Wild in MA

When one thinks of Massachusetts, often their mind goes to the numerous cities, sprawling suburbs, and overcrowded highways that can be found across much of the state. This week, though, I was able to explore a new, wilder side of Massachusetts, one that is seldom associated with this wonderful section of New England. From the salt-filled air of the North Shore to the quaint farm towns of Central Mass, I not only enjoyed the beauty of nature and the outdoors, but also gained a deep appreciation for the native, wild fish still found here in Massachusetts.

I began the week with a little warm-up, fishing close to home in one of the many reservations here in town that abuts a large pond. The water wasn’t crystal clear or of particularly high quality as one might expect when looking for native, wild fish, but believe me, the pond was teeming with them.

Chain pickerel are likely one of the least respected fish in Massachusetts. A common misconception is that they are the smallest of the Esox species, but in fact, the redfin pickerel, another native species, is far tinier. Their well-known nickname, slime dart, was given to the fish to describe their stinky protective coating that makes anglers dread catching them. Unfortunately, this, in addition to bony filets and sharp teeth, have given them a bad reputation. Yet much like brook trout, these fish are entirely native to the area, inhabiting warm waters instead of cold brooks. In addition, they are naturally reproducing, spawning in the early spring. To my knowledge, there are no current chain pickerel stocking programs occurring anywhere in the country. To fish for such an undisturbed population of fish is rare. Their beauty is a testament to their wildness, displaying bright greens bodies and deep black chain markings across their sides.

A poor picture of a beautiful pickerel caught on my first day of break.

On this particular day, I was targeting the pickerel with a large hard-bodied swimbait, a perfect match for their ferocious appetite. Pickerel will eat tiny lures and flies, from trout magnets to prince nymphs, but they’re most fun on big baits, like swimbaits and large streamers. My friend, Ben, and I quickly found the fish, but not the giants we were looking for. Still, even the smaller ones put up a good fight and will eat just about everything thrown at them.

After a while, we were fed up, and I switched gears to get ready for the next day. My preparations included tying a 7.5′ 5x leader, a whole bunch of big, bushy dry flies, and setting up a dry-dropper rig. What would I be fishing for? You guessed it: wild, native brook trout in a mountain stream.

The drive out to Central Mass took a little while the next morning, but once my dad and I arrived, I was in awe. The stream I was fishing began modestly, slowly meandering through a brushy forest. Nearby, a gin-clear tributary flowed in, mixing with the tannic water like the coastal rivers of Alaska. After a short walk upstream, though, the water completely changed form, reminding me of the small streams I have come to love in Maine. Short falls formed deep plunge pools that undoubtedly harbored some of the prettiest fish in the country. A couple young worm dunkers waved from across the water, just as surprised to see me as I was to see them. “Any luck,” I asked.

“We caught a whole bunch of trout just upstream of here,” the first kid responded, obviously proud of their accomplishment.

“Brookies,” I questioned, a tinge of hope creeping into my voice.

“Yup,” the second kid replied. “There’s so many!” I chuckled, and continued to push through the alders and bushes on my way up to the large pools. Once I arrived, I went into full-on stealth mode, crouching on one knee and quietly removing my nymph from the hook keeper. I pulled back on the fly like an archer on their arrow, deeply bending the rod until I released my grasp, sending the line flying into the swirling eddy. The chubby chernobyl landed with a splat on the water’s surface, acting as a bobber for the nymph below. I watched intently as the rig drifted downstream. Just before reaching the falls, the dry fly suddenly sunk. I raised my rod hard, bringing the writhing fish just below the surface. Through the stained water, I could just barely make out the vermiculations along the trout’s back. I knew immediately that this was what I came for. The fight didn’t last long, but the fish sure was spunky for its size. I brought the brookie to my hand, and, as always with a wild brook trout, began to admire the colorful spots along its flanks. Who would’ve thought that one could find the same fish I frequently drive four-plus hours for during the summer right here in my home state year-round? I was shocked, but also thrilled at how quickly I was able to catch my first one. I already knew the rest of the day would be something special.

I continued to fish for a couple hours, catching a trout here and there. Other than the superb fishing, the scenery was something out of a National Geographic documentary. All around me, large white pines and leafless birches dwarfed the emerging fiddleheads and skunk cabbages, forming a sea of green and yet a drab brown landscape. Right down the middle flowed a rushing brook, its gentle babbles quieting the chirps of the countless songbirds. I was in heaven, if heaven is a mere hour from my house.

