Beautiful Brook Trout
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
My outdoor recreation of choice would be fishing by a large margin. In my mind each season has a particular fish associated with it. As I drove home by Back Creek this week, I was reminded that association is shared by many others. The banks of that small creek were covered with fisherman chasing after freshly stocked trout. While fisherman along Back Creek where chasing stocked variations of different types of trout, my strongest fish association with spring is the state’s only native trout, brook trout.
The beauty of the brook trout is unmatched among freshwater fish in Virginia. Their red and yellow dots on a shading of blue create an artful display to look at. Virginia’s state fish lives in over 2300 miles of streams in Virginia, more than all the southeast states combined. Mature brook trout grow only to 8-10 inches long but considering the size of the pools they reside, these diminutive trout are still big fish in a little pool. They tend to live in cool streams of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. There preferred habitat is cool shaded streams in the 50-60 degree range with high water quality.
Brook trout tend to be the canaries of the coal mine for stream health. The historic range of brook trout snuck out into the Piedmont of Virginia. Habitat degradation and warmer temperatures have sent the species receding into the mountains in search of cooler abodes. They are very sensitive to turbidity. Siltation decreases insect habitat and thus decreasing their food source as well as interfering with their reproduction. Trout eggs are laid on stream gravel and clean gravel is necessary to ensure oxygenated water is getting to the eggs. They are also very sensitive to a variety of chemicals getting into the streams via air pollution and point source pollution.
Brookies are my favorite spring fish to chase for a few reasons. The first reason is their location. They tend to be in tough terrain where fewer fishermen prefer to go. I love solitude in my pursuit of fish and brook trout offer that in spades. For instance, I was walking through the upper reaches of Paul’s Creek in the Crawford’s Knob Natural Area Preserve and passed by a three foot wide and eight inch deep pool and looked down to find a 6+ inch brook trout waiting for something to float down into his mouth. Another reason I love this fish is its voracious temperament. While easy to spook, this fish will attack almost anything that happens to fit in its mouth. They also put up a great fight for such a little fish.
Wintergreen has lovely trout streams within its large acreage. Paul’s Creek is home to an all-native population. This creek can be accessed via the Paul’s Creek Trail in Stoney Creek. The creek has no special regulations so any legal fishing gear is permissible. Stoney Creek is a stocked stream but does have natives in its upper reaches. This stream requires fly fishing gear and a daily permit if a non-property owner at Wintergreen. Wintergreen property owners can fish for free. Whatever type of gear you prefer to use, I recommend something small and manageable because the pools are tiny and the forest is tight to both streams.
Brook trout are a jewel of a natural resource in our back yard. Although small and often overlooked, this fish offers a great opportunity to recreate in solitude to anyone willing to put in the work and endure a bit of labor in your hobby. Get out and find some this spring!