Bringing back the brookie: Successful restoration paints bright future for native trout
In the early 1900s, Florence Cope Bush, author of Dorie: Woman of the Mountains, described native brook trout as being so numerous that it was near impossible for her mother to dip a wash pan in a mountain stream without it filling with their small, brown and orange speckled bodies. Bush’s mother grew up on land that was taken to form the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but her experience with the fish is common to the region.
Decades later, they had all but disappeared. Populations were decimated due to years of extensive logging and habitat loss to non-native brown and the rainbow trout, which were introduced by the government and which eventually muscled out the mountain brook trout.
“They were so plentiful at one time — they were almost a nuisance,” said Swain County native Jim Casada. “You couldn’t even get clean water to wash dishes.”
Casada’s father lived to be 101 years old, and he too told his son about the bygone grandeur of the once prominent and celebrated mountain fish, known colloquially as “the specks” or “speckled” trout for their bright red dots. His tales include a story about a 27-inch speckled trout reeled in out of the large Tuckasegee River that had spots as big as dimes.
Although the biggest one Casada has seen in his life was just 12 inches, and that was more than 30 years ago, he still has fond memories of the fish. Most of those memories revolve around eating the fish, since at one time they were a staple of the mountain diet.
And the mountain people, according to Casada, even resisted eating the new species of trout introduced to the local streams because of their affinity for the specks. The non-native brown trout were referred to as dough-bellies for their drab, white underside in comparison to the bright orange one of the speckled trout. Although Casada is a renowned fisherman and outdoors author, and well versed in the art of catch and release, he learned from his mother to appreciate the rich taste of speckled trout.
“I love to eat speckled trout, dressed up in his corn bread dinner jacket, deep fried so you can eat the bones,” Casada said. “My momma had a different idea of catch and release; she believed in release to grease.”
But now the fish are scarce in larger rivers and instead found predominantly in the upper reaches of high-elevation, cool-water streams that appear as sliver-skinny blue lines on a topographic map. Many speckled trout live in starvation conditions because of the scarcity of food. As a result, they grow disproportionately large heads for their four- and five-inch-bodies. If a speckled trout reaches double-digit inches it is a trophy, comparable to a 30-inch brown trout.
But that doesn’t stop fisherman from trekking long distances in the backcountry and employing unorthodox tactics to evade detection by the skittish fish in the hopes of landing a piece of Appalachian heritage on the line. Although the speckled trout inhabit just a fraction of their previous range, successful reintroduction efforts by the park made it home to some of the largest native brook trout streams in the country. The park now allows anglers to fish for the native trout.
Ian Rutter, a biologist and fishing guide along with his wife Charity on the Tennessee side of the park, specializes in taking fisherman to the park’s best native brook trout streams. Unlike stocked trout, the speckled are wily, free and some of the most difficult fish to catch. Rutter said although they are small, an eight-inch brook has a vertical leap of 56 inches, or seven times its body length, which would be the equivalent of basketball star Lebron James jumping nearly 47 feet.
The couple has seen the specks swim up waterfalls, attempt to eat a salamander, and spook at a shadow or a splash of water.
“They’re born nervous and only the paranoid survive,” Charity said.
From a champion saltwater fisherman to the chief executive officer of outdoor apparel company Orvis, people from all around have come to the Rutters to try a hand at the Southern Appalachian brook trout — some more successfully than others. To catch a brookie, fishermen may need to bushwhack off trail, wear drab colors, hide behind boulders while casting a line, and tiptoe through a stream to avoid rippling the water or making loud sounds. The reward for all that effort is a very small fish.
However, as Ian points out, they’re also the most colorful trout and one of the most special species in the park.
“Brook trout are generally not known for being big fish, and that’s generally not the point when it comes down to it,” Ian said.
