Saving Michigan’s Coaster Brook Trout

Despite the coaster’s obscurity today, the fish was once a star on the stage of Lake Superior angling. When Europeans first arrived here, biologists believe the fish swam by the millions along the rocky Lake Superior shore and up an estimated 105 Lake Superior tributaries (including at least 30 in the United States) to spawn, making it the dominant near-shore species.

From the mid 1800’s on, sportsmen and sportswomen traveled from across America and even from Europe to catch the fish. The taste was marvelously subtle but memorable. The muscular fish was radiant when pulled sparkling from the water. And fishing guides and clients alike appreciated that the fish was especially easy to catch. But fishermen over-fished. Sand from logging poured into rivers and buried the clean, rocky stream bottoms that the fish needed for egg laying. Dams blocked or inundated other breeding stretches. Pollution changed the chemistry of streams. The coaster’s population came crashing down. By the 1930’s, George Shiras, a Marquette naturalist and early photographer for National Geographic, was already writing about the disappearing coaster.

Shiras’s work provides vivid proof of the coaster’s great PR conundrum: for decades, coaster devotees—government biologists, university researchers, tribal biologists and local advocates—have been warning of the fish’s demise, but beyond this dedicated group there seems to be almost no broader awareness of the fish’s plight and a puzzling hesitancy to ban fishing.

When coaster advocates asked the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to protect the fish in 2005, instead of a ban on fishing, the commission just reduced the bag limit to one a day and increased the minimum size to 20 inches. And despite all the reports written, there had been no long-term study of the coaster until one began in 1996. “We are still learning the basic ecology of the fish,” Huckins says. Reminder, we’re talking about a fish that was once a central piece of the Lake Superior food web and has tremendous angling potential (i.e., tourist dollars). We’re not talking about saving some obscure minnow like the snail darter.

Dr. Ed Baker, Huckins’s co-lead researcher and biologist at the DNR’s Marquette office, has long championed the fish. I ask him how the coaster could have fallen this far before people pushed for endangered species protection. “In the current angler community there’s a lack of experience with the coaster. They don’t understand what coaster fishing was in 1900, so there’s no cry for coaster restoration,” he says. “When we try to get anglers interested, they start to change the subject. ‘When are you going to stock more coho?’” In short: the coaster needs a fan base.

Perhaps to help resolve the fish’s publicity issues, Huckins and Baker agree to let me tag along on their August sampling study on the Salmon Trout River in the U.P. Their work for the study began back in 2000. Two main goals of the study are to chart population trends by recording the types and sizes of fish living in the Salmon Trout and to gather tissue samples for DNA analysis to see if the coaster is a distinct breeding population.

Article Comments

  • George Van Setters

    I live in the Upper Peninsula, and fish more of the better streams in serch of this very fish and personaly beleive their simply must be more than 400 of this grand species. I fish everyday, simply it is my life, in the past 10 yrs I will say with confidence I had say close to 20 fish upwards of 16 inch’s and at least 3 closer to 20inchs at the end of my line. My focus turned to them more in the past 5yrs in which Ive seen a huge population change, which I acount for a low level period, the region is going through. I began to notice fish breaking 4lb test line and even rods in a second, so I got a little excited if you will. switched to some unorthidoc fishing methods and began to piture fish, more and more over every changing year and seriously their must be more research, I beleive this fish to be very smart, I find them in places that sometimes bewilder me on how they even got were they where. Recently I read an article on Coasters and they say’d only 1 stream in the U.P. contained coasters the salmon river, and its simply is not true! The little two heart, big two heart, and many, many, creaks, ditches, runoffs and dams have Coasters. A lot of time, and comitment and you can find them.

  • Anonymous

    Recent genetic testing has shown that “coaster” brook trout are simply stream brook trout that moved to the lake and grew bigger in that environment. They return to the streams to spawn with the brook trout that stayed there, so they really are all one species.

  • Anonymous

    My best friend’s father caught (and ate) a 22 inch “coaster” caught out of lake michigan in Menomonee within the last 5 years.

  • Anonymous

    I live in tip of the mitt Michigan. Brookies are the apple of my eye, the surroundings of their existence constitute the most beautiful places on earth. The fishing population has become too focused on entering large prolific fish to our native waterways. Salmon, steelhead, and even browns are non-native species to our waters. The commercialization of our waterways has almost kiled our native fishery. The once prolific Laker and resident Brook Trout are largely overshadowed by invasive trash species that out compete and destroy habitat. Why introduce a large pacific salmon that will travel into a brook trout stream, unsuccessfully spawn, and rot and die? This creates a huge chemical imbalance of its own in our waters. The DNR needs to receive a head from butt surgery and leave the trash fish in the pacific, allow our native species to recover, and offer an apology to mother earth. The Coasters are sacred to those that know their residences, and WE are the ones that try and save them. The government is only out for money. Period.

  • Anonymous

    Dr. Jill Leonards from northern michigan university’s research on 7 mile creek is the most up to date and factual information. Read it, support it.