to forage and seek thermal refuge. The fabled 14.5-pound brook trout caught by Daniel Webster in 1827 was a salter from the Carmans River on Long Island.

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While many states still have small-stream native brook trout, resident fish in large rivers are now relatively uncommon. The situation with regard to lake- and pond-dwelling wild native brook trout is notably worse, where outside of Maine, they are for the most part limited to fewer than 50 waters in northern New York and a handful of waters in New Hampshire and Vermont.

As for sea-run brook trout, while they still persist in a few streams in Massachusetts, and a few more streams in coastal New Hampshire, and possibly Rhode Island and Connecticut, the only notable concentration of salters remaining in the United States is in Maine.

Maine’s Rivers

You could argue that the three finest wild native brook trout rivers in America are in the Rangeley region of Maine: Rapid, lower Magalloway, and Kennebago. These rivers produce brookies that would be considered trophies anywhere, with fish over 20 inches always possible. In fact, fish less than 12 inches are the exception—not the rule.  

The Rapid River could fairly be called Maine’s premier brook trout fishery. This fabled water has been written about for generations, and its now defunct Lower Dam is one of the most recognizable fly-fishing landmarks in the East. While somewhat seasonal due to warm summer water temperatures, when the Rapid River is on, there is nothing like it.

A fly angler casting on a Maine river in the fall.
The Rangeley Lakes region in western Maine has three of the best native brook trout rivers in the country. The Rapid, lower Magalloway, and Kennebago rivers all have brook trout over 20 inches. The Kennebago was the first designated fly-fishing-only river in the United States. (Diana Mallard photo)

The lower Magalloway River is more accessible than the Rapid River, with a paved road paralleling it for much of its length. This section of river fishes well throughout the season due to a power generating station that gets its water from a roughly half-mile-long pipe connected to Aziscohos Lake. It’s possible that no river in Maine sees as many angling hours as the Magalloway, and rightfully so.

The lower Kennebago River is only the third best native brook trout river in Maine, but move it anywhere else and it’s the best brook trout river in that state, and in most cases, by far. This historic water, one of the first fly-fishing-only waters in the nation, has both resident fish and large fish that move up from Mooselookmeguntic and Cupsuptic lakes in the spring to forage and fall to spawn.

In the case of both the Magalloway and Kennebago rivers, in addition to their popular lower sections, which are considered trophy water, their upper stretches are better than average wild, native brook trout streams. While the fish run smaller, as does the water, they are still respectable fisheries by stream-resident brookie standards. And trophy fish can be found as well, albeit in lower numbers.

The Cupsuptic River near Rangeley is often overlooked due to the three rivers noted above. In its lower stretches, large fish move in from Cupsuptic Lake to forage and spawn. In its upper reaches, the Cupsuptic rivals any small-stream brook trout fishing I have seen anywhere, including places like the fabled Rapidan River in Virginia.

Upper Dam near Rangeley is a famous, albeit short stretch of moving water. Connecting Mooselookmeguntic and Upper Richardson Lakes, this less than half mile thoroughfare is home to brook trout that can approach 20 inches. As fly-fishing landmarks go, this is one of the most historic in the nation.

The upper Kennebec River in the central part of the state is one of the best brook trout streams in Maine outside of the Rangeley area. Popular with whitewater enthusiasts, the gorge downstream of Harris Dam at Indian Pond is the most rugged stretch of water in the state and one of the most remote. It is also home to wild native brook trout up to 18 inches.

The lower Roach River, a tributary of Moosehead Lake, sees large lake-run wild brook trout in the fall, drawing anglers from across the Northeast. Downstream of Moosehead is the East Outlet, a popular spring and fall fishery that puts up some respectable stocked and wild brook trout. The lower Dead River downstream of scenic Grand Falls also boasts a better than average wild brook trout fishery.

The West Branch Penobscot is best known as a wild, albeit nonnative landlocked salmon fishery, but while the salmon fishery is in decline, the wild, native brook trout population is improving. As rivers in the Northeast go, the rugged West Branch is arguably the most beautiful in the region. It is also very accessible.

An angler in a YETI hat holding a large brook trout, smiling.
With roughly 1,200 lakes and ponds classified as principal fisheries for brook trout by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the opportunities for stillwater brook trout fishing in Maine are extensive. (Rick Griffiths photo)

Lakes and Ponds

Outside of the large rivers popular with today’s fly fishers, lakes and ponds are arguably the second-biggest draw in Maine’s brook trout fishing scene. With roughly 1,200 lakes and ponds classified as principal fisheries for brook trout by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the opportunities for stillwater brook trout fishing in Maine are extensive.

