AKA: Brookies, Squaretails, Specs, Natives, etc.
By Sam R. Johnson
Of the three trout inhabiting the Appalachian Chain, only one has a natural claim to be here. The other two “exotics,” as fishery biologists call them, are relative newcomers in the scale of evolutionary time. Yet when most people think of trout, it’s the rainbow that comes to mind. Perhaps that’s because rainbows are the ones most seen on restaurant menus. But for us fly anglers, it’s all three trout species we pursue - the native Southern Appalachian Brook Trout and all its genetic variants, as well as the more plentiful Browns and Rainbows. All three are now accepted as having a permanent place in the natural order of things.
In this article I’ll focus on the Brook Trout - where they came from, what they eat, how long they live, how big they get, what they look like and more. I’ve acquired much of this information empirically over the years, as well as a bunch of reading and hanging out with fish biologist. In the process, I’ve grown to appreciate the true uniqueness of these beautiful and elusive aquatic jewels.
For all you “blue water sport fishers” out there, wild brook trout rarely attain sizes as large as the bait fish you use out in the Gulf. Yet in my opinion, the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout, makes up for its small size by being the most beautiful freshwater fish living in the Appalachians, and perhaps all of North America. No other cold-water fish has the stunningly bright and interesting color patterns worn by brook trout – especially in the Fall. And aside from its natural beauty, it is elusive and difficult to locate because of the high elevation, small, overgrown creeks it is forced to call home. They are true revenants of a by-gone era and stalking them with a 6-1/2 foot / 3 weight bamboo fly rod in a remote mountain stream gives me the ultimate fly fishing rush.
Prior to the early 1900s, brook trout were the only trout (so called) inhabiting the mountainous waters of Appalachia. This explains why you often see the “native” adjective used in conjunction with their name – as opposed to “exotics” used with the brown and rainbow transplants. Originally from the northeastern part of the continent, the brook trout’s range now extends from Hudson Bay in the north, to the mountains of North Georgia.
The true Southern Appalachian Brook Trout of today is a unique branch of its northeastern counterpart tree and is presently classified as a separate subspecies - Salvelinus fontinalis. Pure southern brook trout do exist and in some locations are doing well. In many places where northeastern brooks have migrated into the same waters, or have been introduced by humans, they have interbred with their southern cousins and formed hybrids. In some areas, all three versions can be found living side by side in the same stream – southern, northern and hybrids. Other than subtle differences in the number of spots, scale patterns and bone structure, most fly fishers can’t readily tell them apart. Regardless, these concerns are for wildlife officials and fishery biologist to debate and argue - not us. I just think they’re beautiful, fun to catch, and if you’re so inclined – pretty dang tasty too!
Ironically, the brook trout is not really a trout at all, but rather members of the Char family. Because they look and act like trout, the early settlers just named them…“trout” – and it stuck. They were the only so-called trout the early settlers of the Appalachians found in the cold waters of the region. There were no rainbows or browns back then – brook trout had the waters all to themselves. Settlers called them specs, speckle trout, natives, brooks, bookies, square tails, or just plain trout. Depending on where you are in the region, these names are still used today.
Because of a litany of factors, brook trout are relatively rare these days unless you know where to look. But there was a time when they were plentiful in Appalachian waters. Prior to large-scale logging operations in the early 1900’s which cleared much of the old growth timber in the mountains – and in the process decimated the brookie’s watersheds – many old timers recall fishing trips when they would catch more than a hundred brook trout in a single day. And it was not a rare occurrence. I’ve seen dozens of antique tin, glass plate and film images showing fifteen, twenty and more brookies strung through the gills on a tree branch and held up in trophy fashion on the trip home. And there was not a single rainbow or brown among them!
The brook trout’s domination of the Appalachian’s cold-water habitats began to decline during the later Victorian Age up through the mid-1930s. This was an era when the lumber-hungry demands of a growing nation led to the cutting of much of the first growth forests in the east. In contrast to today’s more environmentally friendly logging standards and best practices, this was accomplished with highly invasive timber harvesting techniques and poor to non-existent reforestation practices. There was little or no regard for the long-term effects on the land and watersheds of the region. Entire watersheds were logged, splash dams built across streams and railroad lines and tote roads blasted out. The frequent fires that occurred from all the cut-over debris, such as the Wilson Creek Watershed on Grandfather Mountain, resulted in widespread erosion that silted in many mountain waters. The topography alone dictated this was not going to turn out well for the little brookies.
This all but destroyed the fishery habitats in many of the region’s rivers, streams, and creeks, and in some cases entire watersheds. The lack of canopy raised water temperatures and erosion increased turbidity to unbearable levels for the brook trout. Additionally, creek and stream beds were clogged with mud and silt from the erosion, and this inhibited bug life, as well as prevented the brooks from spawning even when they could. Their habitat was decimated and as a result, the only cold-water Salmonoid in the Appalachians – the “native” brook trout – was all but eradicated.
The few brooks that survived were forced to seek the cold and clear waters of the remote, high-elevation waters - they headed for the tall timber metaphorically speaking! In an effort to re-populate the waters of the Appalachians, officials and concerned citizens sourced, secured and released brown trout from Germany and Scotland, and rainbows from the West Coast into the affected watersheds. This was done during the early part of the 20th century after most of the logging operations ceased. Both of these “exotics” were much better suited to the damaged waters of the Appalachians. They could more easily adapt to the conditions resulting from the heavy deforestation and industrialization. The warm water temperatures that resulted from the cutting of the forest canopy, as well as the higher siltation in the watersheds, suited the browns and rainbows much better than the brooks.
