Brook trout

This brightly colored eastern brook trout was caught and released in a West Virginia stream. 

 “If you have a brook trout population that survives in a stream, that stream is in good shape, and if you have reproducing populations in the stream, it’s fantastic.” — John Kies

The brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is a small, brilliantly colored freshwater fish native to clear, cold streams and rivers in the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It is also the state fish of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Brook trout are recognized by a dark green back covered with lighter worm-shaped markings. These markings, which resemble the pattern created when the sun shines through rippled water, helps to camouflage brook trout from predators such as larger fish, herons and even fly fishers. Bluish sides are sprinkled with yellow spots and red spots surrounded by blue halos. The brook trout’s fins are starkly edged in white, which is unique among other common trout.

These fish thrive in clear, silt-free, well-shaded freshwater streams with numerous pools and a substrate made of mixed gravel, cobble and sand. Brook trout are not tolerant of water temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, so they are rarely found in developed areas.

They are not picky eaters and feed on a wide variety of food items. Opportunistic feeders, brook trout eat whatever they can find including aquatic insects, like mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies; land insects that fall into the water, like ants and beetles; small crayfish; and even small fish and minnows, but only when they are easy to catch

Brook trout spawn in autumn, mainly October to November. The female uses her tail to create a shallow nest or “redd,” often near the lower end of the pools where the gravel is swept clean of silt and fresh oxygenated water is abundant. There, she deposits eggs which males then fertilize. During spawning, the lower flanks of males become brilliant orange and older males may develop a slightly hooked lower jaw.

The female covers the fertilized eggs with gravel. The eggs incubate through the winter months and hatch in the spring. Brook trout mature in two to three years and live about six years. Most grow no more than 9–10 inches. A 12-inch brook trout is rare and considered a real trophy.

Though small, brook trout have always been a prized game fish, and are especially popular among fly fishermen. Historically noted for their recreational value, brook trout are very significant biologically. Because they require pristine, stable habitat with high water quality conditions, brook trout are viewed as indicators of the biological integrity of streams. As water quality in headwater streams has declined, so have brook trout populations.

Urbanization affects brook trout through the loss of streamside vegetation and stream shading, increased sedimentation, reduced flow, increased high flow events, changes in the physical makeup of stream beds and increased impervious surface.

Agricultural impacts on brook trout populations are similar to those of urbanization: increased water temperature and sedimentation, changes in hydrology, and loss of streamside vegetation. Additionally, livestock can pollute water and damage stream banks, increasing the erosion of sediments into waterways.

Mining activities impact brook trout populations through acid mine drainage, hydrological changes and physical habitat degradation.

Nonnative fish, such as brown trout, compete with native brook trout for food and habitat.

Brook trout populations can also become isolated because of physical barriers like dams, decreasing genetic diversity and the survival of the species.

Recognizing the uniqueness of eastern brook trout and its decline in this region, an alliance, the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, was formed in 2004. This partnership of state and federal agencies, regional and local governments, businesses, conservation organizations, academia, scientific societies and private citizens is working to protect, restore and enhance brook trout populations and their habitats across their native range.

Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture works on a variety of activities including identifying and prioritizing brook trout restoration and conservation projects; restoring brook trout habitat using bank stabilization, instream structures and streamside plantings; removing dams and other stream blockages; and promoting livestock fencing.

These efforts not only help brook trout but provide economic benefits to local communities by providing buffers against flooding, increasing fishing and other recreational opportunities, and improving the local environment.

From 2006 through 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Fish Habitat Action Plan funded 88 eastern brook trout conservation projects from Maine to Georgia: three in Maryland, 14 in Pennsylvania, three in New York, five in Virginia and nine in West Virginia. Two hundred forty different organizations were involved in these projects at the local level.

Forty-nine projects enhanced 240 stream miles, while another project enhanced 157 acres of lake habitat. Twelve projects resulted in enhancing and/or restoring 357 acres of riparian habitat.

Forty-three projects removed 103 barriers to fish passage, reopening 321 miles of stream to brook trout and other fish species.

For information about protecting and restoring brook trout, visit the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture at easternbrooktrout.org.

Kathryn Reshetiloff, a Bay Journal columnist, is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

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