Trout Fishing on the Cultural Divide

Trout Fishing on the Cultural Divide

Photo by Pedro Ramirez, Jr. / USFWS

Ethan Pond, a small pond high in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, is not only where a trout-fishing addiction began for me, but it’s also where some of the earliest observations of recreational trout fishing were made in northern New England. At this one high outpost of wilderness, you can gaze backwards and forwards and get most of the entire span of trout-fishing history in America.

Ethan sits at an elevation of 2,900 feet under the dome-like summit of Mount Willey, by the cliffs and ledges of a west-running ridge. A wild place in the upper Pemigewasset watershed, Ethan Pond gets its water from intermittent streams plunging off the steep sides of massive Mount Willey above Crawford Notch and from springs seeping up through the broken stone of its floor. Life for the small brook trout that live there is a risky proposition. Should the shallow pond heat up, dry out, or freeze solid, there isn’t much room to move. Close to the top of the divide, Ethan’s inlet soon disappears into cliff and scree slope and its outlet heads west, cascading over nearby Thoreau Falls and into the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River, a tributary to Henry David Thoreau’s Merrimack River, and then onward to the Atlantic. Hemmed in by a waterfall and a mountain, Ethan’s brook trout somehow endure. I’m glad they do.

My own relationship to these denizens of cold highland brooks began when I was seventeen and on my way to climb Mount Carrigain deeper into the Pemi. Halfway there, I ran into a group of whiskered, sooty fellows fishing below Thoreau Falls. They had bottles of Jack Daniel’s, a fire, and a bacon-greasy cast iron frying pan in which they were cooking small fish with the enthusiasm of twelve-year-olds playing with firecrackers. They bragged that they had caught a hundred brook trout over the course of a few days. Would I like some fish and whiskey for breakfast? I stayed, ate, and drank. It was a pungent affair involving unwashed holiday fishermen, the perfume and sizzle of frying fish, and warm, much be-spitted whiskey going down and almost back up. Later, we walked down the river, the men showing me how they dropped their baited hooks into clear pools where brook trout lived. It was my first encounter with living eastern brook trout, Salvelinus fontinalis. Eastern brook trout are the only native trout in eastern Appalachian waters. They are true coldwater specialists – char, closely related to Arctic Char – able to eke out a living in the shadow of glaciers, upland streams, and high mountain ponds. Seeing those bejeweled fish with their patriotic anal fin, their bluish and red spots, finning in their crystal-clear pools, was a game changer that I have not forgotten. The boozy trout feast made for a crooked walk down that I do not much recall. I never climbed the mountain, but I did throw up in a friend’s car.

And I never saw those drunken old-man anglers again. Public lands management was changing rapidly by 1971. (The wilderness designations first came to areas within the White Mountain National Forest in 1973. The so-called Pemi, comprising the upper watershed of the East Branch, was made wilderness in 1984.) New rules created camping bans near waterways and trails. Volunteers cleaned up blighted campsites, and fishing encampments all but disappeared. New trout regulations were changing the face of trout fishing all over the country beginning around then.

But those old guys and their fishing camp had captured my imagination, and by the next summer, thanks to a twist of fate and a new friend fresh back from fishing in Wyoming, I’d bought a fly rod. I caught my first trout on a fly at nearby Shoal Pond in 1973, and then a second at Ethan. Over the next five summers, hooked on fly fishing, I fished every stream, river, puddle, and backcountry pond I could float, drive, or walk to in the White Mountains. Later, I lived and worked at the Atlantic salmon hatchery in Milan, New Hampshire, and got a whole new view of the native-fish restoration world. After college, I worked for a storied saltwater striped bass fishing guide named Bob Francis on Nantucket, and much later I guided trout anglers in Vermont with the best guide in our area, Marty Banak. There almost always has been a fish in my head. But other than a failed attempt at the age of six to land my little sister’s big rainbow under the watchful eye of my grandmother, the Pemi is where the first trout entered.

I arrived at Ethan Pond late in the afternoon, the sun still blazing, the air cool, and walked around to the boggy outlet. I wanted simply to catch a few fish, check them out, release them, and then head down, hopefully getting to the car before the dark set in – but as for that, walking through the evening and into the dark on a June night can be a very fine thing, and with a full moon, no headlamp would be necessary.

I made my way further down the shoreline, through bog mud smelling of sulfur and past little islands of pitcher plants and yellow cinquefoil onto a stony edge, where the pond narrows and a spindly stand of stunted black spruce grows. I found good purchase there and began to cast to rising fish. The ones I caught and held were each as dark backed as the black waters of Ethan. I could hardly make out the vermiculations, but the red was bright and the bellies pale pink.

