This will hopefully all be fixed in 2011. The Garden State has big brook trout. I suspected it. I hoped for it. Now I know. If that photo is from the south whatcha-ma-call-it, I think I can make my way there.
It occurred to me that I don’t know much about the trout stocking program in the state. I’ve sort of assumed that most of the trout stocked are rainbow trout, with some browns. The places I’ve fished that are stocked by the state are typically rainbows as far as I know (Big Stoney Creek, Passage Creek, the Jackson River, etc.). I just did a Google search and found a couple references to Virginia stocking both rainbows and brook trout in the Robinson and Rose Rivers near Syria, Virginia (see here too).
Nick Karas, in his seminal work Brook Trout (seminal for those interested in the species, anyway) mentions how programs in Virginia to stock brookies may have impacted the populations I once thought were purely native. He writes, “Virginia’s waters have been stocked with domesticated brook trout for so many years that the integrity of the wild strain has probably been compromised. However, those brook trout populations at the highest elevations are probably little changed genetically from the original [native] stock.” And for better or worse (mostly worse), what’s left for us to catch is almost all in the higher elevations — Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Alleghenies, etc. In a recent Trout Unlimited interview Mr. Karas again mentions the detrimental effect of stocked brook trout on native populations. It’s been an unfortunately common story throughout the brook trout’s historic range in the east — not just state-run stocking programs but introductions of invasive species by “bucket biologists” are a huge problem in many places, maybe most famously in the Adirondacks. Throw in a little acid rain and other environmental factors and things get bad very quickly for brook trout. In the Adirondacks only 3% of the known brook trout waters remain inhabited by these fish. Three percent.
The Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture’s website is one place where you can see the gory details on the state of brook trout in the eastern U.S. Trout Unlimited’s Conservation Success Index is another. What is apparent is that stocking streams with invasive fish is just one item on a long list of things conspiring to slowly decimate native trout. From the TU CSI (with my emphasis added): “Like other salmonids in the char genus, brook trout are intolerant of water pollution and non-native fish, and are classic indicators of water quality and ecosystem integrity.” And the CSI’s stark summary of the state of the eastern brook trout:
62% of subwatersheds in the historic range are currently occupied (3,282 out of 5,278)
1.5% of subwatersheds with brook trout had a Total CSI score > 75 (out of a possible 90)
Median Range-wide Condition score = 15/25 for extant populations only (range 9-24)
Median Population Integrity score = 7/15 for extant populations only (range 6-15)
Median Habitat Integrity score = 13/25 (range 5-24)
Median Future Security score: 18/24 (range 10-24)
8% of subwatersheds priority for protection
12% of subwatersheds high priority for reintroduction
62% of subwatersheds priority for restoration
Overall, it’s not encouraging. “Non-native fish” are mentioned as threats five times on the CSI’s main page (and “exotic species” is in there at least once, too).
To the left is a map showing the CSI scores for the east coast’s historic brook trout population areas. Anything blue is really good (that’s just 0.5% of the total, all in Maine), green is pretty good (5.1%, and in Virginia we have some of those areas), and the other colors show bigger impacts. Note that gray means extirpated, also known as local extinction, or according to Merriam Webster, “rooted out and destroyed completely” — that may be a good description of people “fishing out” watersheds over the centuries. The main colors that jump out at you when you look at this map are red and orange, the lowest scoring areas, which together comprise 70.2% of the total. These are the areas most affected by “[e]xtensive land use alterations, the establishment of competing non-native fish, and heavy urbanization…”
Anyway, here in Virginia I’m not always sure what to believe now. You hear about native fish in many places, and they are out there. But you can’t be certain that the streams rumored to have native fish have only that, and this is of course because of our long history of stocking domesticated and invasive fish mostly for recreation. Unless you’re a brook trout or a big fan, most would say stocking catchable invasive trout is not all a bad thing. Nevertheless, the impact on native fish is significant.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is a little vague on the types of fish they raise. The VDGIF hatcheries page does mention one hatchery specifically, Wytheville, that raises brook trout. However, it indicates that “trout from Wytheville are stocked in the waters from roughly Grayson County north to Bland.” All other mentions of trout on that page say only that — “trout” — without differentiating which types of trout are reared, and the stocking schedule doesn’t say anything about what species are stocked, either.
