Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes
Native Brook Trout Make Comeback In Smokies
June 12, 2006
GATLINBURG, Tenn. — The cold, clear water of LeConte Creek cascades over moss-covered boulders, lingers momentarily in small pools skirted by dense rhododendron, then rushes on through the hemlock, poplar, birch and maple forest.
It's here and in a handful of other streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that the brook trout — the only trout native to the eastern United States and more specifically to the southern Appalachians — is making a comeback.
Imperiled from Georgia to Maine by decades of pollution, poor land management and competition from nonnative brown and rainbow cousins, "brookies" are regaining a foothold in the country's most visited national park on the Tennessee-North Carolina line.
For the first time in 30 years, catching and keeping brook trout is legal in the Smokies under an experimental program begun in April.
Around that time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and fish and game departments in 17 states started a joint effort to restore brook trout habitat.
The coalition determined that brookies had been eliminated or significantly reduced in population throughout almost half of the species' historical range, with Maine its last true stronghold in the eastern United States and the Smokies its "last redoubt" in the South.
"When people come out here and start catching these fish, they fall in love," said Smokies fisheries chief Steve Moore, 57, who has been working to restore the olive green and red-speckled fish to the park's waters since 1976.
"People equate it to their heritage," he said. "How many family heirlooms do you have? Do your family heirlooms matter? This is just as important."
But there is more than history, sport or delicious campfire dining — purists say brookies have a more delicate flavor than brown or rainbow trout — at stake here.
"When you find watersheds that are too polluted for brook trout, they are too polluted for us and it all goes downstream and gets into your water supply wherever you live," said Steve Brown, chairman of Trout Unlimited's Tennessee Council.
Sulfur and nitrogen pollution from burning fossil fuels in coal-fired power plants and vehicles has saturated the soils and streams at the highest elevations, effectively killing six headwater streams in the Smokies.
In some cases, "it is getting really late for us to do anything about it," Brown said.
Moore said the first evidence of acid rain in the Smokies appeared in the late 1970s. By then the native brook trout had already suffered from the environmental havoc of early 20th-century logging that muddied the streams, and from the stocking of millions of rainbow, brown and even northern-variety brook trout from the 1920s through the 1960s.
Brook trout once populated at least 550 miles of the Smokies' 750 miles of fishable streams. After the logging era, half the habitat was gone. The range was halved again in the 1970s by the encroachment of rainbows.
"When park management saw that, it was almost, 'Uh-oh, we are not doing our job,' because we are mandated to protect and preserve the natives ... up to and including eradication of the nonnative," Moore said, so long as it was feasible.
The approach the Smokies has developed over the years is to establish brook trout populations in clear mid-elevation streams separated by steep waterfalls from rainbows and browns downstream.
One at a time, Moore and his helpers stun the fish with an electric charge, pick them up with a net and toss them into buckets. The non-natives are removed and the brookies allowed to stay or moved upstream.
Since 2000, the park has quickened the process by clearing streams of non-natives with antimycin, a short-lived poison.
After 30 years, the Smokies have restored 11 stream segments — totaling 17.2 miles — to pure brook trout populations. Brookies also now coexist with nonnative trout in another 69 miles of streams.
Restoration in four more streams is planned, but then the park is out of candidates.
"The reality is that once we get to that point, we are out of the restoration business," Moore said. "Then we are into the monitoring mode to make sure that everything stays the status quo."
The Smokies' decision to open up brook trout fishing came after years of monitoring fish populations. Biologists concluded that floods and droughts were the major forces behind changes in fish populations, and anglers had little impact on the numbers or average size of the fish.
Visiting fisherman Stewart Sylvara of Aurora, Mo., couldn't be happier. On a perch in the middle of the Little Pigeon River, he recounted landing a brook trout 10 minutes before.
"It was the first one I caught and it was a giant," he said, laughing about the 7-inch brookie he tossed back.