Josh Baldwin

The Brook Trout at Home

Josh Baldwin
The Brook Trout at Home
By Mark Jennings

Changing Weather

On a windy spring day in 1990, a broken sky cast gliding spotlights into the Cranberry River gorge. Steep slopes below the north fork headsprings are rough and trailess, but after a mile the ground eases where the fork enters small meadows set like beads on a string.

In 1990 the wreck of a fallen tree blocked the tail end of the first meadow. That tangle of branches covered approach to a thirty-foot long pool immediately below. In the changing light the pool darkened, and then glowing, revealed seven little wild brook trout hung in the current. The gleaming white edges of fins and bright spots and flashes of red gave them away as they darted and rolled after insects drifting down in the clear water.

People like to see them like that. They must think about old times and lost, forgotten places.

The charisma of big, sleek trophies is not part of the story. For wild brookies six inches is average, and ten inches is big. The graceful seventeen-inch paragons that swam in the larger streams a century and a half ago are all gone.

Subsistence fishing is gone too. Once 50—or 150—could be pulled from the water in a day, lugged home and then salted or frozen. That was a custom for almost 200 years. Today it is outside of the law and way outside of a healthy conscience.

In The Old Days

For millennia brook trout lived at a wide range of elevations in all of West Virginia’s major watersheds. In bigger, lower and more fertile streams, the populations were often dense and prolific. The fish averaged bigger than today’s.

Throughout the Greenbrier Valley area, inevitably, as was the case all over the central Appalachians, from the colonial period onward, forest clearing gradually destroyed the prime lower elevation stream habitats. Agriculture, urban growth, commercial and industrial development, and road and railroad building all contributed to forest removal. Large-scale industrial logging took the heights suddenly in the early 1900s. Virtually everywhere streams became too warm, silted and polluted. By 1930 brook trout were on the way out. They were the only trout native to the area.

The cavalry on the hill turned out to be the U.S. Forest Service when it created the Monongahela National Forest in 1920. For the first time large expanses of the high country were protected during critical periods of forest regrowth. Stream and forest conservation programs and fire suppression reinforced natural processes. In the 1970s stream habitat had recovered enough in the Mon’s high forest to support widespread and fishable brookie populations. These sprang from remnants that luckily had found refuge during the hard times.

Although “mountain trout,” as old-timers had called them, were long and well adapted to these sole remaining and less than prime locations, as always had been the case up high, the populations were on the sparse side and the fish were small. It’s their story that’s big.

Fish and Forest

The photograph shows a two-year-old from the North Fork of the Cranberry River. It’s fading vertical bars mark it as an older juvenile. At five to six inches it was average for the location on the day it was caught.

Some will recognize that actually it is not a trout at all. European explorers and colonists mistook brookies for trout, but scientists of the early 1800s made the correct identification. They are charr, a group of fishes that are close cousins of trout and distinguished from them by a range of anatomical, physiological and behavioral differences. These distinctions mean little to most people, a lot to biologists, and everything to the two fishes. There’s little hybridization.

Trout spots, for one obvious example, are dark on a lighter background, while charr spots, although often compound, are light on a darker background. White edged fins stand out as a charr thing, with the year-long presence of a black band interior to the white being unique to brook trout. 

Translated from Latin the scientific name, Salvelinus fontanalis, means roughly “charr that commonly lives in springs”—i.e., in small bodies of cold, clean, moving water. “Brook charr” never caught on in the U.S. 

Whether “brook trout”, “brook charr”, “native”, “squaretail”, “speckled trout” or “mountain trout”, as it has been called at various times and places, the species lived originally only in the eastern U.S. and eastern Canada. It naturally swam, however, not only in brooks, but also in rivers, ponds and lakes, and seasonally in the Atlantic Ocean.

Wild fontanalis lived, and they still live, only in very cold, very clean and well oxygenated water. That habitat requirement has always been met most widely among small, steep streams that flow through dense woodland. The name “brook trout” was an easy choice.

So sensitive to “very cold, very clean and well oxygenated” are brook trout physiology and behavior that the species has been called the mine canary of fish. When brook trout disappear, the implication is a decline in water quality.

Today’s Greenbrier Valley area brook trout range, mainly small Cranberry Wilderness headwaters, although not as good as the lower elevation habitat of the old times, definitely is the best of what’s available. It gets better as the forest ages.

More than high elevation and proximity to headsprings keeps water cold. Mature, undisturbed forest throws deep, cooling shade on both water and land. Older forest holds land erosion and stream sediment load to a minimum, and it moderates changes in stream flow volume during both drought and high precipitation. More mature forest also has a bigger and more diverse biomass. This means that it has a larger and more diverse insect population than younger forest. Terrestrial insects are the main charr food source at elevation. The streams themselves have low nutrient levels and produce little biotic material. As goes the forest, so go the streams and brook trout.

Admirably, these colorful fish have persisted in this setting for 20,000 years. They are descendents of those that spread into these very streams when the last great ice sheet retreated from Pennsylvania and eased the climate.

Keeping Good Company

Get a guide. Although for the beginner there’s a mystique to scouting the “cricks” alone, a local guide’s understanding is as wide and deep as the collective experience of the nearby community.