The practice of stocking domesticated brook trout seems less of an issue for the native fish, rightly or wrongly, than the practice of stocking what are really invasive species — rainbows and browns. In Shenandoah National Park I have caught rainbows well inside the park boundary on both the Hughes River and the South Fork of the Thornton River. But officially, it is the brown trout that is the villain. The National Park Service has special brown trout regulations that are kind of goofy (also clarified on the VDGIF website). Any brown trout caught must be disposed of, but there is a seven inch minimum size to harvest brown trout. So if you catch a six incher, you can’t “harvest” it but you have to kill it. OK, but at least the message is clear — do not return them to the stream. Why aren’t there similar regulations for rainbows in the park (i.e. “dispose of them when caught”), since they are also known to compete with and often out-compete brook trout? The NPS website has a page about rainbow trout in the park, and it even notes how they do in fact compete with brook trout. This really begs the question of why the NPS does not treat browns and rainbows the same way, and the bigger question of why Virginia stocks these fish at all in streams inhabited by mostly or totally native strains of brook trout. It’s all especially curious when they tout “National Park Service policy mandates that exotic species will not be allowed to displace native species if displacement can be prevented.” Seems like stocking invasive rainbow trout can surely be prevented.
I should mention here that I am not a biologist, naturalist, fisheries manager, activist or expert on this subject. The folks who do this know more than I do about managing these resources. However, a lot of the concern I read comes from exactly these people. And it just doesn’t make sense that if you want to preserve a native fishery you would stock aggressive invasive species, whatever the type, just downstream.
The NPS website specifically mentions the Rose River, Hughes and Brokenback Run as having browns, and big ones. “Large adult brown trout over 18 inches long with weights in excess of two pounds have been captured within the park in traditional, wild brook trout habitat.” I don’t like the thought of these fish displacing our native species, but catching an 18 inch brown trout on a small stream in the park sounds like a hoot. Then you have to take it home for dinner. I can think of worse things in the name of conservation. There’s that not-all-bad attitude, even with me.
So is it all terrible news? Well, it sort of is. The overall trend is decidedly downward for these fish. There are pockets of effort to reintroduce brook trout populations (see Trout Unlimited’s Shenandoah Headwaters Home Rivers Initiative, for example) but overcoming centuries of damage while human population increases, development continues and climate change is occurring makes it tough to see how things will ever improve for brook trout. We can restore streams and preserve habitat, but what’s gone is probably not coming back and most of the rest is slowly getting ruined. Stocked trout, while providing fun recreation for many of us, is just one factor but may be a lot worse for our native fish than anyone wants to admit.
More fish stocked for your laid back angling pleasure and copied below.
A couple good brook trout streams were stocked well downstream of where the brookies are, the Robinson and Hawksbill. And several streams near all those chicken farms in Rockingham county were loaded up. Water levels should be sky high, given the massive rain we had last weekend and judging by what the Shenandoah River looks like near my home as recently as this afternoon. Be careful out there if you’re planning on wading and the water looks higher than what you’re used to.
Jeremy’s Run on a Saturday. What I was thinking was stupid. Hitting not one but two popular brook trout fishing spots in Shenandoah National Park in the same week was going to make this an odd week for me, and this second trip was… what? I was heading to the day hiker superhighway on the west side of the Blue Ridge. Trying to catch fish that have seen every Orvis and LL Bean fly ever sold. Walking past miles of pools infested with pasty old fly fisherman too feeble to hike into the “real” spots to fish. This was stupid.
Screw it. I went anyway.
I had just a few hours to drive somewhere, so Jeremy’s Run was a prime spot. But when I left the house I still was half thinking I would bail and head somewhere else, knowing that this could be an inane idea on a weekend. So I drove down 340 talking to myself the whole way. Really… Jeremy’s Run? You think you’ll pull up to the trail head and have it to yourself? If you get there and see ten vehicles, what’s your plan B? Drive back home? Really.
My preconceptions about the fishing pressure, which are based on things I’ve heard from a lot of people, has always made this place verboten for me. I did hike down Jeremy’s Run trail from Skyline this past winter, but I didn’t bring a fly rod and that hike was strictly recon. Just in case. This stream might have the easiest access of all the better streams in the park, and everyone has been to Jeremy’s Run, so yes… I pictured a line of cars and pickup trucks nose to tail on the shoulder next to the sign warning to stay on the trail (it’s on an easement over private property until it crosses the park boundary, like a lot of trails here). I imagined hiking a few miles to find real solitude. Mumbling to myself the whole way, too, and turning into a crotchety bastard with hair growing out of my ears as I went.
