LOGAN, W.Va. — The native brook trout in West Virginia has long been a prized fish in the Mountain State, but it has also been one that has always teetered on the brink of collapse. The destruction of the native brook trout habitat has severely curbed its numbers in West Virginia waters.
Although it seems to be a fragile fish, Biologist Dave Thorne who heads the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources’ Trout Program would argue the species is anything but fragile. Throne will tell you any fish which has managed to survive the kind of abuse man has dished out to the brook trout in the last 100 years deserves to be saved.
“They are some tough critters,” he laughed in a recent interview about the matter on West Virginia Outdoors.
The brook trout however is about to be afforded a level of respect and protection in West Virginia is has never been afforded. Thorne recently detailed plans for an overall Trout Management Plan for West Virginia to the Natural Resources Commission during their meeting at Chief Logan Conference Center in Logan County. A part of the plan will be the Native Brook Trout Plan which will designate various brook trout streams in the state for specific management activities.
“We’ve been doing to some physical habitat work for the last several years and for decades we’ve been doing the liming program,” said Thorne. “We now have many of those restored to high quality waters which can support good, fishable populations of native brook trout.”
The next step will be to enhance the numbers and size of the fish. Regulations are one way. Already this year, the fines for overharvesting brook trout have increased substantially….up to $100 per fish in a violation. Thorne acknowledged excessive harvest isn’t the threat it once was to native brookies.
“A lot more fishermen voluntarily catch and release native brook trout any more. We’ve got quite a constituency,” said Thorne. “I don’t’ think the days are completely gone of those who might go to a brook trout stream with a sack and fill it up, but the anglers that have traditionally done that, the number is dwindling.”
The proposed plan includes designation of watersheds which are native brook trout waters, are not stocked with hatchery raised fish, have had some level of management or restoration work, and seem to have good support from anglers.
“They need to be a large, contiguous and well connected native brook trout watershed,” said Thorne. “This is a watershed idea based on a lot of the research I and other people have conducted. Connectivity between the tributaries and main stems is how we see increased growth in fish. They have larger habitat, more food available, and can move to different habitats during different parts of their life cycle.”
The watersheds being proposed initially by Thorne include the entire Middle Fork of Williams River. The watershed has benefited greatly from improved water quality in the annual “bucket brigade” by interested volunteers who carry buckets of limestone sand into the remote are to treat the acidic water of the stream. The other watersheds include Red Creek upstream of the county bridge at Laneville, Tea Creek upstream from the campground, and the entire Otter Creek watershed. The entire area proposed would be 150 to 200 miles of contiguous native brook trout water.
“With increased productivity, we’ve increased the scope of our brook trout to grow bigger,” said Thorne. “We’re seeing a lot more 10, 11, and even 12 inch plus fish out there, particularly in our more productive fisheries.”
The concept includes a second plan of action, the possibly to spawn, rear, and distribute some of those native brook trout in a hatchery environment to bolster populations.
“We’ve had some success translocating fish, shocking from one stream and transferring to another,” Thorne said. “If we put them back into the appropriate habitat, the wild fish will reproduce.”
The plan however, suggests taking it a step further and trying to do some artificial work within the hatchery–but limiting the genetic makeup to individual watersheds.
“We have some stock and we’re going to hold them until they are ready to spawn,” Thorne explained. “We’ll spawn them in the hatchery and raise some native brook trout from a particular stream. Those raised from a particular stream will go back into that watershed.”
The work will be done as part of an agreement with a West Virginia University aquaculture researcher center in Hardy County, near the community of Wardensville. Thorne said although it’s not easy, Tennessee and a few other states have had some limited success with hatchery spawn of native brook trout..
For now, the project is all just a concept and yet to be fully implemented into a management plan. Thorne said it needs support to move forward.
“It needs to have a vocal constituency,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a majority, but it needs to have a vocal group to go out there and help us sell this idea.”