"Tipping the Scales"
Courtesy Adirondack Life Magazine
Written by John Adamski
Tipping the Scales
Is the Little Tupper Lake brook trout doomed to extinction?
In 1997 Governor George Pataki reached an agreement with the Whitney family to buy nearly fifteen thousand acres in Hamilton County for $17 million. The tract would henceforth be called the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area in honor of the ancestor who first bought the land. The purchase included Little Tupper Lake—a five-mile-long water that harbors a unique fish, the Little Tupper Lake strain of heritage brook trout. The state’s acquisition ended plans for an ambitious real estate development along the lake’s mostly wild shoreline of rocky points and sandy beaches. The purchase was hailed by paddlers and environmentalists as a boon to the Adirondack Forest Preserve. For many, though, the legendary brook trout was the greatest prize.
For a hundred years the Whitneys owned and managed as much as ninety-six thousand acres of Adirondack woods and waters—the immense estate known as Whitney Park—between Long Lake and Tupper Lake, one of the largest family real estate holdings east of the Mississippi. But this story begins some twelve thousand years before that, when glaciers began to recede, gouging out lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, thus isolating distinct populations of brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) into different bodies of water. Countless variations of trout evolved, but fewer than a dozen native strains, called heritage fish, persist today. Direct descendants of those first Adirondack fish, the Little Tupper Lake strain is genetically unlike any other. (See “The Genuine Article,” Adirondack Life, April 2000.)
Fast-forward 120 centuries to 1897, when William C. Whitney, a wealthy New York City attorney and businessman whose son married a Vanderbilt, assembled the acreage with lumber speculator Patrick C. Moynehan for a logging venture. Per their partnership agreement, Whitney ended up as sole landowner after logging was completed a dozen years later. It was fashionable then for the very rich to build rustic mansions in the seclusion of immense tracts.
For much of the last century Whitney Park was owned and managed by William C. Whitney’s grandson and heir, Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney. Sonny was an accomplished fly-fisherman and conservationist who fostered angling ethics that allowed taking a few keepers but discouraged greed. He funded a private hatchery on Little Tupper Lake to ensure the continued propagation of its namesake strain. Even though the fish could maintain its population without assistance, the hatchery provided eggs for management programs in other bodies of water in Whitney Park and beyond. Perhaps more important was Sonny Whitney’s ability to prevent the introduction of predatory and competing nonnative fish species into Whitney Park’s waters. His ownership prevented trespass, and fishing was limited to family, park employees and guests.
Having served in the 1970s as Whitney Park’s director of fish and wildlife management, I had access to Little Tupper Lake for thirty years preceding the state’s purchase, managing the hatchery and becoming familiar with the fishery. Although the Little Tupper Lake strain is unique, obvious differences from other wild strains are slight. Little Tuppers are pretty enough, but not as bright in fall spawning colors as other strains, such as the Windfall. The most noteworthy characteristic of the Little Tupper is its size: fish exceeding three pounds and twenty inches were common; we routinely captured breeding trout that ranged from two to four pounds and two feet long. In 1974 now-deceased Whitney Park guide Francis LeBlanc caught a twenty-eight-inch male that weighed more than five pounds. This tendency toward large growth is more a function of natural conditions and forage than of genetics. (When taken from Rock Pond, a smaller body of water connected to Little Tupper Lake, the fish are smaller but colored the same.)
The Little Tupper Lake fishery is a complex watershed that includes not only Rock Pond and Charley Pond Stream on the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area but also Round Lake and Sperry Pond on other lands once owned by the Whitneys (the private park is now down to thirty-six thousand acres). When the family gave up ownership of the latter waters it also gave up control, and large sections were leased to hunting and fishing clubs. Starting in the mid-1970s, intense fishing on Round Lake, which is directly connected to Little Tupper Lake, dramatically reduced the trout population in both waters. After Sonny died, in 1992, his heirs’ sale of fishing rights on Little Tupper Lake further increased that pressure.
Despite the name, brook trout exist in lakes as well as streams. But lakes become the fish’s undoing where they attract human activity and real estate development. Slight habitat changes or increases in fishing pressure often result in the removal of large fish at a rate faster than natural reproduction can replenish. Brook trout can be easy to catch but grow slowly in the wild. It doesn’t take much new activity to deplete stocks.
In 1998 New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) launched a study to help make sound decisions for long-range management of Little Tupper Lake. One of the objectives was to restore the heritage trout fishery. The DEC has a strict catch-and-release rule for brook trout and mandates use of artificial lures only.
But the harm may have already been done. In August 2002 Adirondack Nature Conservancy staffer Todd Dunham spotted what looked like a largemouth bass in Round Lake. He subsequently hooked the ten-inch fish. More bass were observed near the bridge between Round and Little Tupper Lakes.
According to Richard Preall, a DEC aquatic biologist, illegal fish introductions are an all-too-common problem here. “For the last several years I would say I hear about one illegal introduction per month in public waters,” he says. “As the state acquires some of these high-quality trout waters it appears to be inevitable that other fish species are introduced by members of the public for any number of reasons. What most people don’t realize is that brook trout cannot compete with warmwater species such as bass, walleye, pike or yellow perch.”
Most illegal introductions occur when anglers release baitfish at the end of a day’s fishing. The most commonly released fish is the golden shiner, which is prohibited as bait in New York State wilderness trout waters. They first appeared in Little Tupper Lake in the early 1980s. But the largemouth bass in Round Lake—and now in Little Tupper—are more likely the work of “amateur fish managers” trying deliberately to change the fish community, Preall says. “Someone might put bass into a brook trout pond because they prefer to fish for bass or mistakenly feel that the two species can peacefully coexist.” Preall thinks that most introductions are the result of “ignorance without intended malice.”
William Wellman, the regional vice president for the New York State Council of Trout Unlimited, is more outspoken. “Whoever put the bass in that lake should go to jail,” he says. “Those bass are invasive to Little Tupper Lake and will completely change the ecosystem. The Adirondacks are being bombarded with exotic introductions. The Adirondacks as we know them will be entirely different in fifty years unless something is done to stop this.” Virtually every publicly accessible Adirondack lake larger than two hundred acres now has nonnative species such as smallmouth bass and yellow perch, including the Fulton and Saranac chains, Lake George, and Cranberry, Raquette, Indian and Schroon Lakes.
Largemouth bass will have a serious impact on the brook trout in Little Tupper Lake. Young-of-the-year trout prefer to remain close to shore near woody debris or weeds—precisely the ambush points of predatory largemouths. Bigger trout prefer deeper, colder regions and will be less affected. However, bass are omnivores and eat the same food as brook trout—insects, crayfish and small minnows—so competition will likely reduce the growth rate of larger trout.
Since Little Tupper Lake is a large body of water (its surface area is more than two thousand acres) and has several streams and ponds feeding it, it’s likely that a remnant population of adult brook trout will linger in the lake for some time. However, a viable trout fishery will probably disappear within a few years. “I am unaware of any formerly self-sustaining brook trout populations that have persisted after introductions of bass, pike or yellow perch,” Preall says.
The long-range management plan for Little Tupper Lake has always been to sustain the native brook trout. “Until there is unequivocal evidence that trout are no longer surviving in the lake, that plan should remain in place,” says Preall. However, when the general public gains access to Round Lake, expected to be transferred to the Forest Preserve this fall, a limited harvest of brook trout will be allowed there, with a minimum size of twelve inches and a limit of three per day caught with artificial lures. Keepers are allowed there, Preall explains, because “the catch-and-release regulation on Little Tupper Lake should be sufficient to protect the brook trout population in the watershed—if the species can coexist with bass” and because “some anglers strongly oppose such regulations.”
The DEC has conducted reclamation projects, removing “undesirable” fish using rotenone, an organic toxin that kills all of the fish in a pond, which is then restocked with trout. And Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources has experimented with electro-fishing—removing fish by temporarily stunning them with electric current and cherry-picking undesirables—with some success. According to Cornell research associate Daniel Josephson, who manages trout for the Adirondack League Club, near Old Forge, bass thusly removed from Little Moose Lake “directly resulted in the increase in native species and, most notably, a significant increase in brook trout.” But even in small ponds, electro-fishing takes thousands of hours and never gets every bass. Little Tupper and its contiguous waters exceed three thousand acres, not counting wetlands and streams. Reclamation of such a large system would be too expensive to attempt and impossible to achieve.
Is this legendary trout doomed to extinction? “The Little Tupper Lake strain should continue to survive in other protected waters within the same watershed,” Preall says. Sperry, Bottle, Charley and East Charley Ponds—and others—have populations of Little Tuppers and are better protected against invasion from nonnative species by man-made or beaver dams on their outlets. Also, Little Tupper Lake brookies and eggs have established a brood stock at the Warren County hatchery, and the DEC manages more than twenty public waters for the Little Tupper strain. Twelve other private ponds have Little Tupper populations sustained by stocking and natural reproduction. Efforts are under way to establish the fish in more waters. “The strain will probably not be totally eliminated in Little Tupper Lake,” Josephson agrees. “A more accurate prediction: Larger brook trout will dramatically decline but will persist in smaller tributaries. The genetics will not be lost.”
Preall, Wellman and Josephson agree on something else: The presence of bass in Little Tupper Lake seals that lake’s fate. It is criminal and it will ruin that fishery. The message about nonnatives must be repeated as much as possible to reach as many people as possible. What it took nature twelve thousand years to perfect, someone has undone in an instant.