As early as next year, the park will open its largest section of exclusive brook trout stream yet for fishing, Lynn Camp Prong. The 8.5-mile stretch is an important mile-marker for the species as they slowly regain territory following more than a century-long upstream struggle to survive. Logging once deposited copious amounts of silt into mountain streams, disrupted the fish’s egg nests and stripped away the shade canopy that kept mountain waters at tolerable temperature levels for the brook trout. In addition, loads of non-native trout competed for territory and food.
However, since the mid-1970s, the park stopped its practice of stocking non-native fish and began rehabilitating the native brook trout populations.
Meanwhile, the end of logging operations in the park in the 1930s means trees along many waterways in the area have regenerated and shade the water beneath.
“The state of the brook trout is the best it’s has been since the logging era,” Ian said.
He can already see a generational divide. While he once had to painstakingly seek out brook trout fishing holes, his daughter is experiencing an entirely different Great Smoky Mountains National Park in regards to brook trout.
“For her it’s, ‘you just go up to Tremont walk a little bit and, oh yeah, they’re everywhere,’” Ian said.
But the restoration has not been an easy task and, as Ian explained, you can’t just get on the phone and call the nearest fishery for an order of native brook trout.
In fact, the Southern Appalachian variety of the brook trout, which is the kind found naturally in the park and much of Western North Carolina, is more genetically distinct from its northern brook trout counterparts than a rainbow trout is a from a cutthroat.
Restoration efforts are labor intensive and involve using chemical treatments to kill all the trout species in a particular stretch of water or sending electricity into the stream, causing the invasive fish to surface so they can be caught and moved elsewhere.
The mountain brook trout must be transported from a nearby stream, often with the help of workers hauling buckets of water with the fish on their backs. They take the trout to a special water truck that drives to the next stream to hand off the trout to the next groups of bucket-haulers who will bring the fish to their new home.
And there is even enough variety among speckled trout in different stream systems that it has posed problems for the restoration efforts. In one instance, the brook trout from two different waterways — Bunches Creek near Cherokee, and Upper Little River — didn’t mate when intermingled during a restoration project.
“There are many learning curves,” said Steve Moore, supervisory fishery biologist for the park. “But we’ve learned from past mistakes.”
In 1976, Moore was introduced to brook trout restoration in the park while working on his graduate research project. Since then, he has seen more than 27 miles of stream rehabilitated for brook trout, bringing the total to more than 120 miles of exclusive speckled trout streams in the park. Another 14 miles of the park’s 550 miles of fish inhabited streams have been identified as suitable for further restoration work, but funding can limit what projects can be done.
To be eligible for restoration, stream segments need a downstream barrier, such as a waterfall, to prevent the persistent rainbow trout from returning after being removed. Using electro-fishing methods, it can take biologists up to seven years of repeated shocking and removal of invasive species before they are eradicated from a section of the stream. Chemical methods that kill all the trout in the section of water so scientists can start from scratch re-stocking brook trout can reduce that timeframe to a couple of weeks.
Either way, the presence and continued stocking of rainbow trout outside the parks means there will always be immigration across its borders via streams that don’t have a natural obstruction.
“You’re never going to get rid of all the rainbow trout,” Moore said. “With stocking outside park boundaries, they’re going to move in.”
It also seems as if brook trout have decided to move out. In the past five years, they have led their own charge to re-establish themselves in their historic streambeds. In Cataloochee Valley, the diminutive fish have successfully mixed with the brown and rainbow throughout that watershed. They also have strongholds in streams outside the park alongside non-native trout.
Several theories have been offered for the expansion of territory. Moore said the several seasons of drought might have favored the brook trout over the non-natives. Rainbow trout prefer faster-moving waters. Moore said the park is monitoring the speckled trout’s progress to see if the recent wet season might have allowed the rainbow trout to push them back out again.
But Moore’s bigger concern is that the fish’s recent success could be bittersweet due to a more troubling trend of acid deposition in the mountain streams from polluted rain. The rainbow trout, especially, are more sensitive to acidic waters than the brook trout.
Yet, so far, the brook trout’s future remains mysteriously bright.
“They have expanded their range,” Moore said. “But right now we don’t have all the answers.”