Ashland (WI) Press of April 1880: "Fish Creek-This well known trout stream is but one mile west of our famous hotel, and is probably visited by more tourists and fisherman than any other trout stream on the south shore of Lake Superior. It yields from three to six thousand brook trout per annum, and has done so for the past ten years, and still it seems exhaustless."
One of only two native trout species in the Great Lakes region, the coaster brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is a migratory form of the stream dwelling brook trout. The coasters were historically widespread along the shoreline areas of Lake Superior with spawning populations found in the lake's tributary streams. They may also have been found in Lake Huron and northern Lake Michigan possibly due to the results of introductions in the late 1800s or early 1900's but information is anecdotal at best. Because of its preference for rocky, coastline habitat local residents called these brook trout "coasters." In Wisconsin for this very same reason they were also called rock trout.
Coasters, unlike brook trout that live year-round in streams, spend part of their life in the lake and return to tributary streams, river mouths, or nearshore settings in late summer or autumn to spawn. Typically the coaster brook trout spawn in sheltered, well-oxygenated, cooler waters with the spawning beds (redds) comprised of loose, silt-free gravel or coarse sand over an area of groundwater. A few coaster populations spend their entire life in the lake spawning on rocky shoals.
The coaster was highly valued by recreational anglers because of their abundance, ease to catch, bright coloration and sheer size. Little is actually known about coaster populations because their numbers were greatly reduced or even eliminated from certain areas before any rigorous information could be collected. Much of what is known about historical coaster populations in Lake Superior come from newspaper articles, letters and travel reports from the later half of the nineteenth century.
It is likely that a large number of Lake Superior tributaries supported spawning populations of coasters, although the actual number will never be known. Early accounts suggest coaster brook trout occurred in at least 45 streams along Ontario's shore, 25 in Michigan, 12 in Wisconsin and 9 in Minnesota. Current thinking places the number of Lake Superior streams that once held coasters at over 120.
Because of its popularity among anglers and no limits on catches, along with the opening of remote Lake Superior streams by road, rail, and private boats, there was tremendous pressure on the coaster population. Further pressure was added by the settlement and industrial advancement of lakeshore communities and the introduction of exotic species such as the sea lamprey (Petromyson marinus), Pacific salmon, including rainbow trout (Onchoryhychus mykiss) and brown trout (Salmo trutta). These pressures combined with the degrading quality of habitat that resulted from the extensive logging and mining practices of the early century resulted in the loss of coasters from their traditional habitat. By the 1950's their numbers were reduced to the few remnants that remain today.
Over the last century efforts have been made to bolster the number of coasters found in Lake Superior. Stocking programs have been attempted, some as early as 1900, but met with little success due to degraded habitat, inadequate harvest regulations, inappropriate stocking locations, and continued competition from exotic species. Further complicating these efforts was the relatively unknown ecology of the coaster itself.
Three viable U.S. populations of coasters are known to exist (two around Isle Royale and one in the Salmon-Trout River of Michigan's Upper-Peninsula) and it is possible other remnant U.S. populations have yet to be documented. There are additional populations in Canada, with the most robust population found in the Nipigon River of Ontario.
The members of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission began cooperative efforts in 1993 to document the status of coaster brook trout in Lake Superior. In 1999, the Commission took an additional step towards the rehabilitation of the coaster by passing "A Brook Trout Rehabilitation Plan for Lake Superior." The plan provided guidelines for rehabilitation efforts leaving individual states and agencies responsible for developing and implementing their own action plans. Both the Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources have since created specific rehabilitation plans for Lake Superior brook trout. TU was the only non-governmental organization involved with assisting in the plan's development. Today, twenty-six agencies and organizations are now actively involved in coaster rehabilitation efforts guided by recommendations set forth in the plan.
In 2006 the Michigan based Mackinac Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Huron Mountain Club submitted a petition to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list coaster brook trout under the Endangered Species Act. In 2008 the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the petition had enough merit to warrant a full review and requested public comments and information to assist with that review. The review will conclude in December 2008 with a proposed decision regarding whether or not to list the coaster brook trout under the Endangered Species Act.