In addition to the brook’s habitat being lost to logging, they now had to compete with the rainbows and browns that were more aggressive and better acclimated to the poorer quality waters. Over time, rainbows and browns replaced the brook trout as the dominant species in the mountain waters. This accounts for at least two of the main reasons brooks retreated to the small, high-elevation, remote headwaters of the rivers, streams, and creeks they once dominated.
As a member of the Char family, brook trout coloration is consistent with their tendency to have a darkish background color with light spots and other markings. Trout on the other hand have a lighter background color with darker spots. Brooks will vary in color from dark olive to almost black along their backs. There are numerous black spots along their sides with a sprinkling of red spots, each one surrounded by a halo color that can range from various shades of pale and powder blue, all the way to shades of lavender. Perhaps the most defining attribute of the brook trout is the vermicular (worm shaped) tracks along the darker upper parts of their back and up and into the very beautiful translucent dorsal fin. Another distinctive marking is their pectoral, pelvic and anal fin which has a leading edge trimmed in a vibrant white. As mentioned previously, there are some subtle differences in coloration, number of spots, etc. between the native, northern, hybrid and hatchery raised brookies. But I can hardly tell the difference.
Brook trout habitat is generally restricted to very clean, cold waters with lots of oxygen and a minimum of other aggressive fish with which they must compete – like the rainbow and brown interlopers. Brooks spawn between September and December and during this time coloration becomes even more vivid. The ideal year-round water temperature range they prefer is from 56° to 60° - temperatures of 77° or higher can be lethal. This is why they are typically found only in the headwaters of small high-elevation shaded creeks and streams. Plus, this higher elevation helps them avoid some of the other aquatic predators that don’t like smaller waters.
In addition to being very finicky about their water quality and temperatures, brooks don’t normally live very long. This short lifespan, along with the small waters they inhabit and the smaller number and size of bug hatches, might account for the fact they rarely attain large sizes. In the Parkway waters, they typically live four to seven years and reach a size of only 4 to 6 inches. Other than Delayed Harvest fish, which can be much larger, catching a wild brookie over 6 to 8 inches is reason to celebrate and take pictures to show your buddies. In fact, several studies have shown that for every 10,000 brook fry that hatch, only one will live to an age of six years. These dismal statistics cause me great distress…
Perhaps another contributing factor to the high mortality while still young fish, is that brooks seem always to be hungry. This makes them bolder and less selective or careful in their quest to satisfy that big appetite. They are therefore easier prey and more easily caught by people like you and me. I suspect this constant hunger is in part due to the lack of entomology variety and volume in the high elevation waters they inhabit. I can’t blame them though; I’ve done some pretty stupid things when I was hungry too!
When brooks do get to eat, they tend to feed on a variety of aquatic insects including stoneflies, mayflies and caddis flies. Because of where they live, they don't see the large insect hatchings that lower elevations fish see. Therefore, they tend to be subsurface feeders – yet they are not opposed to taking surface flies. It's just that they don't have the opportunities for surface feeding on big hatches like rainbows and browns enjoy in the larger lower elevation waters. Terrestrials are also taken and include everything from ants, flies, bees, and grasshoppers. The fact is bookies are aggressive eaters and will eat just about anything they can get their mouth around. As an example of this “eat anything and everything” tendency, a few years back I caught a seven-inch brook just off of the Parkway near the NC / VA state line. When I pumped its stomach, a six-inch black snake came out. I can only imagine the scene as that beautiful little brookie and that nasty snake wrestled in a life and death struggle.
Since the early part of the last century, the native Southern Appalachian Brook Trout has experienced some danged rough times. But thankfully, it seems to be making a comeback. This slow recovery is due largely to the efforts of many federal and state wildlife agencies and other well-meaning private and public organizations like Trout Unlimited. These groups have launched well-funded and manpower supported programs to help re-establish brook trout in protected waters.
In conjunction with, and/or as part of these programs, bans and restrictions for catching or killing brook trout have been implemented and enforced in many waters throughout the region. In some watersheds, key headwater streams representing prime habitat have been closed to fishing altogether to protect brook trout in hopes of giving them a chance to recover faster. Trout Unlimited’s Back the Brookie Program is just one of many such programs that works in concert with state and federal agencies to find, improve and manage brook trout habitat. Through the highly coordinated efforts of a lot of passionate and committed stakeholders, many of these programs have been successful in helping the brook trout recover lost habitat. In fact, because of the success of some of these programs, many of the bans and restrictions have been lifted or removed altogether. Although the future of the brook trout is still not certain, it’s a heck of a lot more certain than it was just twenty years ago.
Sam Johnson is a Partner in Wild Bearings, LLC, and the author of “Fly Fishing the Blue Ridge Parkway – NC Section.” His next book about fly-fishing the VA Section of the Parkway is due to be released sometime in 2023. He is a lifelong freshwater fly fisherman, freelance contributor to several fly-fishing magazines, maker of bamboo fly rods, member of Mojo Sportswear Co.’s Pro Staff Team., and a general outdoors do-gooder.