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State fish: Brook trout thrive in chilly habitat

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's official state fish likes cold, clean water.

The brook trout's Latin scientific name, Salvelinus fontinalis, means "little salmon of the cold springs."

"Brookies," as they're often called, live mainly in shaded streams at elevations higher than 2,500 feet. The good news, at least for anglers, is that the state has an estimated 2,000 miles of brook-trout habitat. The bad news is that the average stream is less than 4 miles in length and is usually so small it can be jumped across.

Scientists believe brook trout arrived in the Appalachians during the Pleistocene Epoch, when glaciers covered much of North America. The species, adapted to live in cold glacial waters, found refuge in chilly headwater streams and spring-fed creeks.

Though they've been called "brook trout" since the first European settlers found them swimming in New England streams, brookies aren't trout in the same sense that brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout are trout. They're actually members of the char family, more closely akin to arctic char.

When white settlers crossed the Allegheny Mountains in the 1700s, they found streams that teemed with brookies. P. Pendleton Kennedy's "Blackwater Chronicle," published in 1853, told of finding "innumerable trout" in the Canaan Valley area. Because rainbow and brown trout weren't introduced until later, all the fish Kennedy and his fellow explorers caught were brook trout. W.E.R. Byrne's "Tale of the Elk" described spectacular early fishing for brookies in that watershed.

Find an angler who fished West Virginia's Allegheny Highlands before World War II, and chances are you'll find someone who had the pleasure of catching a native brook trout that measured 15 inches or larger. A few remote and lightly fished streams still yield brookies of a foot or more, but those are exceptions.

Almost all the large brook trout caught from West Virginia trout streams nowadays are hatchery-raised fish, genetically selected to grow faster than their native counterparts and fed rich diets to ensure rapid growth. Fisheries officials try to avoid stocking hatchery fish in streams known to contain native populations.

Treatment with limestone slurry or limestone sand has restored fishing in about 375 miles of streams damaged by acid rain or acid mine drainage. Most of that mileage is brook-trout water. Habitat improvement projects have allowed other streams to grow more and bigger brookies.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or call 3043-348-1231.


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