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Original Issue

Hatching up a new fishery

Don Brown wanted his dinners to be legal, so he started a campaign to propagate the sea-run trout

The streams in this story must go unnamed, to protect an innocent writer who enjoys getting mail but not the kind that ticks. The reason is that on and near Cape Cod there swims a fish, the sea-run brown trout, that causes men—sportsmen, some of them—to do strange things. Last month, for example, in a stream in the Cape town of Mashpee, a Massachusetts fisheries biologist encountered a trout angler who seemed to be plying his gentle art by assaulting the fish with a gaff hook. And when the biologist returned to his truck, with its covered holding-tank filled with live fish for the hatchery, another trout man had already been there and made off with the seven largest specimens.

These were desperate men. The sea-run brown trout of Cape Cod are not plentiful, but they do grow large—for trout, at least—and they do so by chomping on the ocean's bounty while usually looking down their noses at meals with strings attached. So a few frustrated anglers turn to gaff hooks and larceny, and to firearms. Last fall in Plymouth one group of trout men opened up with shotguns, and brought home a pail of what could best be described as Swiss trout. In another town, Kingston, the weapon was a .22 rifle.

This excessive behavior can be explained, partially at least, by the fact there are no experts in the sea-run brown trout fishery, not if expertise means consistent success. But the nearest thing to one is a 32-year-old professional flytier and lifelong angler named Brown—Don Brown—who somehow manages to obtain an occasional trout without resorting to guns or gaff hooks. Still, it isn't easy. "I've fished a lot of places for a lot of things," he says, "but this is the toughest fishing I've ever done." It is tough in many ways.

One morning recently Don Brown left his Kingston home at 5 a.m. The temperature was 20°. A half hour later, after crossing the Cape Cod Canal, he parked his car beside a colony of shuttered summer cottages on Cape Cod Bay, near the mouth of a stream, one of more than a dozen on the Cape with a population of sea-run browns. The tide was low, exposing barnacles and mussel beds, and a vast stretch of salt marsh extended upstream. It seems an odd place for a man with a fly rod fishing for trout. But at the creek mouth there was a shallow tidal pool, and Brown remembered another day of drizzle and chill, five years before to the month. The trout season closed in October then, and that day he released two sea-run browns. He could not close his two hands around either one. They weighed about eight pounds each, he says, and they were fresh from the sea, bright silver with black spots, brown only in name. Don Brown has never seen trout like them again, but he knew they were there, bigger ones, too, at some tide, in some creek, on Cape Cod, somewhere.

And now it was another November day, and Don Brown was freezing, but with a purpose. All over the Cape the big shining fish were returning to fresh water to spawn, not shoals of them but a few each day per stream, to Cape Cod Bay streams and to those flowing into Vineyard Sound, on the Cape's south side. They had grown an inch or more each month in the sea, and coping with its dangers had made them even more wary than non-migrating browns, the smartest of the trout. But aside from that and being bigger and stronger and silver, they were just regular brown trout, Salmo trutta. They had left their streams, and others had stayed, and no one knew why. That is the mystery of the sea-run brown.

That afternoon, at high tide, there were 16-inch sea-run fish upriver, terrorizing schools of small bait, at least until Brown cast to them. Then the river was suddenly quiet. But when Brown put down his rod and backed away from the banks, the commotion resumed.

Next morning at five Brown was heading down the Cape again. "It's unbelievable what these fish have done to the minds of some people," he said. And the state of Massachusetts is attempting to spread the disease. Other northeast states have sea-run browns—Maine, Connecticut (which is experimenting with eggs from Sweden) and New York, with a stream or two on Long Island. But only Massachusetts is conducting an extensive electroshock program. Spawning sea-run browns are stunned momentarily, then transported to hatcheries, where their eggs are stripped and fertilized. In two months they hatch into new generations of brown trout, hopefully with migratory tendencies. These are planted back in the streams, and after a year they will go to sea. A few reenter the river all through the summer, but these are mostly smaller fish. The spawners, larger trout, usually return in late fall. This year browns up to seven pounds were shocked in a stream off Vineyard Sound, one of the Cape's smallest.

Joe Bergin, a state fisheries biologist, estimates that about 49 trout have returned to that stream this fall. But within four years, if the program succeeds, he sees that number rising to 200 or more. Larger Cape streams would show a comparable rate of increase, some into the thousands offish.

The infertility of most Massachusetts trout waters has always limited the success of its trout program; three inches of growth in a year was considered good. But the shock technique opens up an ocean full of food to work with, and a trout bonanza may be in the offing. As Bergin says, "We hope to have a sea-run brown trout fishery for almost every coastal town in the state, north and south of Boston."

If that happens, then the man who started it all should be honored in some way, perhaps with a name change in the fishing books; Sea-Run Don Brown Trout would do. He was the man. As late as the '60s, on the Cape, no one talked about these fish; that would have been treason. A very few anglers had what amounted to a private stock of trout on public property, and they were afraid the fishery would be ruined. In numbers of fish it was extremely limited, and it still is. Then, as now, the largest trout returned after the season closed. But Don Brown wanted his November trout dinner to be legal, and he thought the fishery could be made more productive, so he began to pester the state's Fisheries and Game Division.

They told him there was no mass interest in sea-run trout, so he set out to arouse it. He bought a secondhand movie camera and spent the spring, fall and summer weekends for three years on his stream near the cottage colony. He knew nothing about making movies, but he came up with a 15-minute film of himself and two friends catching sea-run browns. Then he spent the next three years showing the film at sportsmen's clubs across the state. One scene showed the release of two-and three-pound trout, and the audiences all but climbed the walls. Where, when, how? everyone wanted to know. And finally the state extended the season. Last fall the shocking program was begun. Already 4,000 young trout have been put back in 10 streams.

But Don Brown refuses to sit and wait for the fish to show in large numbers. There already are enough sea-run browns for him to not catch, and the day after his failure with the feeding fish he was in the river mouth again at dawn. The tide was dead low, but upstream there were pools cut by the river at a bend, and Brown had studied them all: what kind of shelter they might offer a wary trout, how bait fish might be stranded by the falling tides. And now he began walking and wading upstream, ever so cautiously. He crossed the last stretch of sandbar on his knees, and finally sat low on his haunches and studied the pool. His first casts were short. It would not do to frighten a fish in close, and for 10 minutes, methodically and slowly, he worked his streamer fly through the pool. Once he thought he saw something. He switched to a smaller fly, a Grey Ghost, and he glanced nervously downstream. Soon the tide would be running in, and he could easily be stranded on the bar. Finally he tied on a tiny crayfish fly, his own creation. He began crawling it, nymphing it, along the bottom of the pool, and soon he rose from his knees, a beatific smile on his face.

The trout was only 14 inches long, but it fought the rod its 14 inches worth, and then it fought some more; life in the ocean is tougher than life in a trout pond. The trout's upper body was a light olive green, its black-spotted, silvery sides had a rosy glow, and Brown held it still in the water, cradling it in his hands until the gills began to work regularly. Then he let it swim away.

He could not wait to talk about his fish, how it took the fly, how it fought. He began to reconstruct the morning. He would have to decide on a suitable cover as to where it was spent.