Gone fishin’: A search for brook trout on Martha’s Vineyard brings hidden rewards

Fly fisherman Tim Sheran sees the potential in the Mill Brook, and wonders why others do not.

Tim Sheran holds a native brook trout he caught and released on Martha's Vineyard.

Tim Sheran of Vineyard Haven is not an advocate in the strict sense of the word. He is not the kind of guy who raises his voice at a public meeting to exhort people to action. An expert fly fisherman, he knows what he knows, and if you ask, he will tell you what he thinks.

Tim knows that Mill Pond in West Tisbury is a fake — an artificial mud puddle created by a dam that chokes off the natural flow of native brook trout and other species — and that the swans that grace its surface are an invasive species that are as harmful as the phragmites that have supplanted native bulrushes around Island waterbodies.

And he knows that with some effort, the brook could be restored to its natural beauty. Because he has seen it and fished it.

The Quashnet River in Falmouth and Red Brook in Wareham/Plymouth offer two examples. Tim has fished both streams, and is convinced that anyone who has any doubts about what Mill Brook might look like with its dams removed needs only to visit either place — preferably carrying a fly rod, but fishing skill is not a prerequisite to be able to appreciate their beauty, he said.

Tim, 39, grew up in Western Massachusetts and visited the Island with his family as a kid. His résumé includes professional bicycle racer. He moved to the Island years ago, and used to install tile for a living. Married and with a young son and a new business, Cottage City Bicycle in Oak Bluffs, he still finds time to fish. When I spoke to him on Sunday, he had just spent the predawn hours casting for a big bluefish, and the morning casting for albies in the driving wind and rain, without much success.

Our conversation began months ago in the summer, when I encountered him in the parking lot at Alley’s. He was going trout fishing, an unusual pursuit on an Island where the focus is on the salt and the striped bass is king.

Tim told me that for years he has explored the small streams and brooks of the Island in search of trout, which still survive in scattered, hidden pools.

“I barely know the names of any of the water that I’ve fished here,” he said. “Seeing a stream on the side of the road and just walking up to it; that’s how a lot of my fishing goes.”

Tim acquired his passion and knowledge fishing for trout on a piece of the Willimantic River near his family’s summer cottage. Although he is never far from a beach, he still rises to the call of trout.

“For me, hiking into the woods — getting away from people — it’s just the adventure. Hiking down some stream, crawling through pricker bushes, sliding down embankments to catch that one little trout that you see sitting in that pool. That’s kind of why I like to do it.”

The reward is in the effort and the discovery. “I’ve never kept a brook trout, ever, on Martha’s Vineyard,” Tim said.

Mill Brook is not the only degraded stream in Massachusetts, but it may be the only one where the inhabitants resist the notion that a natural watercourse is superior to an artificial one, and twist themselves into knots coming up with environmental reasons to defend it. The Quashnet River and Red Brook provide prime examples of what can be accomplished when environmental science prevails over sentiment.

“It’s an old cranberry bog that the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition came in and rehabbed,” Tim said. “That stream is one of the most amazing places; the amount of fish in there; the size of the fish in there; you are a mile and a half, two miles from the ocean, and there are 12-inch herring running up this three-foot-wide stream. And in the fall when the fry come down, my buddy hooked this 14-inch male brook trout — hooked jaw — it was pretty cool.”

Most of the credit for the Quashnet goes to the Cape Cod Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which has worked on the river since 1975, according to Division of Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Steve Hurley.

Tim said there is nothing that prevents Mill Brook, or any other brook on the Island, from being transformed. He said the nostalgia people feel for the pond is misplaced.

“Honestly, in a year it will rehab itself. It will still be beautiful … it will fix itself real quick. Of course, I want to see a trout stream over just seeing a stagnant puddle with invasive swans living in it.”

Tim thinks it is not out of the question that in the future, he could catch sea run trout, known as salters, in Tisbury Great Pond. It is a dream he has.

The brook trout is a native New Englander. It is part of our heritage, and Mill Brook was once among the many prolific trout streams in southeastern Massachusetts.

In 1833, Dr. Jerome V.C. Smith, a medical doctor and author of “The Natural History of the Fish of Massachusetts,” speaking of trout, described what he saw at Mill Brook: “In no place, however, do we remember to have seen them in such abundance as in Dukes County, upon Martha’s Vineyard…. It was here in the month of November last, and of course in their spawning time; while returning home from a ramble among the heaths and hills of Chilmark and Tisbury, that crossing the principal brook of the island, our attention was attracted towards the agitated state of the water, and never do we recollect so fully to have realized the expression of its being ‘alive with fish’ as on this occasion.”

It is the history and heritage of the brook trout, and its link to our fishing past, that captivates Tim, a member of the Derby committee who spends plenty of time during the fall classic in pursuit of big fish. But the pleasure he gets from fishing is all relative, and has nothing to do with size.

“For me, getting a bite from a trout is more important than catching something that weighs 30 pounds,” he said.

Return the rod

Last week, I wrote about Macol Oliveira (“Reading the water takes on a whole new meaning”), a polite 16-year-old passionate fisherman, and his drone. On Friday Macol sent me an email: “Today I was fishing at Memorial Wharf, and I turned my back for 5 minutes. In the time someone stole my rod and reel. It was a St. Croix avid surf seven-foot (red) with a Penn Clash 6000.”

Hopefully someone picked it up by mistake. If anyone knows anything please call Edgartown Police at 508-627-4343.