Mystery fish

A brook trout is such a rare and fine thing that I nearly wept the first time I saw one. I mean it. Nothing in my carp and catfish sensibilities had prepared me for this, a fish whose coloration is equal parts earth, water, fire and air.

The brook trout has bronze sides, amber fins, a lace of olive squiggles down its back, a speckled tail, and this, the clincher, dots of hot pink ringed with cerulean blue along its flanks. It is an impossibly, unnecessarily beautiful fish. It is a fish worthy of framing.

A fellow named Doug Besler and a small corps of technicians from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has the enviable job of figuring out where, in the mountains of Western North Carolina, the native strain of the brook trout still swims. It is a fish that has known little more than upheaval in the last century, but Besler, who is the commission’s coldwater resources coordinator, says that after several years of sampling, about 450 self-sustaining populations of brook trout have been identified in the state’s mountain region. Of those, roughly 35 percent are strains of pure native trout.

It was only about a decade ago that laboratory tests confirmed that the Southern Appalachian brook trout is genetically distinct from its Northern counterpart. It is a physical doppelganger, says Wes Humphries, a technician with NCWRC who works with Besler. Though some insist that the Southern brook trout (which locals call “specks”) can be easily distinguished from the Northern brook by their superficial markings, Humphries says they can’t. “People say that these little rings of blue are brighter in the Southern trout. But we’ve got to test their tissue to really know the difference.”

Swimming against the tide

Two hundred years ago, before the interstate highway system, before painless dentistry, before the War on Terror, yea, even before Ashlee Simpson, there were brook trout. Stream after stream in Western North Carolina had them, right up to the low elevation tributaries of the French Broad River, according to Besler.

Today, not so much. The first trout-related cataclysm came at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, when the mountains were logged off. All that wood helped build the nation, but its removal took a toll in the way of choking sedimentation, a rise in water temperatures and acidification of much of the brook trout’s range. The fish lost in a big way: As much as 85 percent of its formerly pristine habitat was altered seriously enough to all but extirpate the trout.

Of course, mountains without trout hardly seemed mountains at all, so in the first decades of the 20th century, wildlife officials and game clubs and individuals began stocking the Southern high country with trout from elsewhere. From the Pacific Northwest came the rainbow; and from the European continent, the brown trout. From the cold rivers of New England, those same trout importers summoned the northern strain of the brook. All of them are beautiful, all of them are still with us, and none of them actually belong here.

The native trout that survived have generally done so at elevations above 2,000 feet, in clear, fast running water. Put a native brook trout in a stream with a rainbow trout and a brown trout, and the former usually doesn’t survive. But upstream of impediments like waterfalls and steep rock formations, places the interlopers can’t get past, Southern brook trout have held their ground.

Will o’ the waters

The last breath of winter is sweeping off the Black Mountains, clattering rhododendron branches and having its way with the fine leaves of hemlocks that cloak Flat Creek, north of Montreat.

Besler, Wes Humphries, and another technician named T.R. Russ have arrived here on a tip. A trio of Montreat students — students who seem to spend most of their class time fishing — say they have caught brook trout in Flat Creek, from the slopes of Graybeard Mountain down to a place curiously named “Monkey Bottom.”

“Well, even if we don’t find any trout,” says Humphries, “at least we’ll get to see this place they call Monkey Bottom.”

Besler and Humphries wear electro-shockers on their backs, pack-shaped devices that run off battery power and charge the water with a dose of electricity, nonlethal but sufficient to stun fish into submission. Each man holds metal probes, tipped with metal circles, in their hands. They wave the probes back and forth in the water, around rocks and under banks, looking for fish. The students have joined us in the creek, eager to confirm their earlier findings.

Soon, fish are floating to the surface, small ones, pale and lifeless-seeming as fallen leaves.

“Trout,” says Humphries matter of factly.

Russ sweeps them up with a net and deposits them into a five-gallon spackling bucket filled with water. After a stunned moment they wake and begin making listless circles.

Montreat would seem an ideal place for brook trout, with its ample water rolling off the highest range in the Southern Appalachians. But we don’t find any. Zilch. Goose egg. Sure, there are fish: rainbow trout, black nosed dace, rosy-sided dace and a little fish called a sculpin that is all mouth. But no brooks. By now we have worked down the creek to a point that is alongside a tennis court.

“I’ve never heard of trout living near a tennis court,” says Humphries.

I warn the Montreat boys that their credibility is at stake. They say they know. One fumbles with his cell phone, trying to call up a picture of a brook trout he insists he caught in these very waters. Apparently though, it’s gone. He shrugs.

“We’re skunked,” says Besler. “They’re not here.”

A big job

Ten thousand years ago, at the end of the last ice age, the Southern Appalachians were one long run of taiga forest, a blanket of spruces and firs stretching north to the glacier-locked land we know today as New England. It was a terrible place to raise a family, unless you happened to be a brook trout. The brook trout’s species name, fontinalis, is Latin for “of the fountain,” betraying its fondness, then as now, for cold, swift-running, groundwater-fed streams.

