By Matt Stevens
Salvelinus fontinalis.

The name rolls off the tongue like cool water slides through mossy cobbles in a shaded mountain stream. And fitting that it should; it translates to little salmon of the fount, or spring. Eastern brook trout is a member of the salmonid family and shares many physical characteristics, but it is neither a salmon nor a trout. Fish in the Salvelinus genus are collectively called char and, along with the brook trout, include bull trout, lake trout, dolly varden, and Arctic char. Depending on who — or rather where — you ask, you’ll hear this native eastern fish called brook trout, brookie, squaretail, speckled trout, speck, coaster, salter, and other colorful names.

Since the retreat of the continental ice sheets in North America, brook trout have inhabited streams, rivers and lakes from the southern Appalachian mountains north through the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay, east to Labrador and south along the coast to the mid-Atlantic states. Brook trout thrive best in cool, clear, oxygen-rich water with access to ample invertebrate life and spawning substrate. Young brook trout feed exclusively on plankton, insects, and other invertebrates; their growth and survival are dependent upon the relative abundance available to them. Fish in the most productive waters can grow to twelve inches or more at which point they become predatory and shift their diet to include smaller fish, crustaceans, and the occasional hapless rodent. Attaining predatory status is not easy, though. In most of its range south of northern New York and New England, a brook trout that lives through four years will have beaten the odds. A fish of ten or twelve inches could be considered a rare specimen. In the larger, more remote waters of Maine and eastern Canada, however, it is possible for brook trout to live as long as eight years and grow to eighteen or more inches. These fish are more frequently measured by weight than length. The largest brook trout ever captured came from Ontario’s Nipigon River and weighed 14.5 pounds and measured more than 30 inches in length. That was in 1916 and, while many river and lake systems still support healthy populations of fast-growing fish, most populations throughout the Appalachians are relegated to areas high above the valleys in small headwater streams where survival is a bit more tenuous.

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Native brook trout have been extirpated from most of their historic range — the primary culprits being large-scale removal of forest cover and the intentional addition of non-native fish species meant to quench an increasing thirst for recreational fishing opportunities.

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Over the course of the last three centuries native brook trout have been extirpated from most of their historic range – estimates vary from 50 to 95 percent, the primary culprits being large-scale removal of forest cover and later the intentional addition of non-native fish species meant to quench an increasing thirst for recreational fishing opportunities. Land clearing that began as agriculture blossomed and later moved toward industrial timber extraction directly impacted once vital brook trout habitats. Deforestation eliminates the shade that keeps water cool in summer and leads to erosion and sediment-laden runoff that buries spawning habitat. Timber operations also used streams and rivers to transport logs to distribution centers, often straightening sinuous rivers and scouring the beds. Just as human settlement moved up the major river valleys, brook trout were isolated further up their home watersheds where the water is smaller and less productive. Even before fishing became a popular recreational pastime, the once-ubiquitous brook trout was a common component of many people’s diet. So, the dramatic disappearance of this important food and sport fish did not go unnoticed and the alarm cries went up. The introduction of fish husbandry to the U.S. in the middle 19th Century appeared to be a dream solution, and it was…until it wasn’t. Proponents of stocking hatchery-raised fish discovered that brown trout from Europe and rainbow trout from the western U.S. could survive in the compromised waters where brook trout could not. Throughout the 20th Century and even today, state fish and game departments made their living by stocking millions of non-native trout throughout the east where brook trout might once have lived and even some places where they had not.

There’s one thing for sure about forests in the eastern U.S.: they want to be forests. Given the opportunity, they will regenerate. As forests so asserted themselves through the 20th Century, they regained their ability to regulate the temperature, flow, and sediment and nutrient inputs of watercourses. Many rivers and lakes in the east have recovered to a point where they can once again support brook trout populations. That is, except for the stiff competition from non-native trout still being stocked in them. Fisheries biologists have understood this dilemma for a long time, which is why state hatcheries have also been rearing and releasing brook trout alongside the browns and rainbows for years. Therein lies a large part of the current conundrum. Invariably, a modern hatchery-raised brook trout is a genetic amalgam of at least two different, likely geographically distinct strains and often selectively bred to satisfy the demands of a specific fishery. In other words, a brook trout stocked in the lower portion of a West Virginia river might bear greater genetic resemblance to an upstate New York fish than to the native population just a few miles upstream. Further, each successive generation (outside of natural reproduction) is further from the native source. Perhaps an obvious question is, so what?

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In the Appalachian region of the U.S., the healthiest populations of native, wild brook trout inhabit the wild waters of Maine.

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It’s a reasonable question. To be sure, it’s not necessarily about genetic purity, it’s about survivorship. The native fish have evolved to survive the conditions of their natal waters. Hatchery-raised fish often don’t have what it takes to survive beyond the season in which they are stocked, which may be okay for a put-and-take fishery, but it does nothing for the long-term viability of the species. Even so, some stocked trout — often called hold-overs — do survive the first winter and in some situations, fish stocked in spring live through to the autumn and may even successfully spawn. Survival rates, already low among the native fish, are even lower for the hatchery stock. Progeny of hatchery fish that do survive might legitimately be considered wild fish and with successive generations might establish a viable population. This is still distinct from being native and fisheries professionals and enthusiasts alike still don’t agree whether that matters. There is, however, growing consensus that fisheries programs should continue to shift from the put-and-take trade toward habitat reclamation and biodiversity protection.

In the Appalachian region of the U.S., the healthiest populations of native, wild brook trout inhabit the wild waters of Maine. In recent years, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has eliminated stocking programs in watersheds known to contain native or wild brook trout and focused management efforts on protecting and enhancing habitat to promote survival. Similar programs have begun to take hold in other states where isolated native or otherwise wild populations persist. In New England, a large part of brook trout habitat restoration involves re-connecting waterways that have been truncated or otherwise impeded by dams and roads. One such location is at Henderson Brook where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Katahdin Ironworks Road near Gulf Hagas in Maine. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is currently working with partners on a project to repair a dilapidated culvert that impedes migrating brook trout and Atlantic salmon in the West Branch Pleasant River system. Henderson Brook is the last of many such culverts in the area to be repaired and when finished will re-open nearly three miles of important spawning habitat. It seems like a very small part of a vast system, but if it helps protect this indigenous jewel, it’s not too small.