Going back to a time long before I first made my way up to Ethan Pond as a greenhorn angler with a few spangled country store-bought flies and an L.L. Bean spin/fly outfit, Ethan Allen Crawford and his wife Lucy, whose book Lucy Crawford's History of the White Mountains captured that early era, were homesteading in Crawford Notch. It was the early 1800s and life at Hart’s Location was no piece of cake. The Crawfords’ only neighbors, the Wiley clan, were killed by rock avalanche just before the Crawfords arrived.

“Wild” during Crawford’s time still meant forbidding and dangerous. This was hard country to navigate. Guidebook writer Moses F. Sweetser, referring to the Pemi circa 1876, writes of “a vast primeval forest . . . [whose] inner solitudes should be entered only under the guidance of experienced foresters; and traveling will be found very slow and arduous.” It was a country where “trout increase and multiply almost undisturbed in the brooks and ponds.”

Trout Fishing on the Cultural Divide Image

The Notch House, 1838, where Ethan Allen Crawford and his family brought visitors to the White Mountains. Image courtesy of William Henry Bartlett / Yale University Art Gallery

Underneath a four-hundred-year-old red spruce forest, deep organic soils had formed from thousands of years of deadfall and decomposition, and the shade and humidity created by the canopy of giant trees had a profoundly moderating effect on forest microclimate and water flows. The pre-settlement forest floor filtered, buffered, and cooled water, and provided a continuous water supply to rivers throughout New England. This was very good for native brook trout. Jack Noon, in his book Fishing in New Hampshire: A History, cites numerous early records of abundant brook-trout stocks throughout New England, including John Josselyn’s assessment from 1674: In New England, there were trout in “good store in every brook, ordinarily 2 and 20 inches.” The book also notes records of ten- to twelve-pound brook trout in the Rangeley Lakes and great numbers of large, spawning brook trout in brooks connected to large lakes.

But already by the 1830s, what was wild was rapidly disappearing in the White Mountains, and so were the old-growth fish. Crawford wrote in his journals about the drop in size and number of trout in the main river stems by 1844. Pioneers had long since fished out lowland lakes and rivers. Native lake trout – and in a few lakes, arctic char, dubbed golden trout by early writers – had disappeared by the early 1900s. Those fish, in the absence of fish science and regulation, were speared, netted, pickled, and smoked into extinction by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century food anglers. Nineteenth-century dams on New Hampshire’s Merrimack River blocked the passage of Atlantic salmon and other anadromous fish, including massive runs of sea lamprey spawning in the highest reaches of the Pemigewasset watershed.

To me, the most surprising observation in Ethan’s journal is that even by the early 1830s, with hardly a footpath through Crawford Notch, where horses had to be elevated by a pulley system to get them through, Ethan was guiding urban travelers up a foot trail his family had created to the top of Mount Washington, the highest point on the East Coast. By the 1830s, some new urbanites were already eager for trips back to the still-untamed Acadian wilds of northern New England. These early urban adventurers, guided by Ethan, would catch their dinner of trout on the way back down the mountain to the Crawford’s inn and tavern. The yearning for escape to the American wilds by a new urban class may not have hit its zenith until the first half of the twentieth century, but the roots of trout-fishing tourism were 100 years prior.

There is another vivid piece of trout-fishing history worth noting from Crawford Notch, its impact arguably far greater than the overharvest of native trout by pioneers. Beginning about a hundred years ago, Ave Henry built mills and logging railroads deep into the Pemi, following the East and West Branches of the river, into Zealand Valley and up and over Carrigain Notch. They stripped the old-growth spruce forest that had developed on the heels of the last ice age, ruining more than fishing. Pulp and sawdust piles polluted rivers, log drivers straightened them, dams drained streams, and railroads and roads cut them off. Fires and erosion burned off those deep soils that had been ten thousand years in the making, washing away the future. What occurred was a type of cataclysmic land use, and it was repeated throughout the forested regions of eastern North America to the detriment of fisheries everywhere. It’s not just overharvest that kills native trout; it’s soil, sun, and water that grow fish, after all, and everything else from lynx to purple fringed orchids. Soil erosion, water and air pollution, and overharvest kill off fish populations.

