Thursday, February 03, 2011

Redfin Pickerel in the Brooks of Easton, Mass.



The redfin pickerel (Esox americanus) is the smallest and least known member of the pickerel and pike family, which contains the more well known and much bigger chain pickerel, northern pike and muskellunge. Chain pickerel (Esox niger) and redfin pickerel are the two species of the family native to Massachusetts.

Redfin pickerel are very small, usually less than 5-6 inches, and only rarely up to 10 inches. Since they are quite similar in appearance to chain pickerel, most people who have seen a redfin pickerel assume it is a very small chain pickerel.

Redfin pickerel occupy a fairly unique niche along the Atlantic seaboard: very small first and second order brooks. In some areas, such as northern New England, this niche would be occupied by the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). Unlike redfin pickerel, native brook trout are extremely intolerant to water temperatures much above 65 F.

Easton is unusually situated at the very top of the divide between the Neponset and Taunton River watersheds. For this reason, especially in North Easton, most of the brooks are truly first order streams, meaning they rise directly from isolated marshes, bogs, seeps and springs. In contrast, a second order brook is one formed by the joining of two first order brooks. Nearly all of the brooks in Easton are first or second order, meaning they are very small and have a very limited watershed. Brooks of this type have some very unusual attributes, including, unfortunately, that they can periodically dry up during prolonged droughts.

Prior to 1978-1979, an enormous tract of woods existed from Holmes Street and Linden Street in North Easton all the way to Stoughton and the Stoughton Fish and Game club. It was bordered by North Main Street on the west and Washington Street on the east. Around 1979 a large chunk of this land was turned into subdivisions.

Before 1979, however, I used to walk these woods quite a bit. They had all been cleared for pasture in the 1800s as evidenced by stone walls running through the woods this way and that. Just to the west of where Whitman Brook crosses the railroad tracks near the Stoughton line I discovered a tiny brook, barely a foot or two across, that stayed wet all year round, and flowed into Whitman Brook. So one day after school I followed its trace.

At some point a century earlier a farmer had a little cart path that crossed the brook and made a tiny bridge over the brook using some flat pieces of glacial rock nearby. It was quite odd seeing such an old, but obviously handmade little piece of construction way out in the middle of the woods. Leaning on my belly on the piece of granite I looked into the water and was surprised to see a tiny pickerel, no more than 3-4 inches long, hovering in the current like a brook trout, head pointed upstream, waiting for a little insect or other bit of food to float by. I watched him for about a half hour.

Now, in hindsight, I'm quite certain I was watching a redfin pickerel, whose ancestors had probably been living in that little tiny brook for the past 8,000 or so years.

Unfortunately, the little brook was destroyed the next year to build Phase IV of a bunch of McMansions.

Too bad.

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