The brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is our only true native trout in West Virginia as well as much of the eastern United States. They’ve inhabited our clean, coldwater streams for the last several million years. During the pre-Colonial times, brook trout were found in almost every coldwater stream and river in the eastern US.
What these beautiful fish lack in size they make up for in their array of colors they display. There’s no other freshwater fish more colorful than a brook trout in spawn. They’re a green to olive color with a wormlike pattern down their back. Hot pink spots ringed in a light blue halo dot their sides. Yellow turns to a fire orange on the belly and only intensifies on a spawned up male brookie. Their fins have a white slash followed by a black streak with the rest of the fin having a vibrant orange color.
Since they’ve been here long before us it’s a no wonder the brook trout was chosen as West Virginia’s state fish. Even though their populations have declined, they can still be found in many of our headwater streams. Fishing for brook trout is an adventure in itself.
Oftentimes, these tiny tributaries are small and lined with rhododendron. Tara and I decided to venture up one of them this past weekend. The cooler temperatures and lower humidity made it feel like a touch of fall in the air. Fall is the time that brook trout spawn, or mate, and become most colorful.
I never let a September go by that I don’t go chase brook trout. The anticipation grew as we hiked into one of our favorite brookie streams. Once we arrived we found out that the brook trout were quick to jump on a black foam cricket which proved to be the fly of choice for the day.
We crawled over moss covered rocks and through the rhododendron casting into every small pool and hole we walked by. A 12-inch brook trout is considered a big one and although we didn’t catch any that size we came close with a couple solid 10-inchers. I even caught the smallest trout ever with a one inch brook trout fry. One inch might even be pushing it.
Some of the brookies were starting to get their spawn colors as Tara caught a beautiful one with a fire orange belly. It’s been said that trout don’t live in ugly places and brook trout fishing is as much about the scenery and the places they’ll take you as the actual fishing itself. This particular tributary we were fishing had some nice deep plunge pools and small waterfalls along the way.
We stayed in the creek most of the time slowly walking along up a deep, dark hollow. There was one nice hole after another with plenty of hungry brookies. Brook trout aren’t too picky and fairly easy to catch which also makes them fun to fish for. After a few hours we found ourselves a couple miles from the truck and decided to hit an old logging road and start the hike out.
We are blessed here in West Virginia with hundreds of streams just like this one that are full of native brook trout, fish that were living here well before us. However, there used to be a lot more of them according to the Eastern Brook Trout: Status and Threats study that was published in 2006 by Trout Unlimited for the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture.
“The majority of West Virginia’s remaining brook trout sub-watersheds are greatly reduced largely due to poor water quality associated with a long history of poor land management, forestry and mining. In addition, acid deposition and abandoned mine drainage each impair approximately 25 percent of available brook trout habitat” according to the study.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, poor logging practices led to the brook trout’s downfall in many streams. Most all of the trees were cut including the last virgin timber here in West Virginia. In the higher elevations erosion from runoff caused much of the topsoil to be washed into the streams leaving a rocky ground behind.
Over time with the burning of more fossil fuels, acid rain became a problem. When the acidic rain fell, the rocky terrain had poor buffering capabilities and the acid leached into our tributaries and rivers. Many were and still are too acidic now to harbor a healthy brook trout population as brook trout prefer a pH in the six to seven range. They can tolerate pH’s in the five range but reproduction is limited.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) has recently began dumping limestone fines in the extreme headwaters of several streams all across the state to help buffer the acidic water and create hundreds of miles of new so called brook trout water. As the lime buffers the acidic waters the pH climbs back towards the neutral range and the brook trout return.
Oftentimes, the watershed will have at least one or two tributaries harboring brook trout and when the water quality becomes better they drop down and hopefully start to repopulate the entire watershed. At least this is the goal of the liming project and so far it’s worked on a few streams and new streams are being limed each year.
Of course, the liming has to continue in order to keep the pH up. The West Virginia Chapter of Trout Unlimited (WVTU) has been a huge contributor to the liming project providing donations and volunteers. Clean water is essential to all life and especially to our oldest relatives the brook trout.
They are an excellent indictor species of good clean water and we should help them anyway we can as we all use water everyday. I sure do enjoy fishing for them and the places they live. I’m thankful I live in a state I can go catch them anytime I want to. God bless the brook trout.