I’ve found a new second-favorite native fish — one I’ve never touched, laid eyes upon or, for that matter, even knew existed before last week.
No. 1 is still Eastern brook trout: our New England fish. No. 2? Well, that would be the native fish few know: the blueback trout.
So let’s take a deeper look at this ancient blueback, discovered last week by chance after learning about traces of Arctic char found hidden in long-ago forgotten layers of ancient Lake Hitchcock’s bed. The char-fin fossils were discovered in the past 15 years by archaeologists examining lake-bottom varves deposited 14,000 to 18,000 years ago when our Connecticut Valley was submerged under a 300-some-mile-long proglacial lake of various widths and depths, extending from Burke, Vt., to Rocky Hill, Conn.
Myself a native of this valley and a veteran trout fisherman, I had indeed heard of Arctic char and knew that Eastern brook trout and lake trout were members of the char family, which is also related to Atlantic salmon. But blueback trout in New England? Uh-uh. I can’t claim to have heard so much as a whisper about this intriguing New England “native.”
On tight deadline last week, with no time to delve deeper into the riddle, I speculatively wrote that perhaps these ghost-like bluebacks had evolved into Eastern brook trout, which can indeed, in the proper water at the right time of year, sport a steel-blue back that beautifully bleeds into the sky-orange belly, accentuating bright, multi-colored spots associated with North America’s most beautiful trout.
Well, that knee-jerk hypothesis wasn’t far off. Although there still seems to be some disagreement among scholars, blueback trout are not descendants of Arctic char; they are Arctic char — the landlocked version. Yes, leftover Pleistocene refugees stranded by the retreating Wisconsin glacier and trapped ever since in proglacial lakes with no exit. Today this fish exists in isolated, cold, deep Maine lakes that are not inhabited by lake trout, which eat them. Although trophy-quality bluebacks measure nearly two feet in length and can weigh up to five pounds, fish so large are rare indeed. This particular coldwater fish is far more common in lengths ranging from six to 12 inches and weights of less than a pound. So they’re no match for their much larger, predatory lake-trout kin, which commonly weigh 30 to 40 pounds and can grow to world-record weight of 102 pounds, which would reduce a largest blueback on record (5 pounds, 3.84 ounces, caught at Pushineer Pond, Maine, in 2008) to a bite-sized minnow.
Blueback trout likely resided right here in the Happy Valley during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene period but had probably vanished or were very rare by the time our shores started receiving European settlers in the 17th century. That said, these fish then would have probably been common in deep North Country lakes, such as those of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region and far northern-Vermont lakes like Willoughby, Barton, Seymour and Champlain. The problem there was that in our enduring bigger-is-always-better Western mentality, lake trout and landlocked salmon were eventually stocked into popular North Country fishing lakes that had none, and this intervention brought a lethal predator that bellowed a death knell for bluebacks.
The same can be said of western Maine’s Rangeley Lakes, where bluebacks were its most numerous species into the late 19th century. That’s when landlocked-salmon stocking began, leading to blueback extirpation. Lake Mempremagog, two-thirds of which lies in Canada above the Vermont border, also likely had bluebacks if you go back far enough, but no longer holds any. Lakers, landlocked salmon and many other game fish are caught there today.
Experts aren’t sure whether the Sunapee trout associated with New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee are bluebacks or a remarkably similar, related Arctic-char subspecies thought to have found its way here from the North Atlantic during preglacial times. R.J. Behnke, author of “Trout and Salmon of North America” and the preeminent contemporary scholar on the subject, classifies both fish as Salvelinus alphinus oquassa.
Online research uncovered a public-radio site with a published narrative about North Country storyteller Willem Lange’s pursuit of the mysterious blueback trout after, quite by dumb chance, catching one on a Maine fishing trip 45 years ago. Curious about a fish he was sure he had never before seen, he investigated and was told by an old Maine Guide that it had have been a rare blueback. Lange, from East Montpelier, Vt., has traveled back to that remote pond three times since that day to land another and confirm his catch was a blueback, but he has never caught another.
The online NPR narrative quotes Lange as saying, “In 1971, on a pond deep in Maine, I caught a strange-looking trout. It was grayish-blue along the back and upper sides, with brook-trout spots and white on the leading edges of its fins beneath. I held it for a moment and slid it back into the water.”
Brook trout are plentiful in that same pond and much easier to catch because they lurk in the top 30 feet of water most of the time. Not so with bluebacks, which hunker deep, stay below 30 feet and are thus very difficult to catch.
I suspect some online images of blueback trout are misleading and unreliable. These photos look remarkably similar to the small Eastern brook trout I well know after catching them from boyhood into adulthood. In fact, if indeed every online photo of fish labeled as a blueback is what it claims it is, then bluebacks and brookies are virtually the same fish; however, I think some of the fish identified as bluebacks are not what they say they are. They are instead misidentified Eastern brook trout that can be found right here in the valley.
Arctic char are coldwater fish that live within and along the margins of the Arctic Circle. Thus their New England descendants do not do well in shallow lakes, where they cannot find cold enough summer depths in which to survive. This deep option would definitely have been available at Lake Willoughby in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, with depths plummeting more than 300 feet. The same could be said of Lake Champlain to the west, 100 feet deeper, but it appears that lake trout are also native there, which would probably have left the smaller bluebacks vulnerable to their large predatory cousins and reduced to a short-lived population of bait-fish.
If so, why then did these landlocked char thrive so long in the Rangeley Lakes and New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee? Did these bodies of water have no native lake trout or landlocked salmon? Can anyone say for sure? Like many questions Mother Nature can fling your foggy way, we may never know the answers.
In online United States Geological Survey records documenting 73 sites where blueback and Sunapee trout have been reported since the 19th century, 64 come out of Maine, seven come from (stocked) Idaho, with one each from Vermont and Massachusetts. The Vermont and Massachusetts bluebacks were both reported in 1896, with no sites identified. The descriptor in the “status” column for both reads “failed.” So who knows the story there? Around that time, several state blueback or Sunapee stocking initiatives were launched, including here in Massachusetts; they all failed.
That said, a man with a little determination and a lot of energy and angling expertise can still find bluebacks and catch them if he wants to travel to the North Woods, the land of dense black-fly swarms that can drive a man loco after the ice goes out in May.