Eventually the Earth warmed and the evergreens yielded to the broad-leaved forest we know today. In the Southern mountains, the brook trout persisted. Over time, isolated by geography and temperature, the fish developed a genetic composition quite apart from its Northern cousin. (Whether it speaks with a drawl is still unknown.)

The N.C. Wildlife Commission’s search for the native trout’s range focused first on public lands, places like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and sections of National Forest. Now, the study has moved to streams that cross private lands. It is a considerable task, says Mallory Martin, regional fisheries supervisor for the commission, and Besler’s boss.

“If you look at a map, this part of North Carolina has a huge number of creeks,” says Martin. “This is an enormous undertaking. We’re trying to focus our study where we can make assumptions — based on elevation, based on the nature of the streams, on barriers that might be there — about whether or not we’re likely to find brook trout.”

Another day, another bottom

Three weeks later, I’m looking for trout again. This time I’m with Humphries and another NCWRC technician named Paul Pittman, who goes simply by “Red.”

A hatchery truck passes us as we head toward Brevard. The back of the vehicle is a fortress of stainless steel tanks. Pittman and Humphries wave to the driver.

I ask Pittman if the state has ever tried to raise and stock Southern Appalachian brook trout.

He nods gravely. “We tried to spawn them,” he says. “We couldn’t. They wouldn’t eat the food. Never could get any size on them. They were half-wild, meaning that we crossed wild males with hatchery females. But it didn’t work. It never took off.”

After we wind up and over Connesstee Mountain, Pittman pulls the agency SUV to a stop at the entrance to a small development. A creek runs past, emerging from a bower of rhododendron, passing under the road through a culvert, and continuing, across a low pasture, in the rough direction of South Carolina. The creek is no wider than a broom handle is long, and no more than a half-foot deep in most places. Yet, it is moving swiftly and is quite cold.

We, or at least I, am determined to find a brook trout here. My editor won’t look smilingly on many more expeditions in search of trout.

“Good God, look at that crawfish,” says Humphries, who again carries the electro-shocker. Pittman scoops the big crustacean up with a net.

Humphries and Pittman press on. A pasty little creature floats by me, belly up.

“Frog,” I say. The men don’t seem to notice. They fight through a hedge of wild rose and, further on, a knot of grapevines, shocking and scooping up fish all the way.

Their work pays off. The bucket in Pittman’s hand contains 11 brook trout, caught from about a hundred yards of stream.

Pittman and Humphries clamber up the stream bank and unpack a mobile laboratory. Humphries weighs the fish and measures their length; Pittman marks the data down in a weatherproof notebook. Using a biopsy needle, Humphries takes two tissue samples from each fish — snap, snap — on either side of their dorsal, or top fin. The fish are bathed first in a solution of eugenol, which anesthetizes them and serves as an antiseptic, reducing trauma.

The trout tissue samples will be held on dry ice until they are taken to the commission’s lab in Marion. There, they will be kept well below freezing until enough samples are gathered and can then be transported to Raleigh for batch genetic testing. It will be months before we know if the Bradley Creek brooks are in fact of the Southern strain.

Another fish bites the dust

At times, the search for the remaining Southern brook trout is a poignant exercise. Of the populations biologists found during first surveys a decade ago, secondary sampling has revealed that 20 percent of those are gone. Today, a century after its earlier troubles, the brook trout faces new threats in the form of development. Roads and parking lots and second homes, it turns out, have little regard for the needs of Salvenlinus fontinalis. The fish are short-lived. Two or three years of sedimentation and disturbance, and they will be wiped out of a stream. Some days, Besler says, it seems like the trout are disappearing faster than he and his crew can find them.

I’m with Besler, Humphries and Russ, sampling a creek that tumbles off the Black Mountains toward the cow pastures and maple and sycamore bottoms of the Swannanoa Valley. We’ve taken a serpentine road up through a subdivision that was built within the last five years.

An elephantine black birch tree anchors the stream’s northern bank, the biggest I’ve ever seen. The creek is lovely, but apparently without trout.

“I’m standing on a bunch of silt,” says Besler.

A Porsche SUV whizzes by, climbing the road on the bank 30 feet above us.

Humphries waves the electro-shocker’s poles back and forth, working his way up into a deep pool that looks promising. Nothing.

“My guess is that when they built this development, they lost the brook trout,” explains Besler. “You should be able to walk in a stream and not see that,” he adds, gesturing toward a plume of sediment behind us, sparkling with mica, which our footsteps have raised.

“They lost them,” says Russ.

“They lost them,” echoes Humphries, and we’re done for the day.

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One thought on “Mystery fish

  1. Clayton Barker

    Me and my cousin have found brook trout, less about 15 minutes from that spot in mill creek in old fort nc. Non-stocked

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