Old friend Y.A., a woodsman and a professional craftsman in wood, grew up in the Greenbrier Valley. The Cranberry, Williams, Cherry and other Mon watersheds were close. Like his father and grandfathers before him, Y.A. has hunted, fished and gathered in them since boyhood.

He emphasized that he was not a sportsman, that his instinct, like that of his ancestors, was to supply the household. “It’s a way of life.” he added modestly.

In the 1990s brook trout populations crashed all over the region. He stopped going out for them. The watersheds’ soils, long exposed to acid precipitation, finally had lost their buffering capacity. Stream pH fell below even the brook trout’s exceptional tolerance level.

He hadn’t fished for them in 10 or 20 years. He wasn’t sure how long exactly. But the idea of revisiting favorite streams was good. Maybe some had made it through.

To the question “What is it about brook trout?” his answer was simply, “Follow me.”

The subsequent 8-hour tromp up and down Red Run proved that bounty was not the attraction. Three of the 5 hooked fish came to the hand. The biggest was a dark, richly colored thing of beauty. It was as long as two thumbs put together.

The wonder was that there were any. Y.A. resented acid rain out loud, was encouraged, and speculated that these survivors might live around big springs in the stream bed. He was determined to visit more creeks.

Two weeks later news filtered down that Trout Unlimited and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources had a 3-year-old liming program on Tea Creek, Sugar Creek, the North Fork of the Cranberry River and the Middle Fork of the Williams River. Of all the area’s streams, only these four were known to have securely established wild brook trout populations. The lime deposits had raised water pH to friendly levels. All of the other streams, like Red Run, had a few fish, or were sterile.

The April descent of the North Fork became a surprise to hopes dulled by long and mostly fishless hours on Red Run, Hills Creek and a Charles Creek tributary. The fish in the North Fork were small like the 1990 fish in the same stream, but also like 1990, they were there to be seen swimming in every hole

Fish Make the Man

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods” wrote 19th-century British poet Lord Byron. He left open what that pleasure is.

To sit on the bank above a good hole is to see in a modest way that brookies have a place in the forest’s intricate array of moving parts. The open stream corridor winds away through the woods exactly like a tunnel at the bottom of an ocean of leaves, trunks and branches. When strong breezes roughly sway the boughs over the pool, a shower of twigs and dead leaves clatters down onto the water’s surface. Something else falls too. Immediately fish start to rise, the dimples of their surface strikes replacing the downstream drifting rings of the debris.

The forest is dark and solemn. It towers over the little stream and the visitor. Thoughts of “time and tide” are easy.

Stuff has been falling onto the stream here, and the brook trout have been waiting below, for most of the past 20,000 years.

The absorbing business of presenting the fly to truly native fish, and doing it amidst the beauty and intimacy of their lonely creeks, remains one of the redeeming opportunities of western civilization. That appears to be the feeling of some, and in part it might be related to a conviction that the rest of the natural world deserves a break too.

Y.A., on the other hand, had names and copious notes on all of his pleasures, beauties, intimacies, hopes and symbols. “Hey! Was that a woods rabbit?! You know they make a big loop and don’t go in a hole.” “Chagas. Big ones.” “I’ve never seen so much beaver cutting up this high before.” “Will I find chanterelles?” “The deer sign is impressive.” “Hold on. I want to look at these tree ears.”

On and on went his discoveries and questions to himself. There was no such thing as getting skunked. He could every time bring home something edible or useful, or could learn a thing or two for the next trip. Brook trout were only part of the scene.

The old forest that favors brook trout streams also provides people like him with food and materials. Seeing the place through his eyes made it come alive in many new ways. 

Y.A.’s encounters with the past were a peek at humans’ long relationship with brook trout landscape. “Dad and I hunted up this branch.” “In a snowstorm I actually tapped an old boar on the shoulder with the tip of my bow…we both were looking for the deer I had shot.” “See that old cross cut blade stuck in the maple fork? Logging camp here 100 years ago.”

Some of the stories were his father’s and grandfathers’ and neighbors’. When he steps into the woods the life and times of his family and community go along too; more and more as he gets older, he seemed to say.

His perception of the brook trout’s world, of the brook trout forest it might be said, is a rare inheritance. He’s been bequeathed the forest as provider and as an old stage for his community’s role in the human drama. 

There was a time. It came after the transient societies and the plunder of market hunting, trapping and gathering of the frontier had moved farther west. It came before the outside world again appeared, this time in the form of the logging boom that would change everything in the 1900s. It was the time when the permanent farming communities in the narrow valleys had settled into something like a stable ecological balance with the still intact forested mountain ranges that surrounded them.

Y.A.’s relationship with these same mountains is in part a legacy of that period. It was passed down to him through his family and certain community members. As did many West Virginians of that early day, he—year after year, and decade after decade—has relied on the forest. Yet as much as it is a landscape, the inheritance is a philosophy that concerns itself deeply and intelligently with taking only what is needed and not taking more or doing more than the web of life can tolerate. From long dependency and through long intimacy with a given part of the natural world, people can learn to be kind to place.