|Southern Appalachian Brook Trout photo from http://flyfishasheville.com|
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.
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.