Maine’s brook trout fishing in lakes and ponds can be broken into four grouped waters: fly fishing only, trophy, remote, and state heritage fish. In many cases, a given water falls into multiple categories, and possibly all four. And the more categories a water falls under, the better it is likely to be. With so many waters to choose from, this gives you a starting point.

Fly Fishing Only. There are approximately 200 fly-fishing-only lakes and ponds in Maine. This represents the largest inventory of fly-fishing-only waters east of the Mississippi, and possibly the country. These waters are restricted to fly casting, single-point and single-hook flies, and only two flies can be used at a time. These restrictions help reduce angler exploitation.

The average size of these waters is 60 acres. Over a quarter are between 25 and 50 acres, with approximately half less than 25 acres, making them easy to fly fish from a small boat or personal watercraft. Roughly three quarters are self-sustaining. Somerset and Piscataquis counties account for over half of all fly-fishing-only lakes and ponds in the state.

Trophy. At fewer than 50 waters, Maine’s trophy brook trout lakes and ponds are the most important to those looking for large fish. These waters are managed under either catch-and-release regulations or a 1-fish 18-inch minimum.

These trophy regulations provide the highest level of protection afforded brook trout in lakes and ponds in Maine, and usually result in the most consistent fishing for large brook trout. Take the five largest waters away, and these waters average just 35 acres, making them attractive to fly fishers. Piscataquis County has the most trophy brook trout lakes and ponds with roughly 20.

Remote. There are approximately 175 lakes and ponds in Maine classified as remote by the Land Use Planning Commission. This means that the nearest road was at least 1,000 feet away at the time of review. More importantly, at least to fly fishers, is that it also means it is capable of providing a coldwater fishery. Roughly 150 of them are classified as principal fisheries for brook trout.

Maine’s remote ponds are granted more protection from logging, development, and motorized access than other waters. While not prohibited, these actions are restricted to a higher degree than they are elsewhere. This gives anglers a chance to experience brook trout fishing in a relative intact setting.

State Heritage Fish. From an ecological standpoint, Maine’s state heritage fish waters are the most important group of brook trout lakes and ponds in the state. While the number of them bumps up and down annually, there are currently more than 575 lakes and ponds with this designation, representing more than 80,000 acres in aggregate. It is the largest program of its kind in the United States.

Maine’s state heritage fish waters are protected by law, not policy. Enacted in 2005 to protect brook trout lakes and ponds that had never been directly or indirectly stocked, the law was amended in 2014 to include waters that had not been stocked in 25 years or more. These waters are legally protected from stocking and the dangerous use of live fish as bait.

Maine’s state heritage fish waters run from under an acre to over 13,000 acres, the largest of which is Mooselookmeguntic Lake in Rangeley. The largest never-stocked water is 4,200-acre Allagash Lake, part of the headwaters of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Piscataquis County has the most state heritage fish waters with close to 250. Somerset County is next with roughly 150.

Salters

Sea-run brook trout, or salters, move between fresh and salt water. Why they do so is not clear, or consistent from one stream to the next. While movements are often linked to forage, many sea-run brook trout move for thermal refuge.

The salters of Red Brook in Massachusetts leave Buttermilk Bay in late spring and return to the stream for thermal refuge. The fish in Stanley Brook in Acadia National Park drop into Seal Harbor a month or so later to escape low and warm water. Further complicating things, not all brook trout in a given stream with access to the ocean take advantage of saltwater habitat.

Two hands holding a sea-run, or salter, brook trout.
Genetically, all brook trout are the same, but there are two recognized strains—northern and southern—and they can have wildly different life history strategies. Maine has wild, native brook trout in ponds, lakes, and large rivers, and also has sea-run brookies or “salters.” (Emily Bastian photo)

While the handful of sea-run brook trout streams in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, get most of the national attention, Maine has dozens of salter streams along the Maine coast from New Hampshire to Canada, including some in heavily developed coastal areas. As dams are removed and streams are cleaned up, additional populations become established.

The most visible sea-run brook trout stream in Maine is Stanley Brook in Acadia National Park. A large kiosk in a popular oceanside parking lot denotes their presence, and you are likely to encounter temperature recording devices and various habitat work done to benefit salters. Other streams in the park are home to sea-run brook trout as well, as are several outside the park on Mount Desert Island.

The largest concentration of sea-run brook trout streams in Maine is found in the Downeast region. More often than not, if there is a stream or river with unobstructed passage to the ocean, there are sea-run brook trout in it. This includes East Stream and the Chandler, Englishman, and Orange rivers, as well as the Dennys River, which is arguably the finest sea-run brook trout fishery in the country.