The scenery on the brook was gorgeous.

Finally, to round out the week, I met up with Geof Day of the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition to explore the native fish of the East Coast. Today, we wouldn’t be observing the species for which he is known, but instead another wild, sea-dwelling fish that Geof is very farmiliar with. Herring are an anadromous fish, spending much of their lives in saltwater before returning to freshwater rivers to spawn. There are actually two species of herring: blueback herring and alewife, although, according to Geof, only a very experienced scientist can tell the two apart without killing it.

We started out at my home waters, the Shawsheen River, to take a look at the herring count currently taking place. A couple weeks ago, a team from the Native Fish Coalition, including myself, helped to put in large reflective panels on the river bottom to aid in the counting of fish. Since then, Jon Honea, the organizer of the count and dedicated conservationist, told me that they have seen about two herring returning each day. The full-on run hasn’t truly started yet, where hundreds of fish will hopefully make their way up the Merrimack River into the Shawsheen to spawn. The story of the Shawsheen is quite interesting, as up until a few years ago, three dams blocked fish passage to the prime spawning habitat. Two of these dams have been removed, opening up far more water for these fish to explore. This year, we hope to see the first brood young herring successfully spawned by the first fish that returned after the dam removals.

Geof explaining one of his electronic thermometers at the Shawsheen River. Photo credit: David Belson

Today, we were unlucky, and didn’t see any fish at this spot, but I did get a chance to learn about some groundbreaking technology. Geof explained how to take water samples for eDNA, a process that can determine whether or not a certain species of fish is living in a water body. In this case, we were testing for brook trout, but the same method can be used to find anything from pike to pumpkinseed. The method is incredibly simple for those in the field, requiring little more than filling bottles with water samples from the stream, transporting them carefully, and keeping them cool until they’re brought to the lab for examination. The trickiest part is keeping everything sterile, because if so much as a tiny fragment of fish DNA makes it into the samples, it could result in incorrect results. This tool is incredibly useful for finding invasive and threatened fish, which can lead to better fisheries management within that area. The tests are accurate up to a kilometer-long stretch of river, making them a much more effective method than classic electrofishing.

Next, we traveled to the Parker River, where we checked out two different dam sites, one with a working fish ladder, and another that has been neglected for years. At the first spot, Geof explained how six dams had quickly been built on the river after the Europeans arrival in the area. Beginning in 1638, life for the herring of the Parker River began to get more and more difficult, and in turn, fewer and fewer returned. Today, the runs have been reduced to around 1,000 fish a year, a tiny figure compared to those of the past. We didn’t see any herring at this spot, but we did see an osprey, indicative of a good fish population. In addition, Geof said that this spot gets heavily stocked with trout in the spring, drawing numerous anglers.

The second spot we visited was much closer to the ocean, at the head-of-tide, in fact. When we looked below the bridge, just downstream of the dam, we could see about 50 herring schooled up in a pool. They were larger than I expected, each around 11 inches, and their blue-green backs made them difficult to see in the tinted water. We walked upstream to the fish ladder, in which there were typically between two-five fish per weir (a weir is a section of the fish ladder, kind of like a pool). Both Geof and I had brought along GoPros, so we had fun filming the fish as they rested before their long upstream journey. At the top of the fish ladder was a box that the herring had to swim through before making it to the main river. Within the box was a camera that filmed each fish as it swam by. Geof mentioned that somebody at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has to sit and watch all the footage in order to count each individual herring. Could there be a more tedious job?!

The fish ladder on the Parker River. Photo credit: David Belson

All in all, I learned and discovered many things about the native fish of Massachusetts this week. Never had I imagined the sheer amount of natural fish resources we have right here in the Bay State. Previously, I believed you had to travel to far-away places to experience wild fish populations like these, but apparently we have equally amazing opportunities just a stone’s throw from home. No, it won’t replace my treasured annual trips to Maine, or end my dreams of visiting legendary fishing waters, but I certainly gained a new appreciation for what Massachusetts has to offer. Although the stay-at-home order has been lifted, and we are once again free to travel to other states, keep in mind the amazing opportunities we have so close to home. If you live somewhere else, perhaps a trip to Mass would be worth your while. In the meantime, continue to explore the waters near you, because you never know what you’ll find right in your backyard.

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