Turned out I was completely wrong. When I arrived at the trail head, there was not a single vehicle. Saturday morning, 11 am. Everyone knows the brook trout are eating now, right? So what was up?
Maybe all the fish were gone and no one told me.
Maybe it was the weather. Forties and overcast, with fog hanging just above the valley and flowing like a slow stream in the sky around the top of the Blue Ridge. Yep, had to be the weather. Aside from a group of hikers and one other fly fisherman, I saw no one. Surely a seventy degree day would have had this place crawling. Since there are so many other good spots in this park, I’m not going to find out what Jeremy’s Run is like on those days.
Like the Robinson River in White Oak Canyon, this is a nice stream. Good water and good fish. It’s also nicely shaded and has a lot of good runs and pools. It’s popular because of the ease of access, no doubt, but it’s also a really good spot. I have to be fair and admit all that. Nice, nice place.
So the first fish I caught was about six feet in front of me. I had worked my way up into the middle of a pool that had no cover and was maybe two feet deep. I saw a splash and thought it was just the current piling onto itself. But it happened again and I saw the fish. And a second smaller fish. How could they not see me? So I cast upstream with the same Rusty Parachute with which I had ended the day at White Oak Canyon earlier in the week and lifted the rod tip to keep the leader off the water. Let it drift. And BAM! I got the first one. And then I got the other. Sweet.
The water was about forty four degrees, maybe forty five. I really need a better thermometer. The one I have just has ticks between every marked twenty degree interval. But low to mid forties it had to be. So I caught several more, all decent sized, and I missed a few, as always.
Just awesome. How can you not love brook trout?
I brought the Winston WT 7 foot 3 weight I got on eBay a few weeks ago and I really like this rod. I’ve used it now on three brookie trips. Today was the first time I used it with a 3 weight line (the correct line), a double taper from Hook and Hackle. I had been using a four weight line and it casts that well so long as you keep it within thirty feet or so. Beyond that and it starts to get soft though it still throws it. The WT is definitely a medium action rod and casts a three weight fly line so sweetly. But none of this really matters much for this kind of fishing because I’m usually casting just the leader. Today I had the leader a little too long. I started with probably ten feet and 5X on the end of it. But with a size 16 dry fly and a couple changes it ended up being perfect. With the proper leader, this rod delivers it however you want provided the wind is light. Delicate drops, power or even roll casts, no fly line involved, are no problem. You just don’t want to rush the cast. Let it load and push your thumb through it. Pleasant. I’ll try to devote a post to a short review of this thing. Not that it’s some new piece of equipment, but it is a rod that seems to be overlooked these days given everyone’s obsession with ultra fast action rods. For small stream fishing, though, this kind of rod might be ideal.
So Jeremy’s Run, sorry I’ve ignored you for so long. It might be a while before I return, but at least now I know. You’re worth the trip. Unless the weather is good.
In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this past Sunday was an article about recently discovered trout populations in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is going to vote on whether to designate “98 streams statewide as Naturally Reproducing Wild Trout Waters, following the recent discovery there of trout populations, some by volunteer anglers working in a program that trains them to do stream surveys.” Interesting article with a lot of details and quotes from people in the environmental, state government and gas factions.
This could trigger further testing and land use restrictions that could impede Marcellus shale gas drilling operations in some areas. I’ll mention again that I think gas drilling done safely would be great, but the natural gas drilling industry has a spotty record so far.
I had just finished fishing a good sized deep pool near the lower part of the falls in White Oak Canyon when this guy appeared. He was perched on a boulder upstream and above me and had just taken his shirt off. A typical day of fishing in Shenandoah National Park means seeing no one else, maybe just the occasional hiker. And the acknowledged protocol is to give anglers a wide berth. I even do what I can to not be seen at all by another fisherman when he’s on the water. After all, if we wanted to be socializing each of us would not be out here in the woods miles from any road and most people. So though I was done in that spot, I was a little miffed to look up and see someone standing over the pool I had claimed as mine for that short time.
Then the guy jumped into the water.