Status, Threats, and Conservation

Although Maine now has more wild, native brook trout than any other state, it has experienced notable losses. And while some states have stopped the bleeding, and even regained lost ground, Maine continues to lose native brook trout populations at an alarming rate.

While habitat degradation is the number one threat to wild brook trout throughout much of their native range, and climate change is negatively impacting them in other areas, these are not the biggest threats to brook trout in Maine, at least right now.

The number one threat today, and historically, is nonnative fish introductions. Nothing has negatively impacted Maine’s brook trout more than the spread of nonnative fish.

The threat posed by nonnative fish became real for me when I caught my first bass from the upper Kennebec River in Maine, my favorite brook trout river at the time. The fishery declined steeply afterward, and will likely never be the same. The problem was driven home when my favorite wild, native brook trout pond, Round Pond in West Forks, completely collapsed under the weight of introduced, nonnative golden shiners.

Native brook trout waters such as Moosehead Lake, and the Kennebec, Dead, Moose, and Rapid rivers are now infested with nonnative and  highly invasive smallmouth bass. Bass have moved into tributaries to these waters as well, including critically important spawning habitats.

Bass are in the Rapid River from Umbagog Lake to its source at Middle Dam, the only thing keeping them out of Richardson Lakes. If they get into Richardson Lakes, the only thing keeping them from getting into Mooselookmeguntic and Cupsuptic Lakes is Upper Dam. This would put them at the doorstep of Rangeley Lake.

The upper St. John River, once the longest and most remote wild, native brook trout stream in Maine, is now contaminated with nonnative muskellunge, and now all but devoid of trout. Northern pike are now in Umbagog Lake, and dangerously close to the Rapid and Magalloway Rivers. While they have not been confirmed in these rivers to date, how long will that last?  

Nonnative smallmouth and largemouth bass, along with both chain and redfin pickerel have found their way into many of the sea-run brook trout streams in the Downeast region, including the Dennys River. This is imperiling critically endangered Atlantic salmon as well.

Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is stocking nonnative landlocked salmon in native brook trout waters including Moosehead Lake, Pierce Pond, Rangeley Lake, and Richardson Lakes. These fish compete with brook trout for food and space, and in the case of Richardson Lakes is leaking salmon into the Rapid River at a time when the brook trout are already stressed by bass.

MDIFW is also stocking brook trout over wild brook trout where they used to be, and likely could still be if managed accordingly, which means lowering angler expectations and protecting what is already there. This includes fabled Rangeley Lake and Richardson Lakes. They have stocked to a point where historic Upper Dam is now a predominantly stocked fishery.

The current trend in regard to fishing regulations in Maine is liberalization. In a recent regulation change, 88%, or 75 out of 85 of the wild native salmonid waters, most of which are brook trout fisheries, including state heritage fish waters, had their regulations changed to allow more liberal harvests of fish.

Specifically, 80% of wild, native salmonid waters with regulation changes had their minimum length limit reduced, and 8% saw both a minimum length reduction and a bag limit increase. In 35 cases, the minimum length limit was reduced from 12 or 18 inches to 6 inches. This reduced the minimum length limit by 50% or more, making it easier for anglers to exploit the resource.

While climate change has not impacted wild brook trout in Maine to the degree it has elsewhere, to say it hasn’t affected them would be misleading. Like other parts of the country, Maine has experienced unusual droughts and flood events over the last decade or so.

Small streams used by brook trout for spawning have gone intermittent due to drought, stranding juvenile fish, subjecting them to warm water and low dissolved oxygen, and making them more susceptible to avian and mammalian predation. Concentrated fish are also easy for anglers to exploit.

If Maine does not address its nonnative fish problem, the nation could lose the finest wild, native brook trout fishing we have left. And when fish are stressed by factors beyond our control, you do what you can to lessen the impact of what you can control. This means providing more protection from angling, not less.

Maine has been gifted something truly special, a wealth of wild native brook trout resources. It’s time we stopped placing a higher value on opportunity than we do the health of the resource, as when opportunity wins, the resource usually loses.

As noted earlier, if brook trout are what you are looking for, Maine is where you want to go. Unlike other states where most brook trout are found in small headwater streams and rarely grow to more than 12 inches in length, Maine offers fly fishers opportunities to pursue brook trout measured in pounds not inches, and in a variety of habitat and life history strategy found nowhere else in the United States.


Bob Mallard is a former fly shop owner, registered Maine fishing guide, writer, fly designer, and author of five books including Squaretail: The Definitive Guide to Brook Trout and Where to Find Them, Favorite Flies for Maine: 50 Essential Patterns from Local Experts, and Fly Fishing Maine: Local Experts on the State’s Best Waters. He is also a founding member and the executive director of the Native Fish Coalition.

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