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.
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?
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.