The Robinson River and the White Oak Canyon trail is not the secluded fishing scene I’m used to in the park. This is a very popular hiking trail, and even on weekdays you’ll run into someone. I met almost a dozen people when I fished there last week. Only two of them trampled into my stream.
The deep pool I had been fishing was beautiful and I could see why anyone would think it inviting, and I thought that until I checked the water temperature. It was about forty four degrees. So what could I say to this guy after he jumped in? He pulled himself out, looked over and saw me standing there with my camera pointed at the spot I was just about to vacate and my rod propped up against a sapling. “Man, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you fishing there.” It was no problem, and I explained I was heading upstream. He went on to say he was from Colorado and that he and his dad would go into the mountains and fish for cutthroats when he was a kid. “There are brook trout in there? I had no idea.” Most people don’t.
The next guy showed up after I had hiked back up above the falls. I had just caught a bunch of brookies in a short stretch of pocket water, including a few good sized fish (for this area). He looked incredulous. “Are there fish in there?” Yes, I just caught about ten. “Ten?!” He was marveling at this as he stood on a boulder perched above me. Just like the first guy, he was in a perfect spot to spook the pool. “How did you get here?” He asked as though it was some trick I do. I told him I had walked. He squinted and grinned and seemed resigned to not comprehending. I told him to have fun, the only polite dismissal I could think of, and he climbed back up to the trail.
Anyway, it was a good day of fishing. I had parked at the Limberlost trail head on Skyline Drive and hiked down past most of the falls before fishing that one deep pool and then hiking back up to get serious about it.
I ended up covering 6.2 miles and over 2000 feet of elevation gain each way. It was definitely a workout, and the trail is pretty steep when you get to the start of the White Oak Canyon falls. Even if you’re not into fishing, this is a great hike and the falls are spectacular. You can perch on several overlooks and get mesmerized by the water cascading above and below.
There are good fish in this stream. The first one I caught with luck and it was a nice one. It was in a pool no wider than ten feet across and about that length from head to tail. I wasn’t expecting a strike and was pulling back to start my back cast when I hooked it. That always makes me laugh. Even when you do see a fish before it strikes it’s a little surprising, but when you’re not expecting it and you get a good one, it’s great. You fooled the fish and yourself. Genuine fun.
So I slid and climbed and gingerly waded upstream, catching fish after fish, all on dry flies. An Adams, a Royal Wulff and a Rusty Parachute (the last from the Orvis Fly Tying Guide by Tom Rosenbauer). I tied all of these over the winter, and each one worked well. The only reason I changed a fly was because it got drenched and slimed by the prey, so I tried a few different ones. Otherwise I’m pretty sure any of them would have worked. I still don’t think brook trout in these small mountain streams scrutinize dry flies a whole lot. I mean, here I am pitching them some pretty crappy looking stuff I tied myself and there was no shortage of interest. Maybe that just means they are desperate for food. Still, it’s satisfying when fish eat the flies I sat in my house tying while picturing a day like this. And it mostly played out the way I had imagined. The few exceptions were the several missed strikes and the flies snagged by low hanging branches.
Since this was my first time fishing here, I walked past a ton of good looking water in the upper section while scouting the place. Lots of runs cascading into wide pools. I definitely did not have to make this a six mile hike. The next time I come here I am going to try from the lower end and work upstream. This really is a great stream and it’s no secret. I’ve read about this place for years but have always avoided it because I prefer fishing in some solitude. So running into hikers, curious folks and a swimmer was, except for the swimmer, what I expected. And it wasn’t bad. I was kind of surprised not to have seen anyone else fishing, but even if there had been ten other people this stream stretches far enough to support that.
The Robinson River and the White Oak Canyon definitely merit a return trip.
More fish, more more more… If you can’t get away to catch some brookies, here is the latest stocked stream report for Virginia. After hitting White Oak Canyon this week, I can tell you that dry fly fishing for brook trout is absolutely on! But if you have a convenient stocked trout stream next door, read on.
I can’t keep track of the Stony and Stoney Creeks in this state. And why wouldn’t you always put an “e” in that name? There is Little Stoney Creek and Stony Creek in Shenandoah County, which was just stocked (and is that really Big Stoney creek?). So was Stoney Creek in Wythe County and Big Stoney Creek in Giles County, down by Blacksburg: