A sea-run brook trout from the Down East region of Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Mallard

Leighton Wass grew up in Southwest Harbor and graduated from Norwich University with a B.S. in science education. He taught high school biology in Vermont for 33 years and also is a freelance writer. At 80, he continues to use the outdoors as his playground. Wass lives in Adamant, Vermont, with his wife Jane and two Labradors. He has a book coming out this spring, “Fly Fishing The Hex Hatch,” published by North Country Press.

Growing up as a youngster who loved to fish in the 1950s, the area surrounding Southwest Harbor on Mount Desert Island provided a candy store full of opportunities.

Long Pond offered salmon, brook trout and smallmouth bass while Echo Lake supplied brook trout, bass and white perch. But the magnetic attraction to me was the multitude of small brooks with beaver flowages that harbored brookies, and a lot of them.

Some of these island brooks had a spring run of saltwater smelts, but all of the tributaries that entered the ocean had a run of “salters,” or sea-run brook trout. Usually, the first indication that sea-run trout were returning to freshwater after a stint in the ocean was the April sea-smelt run.

During nighttime net dipping for smelt in the brooks, just a stone’s throw away from the saltwater, once in a great while I would see a brookie entering with the smelts.

The trout season back then started on April 1, just as it does today for rivers, streams and brooks, and there often was still snow in the woods. Nevertheless, this tweenager just had to hike into his favorite brook.

Very few trout found the frying pan on those opening days, but once I was able to shake spring fishing fever and patiently wait a couple more weeks, I became more successful.

Around the first of May, I almost always had some brook trout on a forked stick when meeting my mother for a ride back home. A few of those would be gorgeous, sea-run brook trout.

That scenario continued into mid-June. In my early years, I fished mostly with worms and nightcrawlers,  but it wasn’t long before I graduated to fly rods after learning to fly fish with Stanwood King and Les King at Old Stream in Wesley.

Most of the salters I caught came from a fairly large stream called The Marsh (Bass Harbor Marsh on some maps), which emptied directly into Bass Harbor in Tremont. Back then, The Marsh was a sea-run trout gold mine, but it required a lot of hoofing through the woods to get to our treasured spots.

Once in a while, we fished The Marsh by launching a canoe at the bridge in Tremont and paddling upstream as far as we could until we were stopped by large beaver dams. Before some of those trips, we trapped small baitfish called mummichogs in channels that entered the lower marsh. As live bait, they always produced large trout.

Any small tributary to The Marsh had its own run of salters, such as Buttermilk Brook that enters the Marsh from the northeast, toward Long Hill. But I always caught my largest fish in the main stem of The Marsh.

A few locals fished the pants off The Marsh and that included Pete Somes, Normie Closson, the Carroll boys, the Norwoods, Stan Wass and myself. Normie tells me he caught a lot of trout there in the 15- to 16-inch range and no doubt most of those large trout were salters.

Another interesting account comes from angler Val Perkins, who used to be the principal of the Tremont School right next to The Marsh on Route 102. He was fishing for mackerel in the 1970s off the Swan’s Island Ferry Terminal in Bass Harbor and landed a sea-run trout among the mackerel! He is guessing it was headed to The Marsh.

Most of the largest sea-run trout that I caught from The Marsh were between 14 and 15 inches and weighed 1-1 1/4 pounds, but in 1959 I landed one powerhouse of a brookie. It measured 13 1/2 inches and weighed a whopping 1 3/4 pounds!

Back in the day, it was a common practice to outline large fish as a memento. This chunky sea-run trout was caught in 1959 on Mount Desert Island and weighed a walloping 1 3/4 pounds.” Credit: Courtesy of Leighton Wass

This brawny brookie put up one hell of a fight and was fooled by a front lawn nightcrawler. The trout had just recently come up from the saltwater and was the thickest brook trout that I have ever seen, outside of an 18-incher I landed at Moosehead Lake last May.

That same pool gave up two more handsome salters in 1960, my senior year of high school. Those two fish were duped on a Silver Doctor Bucktail fly casting with a fiberglass fly rod.

Sea-run brook trout were very easy to identify from other trout when they first entered fresh water. These salters would be full of vim and vinegar, producing a much scrappier fight than a holdover trout of the same size.

Also, the color of the salters was striking, with a silvery-purplish sheen dotted with bright red spots. I don’t recall if the blue halos around a trout’s red spots were easily visible or not, but I suspect so, only somewhat faded, as were the vermiculation markings.

After the salters had been in freshwater for maybe a week or two, their iridescence darkened considerably from the tea-colored, tannin-laced water. The flesh of sea-run trout was a very pretty, deep orange color. We ate a lot of trout at the Wass home in those days.

I didn’t realize it back then, but I believe that the majority of sea-run brook trout entered freshwater brooks and streams during a full or new moon, when tides were the highest, and also after dark.

Other brooks with salters back then included Norwood Cove Brook in Southwest Harbor and Kittredge Brook in Trenton. A little farther away Down East, Tunk Stream was also noted for a good run of salters.