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"The Genuine Article"
Courtesy Adirondack Life Magazine
April 2000
Written by John Adamski

The Genuine Article

Heritage brook trout, from decimation to preservation

     The brook trout of the Adirondacks are legendary. With the possible exception of the loon, no other wild creature occupies as significant a place in local lore.

     The brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) or speckled trout was the principal fish encountered by early settlers because it populated so many of the region’s lakes, ponds and streams. Its ability to thrive in the cold, clear waters provided anglers with seemingly endless bounty; throughout the nineteenth century trophy-size fish were common. As was the case with most other Adirondack resources, the trout were there for the taking, and taken they were.

     Our brook trout, though, isn’t really a trout at all. Together with its relative the lake trout another North Country native the brookie belongs to the circumpolar genus of salmonids known as chars, and is closely related to the Arctic char. The brook trout’s relationship to Arctic char is exemplified by its brilliant red undersides, trimming a dark-greenish to brown-gray body. White fin edges and light wormlike markings called vermiculations contrast the speckled trout with the true trout such as rainbows and browns which have dark spots on a light-colored body. The brookie is also sprinkled with red dots surrounded by pale blue rings. Males are brighter in color than females.

     This species’ native range includes northeastern North America from the Arctic Circle to Georgia, and the trout has been introduced elsewhere in the U.S., Canada, South America and Europe. Cold spring-fed water, plus certain chemical and physical conditions determined by water quality, habitat size, associated species and food supply, are necessary for the fish to thrive.

     Usually considered a stream fish, brook trout will occupy very small brooks—hence the name. When conditions are suitable, the species can also be found in some northern lakes and ponds, where it will spawn successfully. Today, good brook-trout waters are typically remote. When habitat quality is reduced or altered by the introduction of incompatible species, conditions can change enough to eliminate the fragile brookie from its ecosystem or create the need to replenish numbers through fish management programs.

     The brook trout of Adirondack ponds are unique. Although countless variations may have at one time occurred, fewer than a dozen strains of heritage trout are known to exist today. Heritage trout are native fish that have never been genetically adulterated by interbreeding with domestic trout—which means these creatures are the direct descendants of the first trout to inhabit Adirondack waters after glaciers receded some twelve thousand years ago.

     Subtle differences in size and coloration exist within heritage trout subspecies: native strains vary from one another because of evolutionary changes caused by centuries of isolation. Obvious genetic differences between strains, however, are usually slight. Likewise, same-strain fish may exhibit some differences from each other, notably in size, when taken from different waters. Some native races do exhibit more brilliant coloration than others, especially during autumn, when they spawn.

     Native brook trout became scarce for several reasons. The first assaults against them came in the form of habitat destruction in the 1800s. Natural watercourses were seriously damaged by forest clearing for farming and widespread logging, mining and river driving. The clear-cutting of huge stands of timber—together with the aggressive construction of logging roads, flood dams, mills and the resulting pollution—all contri­buted to the warming of cold-water streams. Spawning areas became muddy. Driving logs to mills downriver each spring destroyed countless newly hatched fish. During a time when all Adirondack resources were considered inexhaustible, few people paid attention to the degradation of waterways and the disappearance of trout.

     Large-scale habitat destruction was one factor; increased stress also came from overfishing. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Adirondacks were “discovered” and an invasion of anglers assaulted the brook trout anew. As trout fishing became fashionable, affluent sports from the cities filled hotels and lodges and flocked to stream banks. Pursued without mercy, the gullible brookie was easily duped, especially when it occupied shallow water or concentrated in warm-weather spring holes. Creel and size limits didn’t exist or didn’t matter. Fantastic stringers laden with fish seemed to be the goal of the day.

     In addition, the increasing demand for trout by an ever-growing number of hotels and restaurants created a new breed of market fisherman who sometimes relied on amplified angling methods—dynamite, for example—to increase the quantity of the night’s catch. Such pressures further imperiled an already overtaxed resource. By the 1890s catching any brook trout at all proved difficult. Catching a trophy was truly an accomplishment.

     By far the biggest threat to the brook trout’s survival—beside acid rain—has been the introduction of competing species into its habitat. According to Larry Strait, fisheries manager for Region 5 of the Department of Environmental Conservation, “Hundreds, if not thousands, of heritage pond populations have been lost” to introductions of competing fish. These plantings, whether intentional or inadvertent, began over a century ago and continue today.

     As early as 1862, New York Governor Horatio Seymour ordered that bass be stocked in Adirondack waters to replace the fast-vanishing trout, a tactic that further hastened the trout’s disappearance. Many releases, however, were covert actions or experiments conducted by anglers to introduce nonnative sport fish or bait fish into favored waters, which explains the appearance of northern pike in Chateaugay, Indian and Mountain View lakes.

     The brook trout’s nemesis among competitors is the yellow perch. What the perch lacks in size it makes up for in numbers and appetite. Its fertility rate is very high, spawning anywhere from ten thousand to seventy-five thousand eggs. Under good conditions, one-fourth to one-half of perch eggs will hatch. (A female trout, on the other hand, may deposit between two hundred and two thousand eggs, depending on her size. In the wild, ten percent of these eggs may hatch if conditions are favorable.) In ecosystems where perch are at the top of their food chain, they are even more prolific, eating themselves out of house and home until they eventually become stunted.

     Even where they are not the top aquatic predator, perch are voracious feeders. Traveling in large schools, they consume everything in sight, including baby trout. It’s easy to see how readily perch can overtake brook trout habitat, leaving trout with an ever-diminishing chance for survival. Because of nonnative fish infestations, the Horn Lake trout strain is critically endangered, and the Tamarack Pond strain is forever lost.

     When conditions allow and funding is available, the DEC undertakes reclamation projects to remove nonnative species and restore trout to original habitats. Unfortunately, less than twenty percent of the affected wilderness ponds can be restored. To qualify, a pond’s outlet must have a natural or artificial barrier that prevents the re-entry of undesirable fish from downstream. Rotenone, a chemical that temporarily removes oxygen from the water, is used to eliminate all fish in the pond. After the effects of treatment have dissipated, the pond can be stocked with fingerlings from the state’s trout hatcheries. Whenever possible, these fish are from one of the few wild brookie strains in captivity.

     Typically, pond reclamation projects are successful and transplanted trout usually sustain themselves without further stocking. In waters without barriers—or which contain large wetlands that cannot be treated with Rotenone—brown trout, rainbow trout or splake are usually introduced. However, these plantings are normally not self-sustaining.

      The science of fresh-water fisheries management actually got its start because of the decline of Adirondack brook trout. Alarmed by the decreasing numbers, Seth Green developed America’s first fish hatchery on Spring Brook, in Caledonia, New York, in 1864. There he pioneered the basic techniques of trout propagation, many of which are practiced today. The Caledonia hatchery is still in use and produces many of the trout used in statewide stocking programs. Green’s experience led to the importation of the brown trout, which is native to Europe, and the relocation of the rainbow, which is a transplant from the western mountains of the U.S., as well. Without hatcheries to supply fish for release into the wild, trout fishing as we know it would not exist. But there’s a major difference between the brook trout reared by Seth Green and those raised in hatcheries today.

     The most important requirement in trout propagation is a good strain of parent fish. Wild trout do not generally meet this need because they do not adapt well to hatchery life. Nervous, easily scared and prone to panic when approached by humans, they also become stressed by crowding and lack of cover. Domestic brood stocks, developed through years of selective breeding, more readily accept the handling, artificial feeding, and confined quarters and are more disease resistant in captivity than wild fish. In a hatchery’s controlled environment, chances of egg survival and growth to a catchable size approach ninety percent, insuring that an abundant supply of trout is available to meet recreational demands. As a result, a greater number of domestic strain fish can be produced on a continuing replacement basis.

     The trade off is that hatchery fish do not survive as well. Wild trout live from six to eight years and attain a large size. Domestic strain trout live approximately half as long and do not grow as large. Hybrids, a cross between wild and domestic stocks, fall somewhere in between.

     There are behavioral differences between native and domestic trout in the wild as well. Because wild fish are warier, they seek protective cover at the slightest provocation. Their response to any disturbance at all is immediate and swift, and normal activity does not usually resume until the threat is gone. In addition, wild trout have more stamina. As the result of decades of selective breeding, domestic trout have lost much of the instinct needed for survival. Differences in physical appearance are also evident. Wild trout are more colorful and have bright orange flesh, while domestic trout are pale with light-colored or whitish flesh.

     That heritage trout still exist at all is due in large part to private efforts: Significant contributions to the preservation of heritage-trout strains have been made by some of the Adirondack Park’s prominent land­ owners. For most of this century, Whitney Park practiced conservative fishing policies to ensure the survival of several wild strains. The Whitney family’s ownership of Little Tupper Lake successfully prevented the introduction of predatory and competing nonnative fish species into ­ pristine waters. The Whitneys also funded a hatchery to propagate the rare Little Tupper Lake strain of brook trout. Although that facility no longer exists, the Little Tupper Lake strain is in limited propagation at the state hatchery in Warrensburg and has been stocked in many reclaimed waters. Since its purchase by the state in 1998, however, Little Tupper Lake has been threatened with the illegal release of predatory fish, leaving the outlook for the continued survival of namesake trout in question—at least in its native waters.

  The future is much brighter for the heritage trout of Windfall Pond, in Franklin County. Owners Sandra Danussi and Paul Dooling have donated a conservation easement to the Adirondack Nature Conservancy that will forever limit real estate development and harmful disturbance of their 106-acre pond and its 1,600-acre watershed. The owners will continue to manage the woodlands, working with DEC fisheries biologists to make the hardy, colorful Windfall brook trout available for stocking in other Adirondack ponds where original strains have been lost.

  Because wild fish like these have such a profound impact on people, the DEC is working aggressively with private land managers, guided by the State Land Master Plan. In the words of biologist Larry Strait, heritage trout have special significance. “People enjoy knowing that they’re there. Trying to keep that alive is our paramount objective.” 

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