A lot began changing in the early 1970s. We’re seeing many benefits of that change nearly fifty years later. Thanks to a reduction in acid precipitation caused by smoke stacks to the west, red spruce is growing and regenerating at a faster rate now in the White Mountains. Scars from the rail lines that shipped old trees away are more obscure than ever. Researchers who study fish have new massive data sets, regional collaborative approaches, and technologies unknown just ten years ago. Using remarkably powerful new tools for landscape-scale monitoring and for tracking fish, researchers are opening new doors to the mysteries of trout lives. Regulations reflect this new knowledge, and thanks to them, we’re seeing a resurgence of native fish populations and the restoration of entire ecosystems. In the White Mountains, researchers like Trout Unlimited’s Joe Norton are reconnecting watersheds so brook trout can move again, from tiny spawning stream to main-stem rivers. Fish need whole watersheds to guarantee a complete life cycle and a healthy gene pool. Other researchers are creating new habitat by dropping tree trunks into streambeds, once straightened for the log drive. The trees move with the flood and jam up downstream, creating new pools and a good food source for the insects trout eat. New regulations play a role in recovery.

Trout Fishing on the Cultural Divide Image

Into New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness - the footbridge along the Thoreau Falls Trail. Photo by Erin Paul Donovan

At Ethan Pond now there is a “Wild Trout Pond” special regulation in place. It calls for a release of all trout caught. It mandates single, barbless hooks or lures (debates rage over lure-hooking mortality) and flies only. Worms and other bait are not allowed, based on research that shows higher rates of mortality when fish caught this way are released.

At least at first blush, the Wild Trout Pond designation seems to make sense, especially given the region’s history. The new regulations appear to fit a new knowledge landscape, not to mention a radically different fishing culture. Old fishing practices – embodied by Crawford and the men I met, camped in with worms, Jack Daniel’s, and cast iron frying pans – feel retrograde and seem no longer sustainable.

Back when I caught that first brook trout in these high haunts, legally you could keep and eat a dozen. But the whole orientation of the sport of trout fishing was shifting, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The old objective of managing for maximum sustained yield was giving way to other ideas that referenced subjective words like “quality” and “wild,” and the sport angler’s “total experience.” Thanks to thought leaders like Lee Wulff, it was becoming rapidly out of fashion to keep and eat a trout. Old-time methods and the guy who caught trout for a meal using worms – dubbed the folk angler by some – were being left behind. Good sport fish were simply “too valuable to be caught only once.” Lee Wulff ’s famous bromide proved an incredibly sticky message, and even if it needed to be seriously qualified to be true, catch and release remains a rallying cry for trout anglers to this day.

As the likes of Wulff and other thought-leaders were busy taking the meat out of recreational trout fishing, emerging social values that elevated ecosystem thinking were taking hold. The concepts of whole-watershed planning, energy conservation, clean water, earth resources as limited, and land as sick and ailing were just around the corner. We were crowning some new heroes in the conservation arena, including Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner. In trout fishing, the chase, not the meal, became the prevailing aim. Kill less, catch more. Cleaning up our pollution messes was of the first order. As the culture was shifting, so were angler demographics. What had been a decidedly rural tradition was giving way to urban recreationalists with larger wallets, more leisure time, and different appetites.

Every aspect of the Wild Trout Pond designation at Ethan Pond – from the word “wild,” to the bait ban, to the barbless hook and catch-and-release rule – fits the ecological aesthetic and desires of the new group of fishing conservationists, with a strong association to fly fishing, that began emerging in the early 1970s.

But things are not always as they seem. Take the idea of wilderness. Though Ethan Pond sits on the edge of a federal wilderness area, a better frame for viewing this White Mountains wilderness is of the highly disturbed landscape slowly recovering from massive disruption described above. What was truly wild in the 1830s may have existed in Ethan Allen Crawford’s day, though even by then it was fading. Wild has always been a relative concept. Even the wild brookies here, genetically anyway, belie their “wild” moniker. Most wild brook trout stocked in high White Mountain ponds come from Kennebago Lake genetic stock, a hardy strain of wild trout trucked over to New Hampshire hatcheries from Maine. The trout I caught was a ten-inch hatchery fish dropped by fixed-wing aircraft.

Trout Fishing on the Cultural Divide Image

Image via iStock

Wild or not, the Wild Trout Pond designation with its no-kill rule seems to stand on reason. The regulation is understood as a way to protect what is widely perceived as a threatened native species from overharvest, while allowing sport anglers their pleasure. Yet, biologically speaking, the rules guarantee nothing. Studies show high brook trout natural-mortality rates. In other, more accessible, locations with greater fishing pressure, wild Brook Trout may need greater protections from anglers. But up here it’s water temperature, water and air chemistry, water depth, available nutrients, and water supply that control the destinies of brook trout populations throughout their range, especially high up in the watershed.

There is also the biological concept of “compensatory mortality” to consider. It says that in general, the greater the human harvest of a wild trout population, the less natural mortality. And the reverse is also true. Less human-caused mortality means higher mortality by other means, including a limited food base. Nature will always get her pound of flesh, whether that nature includes the human predator or not.

