Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Southern Appalachian Brook Trout: A Quest

Southern Appalachian Brook Trout photo from
I love fish. I love to catch them and I love to eat them. Heading into the mountains on a frigid winter day just to see if I could find a trout to take a picture of for this post doesn't seem too strange to me.

Unfortunately, the trout were not at home in the pools spaced along the Little Slaty Branch where Sue and I had seen them a couple of weeks ago while hiking above the town of Montreat. It would seem the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout is not so keen on 20-degree air temps and God-only-knows how cold the water is. I don't know what fish do under such conditions. Truth be told, the stuff I don't know about trout, and North Carolina's only native char, would fill volumes. They were there last month. They weren't there today. There's a lot to learn.

It wasn't so long ago folks considered brook trout to be brook trout throughout their substantial range across northeastern North America. As I mentioned before, brookies are actually members of the char family, which look like and act like true trout, but are not. The Southern Appalachian Brook Trout is recently known to be genetically distinct from other brookies, making it a very special fish indeed. Sadly, its requirement for clean, free-flowing, cold water streams puts it on the fast track toward extinction as the human population grows here in western North Carolina and other parts of the mountainous South where the fish have thrived for eons. Trout waters are easily ruined by sedimentation and pollution. Non-native trout, introduced for recreational angling opportunities often out-compete the little brookies for precious resources. Add climate change and the woolly adelgid infestation that is ravaging the eastern hemlocks across the region and it's not hard to imagine an aquatic environment in the near future that will not sustain Southern Appalachian Brook Trout.

This is a little fish (a 10-incher would be considered a lunker around here), however, with a lot of fans. The Southern Appalachian Brook Trout became North Carolina's official state freshwater fish in 2004. More significantly, there are several state, federal and non-profit agencies that consider its conservation a high priority. Preservation of native brook trout habitat is often cited as one of the key factors in land acquisition by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the handful of active land conservancies working so diligently here in the western part of the state. There are literally hundreds of tiny creeks across the Blue Ridge Mountains where native brook trout still exist. Most of the time they are looking for something to eat and, from what I'm told, are relatively unconcerned with whether it's a bug or an angler's fly.

All I wanted to do was take its picture, but the trout would not cooperate. The Little Slaty is running at half speed these days, thanks to an unseasonable cold spell that has gripped much of the East for the last week. Up here at 2,400 feet above sea level, the daytime temps haven't gotten past the mid-30s in four days and the overnight lows are in the teens. It's been snowing almost non-stop for 48 hours. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to find my "secret" trout spot looking like this.

Still and all, it was a beautiful morning to bundle up and go for a hike. The cold kept others indoors. Poor bastards, they probably have jobs to go to. Some day, soon hopefully, I join them again, but for now, I shall endeavor to get out and experience as much as I can about these mountains and the creatures that live here, including those beautiful little trout ... er ... char.


  1. I have been to the United States before,, but only for brief trips. I was mugged in Houston, used to transit through Miami staying at the Airport Motel, got stuck in Detroit, froze half to death in Minneapolis and was hauled in and fined $650 by the police for being overweight on an axle in Goliad, Texas on my way to Belize through Mexico hauling a D6 behind a Peterbilt I had just bought after leaving the Army.

    All I know of the States is the rougher end of cities, truck stops and airport bars.

    My eleven year old son keeps telling me he wants to visit the USA and my reaction has always been: 'What for? It's 'Orrible'.

    Your blog, and others, such as Agrarianista, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and Starving off the Land, have shown me a whole new side to your country and I am sad that I never had the time to get off the highway or out of the airport and see some more of the place. It looks fantastic.

    Maybe I will take Dominic to the States after all.

  2. Damn Hippo, sounds like you've experienced the worst we have to offer. Surely karma will have swung back your way by now. Why not bring young Dominic and try it one more time? And if you do, please let me know so I can offer you for a beer. I suspect the dinner conversation would be anything but boring.

  3. Yeah, and I never even got laid!

    I realise that if you go working on the road in any country, you are hardly likely to see the best of it. Time was really money to me in those days so I didn't hang around. The coppers in Goliad told me they only pulled me over because no-one runs a rig that size at that time of night. I remember waking up once having overnighted in my cab (it wasn't a sleeper) and I was dying of thirst so I pulled in to a Dairy Maid and asked for a pint of cold milk only to be told they only had the artificial stuff to put in coffee by a waitress who clearly thought I was some sort of English poof. Milk?

    Dominic definitely wants to visit and I would like to come as a tourist for a change so I will take him. Delta Airlines are going to start direct flights to Angola in January so it will be easier to get to the US from here.

    When I'm ready, I shall call you and definitely take you up on that beer.



  4. Oh, and that pint of cold milk, of course...

  5. I'll have them both in the fridge waiting for you.

  6. If you ever figure out spec fishing in the winter, let me know. 20 years of trying and I have fewer than a half-dozen to show for it, all the size of the one in your photo. In the late spring, though - in the truly "high country" of NC - the fishing can be spectacular for these little guys..and a 10 incher is not out of the question...

    Nice post! enjoying the blog.

  7. Thanks Owl. I'll be looking to you and your blog to help me crack the code.