Last June, 280 fingerling brook trout were released into Little Stony Creek on Cherokee National Forest northeast of Elizabethton, Tennessee. Propagated by the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, these little fish represent the latest contribution in a decades-long effort to reclaim territory for the Southeast's only native trout.
Brook trout are char, more closely related to species like arctic char than the familiar rainbow and brown trout of our mountain streams. Painted up in their spawning regalia, brookies are beautiful and delicate. They rarely grow longer than 10 inches in our infertile high-altitude streams, yet they are a favorite for certain anglers who enjoy long walks into the gorgeous places where brookies live.
Historically, brook trout were much more widespread across the Appalachians. Jim Habera, a fisheries biologist with Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, says brook trout currently inhabit only 25% of their historic range in Tennessee. Restoration since the 1980s is responsible for about 15% of that figure.
Across the East, in the species' native range from Maine to North Georgia, less than 9% of historic brook trout water remains intact, according to a 2006 estimate from the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture. Habera is on the steering committee for EBTJV, which is an organization working to restore brook trout populations.
The history and decline
To understand the present, here's a summary of the hypothetical past.
Brook trout require cold, amply oxygenated water. This was easier to find 18,000 years ago during the waning of the last ice age. Back then, brook trout swam freely between the rivers of the Southeast and the ocean. They were anadromous, meaning they lived in both fresh and saltwater like coastal populations of brook trout in Maine do today.
As the climate warmed over thousands of years, brook trout on the southern end of the range were pushed into cooler high elevations by water conditions. Isolated for millennia in one watershed or another, these populations became genetically distinct and uniquely suited to their habitats, which is part of what makes them so special.
"They're important ecologically," Habera says. "They're oftentimes the only fish that occurs if you get high enough into the headwaters in our mountain streams. They're the only fish that naturally occurs in a lot of those systems. So, it's an important part of those stream ecosystems."
The trouble began in the mid-1800s with the arrival of large-scale timber operations to the Appalachians. Unchecked habitat alteration continued for a century or more, which was a major blow for brook trout.
Then, around the turn of the century, brown trout were introduced from Europe to give people something to fish for. Rainbow trout were later brought from the Pacific Coast. Both species thrived, and they outcompeted the little natives for resources.
Brook trout in the South were relegated to steep headwater trickles, generally above 2,000 feet, where a barrier such as a waterfall barred passage of rainbow and brown trout. These remaining strongholds are the last bastions. They are the resources conservationists work with in their reclamation efforts.
Maintaining the genetic distinction between different pocket populations is an important part of the reintroduction process. Previously, and popularly, southern Appalachian brook trout were heralded as a separate strain from northern brookies. Now, biologists recognize six different clades, or lineages, of brook trout. For the most part the fish all look and act the same, but they descended from separate ancestry and evolved in isolation.
The goal is to restore populations with genetics as close to the original as possible, preferably from the same stream system.
The traditional method for reintroduction is to capture and transport brook trout of all sizes and age groups. Habera says it's like releasing an instant population. However, it requires the removal of dozens of fish from the source stream.
The Conservation Institute's ability to hatch and raise brook trout is a relatively new tool that, with funding from the Appalachian Chapter of Trout Unlimited, has hatched and raised more than 1,400 brook trout for release over the last five years. The biggest benefit is a lesser impact on the source population. With the capture of just a few spawning adults, many fingerlings can be raised for release. This is especially useful in maintaining genetic distinction in watersheds where the source populations aren't robust.
Releasing brook trout is the culmination of several years of preparation. Work on Little Stony began in 2016 with the removal of existing rainbow trout, Habera says.
Workers use backpack electrofishing systems with long wands to emit an electrical current into the water. Stunned by electricity, fish float to the surface where they are caught in nets. On foot, electrofishers wade the length of a creek section slated for reintroduction, scooping out as many adult rainbow or brown trout as possible. It may take several passes to get them all, and netting all the juveniles is not possible.
"The goal is to get all of the adults — all of the spawners — out of there so they can't get back together," he explains. "Every time they spawn, you just made yourself another year's worth of work."
With the spawning trout removed, there is no reproduction. By the next year, juveniles have grown large enough to be caught and removed from the stream through another series of electrofishing outings.
So, with each successful reintroduction, TWRA and its partners are at the same time preparing other streams for brook trout. The plan calls for reclamation of one or two streams a year, and there's a list of suitable locations slated for projects over the next decade.
"We can't restore them to 100% of their original range. It's not feasible," Habera says. "What we, at the very least, would like to achieve is no net losses. Maybe we can get it up to 30%?"
And there are losses, due to threats like private property development, which is why reclamation projects are only carried out on public lands.
Occasionally, brook trout still fall victim to infiltration by non-native trout, usually because of a failed barrier, but Habera says more than three decades of observation have taught him there are also situations in which rainbow trout and brook trout co-exist.
Another threat to the brook trout is warming stream temperatures. A warming climate might, over decades, prove difficult for lower elevation streams with marginal water quality, says Habera.
The only thing to do is keep working to gain ground — or stream — where it is possible, he says.
Nick Carter is a freelance writer, editor, photographer and author of "Flyfisher's Guide to North Carolina & Georgia," which is available on Amazon. Signed copies are available by emailing the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where you can catch native brook trout
You can get a close look at the Southeast's only native trout at the Tennessee Aquarium, but the best way to experience them is to get out and catch them in the beautiful places where they live. Angling is not a threat to this short-lived and fecund species.
"Angler harvest is very insignificant at this point," says TWRA Region IV rivers and streams biologist Jim Habera. "The type of anglers willing to seek out brook trout and catch them generally aren't interested in harvesting them, anyway."
It's such a non-issue that TWRA dropped the statewide 6-inch brook trout limit from its regulations in 2012 and is actively encouraging anglers to utilize the resource.
The closest, best places to cast for native brookies are in the Tellico River watershed in Cherokee National Forest east of Tellico Plains in Monroe County, Tennessee. Habera says anglers should check out the top end of Bald River and its tributary, Brookshire Creek. Meadowbranch, one of the headwaters to nearby North River, also has a good population of brookies.
If you're up for a weekend trip, Tennessee's best brook trout fisheries are in the northeastern corner of the state.
"If you want to go to where the best brook trout streams are, you're gonna have to come up to upper East Tennessee," Habera says. "Carter County and Johnson County are kind of the epicenter of brook trout fishing in Tennessee."
The Left Prong of Hampton Creek, in Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area near Roan Mountain, is Habera's pick for the best brook trout stream in the state. Gentry Creek and several other northwest-flowing tributaries to Beaverdam Creek in Johnson County also have strong fisheries.
And those streams are just a start. There are more than 100 East Tennessee streams that harbor wild populations of brook trout, but you'll have to do some research and some hiking to find them.