The real threats to brook trout populations in the White Mountains and up and down the Appalachian chain are cloud born and landscape scale, including acid and nitrogen precipitation and other airborne pollutants, mining tailings, a warming planet, mass land-use changes, logging, road building, and losses to development by urbanization and suburban sprawl. The way to save brook trout is to deal with corporate greed and exploitation, repair fragmented habitat, de-channelize rivers, remove dams, improve cover, clean up mine tailings, plant trees, curb acid precipitation, and cool an overheating planet. This is salvage and restoration work, both. The conservation-minded angler knows as much and should cast a very cold eye on Wall Street, corporate developers, industrial loggers, energy-company air polluters, and mining conglomerates. But without broad public knowledge, support, and organization, the aware angler is helpless against these. So are trout. And the public’s perception of the value of wild trout is fading, not growing.

Up here, the Wild Trout Pond designation is a social rule, empty of meaning except for its natural symbolism. So, why is there such a rule? I asked John Viar, who’s been in charge of stocking these fisheries in the White Mountains for a long time.

“Some people,” he told me, “want to fish for wild trout.” Who are those people? One thing about them is known: Few live in the White Mountain region year-round. They may have a second home in Bartlett, but they probably don’t have a permanent address there. Distinctions in angling methods come down to differences in physical address more often than not – even when, broadly speaking, cultural values are closely shared.

In a recent survey of the role of special regulations in wild trout management, researchers from Pennsylvania found that 61 percent of the biologists surveyed in the fourteen states believed special regulations in trout management are warranted based solely on social preferences, as opposed to biological need.

For the user groups that lobby for them, such special regulations mark a type of quality fishing experience that their members highly value and will travel far to find. Of the biologists surveyed in this study, conducted by researchers Jason Detar and Robert Carline, 56 percent believed special regulations increase fishing pressure, providing a kind of road map to good fishing. Biologists polled also indicated that they understand special regulations often reduce participation by other, less organized angler groups, and that this can lead to feelings of disenfranchisement. What results is resource partitioning, where some of the best trout-fishing resources are made off limits to anglers who use live baits, even though 89 percent of the biologists surveyed believe that both fishing with bait and some harvests can be compatible with special-regulations water.

As Detar and Carline point out, one of the biggest problems faced by fisheries biologists is explaining what special regulations can and can’t do. They are no panacea, and are generally not able to make a poor fishery into a good one. Special regulations that are put in place for purely social reasons, to satisfy a particular group’s sporting objectives (say, catching a trophy animal on a fly), compound a conundrum of culture. Trout anglers have strong-set beliefs, sometimes contradicted by the evidence. The least helpful belief is that their particular group is being zoned off water – in some cases, the best water – because of rules that have no biological merit. The result is resentment and conflict.

Today there are more urban anglers than rural anglers, because 75 percent of us live in urban areas. But fishing is still more important, as measured by the overall percentage of the rural population that fishes, in rural areas. In rural areas, trout fishing – all fishing – has not devolved completely away from food gathering, and that’s fine.

It was surprising to me to learn that a majority of New Hampshire’s trout anglers use worms and other live bait when they go trout fishing, not fly rods and flies. This is also true in Vermont and in most rural states. In my old universe, everyone was a fly angler, or if not, should be. That’s because it was the group I belonged to. In my teens, I papered my bedroom walls with pictures of big trout from Fly Fisherman magazine. I had recurring dreams of trout streams so vivid that for years I thought they were real. It wasn’t long before I began traveling west. I’ve sought catch-and-release waters from the North Ram in Alberta to the South Platte in Colorado. But size doesn’t matter to everyone. For the local angler living in Hart’s Location or Twin Mountain – a grandfather, maybe, who fished Ethan Pond with worms once a year for forty years, and who brings his grandchildren there – the social rule at Ethan is limiting. And since native trout and the sport’s survival are deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of future anglers, the influence of rules on participation is worth a hard look.

Wild trout – all native animals and plants in all the wild and domestic places, for that matter – are slung between the poles of society’s love and neglect. I came of age in the early 1970s thinking that a bright fish dangling from a thread is “beauty as well as bread.” John Muir penned that idea once about wilderness itself. Those who came of age in the early 1990s may have been born into an age epitomized by Lee Wulff ’s assertion that “catching trout is a sport; eating them is not.” But sadly, in today’s world, wild trout mean nothing much at all to most people. Few Americans – less than 3 percent – go trout fishing. The social dimension is never separate from a conservation goal. Trout fishing isn’t only sport for sport’s sake. For native coldwater fish to survive, in the rivers and in our imaginations, we may have to eat them.

Excerpted with permission from Lost in the Driftless by Tim Traver, 2017, Crooked River Press.


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